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History Class: McClendon’s Peak Years

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When you think LSU history, you’re thinking of the early 70s

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After the twin disappointments of 1969 and ’70, LSU went into the 1971 season with confidence that this was the year they took the next step up.

The national media agreed, and Sports Illustrated put Tommy Casanova of the cover of its season preview issue. Even with those honors, they still had to take their shots:

There are some people who think Tommy Casanova (see cover) was responsible for LSU’s opening-game loss to Texas A&M last year. Casanova was hurt while playing on offense in the second quarter and was out of the game when the Aggies won in the last seconds with a pass-run into his defensive territory. There is one person who thinks Casanova was responsible for LSU’s 3-0 loss to Notre Dame. “I blew it,” says Casanova himself who, despite holding Tom Gatewood to four catches (22 yards), dropped a leaping pass interception just before the Irish kicked the winning field goal. But there are many more people who believe—with ample justification—that Tommy Casanova is the main reason LSU won its nine other games last year and that he deserves to be recognized as the best all-round college football player in the country.

The offense, however, may be better. “I just hope we haven’t hurt our running game by too much passing practice,” says McClendon, referring to the work of Quarterbacks Bert Jones and Paul Lyons. Pressure by Notre Dame and later by Nebraska in the Orange Bowl loss showed Jones cannot run, but he has a Y.A. Tittle arm and the pleasure of throwing to Flanker Andy Hamilton, who has already broken Ken Kavanaugh’s school pass-catching record. Lyons is more of the take-charge type. A whole flock of good running backs is available, led by Art Cantrelle, who was recently cleared of an assault charge after a barroom brawl near campus. It was Cantrelle’s second brush with the law for assault, but in between punches he personally outgained nine of LSU’s 11 regular-season opponents. If McClendon can keep Casanova out of the hospital and Cantrelle out of trouble, LSU will be sweet and tough once more.

Yes, Tommy Casanova was an amazing player and he was the reason for LSU’s lofty preseason ranking and its season ambitions. Bert Jones still wasn’t the undisputed starter and went into 1971 as a guy splitting time with Paul Lyons. Andy Hamilton was a genuine star receiver and Ronnie Estay was the only returning starter on the line.

Old Football press photos are always great. Tommy Casanova #37 running back of the Louisiana State University Tigers.
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Those were the stars, but let’s step back for a second and talk about Art Cantrelle.

The Brawler

Lacking decent photography of Cantrelle in college, here he is with the Birmingham Americans of the WFL in 1974

I don’t want to oversell this point, but there might not be a more terrifying person in LSU football history than Art Cantrelle. There were better players, and maybe even tougher guys, but Cantrelle fostered a near mythic aura as the “King Hell Bad Ass.”

Due to a quirk in eligibility rules, Cantrelle was All-State for both his senior years, one in Thiboudeaux and one in Biloxi. He was ineligible to play his first year, like all freshmen, and then missed his sophomore year due to a collarbone injury.

It wasn’t surprising he turned into a terrific running back, the bigger surprise is he somehow stayed on campus for four years without running too far afoul of the law. I mean, this is what, his teammates said about him:

”Art Cantrelle is pure evil, formed of twisted blue steel and raised in the smoldering fires of HELL.”

“When Cantrelle entered a bar, everyone knew him and they either left or all walked over to other side of the room. That’s how bad Art was.”

“He would knock out a man with the first punch and pop the guy two more times before he hit the floor.”

And those were his friends.

Cantrelle wasn’t particularly large, he was listed at six feet and 200 pounds, but he was legendarily tough. He would pick fights in the local bars, just for the fun of it.

His most famous incident came at a bar known as The Keg. Witnesses claim that four cops approached Art, wielding batons and wearing helmets. It wasn’t enough. He lifted a pinball machine off the ground and threw it at the cops. Cantrelle wasn’t arrested.

