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History Class: The Failures of Paul Dietzel and Troy Middleton (1955-57)

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It’s always darkest before the dawn

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Paul Dietzel
Collegiate Images via Getty Imag

Paul Dietzel took over as LSU’s football coach, and immediately all of the problems of the Gus Tinsley era disappeared. Attendance went up, players magically got better, and even the concessions in the stadium improved. That’s how the myth goes anyway.

Unfortunately, that’s not what actually happened. Dietzel took over a team with just 18 returning lettermen and then in spring camp, he promptly kicked over thirty players off the team. He broke camp with just 43 players. Most notably, he dismissed starting tackle Lou Deutschmann for missing a practice… so he could play on the LSU baseball team.

This was the era of the autocratic dictator football coach, and Dietzel was no different. He demanded hard work and near total devotion. He didn’t add the element of near criminal disregard for player safety like the Junction Boys, but he was cut from the same mold.

One of the victims of his initial purge was a fullback who had dominated the 1954 freshman football season. But Jimmy Taylor didn’t much like going to class and President Troy Middleton called him into his office. Middleton asked Taylor what he would do if he were sitting in Middleton’s chair and Taylor bluntly responded, “I’d throw me out of school.”

So that’s what Troy Middleton did. Jim Taylor went to Hinds Junior College for a year, and Paul Dietzel tried to muddle through the 1955 season without his most talented player.

Paul Dietzel and team in Tiger Stadium, 1955
Collegiate Images via Getty Imag

The Dietzel Era opened with some promise, as 39,000 people (a little over half capacity) showed up to Tiger Stadium to see LSU upset heavily favored Kentucky 19-7. Joe May broke the game open with a 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, the longest in LSU history at the time. Bear Bryant’s Aggies, “the best team money can buy,” beat the snot out of LSU, but that was to be expected. Hope blossomed when MC Reynolds found Vince Gonzales in the end zone against Rice with twenty seconds left on the clock to tie the game. LSU missed the kick, and the Tigers settled for a promising yet disappointing 20-20 tie.

LSU showed they could blow out teams, too, ripping apart Darrell Royal’s Mississippi St team 34-7, the first win over the Maroons since 1951. Larry King keyed the win with an 85-yard interception return, the longest in LSU history at the time, and still the fifth longest in school history.

When MC Reynolds connected on another late touchdown pass, this one against Tulane, Dietzel remembered the earlier critical missed PAT. He pointed at Gonzales to take the first kick of his career under the logic that he was the best pressure athlete on the team. Gonzales nailed the kick, and LSU escaped with a 13-13 tie.

LSU went just 3-5-2 in 1955, but the team showed promise. More importantly to new AD Jim Corbett, the team drew 241,000 fans to Tiger Stadium, best in the SEC, and a huge improvement over the 167,000 of Tinsley’s final year. Corbett tore up Dietzel’s three-year deal and gave him a new four-year deal at $14,000 per year.

Jim Taylor and The Baton Rouge Backfield

Jimmy Taylor
Collegiate Images via Getty Imag

In 1956, Dietzel brought in a recruiting class to rival Bernie Moore’s 1944 class. He signed a trio of backfield talents from Baton Rouge: Billy Cannon, Johnny Robinson, and Warren Rabb. Cannon would eventually win the Heisman Trophy, Robinson would earn enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and Rabb would hold the best record for an LSU starting QB until JaMarcus Russell came along.

But freshmen were ineligible in 1956 and Jimmy Taylor, back from exile in Mississippi, missed spring practice. LSU opened the year against the Bear again, and one of the best Aggie teams he would ever field. LSU would have to manage without its future stars.

It still had Tiger Stadium. And it was the 1956 A&M-LSU game which inspired this famous gem from the Bear, “Baton Rouge happens to be the worst place in the world to be a visiting team. It’s a dug-out arena, and you get all that noise. It’s like being inside a drum.”

Bear also gifted us with this fantastic story and you know what? Let’s let’s him tell it:

The following Monday I got a call from the Touchdown Club of New Orleans, wanting to know how I felt about cheating LSU out of the game.

I said, “What do you mean, ‘cheating’? If you had kept the damn students quiet, we would have won it in the first quarter.”

He said, “The films show your LT was over the goal when you completed the touchdown pass. That made him an ineligible receiver downfield.”

I said, “Well, I hope the hell he was downfield. Give them my regards in Baton Rouge.” And I hung up.

