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History Class: Gaynell Tinsley Makes LSU a Basketball School

How a few losing season and a new library cost TP Heard his job, but not before Bob Pettit showed up

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Bob Pettit

The verdict was still out on Gus Tinsley going into 1951. He had perhaps the worst season in LSU history not involving Curley Hallman in 1948, then rebounded with maybe the most magical season in LSU history in 1949. Then he gave LSU near total mediocrity in 1950.

So… was Gus Tinsley a good coach or not? No one really knew, but the natives were starting to get restless. The 1951 campaign would go a long way to either silencing his critics or proving them right.

Give the 1951 team credit: they had personality. Leroy Labat, the team’s leading rusher, adopted the moniker the Black Stallion. The train from his hometown of LaPlace would overflow with fans to see him play in Tiger Stadium.

Leroy Labat, 1953 LSU Gumbo

JUCO transfer from New York George Tarasovic took over the center and linebacker position and earned All-American honors. Like Labat, he would serve in Korea upon graduation. After that, Tarasovic would still play a dozen years in the AFL and NFL.

Quarterback Lee Hedges would set a career LSU record for rushing yards by a quarterback, going for 938 yards. His record would stand until Jordan Jefferson gained 1018 yards in his career ending in 2011. Hedges would go on to be a legendary high school coach in Shreveport, taking three different schools to the state finals, and winning the title in 1973.

LSU scored a major upset over #9 Alabama in Mobile, but the team couldn’t keep the momentum, dropping games to #8 Georgia Tech and #5 Maryland. The Tigers would take care of Tulane to finish the year 7-3-1. Not bad, but not enough to quiet the boo birds.

Tiger Stadium’s Library Section

Troy Middleton and Wife, 1953 LSU Gumbo

The major drama for the football team though, was happening off the field. Troy Middleton had taken over as a popular president with a strong eye on the bottom line, and he worked hard to rebuild LSU’s pre-eminent academic reputation. It was only a matter of time before he butted heads with TP Heard, the old AD who had practically built LSU football.

After the Cinderella Season of ’49, TP Heard and his allies in the state legislature slipped through a bond to pay for the expansion of Tiger Stadium to 67,500 seats. However, the Korean War forced a building freeze on non-essential structures and even in southern Louisiana, a stadium expansion did not qualify for an exemption.

So with the bond set to expire, Troy Middleton went to Governor Earl Long and said that LSU needs a library, an auditorium, and a Medical School addition. Why don’t we just move that $300,000 bond, set to expire, over to the academic side? Long not only agreed, he bumped the bond to $350,000 to pay for a larger auditorium, the top demand of the student body.

And that’s when the guns came out. Everybody agreed on the medical school addition, so they got the money first. But Heard would be damned if the money he got earmarked for the stadium was going to go to someone else on, even on the grounds that he couldn’t use the money yet.

Middleton rallied the alumni and students, while Heard worked his political contacts. The Reveille would report on Hill Memorial, claiming it was the oldest and smallest library of the southern universities they sampled, and that the lack of climate control reduced book life by nearly 50%.

1953 LSU Gumbo

Heard outmaneuvered Middleton and on the February 27, 1953, the Board accepted a $1.2 million bid to enclose the South End. Ella Schwing, the LSU librarian and a member of the Board of Supervisors at the time, testified that this was “outright treason” and demanded an investigation into the athletic department. The Board would relent somewhat in September and approved a new library for $3.6 million. Still, the order would go medical school, stadium, THEN library.

The stadium expansion debuted in 1954 and work on the library completed in 1958. For years, the South End was nicknamed “the Library Section.”

For Middleton, this would be the final straw. Heard may have pulled the strings to get the stadium funding through, but now Middleton used his clout to force out TP Heard as Athletic Director. Under Middleton, academics would come first, and no relic from the era of Huey Long was going to stop that.

In 1954, after the stadium fight, Middleton would push his own funding bill through the legislature, showing that LSU had $18 million in critical building needs. From the school’s founding until 1939, it had awarded 11,534 degrees. From 1946-53, LSU awarded 13,525. The legislature approved $25 million.