He could play a little football, too. By the end of his senior year, Art Cantrelle had rushed for more yards than any other player in LSU history other than Billy Cannon, and that’s with missing his sophomore year. He outrushed Stovall, Taylor, Robinson, Dousay, Ray, Schwab… all of them.

The ’71 Season

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All of that preseason hype, and it immediately went sour. Colorado came into Tiger Stadium flat out beat LSU. Sophomore Charlie Davis rushed for 174 yards, the most LSU had ever allowed in a game. Adding to the indignity was that LSU boasted the best run defense in the nation the last two seasons, and now the Buffaloes were running wild on them.

Davis, by the way, turned out to be a pretty damn good player He finished eighth in the nation in rushing yards in 1971, and ranks 18th all-time in Big 8 rushing, with 2958 yards.

More concerning to Charles McClendon was the fact his starting quarterback threw three interceptions in the 31-21 loss. Cholly Mack tried to open up the offense for one whole game, and found he didn’t like it all. Bert Jones went back to the bench and the option went back to the forefront of the LSU offense.

Paul Lyons responded by leading an offensive explosion. He set an LSU single-game record for total offense, gaining 304 yards on the road against Wisconsin. LSU scored 37 against A&M, 38 versus Wisconsin, 38 again against Rice, and then 48 on Florida.

The offense slowed against Kentucky, still a 17-13 win, but LSU went to Jackson, MS near 20-point favorites over the Rebs and came home 24-22 losers. LSU fell behind 21-0 and simply ran out of time, trying to catch up. The game is notable now for Ole Miss’ backup quarterback: Jimmy Burrow. His son would figure a little larger in LSU history.

The game also marked the end of the McClendon-Vaught rivalry. Johnny Vaught had picked his assistant Bob Tyler as his successor, only to have Bruiser Kinard maneuver into the AD job and hire his brother Billy as the head football coach instead.

For all of the talk of the Bear, it was Vaught who truly bedeviled McLendon. I mean, Bryant beat everyone, but Vaught seemed to have LSU’s number post-Dietzel. In nine meetings, Cholly Mack went 2-6-1 against Vaught. LSU was ranked in six of those games and only once was Ole Miss the higher ranked team.

8-0 Bama followed up with a tight 14-7 win in Tiger Stadium. LSU dominated time of possession, but simply couldn’t get near the end zone until it was too late. Bear remarked, “I’m happy as hell to get out of here alive.”

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Casanova had missed the Ole Miss game, but it would have taken an act of God to get him to sit out the Notre Dame visit to Baton Rouge. At 6-3 and with limited bowl prospects, LSU might have been able to play out the string and get out of the season.

And then Notre Dame rubbed LSU’s noses in it, and probably didn’t even know they were doing it. 8-1 Notre Dame, sensing they were out of the national title picture, voted to turn down a bowl bid. The same team whose arrogant flip on the bowl issue in 1969 cost LSU a shot at the national title was now doing the opposite, in what felt like pure spite directed at LSU.

Previously relegated to the bench, Bert Jones trotted on to the field in the Tigers’ first possession. He found Andy Hamilton for a touchdown. Paul Lyons came into the game and he did the same.

The LSU defense came to play. The defense made a four down goalline stand, stopping the Irish inches short of the touchdown. Warren Capone picked off two passes, Norm Hodgins ran a fumble back for a score, and Tommy Casanova finally got his interception in the end zone.

Casanova said that “You knew the whole state was behind you. It’s probably like this in the Olympics when you represent your country.”

By the time the dust has cleared, LSU has beaten Notre Dame 28-8, the worst loss of Ara Parseghian’s career. McLendon claimed it was the biggest win in Tiger Stadium history. Not only that, LSU finally turned the quarterback job over to Bert Jones.

A&M Comes Calling

The history of A&M coming to Baton Rouge with a bag of money did not start with John Chavis. Before the 1971 Sun Bowl in El Paso, the headlines were that Charles McLendon might be coaching his last game at LSU.

