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History Class: Football 1968-70

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Our class splits into two sections

University Of Mississippi Rebels Football
The face of evil

This is as good of a time as any to start splitting the History Class. Before, we were able to move through the years with football as our focus, but then checking in on all of the other sports on campus.

However, that is about to get far too unwieldy. It’s one thing to check in on one or two other sports while primarily focusing on football, but the sheer number of sports is about to explode. When Jim Corbett died, there were six sports on campus: football, basketball, baseball, track, golf, and tennis. All that was about to change.

In the interim, LSU called on who they always called on in a crisis: Harry Rabenhorst. Raby, with over 50 coaching years of experience at LSU, stepped out of his ten year long retirement and, at age 67, took over the AD job while the school searched for a permanent replacement.

This was an era in which the head football coach was often times the Athletic Director, taking the lead from Alabama and Bear Bryant. It was the mark that a football coach had truly made it. And Coach Charles McLendon, still somehow living in Paul Dietzel’s shadow, wanted that validation. He didn’t get it.

McLendon, who always seemed to live on the hot seat, was passed off by the Board for Carl Maddox. It was a decision with far-reaching effects for the LSU sports department, but for football? It meant one more small disrespect paid to McLendon.

We’ll let SI tell the story from its 1968 preseason preview:

It hardly has been fair for LSU boosters to keep the heat on Charlie McClendon’s chair year after year, because he has done almost nothing to deserve such treatment. Admittedly, he is not a Dietzel. Paul is tall and blond with a Madison Avenue mien and a GL-70 smile. Charlie is large and blocky, an Arkansas backslapper who gives names like “bushwhacker” to his roving safetyman, and when he decides he wants “something distinctive” for his team he thinks of such things as gold helmets with wild purple tiger stripes slashed across the top—he even may buy them next year.

But perhaps LSU is finally beginning to suspect that Charlie McClendon is building a record that can compare with anybody’s. He is 44-17-4 at LSU while facing a schedule that would tire out a tiger. His teams have gone to five bowl games in seven years. His 1962 Tigers upset unbeaten Texas in the Orange Bowl, his 1965 team broke Arkansas’s 17-game winning streak and his 1967 squad dumped undefeated Wyoming 20-13 in the Sugar Bowl. But Charlie McClendon is still troubled by the back-chair coaches up there in the LSU stands.

”Everybody wants another great team here. Yes, like the one in ‘58,” he sighs. “Well, so do I. The trouble is we could have a great team one of these years and never know it. Our schedule [which includes Texas A&M, Miami, Mississippi and Alabama this season] won’t let us be great.”

What no one knew was that McLendon was about to embark on the greatest period of success in his career, success which would grant him a near free hand to run the football program, but not enough success to ever turn the heat down on his hot seat. With Cholly Mack, it was never good enough.

LSU Gumbo 1970

The good news was, LSU had its most active benefactor in the Governor’s Mansion since the days of the Kingfish. John McKeithen was Louisiana’s governor from 1964 to 1972, and while he may have lacked the panache of Huey Long, he still took his job as LSU’s chief recruiter seriously.

He would chauffer potential recruits around town in his white Cadillac. He had a hand in recruiting Bert Jones and Tommy Casanova. Hell, his daughter married wide receiver Andy Hamilton.

He was elected as a staunch segregationist, but he also saw the writing on the wall, and helped recruit Collis Temple as the first black LSU basketball player. He also funneled money to Ku Klux Klan to bribe them not to attack people. McKeithen was a complex dude.

The Newest QB Controversy

1968 opened with a quarterback controversy. Nelson Stokely had graduated leaving behind his primary backup, junior Mike Hillman and “The Littlest Tiger,” senior Freddie Haynes, who was roundly booed during the spring game. Don’t let anyone tell you fans are more belligerent today. We’ve always been like this.

Tailback Maurice LeBlanc probably had the best attitude when he told his coach, “I never worry about pressure. If I do anything wrong, they won’t blame me. They’ll blame you.”