TP Heard built Tiger Stadium and successfully expanded it twice, both by using political subterfuge. He had lights installed when everyone else played during the day, inventing night football. He practically invented the grant-in-aid scholarship and he negotiated the WWL broadcast of LSU games on a clear channel that fans could pick up coast to coast. He pioneered air travel for the team, cross-regional scheduling, and buying off other schools to come travel to Tiger Stadium. LSU football has many parents, but he figures most prominently.

1953 LSU Gumbo

In 1958, out of a job but still enjoying the new press box that his funding bill built, Heard got in the last word. As fans crowded in to watch Ole Miss and LSU play one of the all-time classic games in a stadium pack to the gills, Heard wondered aloud, “I wonder how many people are at the library tonight?”

The Curse of the Library Section

Expanding Tiger Stadium to 67,500 sounds great in theory, but now the pressure was on Gus Tinsley to fill that stadium. And nothing brings in the fans like winning.

Sensitive to the criticism around the fanbase, tensions grew between Tinsley and his top two assistants, Ed McKeever and Norm Cooper. Tinsley resented how much credit they received for the Cinderella season and as the issue came to a head, both assistants resigned. McKeever would go on to become GM of the Boston Patriots.

The critics had a point. Without his top two men, the bottom fell out on Tinsley. I would still maintain the 1948 season was worse due to the extreme point differential and lousy defense, but 1952 could make a strong case for suckitude, finishing with the same 3-7 record.

1953 LSU Gumbo

1952 was the first season in LSU history in which LSU failed to win a single home game. OK, in 1893 they lost the only game they played, but let’s limit this to full schedules. After starting 2-2, LSU reeled off five straight losses, finally dropping its final home game to State 33-14 to secure the imperfect season. LSU would rebound to beat Tulane 16-0 in their first season post-Frnka. The Great Tulane Decline was in full force.

1953 LSU Gumbo

It wasn’t all bad. Sal Nicolo’s 94-yard touchdown run against Rice (in a win, no less!) would stand as an LSU record until Derrius Guice ran for a 96-yard touchdown against Arkansas in 2016. Charles Oakley intercepted 6 passes, en route to the LSU career record of 12, broken by Chris Williams’ 20 from 1977-80.

But the 1952 team also set the school record for lost fumbles in a game: losing the ball 6 times against Texas and Georgia. Summing up the season, Al Doggett set the school record for punts in a season, booting the ball 82 times for 3147 yards. The only other punter in school history with more than 3000 punting yards in a season is Jamie Keehn, in 2014.

1953 LSU Gumbo

The 1952 season was also notable for its experiment with jersey design. Sports information director Jim Corbett came up with the idea of a hybrid letter/number system, so ends, guards and tackles wore the letters “E,” “G” and “T,” and so on. The LSU yearbook predicted it would revolutionize football jerseys.

1953 LSU Gumbo
The 1952 LSU Tigers, 1953 LSU Gumbo

It didn’t. LSU’s 3-7 season doomed an already kooky idea, and LSU went back to the regular numbering system in 1953. Can’t blame a guy for trying, though.

Things looked like they were turning around in 1953. Wearing normal uniforms again, LSU opened up the season with a win over #11 Texas and then a hard-fought 7-7 draw against #5 Alabama in Mobile. LSU would start the year 3-0-3 before losing three straight.

1954 started off with four consecutive losses, essentially dooming Tinsley. Relieved of the pressure of trying to keep his job, LSU played some of its best football of his tenure down the stretch. LSU upset #20 Texas Tech and #18 in back-to-back weeks and then shocked #9 Arkansas 7-6 in the season’s penultimate week. Of course, LSU couldn’t rally to an above .500 record because it had inexplicably dropped a game to Mississippi State the week prior. Gus Tinsley’s inconsistent tenure in a nutshell.

The biggest bright spot of 1954 was guard/tackle Sid Fournet, one of the great 60-minute men in LSU history. Sure, plenty of players have played on both sides of the ball, but Fournet played 83% of LSU’s snaps on his way to earning All-American honors.