LSU coach Charlie McClendon is carried off field by two of his players, Ronnie Estay (78) and Jay Michaelson (81) after LSU defeated Iowa State 33-15 in the Sun Bowl Classic.
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After four straight losing seasons, A&M parted ways with Gene Stallings. Wanting to get a big name, A&M made a million dollar offer to Cholly Mack, in the form of a ten-year deal at $100,000 per year.

Big John McKeithen made his move, locking down McClendon to a five-year deal with a five-year option at the end of the term. Additionally, he gained control of Broussard Hall, so he could control the athletics dorm.

McClendon told the Times-Picayune, “I’m LSU through and through. Being at a place for 19 years helps you make up your mind.”

A&M would make the same offer after the 1972 season, and with less fanfare, he turned them down again. McLendon stayed on as the LSU coach. But first, he had the preseason #1 team.

The Ruston Rifle

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Bert Jones was not always a star. Even he would admit that:

”I wasn’t that good a football player in high school, and I didn’t have a whole lot of signs of interest from college recruiters. I also came out the same year that Joe Ferguson came out of high school. ... He was highly recruited and regarded as probably the best QB in the country. And he was just fifty miles down the road”

LSU had interest in Joe Ferguson, but he ultimately chose Arkansas. This opened the door for Bert Jones to come to LSU, as their second option behind AJ Duhe.

”I went on just two recruiting trips - Tulane and LSU. I only had a few schools that offered me a scholarship opportunity. I took the one that played the toughest football there was, and that was LSU.”

Despite being the #2 option, Jones did not lack for confidence, even before he ascended to the top of the depth chart due to Duhe’s unfortunate death. Even when he was being recruited, he viewed LSU as a stopover. ”I did not regard college as anything other than the next step to get to pro ball.”

This attitude got him to trouble. Yes, Jones was absurdly talented, but he was also head-strong in an era that didn’t take well to mercurial individual talents. He was the round peg in the square hole, and McClendon kept trying to make him fit. When he didn’t, the staff found themselves a different square peg.

This being the early 1970s in southern Louisiana, the fans and his teammate largely sided with the coaching staff. Who did this Bert Jones kid think he was? Why didn’t he think the same rules applied to him?

Simply put, Bert Jones thought he knew better. “At LSU, I was in a system that adapted the players to the system. They were playing two QBs all the time, primarily a run-option type QB. That just wasn’t conducive to my style.”

“The LSU coaching staff was not sophisticated at all. They were old school and not very smart at either understanding or adapting. They told me that I would be calling the plays, and then I didn’t. But that wasn’t any big deal. I played only half the time while I was at LSU.”

While even an old school guy like Johnny Vaught could land Archie Manning and let him rip, McClendon resisted doing the same with Jones. Part of it was this weird adherence to a two-quarterback system that was only his system due to a long line of QB injuries, not any actual strategy. But he had been doing it for so long, it became part of his playbook, and it’s like everyone forgot the reason why.

But part of the problem with Jones is that he blew his early chances to impress. He never could take the reins as a sophomore, and the team managed to perform well with him on the bench. He began his junior year as the starter, but lost the gig after a disastrous opener, and Paul Lyons never looked back by quickly becoming the offense’s best player. Even after Jones earned more playing time in the big Notre Dame win, he squandered the goodwill of the coaching staff by shaking off the coaches and calling his own play in the Orange Bowl… and promptly throwing an interception.

Yes, McLendon mismanaged Bert Jones’ career at LSU. He had an NFL 1st rounder and barely used him until his senior year. That’s on the coaches. But Bert didn’t make things easy for the staff. Forget halfway, he wouldn’t meet anyone even a tenth of the way there.

Charlie McClendon summed it up this way, “Bert came to LSU strong-armed and strong-willed. Bert wasn’t the most coachable player I’ve ever had.” But for one year, they were all on the same page. Even if Bett Jones, when playing for the Colts, was asked the best part of his college career, answered “Getting out.”

