After the death of Jim Corbett, LSU had a decision for Athletic Director. There’s an old adage about coaches, that you always hire the opposite of the guy before, in order to course correct. Had a players’ coach? Time for an authoritarian.
Jim Corbett was a great Athletic Director, one of the giants of the sport. The award for best Athletic Director every year is named in his honor. He was a genuine trailblazer, and LSU suffered a great loss when they lost Corbett.
But for as great as he was a steward of the football program, the rest of LSU sports did begin to atrophy. Basketball had plummeted the bottom of the SEC. Al Moreau had won SEC titles in 5 of his 8 years under Corbett and his replacement, John May could not keep it up. Baseball had one title in two decades. Tennis was plodding along at .500.
More importantly, LSU hadn’t built a new facility since 1938. Tiger Stadium last expanded in 1953. LSU decided not to promote the football coach and instead hired Carl Maddox.
Carl Maddox was the first LSU president of the Student Union and found the plot for the Memorial Oak Grove. Maddox wasn’t a former coach, he was an administrator with experience with large projects. He was brought in as a Builder.
”From day one,” Maddox said, “I wanted to have the best overall varsity program in the conference. Our conference is competitive enough that if you do well in the Southeastern Conference, you are likely to be nationally-ranked. To achieve that, you’ve got to give coaches the tools to work with, and primary among those tools to work with are facilities for each sport.”
Program Overview 1968-70
Athletic Director: Carl Maddox
National Titles: None
Conference Titles: Football (1970); Baseball (1967-68); Wrestling (1970)
Programs Added: Wrestling (1968); Swimming and Diving (1968)
Facilities Added: Bernie Moore Track Stadium (1969)
The most successful program, other than football, was the golf team. Harry Taylor capped off his LSU career with two SEC titles. His stepping down left a huge void, and to be honest, Maddox failed in his first challenge. The golf team would run through three coaches in three years (CD Smith, Tommy Matty, and Ben Freeman) without much success. Freeman would last another season before being replaced in 1972.
Despite the turnover, the team was still successful, finishing 2nd and 3rd in the SEC in 1969 and 70. In this three-year span, LSU won five tournaments, a good showing. Vaughn Moise won the SEC individual title in 1969, the last SEC champion from LSU for a decade.
Track Gets a New Home
Maddox lived up to his reputation as a builder right away, working to complete the LSU Track Stadium, later renamed after the legendary Bernie Moore in 1971. The track itself was one of the first all-weather tracks installed on a college campus, enabling LSU to host prestigious events.
Unfortunately, the program did not live up to the new facility. John May was not the coach that Al Moreau was and the program slipped in quality. First, the team stopped contending for the SEC title, and then LSU stopped earning invites to the national finals. From 1968-73, LSU would not qualify for the NCAA track finals.
But things weren’t entirely bleak. Al Coffee was an elite middle distance sprinter who won three SEC titles in two years. He won the 440 title in 1969, and repeated in 1970 while adding the 220 title. Al Coffee was named an All-American and his 1969 peak time is still in the top ten 400/440 times in LSU history. Over his career, Coffee won eight SEC titles over indoor and outdoor, one away from the LSU record.
He even moonlighted on the football time. He caught 11 balls for 179 yards, making him a more successful track star turned football player than Xavier Carter. He scored a touchdown against Bama in 1970, providing the margin of victory.
Al Coffee was a legit bad ass.
A Parting Gift for Baseball
In Jim Corbett’s last year as Athletic Director, he hired Jim Smith as the new baseball coach. Smith took over a team that went 6-13 in 1965 and hadn’t posted a winning season in the SEC since 1962.
Within two seasons into his tenure, Smith won an SEC title. In his third season, 1968, the team won 20 games for the first time since 1961. However, the team dropped its only postseason games in both 1967 and 1968, preventing the team from getting a tournament bid and a shot at the College World Series.
The team was built upon the talents of RHP Dick Hicks and SS William Hunt, both of whom would get drafted into the pros. Hicks threw a one-hitter against Nichols and led the team in wins and strikeouts. He was named to the LSU “Foundation” Team, and yes, LSU’s best pitcher in ’69 was named Dick Hicks. (sigh) Nice.
