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History Class: The 1958 Gold Standard

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We are one game away from finally anointing a new Greatest Team Ever

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When we last left the Wayback Machine, LSU was barely managing to get to .500 with their wunderkind football coach despite the presence of one of the best running backs in LSU history carrying the team. Jim Taylor left for the NFL after the 1957 season, leaving Dietzel without his best player, but restored depth due to the last few years of concentrated recruiting.

We now check in on the 1958 national champions, in order to get y’all prepared for hopefully another team to join its ranks as the greatest team in LSU history.

Before the 1958 season, Iowa coach Forrest Evashevski visited the LSU campus for a coaching clinic, and convinced Dietzel the value of his Wing-T system. Dietzel, realizing that he was losing his most physical runner in Taylor, adopted this new offense because it would highlight the speed at every position in his backfield. He devoured the game film lent to him by Iowa.

Another major change is that Dietzel adopted a weight training program, advocated by local health club owner Alvin Roy. Roy had played basketball as a walk-on at LSU in the late 30’s before heading off to WWII. He returned home to open his own gym in Baton Rouge and work with the likes of the US Olympic Weightlifting team in 1952. The common belief of the day was that weight training made a player bulky and slow, but Roy showed that proper weight training increased speed and more importantly, reduced injury by increasing endurance. Billy Cannon was an early adopter of Roy’s methods at Istrouma High, and Dietzel became a believer. Soon, the entire team was lifting, making LSU one of the first schools to have a weight training program.

Roy would parlay this success into an NFL job in 1963. The Chargers made him the first pro strength coach, and he would eventually win a Super Bowl ring with the 1970 Kansas City Chiefs. Roy is considered by many in the profession to be the first modern strength coach.

Dietzel’s further offseason adjustment would be to take advantage of the peculiar substitution rules of the era. A player could only enter the game twice in each quarter, making the platoon system unfeasible. He also knew going with two units, as was the practice of the time, would disadvantage his smaller, faster team.

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Enter the Chinese Bandits. Dietzel employed a three-platoon system: his best two-way players were the White team and his best offensive players were the Gold Team, which shrunk to “Go Team” by a sportswriter mishearing the term. The remaining 11 were his defensive specialists, the third stringers, a gang-tackling unit playing more on emotion than talent, the Bandits.

Finally, Dietzel turned over the play-calling duties to his quarterback, Warren Rabb. Billy Cannon may have been the star and the Bandits were the heart, but Rabb was the glue. Rabb had the good sense to call a steady diet of runs.

“I had one halfback who was an All-American (Cannon) and another halfback who’s just as good (Robinson),” Rabb said. “What do you think would have happened to me if I’m throwing the ball 30 or 40 times a game?”

Warren Rabb, 1959
Collegiate Images via Getty Imag

LSU outscored its opponents 282-53 on the season, only once allowing double digit points, and that was in a 50-18 pantsing of Duke. LSU eked by Florida 10-7 thanks to a Tommy Davis field goal, but the closest call of the season came in the season’s penultimate game: Mississippi State.

Days of rain flooded Hinds Memorial Stadium in Jackson, negating the Tigers’ speed. The Maroons had beaten LSU in five of the past six years, and senior QB Billy Stacy gave State an early 6-0 lead with a 10-yard TD scamper (and a missed PAT). Warren Rabb found Billy Hendrix for the go-ahead score and a 7-6 win.

LSU clinched the national title, still awarded before the bowls, when Ohio St beat… Iowa, the very team that taught Dietzel the Wing-T. Meanwhile, LSU took care of business against Tulane, winning 62-0. LSU would put a bow on the season with a 7-0 win over Clemson in the Sugar Bowl. Cannon threw the game-winning touchdown pass because Warren Rabb broke his hand in the first quarter.

“I didn’t throw it, the Lord did,” Cannon said. “I looked for Johnny Robinson, and they had him covered… then I spied Mickey and let go. I wasn’t sure it would get to him until he grabbed it. It went off with a prayer.”