There were rumors Haynes only got the job because he was the nephew of the governor, a rumor McLendon quashed, “They’s no kin, nohow. Freddie’s merited the job.”

BATON ROUGE, LA - SEPTEMBER 21, 1968: #43 RB Eddie Ray of the Louisiana State University Tigers compete against the Texas A&M Aggies at Tiger Stadium on September 21, 1968 in Baton Rouge.
Collegiate Images via Getty Imag

Kin or no, LSU fell behind 9-0 to the Aggies in the 1968 opener, and was down 12-6 at the half. Haynes would lead LSU to the lead halfway for the fourth, but the win wasn’t secured until the defense forced an A&M fumble on the LSU 2, which rolled over the goalline and resulted in a touchback.

LSU raced out to a 5-1 start, though its one loss was one of ill tidings: a 30-0 thrashing at Miami, a team that would finish the year 5-5. But the Tigers were about to meet one of the true nemeses of the program: Archie Manning.

Worse yet, LSU would lose Freddie Haynes to a dislocated wrist in the first quarter. Mike Hillman came off the bench and guided LSU to a 17-7 lead. Johnny Vaught, like McLendon, was from the old school. He was a conservative man who avoided risk at nearly all costs. But he also wasn’t stupid, Ole Miss would go off for 458 yards of offense, primarily behind the arm of Archie.

LSU Gumbo 1969

However, that risk blew up in Vaught’s face when Archie threw an interception from deep in his own territory, protecting a three point lead in the fourth. LSU quickly responded for a late go-ahead score. Manning would respond on the game’s final play, as his desperation pass tipped off an LSU defender’s fingers and into a waiting receiver’s arms for a 27-24 Ole Miss victory.

Their fifth straight loss to Bama followed, though the team would rally for two more wins and a Peach Bowl bid against Florida St.

FSU was coached by Bill Peterson, former LSU offensive coach under Paul Dietzel, and the most popular name brought up by alumni to replace Cholly Mack. McLendon was the country bumpkin caught in the past, while Peterson was the whiz kid building a forward-looking aerial offense in Tallahassee. There was always one more demon to slay.

LSU jumped out to a 24-13 lead for their coach, but the Tigers fumbled five times, losing the ball four times, allowing the Noles to take a late lead. But the conservative McLendon unleashed Hillman, who threw for 233 yards (more than FSU) on 16-19 passing, and the game-winning score.

Cholly Mac with the Peach Bowl Trophy, LSU Gumbo 1969

The Almost National Champs

LSU entered the 1969 season as barely a top 20 team and picked no higher than fifth in the SEC. But LSU returned LB George Bevan from a missed season due to Achilles surgeries. With Haynes gone, Hillman was the undisputed starter, and the team added two sophomores, WR Andy Hamilton and DB Tommy Casanova.

LSU started the ‘69 season 5-0. But this was no eking it out. LSU won three games on the road, and their closest win of the first five was a 20-0 win over Miami. They outscored teams 197-24 to start the year, and then came sophomore sensation, Pat Sullivan and Auburn.

On the game’s first play, Hillman pitched to Jimmy Gilbert, who tossed it to Andy Hamilton for a 62-yard score. That would be the Tigers’ last first down for 26 minutes. In the meantime, Auburn built a 14-7 lead. LSU would find its offense to tie the game before the half.

LSU again scored on its first possession of the half, taking a 21-14 lead. Sullivan found Micky Zofko for an apparent game-tying score early in the fourth, only for George Bevan to block the extra point.

Pat Sullivan’s last chance to take the lead failed when Craig Burns knocked away a fourth down pass to change possession. LSU held on for a 21-20 win, witnessed by a regional TV audience.

Riding high off of the huge win, LSU would travel the next week to Jackson for their second career meeting with Archie Manning at Ole Miss, who were muddling their way through a disappointing 3-3 season after starting the year as a preseason SEC favorites.