Since forcing his to assistants resign, Gus Tinsley went 13-16-3. Not a complete disaster, but it also stood as a massive missed opportunity to position the program to take advantage of the decline of its biggest instate rival. LSU should have been gobbling up talent. Worse, the new stadium expansion debuted in 1954, and that was a lot of empty seats. Just 20,000 fans showed up the home finale against Mississippi St.

Gus Tinsley was still under contract, but many Tiger faithful had enough. Middleton himself supported Tinsley or probably more accurately, not buying out the $25,000 left on his contract, but he saw the opportunity. He aligned the anti-Heard academic faction with the anti-Tinsley football faction on the Board and combined their fates. The Board voted to accept Heard’s resignation and buy out Tinsley’s contract at the same time.

Tinsley was a bad recruiter, often taking on project players, and a worse disciplinarian. After taking on these projects, he couldn’t get the boys to change their ways. Middleton summed it up best, “Gus Tinsley, at bottom, was just too nice a guy for his own good.”

LSU Slowly Integrates

To Gus Tinsley, the biggest thing going on at LSU was the football team. To TP Heard, it was his fight to expand the stadium. To Troy Middleton, it was his building project campaign, but especially the library as the centerpiece. These are the fights which dominated the headlines.

But the biggest thing going on at LSU was not these fights, but the slow campaign to finally integrate the school. This is a sports site, but it is still a history article, and we’d be remiss to completely ignore the history that was being made.

Roy S. Wilson successfully sued LSU over its discriminatory practices and earned admission to the law school as LSU’s first black student. Unfortunately, LSU expelled him before he ever took a class sunder the pretext that he had been suspended from Southern’s law school.

The first black student would instead be Lutrill Payne in 1951, admitted as a graduate student in the agricultural studies department. In 1953, AP Tureaud became the first black student at LSU admitted as an undergrad.

Of course, the bombshell decision of Brown v. Board of Education was released in 1954. Middleton responded by announcing that LSU would not put itself above the law and would adjust its policies to admit the races on an equal basis as the law required.

That would not be the end of the matter by any stretch. The Louisiana legislature reacted by codifying segregation into law in 1956. LSU’s slow lurch to integration would continue haphazardly, caught between an explicitly racist legislature which controlled its funding and the school’s desire to comply with federal law.

The New Orleans LSU campus opened in 1958, integrated in policy and in practice from day one. Middleton finally retired three years past the mandatory retirement age of 70 in 1962 with enrollment topping 10,000 at the main campus, more than doubling from when he took over as president. LSU would give up attempts to delay integration in 1964.

LSU Tries to Catch a Bear

The Board didn’t give Tinsley the pink slip until 1954, but that didn’t stop the LSU boosters from trying to push him out the door before then. Bear Bryant was increasingly unhappy at Kentucky. The famous story of the annual athletics luncheon giving Bear a lighter and Rupp a new Cadillac probably isn’t true, but Bear did tell the story as a joke, and there’s still a kernel of truth there. Kentucky cared a lot more about hoops than football.

Things came to a head in 1952-53, when Kentucky hoops got itself banned from all competition for a full season due to a point shaving scandal. The administration cracked down everywhere, and that made it even harder for Bear to recruit at a school at which it was already notoriously difficult to recruit. We’ll let the Bear take it from there, in a Sports Illustrated interview from 1966:

I had turned down half a dozen good jobs. A member of the board at LSU said to me, “Dammit, everybody has a price, Bear. What’s yours?” And I put it up there pretty good for those days - something like $25,000, a home, a TV program and everything-and he said, “It’s a deal.” No school could do that, but he said he’d give me a contract through his company. Then I backed out. Alabama people came to see me and I wouldn’t even talk to them, and Texas A&M and a couple others also approached me.

News leaked of an LSU offer to the Bear to the news media on January 10, 1954, so this isn’t just the Bear’s memory which could sometimes be self-serving. However, for whatever reason, he turned down the LSU offer. Less than a month later, on February 4, 1954, Texas A&M hired Bryant as its coach and AD.

What good is it to write these things if we can’t engage in our wild speculation? What changed in one month’s time? If I had to guess, I would say the big difference in the job offers likely wasn’t money, but the fact A&M could offer the AD job and LSU couldn’t. Middleton wouldn’t axe TP Heard until the next year.