I couldn’t wait to go back and look at the films. Sure enough, when the re­ceiver caught the ball one of our linemen, Ken Beck, who happened to be from Minden, Louisiana, was deeper in the end zone than the pass receiver. I was tickled to death.

That winter Dietzel invited me to speak at his banquet and I went down. When I got up to speak I got a few boos, and I thanked them all for inviting me. I said, “And I want you to know I’ll be glad to come back any time and help Coach Dietzel with his officiating problems.”

What an infuriatingly charming asshole. That’s the Bear in a nutshell. “Aw, shucks. It turns out we did screw you. Sorry about that.” And then he turns the knife deeper in.

LSU lost to Texas A&M, 9-6. A&M would go 9-0-1 that year. LSU? Well, LSU wouldn’t do nearly as well.

The freshmen stayed ineligible, but Jimmy Taylor eventually made his way into the lineup. Cannon would go on to be the immortal legend, but it was Taylor would drag you down to earth, all so he could smash your face in. He ran with a level of violence unmatched in football history. And it was about Taylor, not Cannon, that Dietzel raved, “With the ball under his arm, Jimmy Taylor was the best running back I’ve ever coached.”

Or as no less an authority on football than Vince Lombardi said, “Jim Brown will give you that leg and then take it away from you. Jim Taylor will give it to you and then ram it through your chest.”

Some players are born to be underrated. Taylor wasn’t quick or flashy, and he didn’t have the Halloween run moment. When he got to the pros, he was largely overshadowed by the more handsome and flashier former Notre Dame star, Paul Hornung. Hornung won the 1956 Heisman Trophy… Jimmy Taylor was better. Taylor outrushed Hornung in every season but one (his rookie year, when he had only 52 carries) and ended his career with nearly twice as many rushing yards. Taylor ran for 1000 yards five times, and won the only rushing title not won by Jim Brown when Brown was in the league.

Taylor barely played the first half of the 1956 season as punishment for missing spring practice, scoring once in the season’s first five games, all losses. LSU went 3-2 down the stretch as Taylor scored seven more touchdowns. Taylor, by himself, scored 48 points in five games. The rest of the team scored 23. Taylor scored LSU’s only touchdown in the season finale against Tulane, giving LSU a 7-6 win, its only SEC win of the season. His total of eight touchdowns tied for the SEC lead with Tennessee’s Tom Bronson. Taylor wouldn’t make either All-SEC Team.

Jim Taylor would score 12 touchdowns in 1957 for the sole scoring lead. In addition, he would lead the SEC in rushing in 1957, but in typical Jimmy Taylor fashion, lost the SEC Player of the Year Award to an offensive lineman, Lou Michaels of Kentucky. His 171 yards and two touchdowns against Tulane secured a 25-6 win in 1957 and likely saved Dietzel’s job.

LSU Campus in 1957, LSU Gumbo 1958

Three years into his tenure, Dietzel was yet to post a winning season. His first two years were three-win affairs, and the 1956 season started with an epic 6-game losing streak, capped off with an embarrassing 46-17 loss to Ole Miss.

He blamed the 1957 season on a team-wide case of the flu. But the fact of the matter was that he had a backfield with a future Heisman winner (Cannon), two Pro Football Hall of Famers (Taylor and Robinson), and a damn good quarterback (Rabb). And with this glut of talent, he went 5-5.

The team had even started well, going 4-1 to open the year, posting a win over nationally ranked Georgia Tech. Then, the wheels came off. LSU went on a three-game road swing, losing all three. LSU returned home only to lose to Mississippi St, 14-6, stretching the skid to four. Only Taylor’s heroics against Tulane prevented the program from four consecutive losing seasons.

Almost as if to rub salt in the wound, Dietzel’s predecessor Gus Tinsley earned induction to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1956. Dietzel inherited Tinsley’s mess, but hadn’t seemed to make any headway. Tinsley might have been too nice a guy, but Dietzel didn’t even have that going for him.

Baby Mike II (or Mike II-b), LSU Gumbo 1957

The Football Wasn’t the Only Thing Going Wrong

Since the 1920’s, an informal “Gentlemen’s Agreement” existed between the Northern and Southern schools. The teams, as we’ve seen, could play against one another, so long as no black athletes played in the games. In order to even up the odds, southern schools would often hold out their best players as a courtesy for honoring the custom. It wasn’t a formal rule, but teams largely abided by it for three decades.