Archie spent most of the game running for his life, avoiding near sacks, and then miraculously finding his secondary and tertiary options. On one now-legendary play, Manning ran THIRTY yards behind the line of scrimmage, only to complete what was officially a 9-yard TD pass. Down 23-18 and facing a 3rd and 16, he passed for 15 and sneaked for another yard on fourth down. Three plays later, he converted 3rd and 10 to the 1, only to run it in the next play. The Rebels had a late 26-23 lead thanks to a two-point conversion.

It was Mike Hillman’s time to become a legend. He drove LSU down the field and with 65 seconds, the ball sat at the OM 23 on fourth and eight. Five years earlier, in a similar situation, Vaught blinked. This time, McLendon told his QB, “You took us this far. Take it in.”

He did not take it in. Hillman found Bill Stober for the first down, but the ball arrived at the same time as several defenders. The ball fell incomplete and LSU fell to 5-1.

As Archie Manning admitted, “They were better in ’69. They had good players on both sides of the ball. A lot of people say that was the best team Coach McClendon ever had.”

The very next week, LSU had to get over the loss and play 5-2 Alabama as a double-digit underdog. LSU played ball control, keeping the ball away from Scott Hunter, who actually threw for more yards than Sullivan or Manning in 1969. LSU ran the ball sixty-two times, and then recovered a surprise onside kick to build a 20-9 lead. Bama would score late, fail on another onside kick, and Allen Shory put the game away on a fourth down rush.

And then intrigue.

McLendon had been in negotiation with Cotton Bowl officials, who promised him an invite if LSU beat Mississippi St. convincingly. The Tigers fulfilled its part of the bargain to the tune of 61-6 and later, 27-0 over Tulane, capping a 9-1 season.

Notre Dame had only been to one bowl in its history, the 1925 Rose Bowl. But, feeling the money pinch, 8-1-1 Notre Dame suddenly reversed course and decided it wanted to go to a bowl. And being Notre Dame, they were able to demand whatever bowl game they wanted, and they wanted to play #1 Texas because even at 8-1-1, the Irish had a national title shot.

The Cotton Bowl reneged on its deal with LSU, signed Notre Dame, much to the relief of Texas, as LSU had won 5 of its 6 bowl bids under Cholly Mack, three times beating an undefeated team, even spoiling Texas’ title bid in 1962.

Undefeated Tennessee, ranked #3 in the nation and harboring national title dreams of their own, accepted a conditional bid to the Orange Bowl to play #2 Penn St. Ole Miss then shocked Tennessee, 38-0, costing the Vols the Orange Bowl bid but not the SEC title, sporting a 5-1 SEC record rather than LSU’s 4-1. The Orange Bowl snapped up Big 8 champion Mizzou while the Sugar Bowl, freed from the SEC champion, took… 8-3 Ole Miss (who would go on to beat #2 Arkansas) because LSU has not been receptive to their invitation when they thought they had accepted a Cotton Bowl bid.

LSU had suddenly missed out on the Cotton, Orange, and Sugar Bowls. Passed over by teams with worse records for each of those bowls, LSU voted to turn down a Bluebonnet Bowl bid after the Gator Bowl matched up ranked SEC bridesmaids in Tennessee and Florida.

”We got screwed,” said LSU’s co-captain offensive tackle Robert “Red” Ryder said, “It was sad because that was Coach Mac’s best team. That 1969 team should have played for the national championship.”

Instead, LSU voted to stay home after being passed over by the January 1 bowls. After hearing their native son’s comments, the Alexandria Jaycees built a trophy for the 1969 season and gifted a personalized copy to each player, coach, and staff member: a large, industrial-sized screw placed above a purple metal plaque.

”There was no such thing as a Football Bowls Association,” Ryder continued “But maybe there should have been. Because like I said, we got screwed.”

LSU went 9-1 and got screwed out of a national title shot, a bowl game, and an SEC title. But maybe, don’t lose to 3-3 Ole Miss. It would be the most critical loss in LSU’s football history until 2011.