LSU’s famed All-American Billy Cannon (20)gets an assist by way of a block thrown by fullback J.W. Brodnax (40) on Clemson’s Sam Anderson and picks up 7 yards around end in the third period of the Sugar Bowl. Durel Matherne (16), LSU’s quarterback comes to help. (Photo by Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)
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And like that, the 1958 team cemented their legends. Even now, in the midst of the Golden Era of LSU football, this program is still measured by the accomplishments of the ’58 team. They are the ghosts who haunt the hallowed halls of Tiger Stadium.

The Hangover

The biggest problem with becoming a myth is living up to the legend. All LSU had to do was go out the next year and do it all again. They came agonizingly close to back-to-back titles.

“Speaking for me, in 1958 I had a ball. Football was fun,” Rabb said. “We won it and came back in 1959 and we’re ranked No. 1 in the nation again for the first seven weeks. Hey, it wasn’t fun. Every week, don’t make mistakes, don’t get yourself beat. It wasn’t fun, I can tell you.”

Of course the centerpiece of 1959 is the legendary Halloween game. You know the story by now: the fog, the stalemate, Cannon’s run through the entire Ole Miss team, the radio mishap, the goal line stand to secure the win. The whole thing.

LSU’s left half Billy Cannon, 20, All-American, shakes off Mississippi?s Johnny Robinson, 33, on the LSU 30 yard line to run 82 yards for the touchdown that beat Miss. 7 to 3.
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Instead of going over that game yet again (and if you want to, and I don’t blame you if you do, click on the link and read our Greatest Game from Every Season entry on it, giving it the depth it deserves), let’s put it in context.

After the Ole Miss game, LSU pushed its record to 7-0, and it was the undisputed #1 team in the nation, a poll position LSU had held since the preseason by virtue of its status as defending champs returning the bulk of its talent.

LSU started the season with three wins over SWC foes, including a 10-0 blanking of #9 TCU, who would finish the season as the nation’s #7 ranked team. LSU was 3-0 in the SEC, and now boasting a win over #3 Ole Miss, their biggest rival and most imposing threat to the SEC title.

The Tigers had outscored its opponents 110-9 on the season, pitching four shutouts so far. No team had scored more than 3 points against LSU, and no team had crossed the goalline against the defense. The 1959 team was a monster.

Then came the Tennessee game.

While Baton Rouge still enjoyed temperatures in the 70s, the game time temperature in Knoxville was in the 20s. LSU needed to send for extra gear to manage the cold weather, but still, LSU dominated the first half of the game.

LSU staked itself to a 7-0 lead but despite its territorial dominance, they failed to extend the lead. LSU missed two field goals to keep it a one score game. And on consecutive possessions in the third, disaster struck: Warren Rabb threw an interception returned 59 yards for a game-tying touchdown. LSU fumbled the ball away on its next possession, and Tennessee cashed in on the short field, the only offensive touchdown LSU would allow all season. Suddenly LSU was down 14-7.

LSU responded with a touchdown of their own and then Paul Dietzel made one of the defining decision of his tenure: to go for two. Billy Cannon slammed into the line and despite the claims of my mother who to this day insists that he crossed the goal line, the refs ruled Cannon short.

”We came to win, not to tie,” said Paul Dietzel later. “If I had it to do over a hundred times I would do the same thing.”

Cannon agreed with my mother. He stated in the postgame “If you fellows don’t mind, I’d rather not say anything. I just don’t feel up to it.” Later, he added, “I will go to my grave believing I was over.”

LSU outgained the Vols 334 to 112, but those turnovers were the difference. LSU lost 14-13, its only defeat in the regular season, costing the Tigers consecutive national titles.

The Tigers would later lose the rematch to Ole Miss in the Sugar Bowl with several of its stars sitting out due to signing to contracts. Let’s let All-American center Max Fugler have the last word on the 1959 season.

“I am more disappointed with how we lost that game (Tennessee). We beat them everywhere but on the scoreboard. On the winning score, they were holding me and Billy Hendrix. The guy had his hands hooked in my pants. There was some serious home cooking. We would have been the first team to win the national championships back-to-back since Notre Dame.”