The #1 Season

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SI gave LSU the proverbial kiss of death with its preseason #1 ranking, remarking that “The Bengals—and their chances for a national title—have seldom seemed better.”

Yeah, they lose Casanova and Estay on defense, but they brought back both Jones and Lyons at QB, and a tailback in Brad Davis that SI called “supposedly the best runner since Jim Taylor,” to which Art Cantrelle probably said, “Dude, I was just here.” Though, to be fair, Brad Davis was pretty great.

LSU raced out to a 4-0 record and met a dangerous 4-0 Auburn squad, ranked #9. Bert Jones threw for three TD’s, the last of which matched YA Tittle’s LSU career mark of 23 passing TD’s. LSU won easily, 35-7. It was McClendon’s 84th career win, passing Bernie Moore for the LSU career lead.

And then came the magical Ole Miss game, one of the most storied games in Tiger Stadium lore.

We’ve covered this story before. Two plays in four seconds. Highway sign. Set your clocks back. The whole thing. But that’s not how the story ends for LSU, unfortunately. At #6 in the nation, undefeated LSU then traveled to Tuscaloosa to play #2 Bama.

From the SI game story…

In fact, Alabama so demoralized LSU Coach Charlie McClendon that given a fourth down and three at his own 31 with about 4:50 left to play, his team still trailing by 14, he chose to punt, giving up any chance for victory. “I felt like I didn’t want it to be 50,” he said later.

Let the words “so demoralized” be your guide.

LSU played an eight-man front and dared you to pass over them. In a conference with only one 1000 yard passer outside of Jones, this usually worked. But against Bama, it didn’t. Bama waltzed to a 35-21 win.

LSU bounced back against State, only to tie Florida in a torrential downpour. Juan Roca missed an astounding seven field goals, including two in the final half minute. Mike Williams made one of the most outstanding tackles in LSU history to save a touchdown at the one.

And just like that, LSU’s dream season was no more. It would finally come to its merciful end in the Bluebonnet Bowl, where Condredge Holloway outdueled Jones to lead Tennessee to the win. LSU’s most promising team ended 9-2-1, and out of the top 10.

LSU Football Finally Integrates

LSU Gumbo 1973

The only reason LSU was not the last SEC team to integrate was that it played its season opener a week earlier than Ole Miss in 1972. It’s a shameful legacy, and one that harmed the school, the state, and everyone kept out of the university.

There is some dispute as to which person actually broke the color line for LSU football. On the one hand, Lora Hinton was the first African-American to commit to LSU while Mike Williams was the first to actually suit up and take the field.

Hinton was the bigger recruit. He was a star player in Chesapeake, Virginia, garnering interest from all of the major northern schools. He was an All-American as a junior, but he also suffered a knee injury, only managing to play one game as a senior.

“Back in those days, when you had an ACL problem, that was pretty much the end of your career,” Hinton said.

But LSU stood by its commitment to Hinton, and as other schools backed off on the injured player, LSU needed a big name with the right character.

Mike Williams spurned LSU at first. He showed more interest in Tulane and eventually signed with Southeastern to be close to home. However, he tore up the Louisiana high school All-Star game and LSU coaches convinced him that he could renege on his current commitment and sign with LSU due to the different rules at the time.

LSU Gumbo 1973

Years later, both Hinton and Williams claimed that they received excellent treatment from their teammates and were never treated as anything less than an equal.

The worst incident Hinton recalled was during his recruiting trip, Warren Capone and Tyler Lafauci took him out. A Baton Rouge cop prevented Hinton from entering the bar because he was underage, usually not an impediment for an LSU football player. The players simply bounced in solidarity with Hinton.

The worst incident Williams remembered came at a restaurant in Jackson, Miss., where LSU was having a Friday night meal before a game with Ole Miss. While everyone else was being served steak, Williams got a lump of fat on his plate.