The 1969 trophy of then LSU asst. SID Paul Manasseh

Still, the 1969 team was probably the greatest LSU team of the 20th century. They averaged 34.9 points per game, a school record until 2007. In the next 30 years, LSU would crack 30 PPG just five more times. They allowed 389 rushing yards at a 38.9 yards/game clip, both still nigh on untouchable school records.

Their 408.9 YPG on offense was a school record until 1982, and heck, was more than the 2018 offense gained, in a far friendlier offensive environment. Despite Eddie Ray leading the team with just 586 yards rushing, 220 rushing YPG was a school record until 1977. They allowed 9.1 PPG, the penultimate team to hold offenses under 10 points per game. Accordingly, George Bevan and Tommy Casanova were both First Team All-Americans.

A huge part of the success was that Cholly Mack had a healthy quarterback for literally the first time in his career. Cholly Mack was famous for using a two-QB season, but most of that was due to necessity. Jimmy Field got hurt then Pat Screen then Billy Ezell then Nelson Stokely then Freddie Haynes. Finally, Hillman started 10 games in 1969.

The 1969 team was f’n awesome, and they were right… they got screwed. You can blame Notre Dame, but… go to hell, Ole Miss.

Enter a Savior

One of the last acts of Jim Corbett as Athletic Director was to sign one of the hottest QB prospects in the country out of Holy Cross. Corbett died two days after securing the commitment. Herman Duhe was considered the next great Tiger QB. Arguably the best QB prospect in the nation was coming out of northern Louisiana that year, and due to the Duhe commitment, Joe Ferguson signed with Arkansas.

This left a little heralded quarterback out of Ruston to choose between the two schools who father played at during WWII, Tulane and LSU. Bert Jones decided to go to LSU despite the Duhe commitment.

Before the 1970 season, tragedy struck. Herman Duhe suffered from persistent headaches, but back in those days, no one thought much of it. He worked construction in the offseason, ran four miles a day, and practiced like anyone else. He skipped a practice on Monday due to the headaches. On Tuesday, he was hospitalized. Three hours later, he was dead.

Tommy Casanova hurt himself on a rare offensive play in the first half of the season opener against A&M. This would play huge when LSU pushed the lead to 18-13 with 45 seconds to play on a field goal. This meant Paul Lyons was in coverage on the game’s final play, when Lex James threw up a prayer. Lyons had it covered, but he went for the pick, tipped the ball, and it fell into the waiting arms of Hugh McElroy for a last second score. More historically, Hugh McElory was the first African-American to play in Tiger Stadium, but also scored the first touchdown.

LSU rolled off four wins after the disappointing start before heading to its first trip to Auburn since 1908, when one of their fans assaulted Doc Fenton with a cane. Pat Sullivan was averaging over 9 yards per pass, which is Joe Burrow kind of numbers, and the Plainsmen boasted the nation’s best defense and an offense scoring 35 PPG. Auburn already boasted wins over ranked Tennessee by 13 and ranked Georgia Tech by 24. LSU was a massive underdog.

Ronnie Estay scored in the game first play by sacking Sullivan, stripping the football, and recovering the ball in the end zone. LSU clung to its lead all game, and the defense would add a safety. In the game’s dying seconds, Sullivan called an audible run and sprinting towards what he thought was a gap in the line. Suddenly, it was filled by Mike Anderson who made what McLendon called the finest one-on-one tackle he’s seen in his career. Sullivan was stopped short, and LSU escaped with a 17-9 win.

BATON ROUGE, LA- CIRCA 1970: Mike Anderson linebacker of the Louisiana State University Tigers poses for a head shot in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Collegiate Images via Getty Imag

LSU would beat Alabama and Mississippi St. before travelling to Notre Dame for one of the most famous games in LSU history, and a bit of a grudge match after getting screwed in 1969.

After playing the best defense in the nation, now LSU had to play the best offense, a Notre Dame unit averaging 541 yards led by all-everything QB Joe Theismann (who changed the pronunciation of his name to rhyme with Heisman, and still didn’t win it, so screw him).