That came to an end in the early 1950s. In 1953, Georgia Tech refused to play an integrated Pitt team in the Sugar Bowl, and Pitt refused to sit any of its black players. In the ensuing stalemate, the public largely sided with Pitt, and Georgia Tech relented.

The Sugar Bowl had segregated seating from its inception, but it had always been, like most of Jim Crow, done with a wink and a nod. It was custom, not law. With custom under attack, Louisiana fell back on laws. Tickets in the Whites-Only section now came with a warning:

“(T)his ticket is issued for a person of the Caucasian Race, and if used by any other is in violation of State Law.”

Taking precisely the wrong lesson from the 1953 Sugar Bowl, the Louisiana legislature passed a law in 1956 banning ALL interracial sports competition.

Boxer Joseph Dorsey sued the state to overturn the law and in 1959, the Supreme Court overturned the ban. Louisiana Attorney General Jack Gremillion got to the short of it, “The ban on interracial sports of any type is eliminated.” School Board President Lloyd Rittiner said that the Legislature should now realize that the “courts will not settle for anything less than integration.” He didn’t mean it as a positive.

In the meantime, LSU suddenly couldn’t schedule anyone out of region. This was a school that had gone to Cuba, was the first SEC school to play a Big Ten team on the road, and pioneered air travel so they could play in New York.

LSU played University of the Pacific in 1950, Villanova in 1950 and ‘51, and Boston College in 1953. But after the new Jim Crow laws passed in 1956, out of region games became more difficult. Wisconsin backed out of a two-game home and home series with LSU the day after the bill was signed into law.

We would be compelled to view any action that interfered with this traditional basic policy of freedom of selection as tantamount to forcing a termination of the contract.

We regret that the reported action by the State of Louisiana will apparently make it impossible for us to play Louisiana State University, particularly in view of the fact that we understand that the Board of Supervisors of that institution went on record as favoring national schedules in all sports without regard to race or color of participating players.

Sidney Williams, Wisconsin’s quarterback, was scheduled to be the first black player to play in Tiger Stadium in 1957. The Wisconsin student paper backed the team’s boycott, calling the Louisiana legislature an “obnoxious little boy” and closing with “many southerners have protested [that] the U.S. Supreme Court decision on segregation is an invasion of their so-called ‘state rights.’ We feel the same way about the University of Wisconsin’s right to pick its own football lineup.”

Wisconsin eventually would play in Tiger Stadium in 1972… against LSU’s first integrated team.*

*The fact we didn’t integrate until 19 friggin’ 72 is its own story.

The opposition to integration didn’t come solely from the Louisiana statehouse. Dietzel wasn’t a southerner and was largely agnostic on integration. However, he didn’t rock the boat. Frank Broyles integrated Missouri in 1956, but Dietzel wasn’t leading the charge to integrate LSU.

First off, it was expressly illegal under the 1956 Jim Crow laws. This wasn’t a mere custom, flaunting the rule would land you in jail. But Dietzel also would have had little to no support from the LSU hierarchy. Troy Middleton fought the Nazis and he fought for the library and fought for LSU’s academic expansion, but he would not fight for integration of the football team.

In 1961, Middleton wrote the chancellor of Texas on his policy of integration at LSU, as Texas was facing its own mass of lawsuits:

Though we do not like it, we accepted Negros as students, therefore, they are permitted to occupy rooms in dormitories and take their meals in University dining halls. We have had a limited number occupy rooms. At no time has a Negro occupied a room with a white student. We keep them in a given area and do not permit indiscriminate occupancy. Thus far we have had no problem.

Our Negro students have made no attempt to attend social functions, participate in athletic contests, go in the swimming pool, etc. If they did, we would, for example, discontinue the operation of the swimming pool.

Middleton guided the largest expansion of the student body, degrees offered, facilities, and academic reputation in LSU’s history. He ferreted out corruption in the post-Huey Long era at LSU and then during the worst cheating scandal in West Point’s history. He was the key figure in winning the Battle of Bulge as well.

After his retirement from LSU, Troy Middleton chaired a biracial commission tasked with quelling racial issues in Opelousas and Ferriday. The commission served for five years and eventually would open the Louisiana State Police to black officers.

For his work on racial reconciliation, the National Conference of Christians and Jews selected Middleton for their annual Brotherhood Award. The Louisiana Association of Broadcasters followed suit, naming Middleton its Louisianan of the Year for his work in mending racial relations.