So a year later, officially on the market on the coach, LSU dipped back in the well. The Bear was famously unhappy in College Station. Mary supposedly cried when she stepped off the plane, and the Bear would later complain that Don Meredith told him before going to SMU, “Coach, I’d love to play for you if you were only someplace else.”

News again leaked of an LSU offer to the Bear for the dual jobs of head coach and athletic director. The Austin American reported that LSU officials even consulted with the Bear before firing Tinsley. The Bear “was all but officially hired” the year prior, though Bryant denied being in Louisiana in quite some time.

Ultimately, Bryant stuck by his Junction Boys and would turn the Aggies into an SWC power. Bryant was always sensitive to meddling from the administration after his experience in Kentucky, and the LSU Board was doing its best to publicly meddle. No one said it outright, but the meddling boosters and unsettled administrative situation likely cost LSU the Bear. Meddling boosters, you say? Enter Ike Carriere, the most powerful member of the LSU Board of Supervisors...

The Board Finds Its Man

Ike Carriere convinced Troy Middleton that the school wouldn’t consider an assistant coach on staff for the head coach position, but in exchange, LSU would guarantee the entire staff would be retained by whoever the Board hired.

This seemed like a good deal to the assistants and they readily agreed, as did Middleton. The Board then named Charles McClendon, the defensive coordinator, the acting head coach and Harry Rabenhorst the acting AD while the search continued.

Carriere and the Board came up with five criteria for the new head coach: the Board would not consider (1) a high school coach, (2) anyone who played or coached pro football in 1954, (3) a head coach under contract – ruling out Bear Bryant, (4) a head coach who had just been fired, or (5) an SEC assistant, including the LSU staff. Then, showing the kind of chutzpa that makes southern Louisiana tick, Carriere announced that LSU would have its coach within ten days.

Within a week, Carriere set up two days worth of interviews for six candidates, including former assistant Ed McKeever.

Another name on the list was Paul Dietzel, who came twice recommended. Kentucky’s president was so impressed with Dietzel when they interviewed him to replace Bryant that, even though they went with another choice, he telephoned Troy Middleton to recommend Dietzel for the LSU job.

Little did he know, Dietzel already had an interview scheduled because the board tried to poach former coach Biff Jones, now the AD at Army, to take Heard’s vacant post. Jones declined, but he suggested Dietzel, his offensive line coach, for the head coaching job. Biff already knew to suggest him because Dietzel had already called Jones on McClendon’s advice to ask for the recommendation. Jones called Dietzel back and told him to act properly surprised.

When Dietzel was told at the interview he would have to retain the entire staff, he pulled out a stack of cards reviewing the qualifications of each. At this point, Carriere was sold. Middleton took even less convincing, thrilled to be hiring an Army man.

On February 15, exactly ten days after firing Tinsley, LSU announced the 29-year-old Dietzel as LSU’s new football coach. He retained the entire staff save one, a line coach who the players petitioned to be removed. He took over a team with just eighteen returning lettermen.

LSU football was about to enter another Golden Age, or so the story goes.

Program Overview 1951-54

Athletic Director: T.P. Heard

National Titles: None, but Basketball makes the Final Four (1953)

Conference Titles: Basketball (1953-54), Golf (1953-54)

Programs Added: Boxing (1948)

Facilities Added: None

The 1953 and 1954 LSU Basketball Teams

After the tremendous turnover in head coaching in every sport, you would think LSU would start looking to replace Harry Rabenhorst. He had served as the baseball and basketball coach since 1926, save his time off to go fight in World War II. And there were whispers that Rabenhorst was “too old to win.”

Raby answered those critics by taking advantage of the Kentucky probation. Right as the Wildcats got caught shaving points and suspended from play, LSU stepped forward to dominate the SEC with the single best basketball player in SEC history to this point, though Rabenhorst described him as “the greatest LSU player since Sparky Wade.”

No offense to Sparky Wade, but Bob Pettit blew him out of the damn water. Pettit is one of three LSU players in history to have scored over 1000 points and grabbed 1000 rebounds (the other two are Rudy Macklin and Shaq). He has the honor of being the first LSU player in any sport to have his jersey number retired.