McLendon did not play the importance of the game down. He called it “the most important game in LSU football history.” The team still blamed Notre Dame for last year’s screw job, and they were out for revenge.

”There are a lot of things working in this game,” Bill Norsworthy told SI. “The bowl last year, a bowl this year, the polls, their tradition, everything. We’ve waited a long time. They’re mighty desirable. “This place,” he said with a sweep of the hand.... “Too many teams come into this place and they’ve already lost the ball game before it starts. Not my kids. We’re ready. They may not have sense enough to realize it up here, but we have a helluva football team. We’re not gonna be intimidated. We may get shellacked tomorrow. But that’ll be tomorrow. Not today.”

Neither team could move the football all game, but a late pass interference call against on LB Jim Earley resulted in Notre Dame getting the ball to the LSU 17. The closest ref to the play, from the SEC, ruled it incomplete, while a Big Ten official threw the flag. Tommy Casanova held Tom Gatewood, Notre Dame’s star receiver, to only four catches for 21 yards. But on third down, Casanova cut in front of a pass intended for Gatrewood, and dropped a sure interception. With new life, the Irish would score the game’s only points on a field goal in the fourth.

As the NY Times stated in its game report:

Nothing the L.S.U. players did on the Notre Dame turf to day could demean them. Defensively it appeared they played with at least 12 men, all of them meeting at the football with savage quickness. Notre Dame, which had averaged 540 yards a game, was held to 227 today.

It wasn’t enough. LSU lost 3-0. Notre Dame would finish the season ranked #2, beating then #1 Texas in the Cotton Bowl.

LSU responded to the Notre Dame game by finally getting the better of Ole Miss in Archie Manning’s senior year. LSU destroyed the Rebels, 61-17, the most lopsided result in the rivalry’s history to that point. LSU gained 811 yards, scored three touchdowns on punt returns, but Manning would always have the excuse he had a cast on his arm and only threw twelve passes before watching the rest of the destruction from the bench.

LSU was 9-2, but undefeated in SEC play, earning LSU the undisputed SEC title. Still smarting from the Sugar Bowl snub in 1969, LSU instead accepted an Orange Bowl bid to play undefeated Nebraska.

Here’s a weird one from the yearbook coverage of the Orange Bowl. A baby tiger on the sidelines that is too young to be 13-year old Mike III, and too old to be Mike IV, who wouldn’t be born for 3 years. Also, what Nebraska monstrosity is that.
LSU Gumbo 1971

LSU came into the game with one of the nation’s best run defenses and Nebraska was at peak running offense Big Red. LSU had only yielded two rushing touchdowns all season, a mark Nebraska would meet in the Orange Bowl. From the Omaha paper remembrance of the game:

Perhaps the most memorable picture of the game will be that of Tagge, perched atop a heap of bodies at the middle of the line, stretching out his long arms to guarantee penetration of the “plane” of the goal with the ball.

Football Study Hall called it the sort of play that would have been on SportsCenter on repeat in this era.

With the game on the line, Buddy Millican recovered a Husker fumble on the LSU 40 with 52 seconds to play. McLendon turned to his backup quarterback, Bert Jones. Jones looked for Andy Hamilton, but the pass was picked off by Bob Terrio of Nebraska.

LSU lost three times in 1970, but two of those losses were by a combined 8 points to the teams that finished 1-2 in the AP poll. LSU also lost on a miracle play to A&M, back before they made stadium cups for that. 1970 won the SEC title, going unbeaten in conference play, but the 1970 season will always be viewed as a disappointment: the team that almost beat Nebraska and Notre Dame. Noble defeats, yes, but defeats all the same.

Bert Jones, arguably the greatest LSU quarterback since YA Tittle, did not start a single game. That would have to change.

Greatest Game of Every Season

1968: Florida St., 31-27, sending down the up and comer
1969: Auburn, 21-20, the Bevan Block
1970: Auburn, 17-9, the Perfect Tackle