Someone pointed out what happened to McClendon, who promptly told the manager than if Williams did not receive his order, all 100 members of their party were leaving. Williams was promptly served his steak and salad.

Due to his injuries, Hinton never played in Tiger Stadium, but Mike Williams was an All-American in 1974 and a first round draft pick. His greatness made his race a non-issue. He was a Tiger.

1973 and the Second Chance

After all of the promise of 1972, the team expected to take a step back in 1973. Bert Jones was off to the NFL and Paul Lyons, his primary backup, ran out of eligibility. Chris Dantin, the team’s leading rusher, graduated. Gerald Keigley and Jimmy LeDoux, the team’s #1 and #3 receiver, were both gone. And LSU was opening against #10 Colorado. This time, they were ready for Charlie Davis, and the terrific LSU defense led by Warren Capone keyed a 17-6 win.

Warren Capone #55 linebacker of the Louisiana State University Tigers
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LSU’s young offense then did its best to try to lose to Texas A&M. Mike Miley threw two picks and the offense chipped in another three fumbles. Even with the help, the Aggies still lost, 28-23.

LSU unexpectedly entered the top ten, and still couldn’t lose. LSU blew out Rice and Florida at home, then went on the road to beat Auburn by two touchdowns. Things started to slow down as LSU only beat Kentucky by seven.

The Tigers travelled to Columbia to play Paul Dietzel’s South Carolina and at this point, there was no longer a rivalry with McClendon. Dietzel hadn’t yet cracked 7 wins in 8 years at South Carolina. He never would.

Mike Miley was a baseball star who ran the option while USC’s Jeff Grantz was also a baseball player running the veer. The two QB’s put on a show of anything you can do, I can do better. Grantz put USC ahead by three with 3:30 to play. LSU answered on a 3rd and goal with a minute left. The game ended with the Gamecocks on the LSU 21, but LSU escaped with 33-29 win.

LSU would then send Johnny Vaught back into retirement with a 51-14 win to climb to 9-0 and 7th in the nation. The bowl reps came calling and LSU accepted an Orange Bowl bid to play Penn St while their next opponent, Alabama, also accepted a bowl bid, to face undefeated Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl.

Joe Paterno remarked to McClendon that he would be rooting for him. Bear, on the other, claimed that this was his best team ever. LSU ran 24 more plays, earned 10 more first downs, but made two key turnovers, and lost 21-7.

Losing to a great Bama team was one thing. Yes, it was McClendon’s eighth loss in ten tries against the Bear, leading to many LSU fans to call for Mac’s head. But here’s the thing. No one beat the Bear. From 1964-75, Alabama won eight SEC titles. Only Georgia, Tennessee, and LSU won a title other than Bama in this stretch, And no one won more than two. Let’s be honest, losing to Bryant wasn’t a McClendon problem, it was a whole SEC problem.

No, the problem was LSU dropped a game to Tulane for the first time since 1948. LSU somehow lost to Tulane 14-0 and fell out of the top ten. Losing to Bama? It sucks, but everyone did it. Losing to Tulane? Ugh. Warren Capone remarked after the game, “This is something I will have to live with the rest of my life.”

The Orange Bowl was now stuck with 9-2 LSU to play undefeated Penn St. and the Heisman Trophy winner, John Cappelletti. Penn St had a history of bowl duds, but now they had a legit offensive star.

A torrential South Florida downpour ruined an already depressed fan base, as nearly 14,000 of the 74,154 fans that purchased tickets didn’t even bother to show up. The rain-slicked plastic PolyTurf grass led to conditions that Cappelletti referred to as the worst field he’d ever played on. LSU opened the scoring with a TD on its opening drive, but only scored once more, on an intentional safety, and fell 16-9. A 9-0 start ended with three consecutive losses.