Fugler said he voted against playing Ole Miss a second time.

“When you beat somebody 7-3 on a run like Cannon’s there has to be a little bit of luck involved. Once you beat somebody that close, you better be happy about it.”

Adding to the indignity, LSU finished behind Ole Miss in the final AP poll, released prior to the bowls. LSU finished #3 despite beating the Rebels.

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Billy did get his Heisman though.

The LSU-Ole Miss Rivalry

Johnny Vaught
Collegiate Images via Getty Imag

In this period, the LSU-Ole Miss rivalry developed into one of the most intense rivalries in the nation. From 1958 to 1965, at least one of the two teams would be in the top 10 at game time, and from 1958 to 1962, they were both ranked in the top six every time the teams played but once (and they still tied).

Ole Miss had won six consecutive games in the rivalry from 1952-57. Johnny Vaught took over the Rebel program in 1947 and immediately turned a traditional also-ran into a regional and then a national power. From 1952-62, Ole Miss won 10 games four times, only one lost more than two games, finished in the top 10 eight times, and went to six Sugar and two Cotton Bowls.

Pete Finney summed up the rivalry’s heyday succinctly, “In the late 50s and early 60s, Ole Miss-LSU was by far the biggest rivalry in southern football and at least as big as anything else in the country. You had great teams, great coaches, great players, and they were both in the hunt for national championships and major bowls.”

But that five year stretch from 1958-1962 was the true pinnacle of the rivalry. LSU went 3-2-1 in those six games, losing the 1960 Sugar Bowl after that 1959 season and again in Cholly Mack’s first year in 1962. Which means Dietzel went 3-0-1 in regular season games against Vaught during the apex of the rivalry.

Dietzel almost certainly prevented Johnny Vaught from ever winning the AP national title. Ole Miss finished #2 in 1959, but the Halloween game cost the Rebels the national title. And in 1960, an unranked and rebuilding LSU squad tied #2 Ole Miss 6-6. The Rebels finished the year #2 in the AP poll, behind one-loss Minnesota. LSU beat #2 Ole Miss in 1961, and the Rebels finished the year ranked #5 with LSU as their only loss (though they would lose their bowl game after the final poll was issued).

Almost all historical hatred between these two programs is derived from this all-too-brief five year period. Paul Dietzel left in 1961. Ole Miss would take advantage and go undefeated in 1962, including a win over LSU, but somehow finished #3 in the final AP poll behind USC, the consensus champion. Vaught would coach the Rebels until 1970, but would not have another top ten team save 1969, that famed Archie Manning team.

The Last Hurrah

Color photography, what wonders will they come up with next? LSU v Rice, 1959
The LIFE Picture Collection via

The program took a big step back in 1960 as the Baton Rouge Backfield of Johnny Robinson, Billy Cannon, and Warren Rabb took their skills to the pros. LSU won its opener against A&M before losing four straight games, three in SEC play.

LSU salvaged some of the season by pulling out a miraculous tie against Ole Miss. Possibly inspired by the effort, or maybe just playing a lighter schedule, LSU reeled off four straight wins to close the year to finish 5-4-1. More importantly, Dietzel as able to turn the team over to sophomores Lynn Amadee, Jimmy Field, and Jerry Stovall.

The investment paid off in 1961. LSU opened the year ranked #5, returning 24 starters. With all of the hype and expectations, LSU travelled down to Houston and promptly did a faceplant, losing to Rice, 16-3.

LSU would rebound with a win over Texas A&M and then a 10-0 victory over #3 Georgia Tech. Tech had beaten USC and the very same Owls which had humbled LSU, 24-0. But their previously high flying offense was no match for the Bandit defense and nearly their entire offense came on a fake punt, followed by a successful LSU goal line stand.

Bobby Dodd remarked, “In all my career, I’ve never seen a team better prepared to stop us. The pass rush and coverage was the best I’ve ever seen.” More famously, Dodd gave one of the greatest and most enduring quotes about Tiger Stadium, “It was like the Colosseum in Rome and we were the Christians.”