Troy Middleton was, by nearly measure, a great and honorable man. He practically built LSU both physically and spiritually. He was a legitimate war hero and a reformer who cleaned up two of the worst academic scandals in American history, at LSU and then West Point. But on integration at LSU, he blinked. He was wrong.

With the library about to be demolished, there is a public movement to ensure that Middleton’s name is no longer on the building due to his personal racism.

I’ll leave it to you whether Middleton should be defined by his personal racism while still integrating the school under his presidency. He didn’t enthusiastically endorse the cause, but he didn’t use his power to oppose it either, striking the politically moderate course and protecting LSU’s endowment from a vindictive and explicitly racist legislature. His post-LSU work on biracial commissions perhaps should also be considered, as well as his words in 1966,

You are not here to honor Troy Middleton, you are here because down in your hearts you believe in the rights and brotherhood of man…

But times have changed. When the governor asked me to head the biracial commission, I was reluctant to take the responsibility. But I realized I had no right to turn down a man who was trying to do a good job for Louisiana. I took the job because I believed in the things we are talking about here tonight.

The failure of Middleton to force the issue of integration on its athletic teams would stall racial integration of the football team for a decade. It would also lead to the rise of Southern in the bluffs of north Baton Rouge and north Louisiana’s “Black Notre Dame”, Grambling.

In 1956, Grambling sent its first Pro Football Hall of Famer to the NFL, Willie Davis. LSU was struggling through three straight losing seasons while denying one of the best players in the state entry to the school. It was simply stupid, and caused irrevocable damage to LSU for decades.

Eddie Robinson
Getty Images

Eddie Robinson wasn’t just denied attending LSU, he couldn’t even watch the games. When he tried to watch an LSU game as a child through a hole in the fence, he was caught by white fans and beaten.

”I got a clubbing,” Robinson said. “Colored people couldn’t pay and watch a game when I was growing up. But you could work at the stadium before the games and then you could watch. So, I woke up at 5 a.m. each Saturday and worked until the game so I could watch football.”

Instead of getting angry, Robinson built a dynasty at Grambling. That Grambling was built on the foolish desire to keep Louisiana citizens out of the all-white LSU. Louisiana doubled down on Jim Crow in the 1950’s, and it is the darkest stain not just on the football program, but the university. One we are even now accounting for.

“I have ridden on the back of the bus. I’ve ridden on the street car when you get on you’d have white and colored sections. I’ve drank at segregated fountains. But I ain’t trying to make nobody pay. All I wanted was an opportunity to prove that I can do what other people can do. I got that at Grambling.”

He certainly did.

Program Overview 1955-57

Athletic Director: Jim Corbett

National Titles: Golf (1955)

Conference Titles: Track (1957), Golf (1955)

Programs Ended: Boxing (1956)

Facilities Added: None

Golf won its fourth national title and first since 1947 in 1955. Johnny Pott paced the Tigers to a nine stroke win over Texas State. Barbato would pile up impressive credentials, though probably takes a back seat to Major J Perry Cole’s six consecutive SEC titles. Still, he guided LSU to 15 tournament titles in his 13 years, including the NCAA title and four SEC titles.

Al Moreau, the former captain of the 1933 five-man team which won the national title for Bernie Moore, now capably guided LSU back into SEC contention. The funny thing is, he’s now better known as the father of Doug Moreau rather than another in a line of great LSU track coaches.

Harry Rabenhorst
Collegiate Images via Getty Imag

But the biggest news in the other sports was that Harry Rabenhorst finally retired in 1957. Jim Corbett would replace him with Jay McCreary in hoops and Ray Didier in baseball. Raby pulled double duty as coach in the two sports since 1927, save for his time off in war.

He won 220 games in baseball and 340 in basketball. He coached for a quarter century and viewed the job more as a teacher than as we’d view a high profile coach today.

He transitioned into administration and would become Jim Corbett’s right hand, helping Corbett navigate the peculiar politics of LSU. The problem with Raby is that he was a genuinely good person who cared about his players, and that doesn’t result in a lot of good anecdotes. He coached a long time, and he made a profound difference in the lives of the hundreds of kids he coached.

He was a rock of the early period of LSU athletics, but now the school was moving into a modern age.

The calendar turned to 1958, and everything was about to change.