Bob Pettit is the only person in LSU history to lead the team to an SEC title, go the Final Four, win an NBA title, and win the MVP. Hell, Shaq only did two of those things. Maravich didn’t do ANY of them. When Pettit retired from the NBA, he retired as the league’s all-time leading scorer and third in total rebounds, behind only Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. Bob Pettit was a spectacular bad ass.

Bob Pettit played eleven seasons in the NBA. He was an All-Star eleven times and first-time All-NBA selection ten times. He never finished below seventh in the scoring race, was the first player to score 20,000 career points, and won two MVP Awards and an NBA title. He was named to the NBA All-Time Top 50 team.

I know you’re rolling your eyes about a guy who played hoops back in the 1950s and 60s, but Pettit was that f’n good. Let’s put it like this, Pettit carried a St. Louis Hawks team to an NBA title over an absolutely loaded Celtics team which started five Hall of Famers. In the deciding Game 6, Bob Pettit scored 50 points and grabbed 19 rebounds against Bill Russell. He would outrebound Bill Russell in each of the final four games of the series. Yes, that Bill Russell.

Bob Pettit was a bad ass.

But before he was a bad ass in the pros, he was a bad ass at LSU. The 1951-52 team, Pettit’s first season, would rattle off five straight wins down the stretch to close out the season, all conference wins. LSU would then win three straight games in the SEC tournament, with only Florida getting within single digits, falling 77-69.

LSU would earn a shot a #1 Kentucky in the SEC championship game. Pettit would put in 25 points and Joe Dean, future LSU AD, would add 9 points. It wasn’t enough, as LSU fell by a single point, 44-43.

The prospects for 1952-53 greatly improved on November 3, 1952, when the NCAA cancelled Kentucky’s entire season due to numerous rule violations spurred on by the point-shaving scandal in the 1952 NIT.

The SEC media picked LSU to win the conference, and the Tigers did not disappoint. LSU won 20 regular season games, a school record to this point, and did not lose a single SEC game, running its SEC regular season win streak to 18. LSU earned a bid to the NCAA tournament by virtue of the SEC title.

Collegiate Images/Getty Images

After dispatching of Lebanon Valley by scoring a then-tournament record of 89 points, LSU advanced to regional finals against Holy Cross. LSU built an 18-point lead before a late rally made the final a respectable 81-73. LSU advanced to the Final Four in Kansas City.

Unfortunately, LSU ran into #1 Indiana, a team that has now beaten LSU in all five of its postseason meetings. Pettit scored 29, but after playing at such a blistering pace in its first two games, LSU faltered under Indiana’s deliberate pace.

Benny McArdle fouled out in the fourth with LSU down six points, and that’s as close as LSU would get. Indiana would extend the lead late and eliminate LSU, 80-67.

Jim Corbett summed the game up thusly,

”Everybody around here figured Indiana was an absolute cinch to win the game. Nobody gave LSU a chance. The Tigers made a good showing, won a lot of friends for the school and the Southern brand of basketball, and were very much in the ball game until Benny McArdle fouled out. Never at any time did the team look rattled or go to pieces.”

Kentucky returned to the hardwood in 1953-54, and again LSU ran through the SEC, going undefeated in conference play. LSU’s regular season SEC win streak now stood at 32. The SEC no longer had a conference tournament, but it had two undefeated teams, so in order to determine a champion, it set up a one-game playoff between LSU and Kenutcky, who had not played in the regular season.

The one thing Bob Pettit never did was beat Kentucky. The Wildcats won 63-56, but declined the NCAA bid because NCAA rules prevented graduate players from playing in the tournament, and UK’s three best players were all grad students. Adolph Rupp decided to stay home to preserve his undefeated record.

LSU lost in the first round, again to Indiana. LSU would finish the season ranked in the top ten for the second consecutive season. Bob Pettit would go on to the NBA and LSU basketball would turn back into a pumpkin. Without Pettit, LSU would go 3-11 in SEC play and fail to extend their 32-game SEC winning streak.

That’s how good Bob Pettit was.

Bob Pettit was immortalized in statue on LSU’s campus in 2016