LSU Homecoming, 1959
The LIFE Images Collection via G

LSU would re-enter the top ten by the time it again faced #2 Ole Miss. Perhaps even more than 1959, this would be the defining game of he Dietzel-Vaught rivalry. Ole Miss was the better team and completely dominated. LSU completed just one pass all game and Ole Miss crossed midfield on six different occasions. It wouldn’t matter, as LSU eked out a 10-7 victory against the odds and run of play. Dietzel called it his greatest win at LSU.

The Tigers finished the regular season with a 9-1 record, 6-0 in the SEC. Due to a quirk in scheduling, LSU did not play Bama from 1959-1963, so Dietzel missed out on the hot new coach in Tuscaloosa, Bear Bryant. The Bear cruised to a 10-0 season and the #1 ranking.

The final AP poll came out prior to bowl season, so LSU could not improve on its #4 ranking, but this proved to be one of the more wild bowl bid seasons due to the Rose Bowl’s contract with the Big Ten expiring.

A poll of Southern California sportswriters showed that they favored Alabama and LSU in that order for the 1962 game. Fred Neil of the Los Angeles Herald-Express wrote, “The sportswriters’ No. 1 choice is Alabama because everyone thinks they have a better team. I think they will look favorably on LSU. The Big Ten teams under consideration are dull, and there’s little reaction to our going to the Big Ten with hat in hand and begging them to play us.”

One of those dull teams was #2 Ohio St, who simply declined any bowl invitation at all. The Cotton Bowl, locked into SWC champion #3 Texas snapped up Ole Miss, much to Dietzel’s chagrin. LSU felt like the LSU-Ole Miss game was a play-in game for the Cotton Bowl, yet the Rebels got the bid anyway despite failing to win on the field.

The Sugar Bowl desperately wanted #1 Alabama and #4 LSU, but both teams were tempted by a possible Rose Bowl invite. The issue became academic when the LSU Board of Supervisors refused to allow LSU to play an integrated team, forcing LSU to pass on the Rose Bowl.

However, Dietzel then stepped in and declined the chance to play Bama. He told AD Jim Corbett that if he wanted LSU to play Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, you would have to take them, because Dietzel wouldn’t.

Now, LSU had missed out on the Cotton Bowl bid they desired thanks to Ole Miss, refused the Rose Bowl due to its own misguided racism, and now lost out on the Sugar Bowl thanks to Dietzel’s obstinance. That left only the Orange Bowl among major bowls, but this meant playing an integrated team. Out of options and not wanting to miss out on all of the major bowls, Corbet wrangled a positive vote out the Board.

Meanwhile, Big 8 champion #7 Colorado officially earned its bid to the Orange Bowl. The players unanimously voted to refuse the offer unless Bill Harris and the five Africa-American players not only could play in the game, but could stay in the same hotel as the team.

The Orange Bowl relented as did LSU. LSU would play its first integrated team, winning 25-7. The story should have been about these ridiculous barriers beginning to tumble, but instead, it was about Paul Dietzel.

Dietzel Quits

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Paul Dietzel said, after receiving a long contract extension from LSU that he would never coach anywhere else. In late 1961, prior to the Orange Bowl, he was asking to be released from the remaining four years of his contract.

The reports of Army’s interest leaked to the media in the run up to the Orange Bowl, so much so that Dietzel held a team meeting to remind the players they played for the school, not for him. But once the negotiations became public, he felt the die had been cast and it forced him to take the job.

From Sports Illustrated the following May:

”By that do you mean I am a ‘candidate’ for the Army job?” he asked from Baton Rouge, where he was preparing LSU for the Orange Bowl game. The answer was yes. “Well I’m not interested in being a candidate,” the 37-year-old Dietzel replied. “I’m not a junior high coach out shopping. I don’t have to be interviewed to prove I can win.”