MIAMI - JANUARY 1: A Penn State quarterback watches the flight of his ball as a LSU player attempts to block his throw at the Orange Bowl at the Orange Bowl Stadium on January 1, 1974 in Miami, Florida
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The Modern Offense

Charles McClendon looked at his now loaded backfield of Brad Davis, Steve Rogers, and Terry Robiskie and decided to modernize his offense. Out went the option and in went … the veer? Not helping matters was that Mike Miley left school early to pursue a pro baseball career (more on that later), leaving LSU with career backup Billy Broussard and future wide receiver Carl Otis Trimble.

LSU wouldn’t win a road game all season in ‘74, eking out a tie against Rice before dropping games against Florida, Kentucky, State, and Bama (by 30 points). LSU dropped a game against its usual punching bag, Texas A&M, but salvaged the season with a 24-22 win over Tulane to finish 5-5-1

The Tigers fumbled the ball an astonishing 49 times, losing the ball 29 times. Both are school records. LSU’s passing game was so bad, the QB’s combined for a 2/7 TD/INT ratio, completed 41.0% of their passes, all for just 913 yards.

McClendon scrapped the Veer after one season.

Reviewing the Record

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So ends the high water mark of the Cholly Mac era. So let’s compare him straight up to his predecessor, Paul Dietzel.

In Dietzel’s last five seasons, LSU went 40-12-1. McClendon followed up on that with a 40-14-3 record. In his best five year stretch, he went 45-12-1, slightly better than Dietzel. He never won a title, but he also sustained success for a lot longer and he didn’t have a near ready-made team plop in his lap the way Dietzel did with the Baton Rouge backfield of Cannon, Rabb, and Robinson.

McClendon clearly mismanaged Bert Jones’ career, but Dietzel went 5-5 with an NFL Hall of Famer in Jim Taylor in his backfield. There’s also the thing where Dietzel had one idea, three platoon football, specifically tailored to one time period in which the rules encouraged it, and he never had success again to that same extent.

Dietzel went 46-24-3 at LSU (.651) and McClendon went 135-61-7 (.682), but from 1962-73, McClendon went 97-32-6 (.725). Things got away from him in those final years, but his peak was longer and better than Dietzel’s.

And he did it with one arm tied around his back. Tommy Casanova recalled a conversation he had with Paul Brown in which he talked about the games they should have won, but Brown laughed in his face and told him “You guys shouldn’t win four games a year. Look at the amount of talent you put in the pros. You guys shouldn’t win what you win.” Brown marveled at McClendon’s success given the talent on hand.

Was he right? From 1965-74, MCClendon’s peak era with only his players, LSU sent just 18 players to the NFL over 10 years. Only 9 became NFL starters (for a total of 40 seasons), less than one player per draft class. Combined, LSU players drafted from 1965-74 accounted for a total of just 4 Pro Bowls, all by Casanova and Bert Jones.

Let’s contrast that with a random team for no reason whatsoever… Grambling.

The Black Notre Dame, in that same ten-year period, sent 34 players to the NFL, 21 of them as starters for a combined 117 seasons. Grambling players drafted in that span made 9 Pro Bowls across 6 different players. Oh, and one Hall of Famer (and that’s been ungenerous to Grambling, who loses another two Hall of Famers by a few years based on arbitrary end points).

A small HBCU in Louisiana churned out nearly twice as many NFL players in both quantity and quality than LSU during MCClendon’s tenure, all because of misguided, structural racism. Hell, even the most vile bigot can see the talent drain. Just as Bear Bryant opened up Alabama not on the grounds of equality, but on winning football games. It took LSU longer, and it clearly cost McClendon the kind of talent he needed to get over the top.

By the time LSU got its head out of its ass in 1972, they got talented players just in time for McClendon’s long decline. More on that, in our next football installment.

Greatest Games of Every Season

1971: Notre Dame, 28-8; Ara’s biggest career loss

1972: Ole Miss, 17-16; Clocks back four seconds

1973: Ole Miss, 51-14; Vaught retires again

1974: Colorado, 42-14; the Colorado false spring