CF Craig Burns was a two-sport star named to the Foundation Team as well. He possessed a power/speed combo, and he led the team in runs, hits, doubles, home runs, RBI and stolen bases for at least one season. He also was a starting safety and punt returner. Burns was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Week for his coverage and interception against Bama in 1970. Burns still shares the LSU season record for interceptions.
Also, in 1969, Henry LeBoyd would quietly integrate LSU athletics, becoming the first African-American to don the purple and gold, taking the field for the baseball team.
Two New Sports Arrive
Instead of building facilities right away, the first thing Maddox did was build new programs, part of his commitment to building a more well-rounded athletics department.
Wrestling would immediately become a southern power in the sport due to the inspired hire of Dale Ketelstein, an Iowa native. Ketelstein was a lot like Skip Bertman in that he didn’t just want to build a program at LSU, he wanted to build up his sport in the state of Louisiana. He wanted an instate pipeline
We’ll get more into the wrestling program in the next installment when it blossomed into full flower, but Ketelstein took over a program that wasn’t merely nothing, it was less than nothing. The program held events at the old Gym Armory, not a dedicated facility and far from the state of the art.
But he immediately threw himself into the LHSAA, in order to build wrestling as a competitive sport at the high school level. He sponsored high school tournaments at LSU and donated his time and talent to help build those feeder programs. It paid off. While his teams were always stocked with a healthy contingent of established midwestern talent, he gave an opportunity for Louisiana wrestlers to compete at the NCAA level.
He was a genuinely great coach who would win multiple SEC titles and would mentor 15 different individual SEC champions. Which would make the death of the short-lived program all the more tragic. Ketelstein deserved better. But in 1968, he was still in the first steps of building that regional power.
Swimming did not start as strongly. Layne Jorgensen was the team’s first coach, and the program lost each of its first eleven meets before finally winning the season finale against Georgia Tech. He fared better in season two, guiding the team to a 9-8 record, but he stepped down after just two seasons, making way for Ivan Harless.
Swimming, for whatever reason, is a sport that has never really caught on at LSU.
Last time, we detailed how LSU put on the full court press to lure Press Maravich into the fold. The top reason for that was to get his son to play for LSU, a gamble that would pay off handsomely.
Pete Maravich is the greatest player in LSU basketball history. Full stop. I hear you wanted to argue and talk about Shaq, but no. Stop. Pete Maravich is so far and away the best player in LSU history it is almost silly.
He owns nearly every LSU scoring record: Game (69), Season (1,381), and Career (3,667). The only reason he doesn’t own the freshman scoring record is because freshmen weren’t allowed to play. He averaged 44.2 points per game over his career, and 44.5 over his senior season, both NCAA records. And that’s as a perimeter player without the benefit of a the three-point shot.
My favorite Maravich record is that he is a member of the top three season scoring tandems in LSU history, always Pete and whoever was lucky enough to be LSU’s second leading scorer that season. He also led the team in assists each of his three seasons.
Maravich wasn’t just a three-time All-American, he was a three-time SEC Player of the Year and two-time NCAA Player of the Year. He simply dominated the game in a way no one has before or since.
The problem was, it really was Pete and nobody else. By his senior year, Press had managed to put a competent team around Pete to best compliment his abilities, but that was only enough to make the NIT Semifinals (back when only conference champions got NCAA tournament bids).
There’s nearly an unlimited amount of stories about Pistol Pete, so I don’t want to get too bogged down in his story. You know it and if you don’t, there are literally hundreds of books about it that would do more justice than this short blurb.
My favorite quote about playing LSU in the Maravich era is “It was like trying to catch a housefly in a really dark room full of refrigerators,” from Georgia guard Bobby Lynch.
Yes, the entire offense ran through Pete. Yes, he jacked up close to 50 shots a game. But, if you have the best scorer in hoops history, you run the offense through him. And you don’t worry about defense, you crank the pace and try and outscore the other team. Sometimes, like against #9 Duquesne, it worked. Others, like against Kentucky, it didn’t.
In today’s media environment, where we care about winning above all else, you could call Pete Maravich a failure at LSU. And it’s true, the only team trophy LSU added was for a NIT Final Four.
On the other hand, his team is immortal. Quick, other than UCLA, who won the title every damn year back then, name just one of the other Final Four teams from 1970, Pete’s senior year, without looking. Those teams were more “successful” but who gets remembered?
Pistol Pete Maravich, that’s who.