Dietzel made it clear he wasn’t bargaining. No added inducement could keep him at LSU if the West Point job was “close to equal.” He took a five-year contract at $18,000 which, with fringe benefits, LSU had already beaten. But the issue was not one of money, as is customary in coaching moves. Dietzel says he left LSU without hard feelings. There was, nevertheless, a move (by “two-bit politicians,” he says) to hold him to his contract. The school voted to let him go.

Unsurprisingly, the fans and the media savagely attacked Dietzel. The man who promised he would never leave was doing just that, and with four years left on his deal.

Jim Corbett and the Board refused to publish his heartfelt letter to the fans, thanking them for his time in Baton Rouge and explaining his actions. But one person he didn’t explain things to was his defensive coordinator, Charles McClendon, who was so left out of the loop that he watched the Orange Bowl from the stands, not the sideline. It created a rift between the two men that never fully healed.

Dietzel did his best to make the schism as painful as possible. He took the beloved Bandits with him. “The Bandits were mine from the time I was at Cincinnati. They go where I go,” Dietzel said.

He ran to Sports Illustrated to tell his side of the split, and even claimed that the LSU team was so loaded that even his worst coaching job couldn’t screw the team up. McClendon, the new coach, bristled at the expectations and essentially being robbed of any future credit for success.

Several years later, after breaking his Army contract to run off to South Carolina, Dietzel again ran to SI. This time, he got the byline himself, not trusting anyone else to tell his side of the story.

I have never threatened to break, nor have I ever broken, a contract in my life. The facts are that before I ever talked to representatives from other schools, I was promised my release by both LSU and Army. To understand my motives for leaving LSU, you must understand that all my life I have had only one speed—full speed. In everything I attempt I try to do it better than it has ever been done before. Now, I don’t always achieve this, but it is what I strive for, and when the challenge is gone I lose interest.

Well, that was plainly false. He had broken two contracts, and left behind a trail of enraged fanbases and disgruntled AD’s. But his self-serving account did provide more detail on how he obtained his release:

I buzzed Jim on an interoffice phone and told him, “Jim, I just got a call from Army. I’d like to talk to them.” Corbett then said, “Oh! You’re not interested in that job, are you?” My answer was, “Jim, I don’t know.” There was a brief pause and then he said, “Come on over to my office!”

I went over and Jim said, “Paul, you know you’ve still got four years to go on your contract.” I replied, “I know that, Jim, and if you won’t release me from this contract, if there is going to be a nasty situation, there is no sense in me talking with the Army people.”

His answer was, “Paul, I’ll tell you right now there’s not going to be any fuss. You know I don’t want you to go and I don’t believe you will go, but I’ll assure you that if you would like to leave, I’ll release you from your contract.”

Almost as quickly as he arrived, Paul Dietzel was gone, and the Golden Age would not return until the 2000’s. A Golden Age which has a chance to finally give us a team to match the accomplishments of 1958: an undefeated national champion guided by a Heisman Trophy winner.

The ghosts will have been answered.

Billy Cannon and his daughter, 1959
The LIFE Picture Collection via

Greatest Games by Year

1958: Florida, 10-7 (Warm Up the toe, Tommy)

1959: Ole Miss, 7-3 (The Halloween Run)

1960: Ole Miss, 6-6 (Vaught is a Coward)

1961: Ole Miss, 10-7 (Dietzel’s greatest win)

Program Overview 1958-61

Athletic Director: Jim Corbett

National Titles: Football (1958)

Conference Titles: Football (1958, 1961), Baseball (1961), Track (1957-60), Golf (1960)

Facilities Added: None

During a football match between Louisiana State University (LSU) and Rice University, the LSU tiger mascot is works up the crowd, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1959. (Photo by George Silk/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)
The LIFE Picture Collection via

In 1961, Ray Didier guided LSU to its first SEC title in baseball since 1946. Lynn Amedee pitched all 11 innings of the deciding game against Auburn. LSU earned an automatic bid to the NCAA playoffs, but did not participate due to the school’s ban against playing African-Americans. In many ways, LSU was still trapped in the past.