The major problem with “what if’s” is the far reaching implications of everything that has actually happened. If you remove one thing, does the present happen? Let’s put it like this, if you rewrite the 2011 BCS title game, for instance, do we get the 2019 National Champions?
You can make a pretty compelling case that a win there keeps Miles here for longer, which means no Orgeron, no offensive revamp, no Joe Burrow, and you know, no 2019. It’s dangerous to change the past is what I’m saying.
But I have also long since argued that the tenure of Curley Hallman was the Hindenburg disaster of LSU sports. He scarred a generation of LSU fans and you can make a good case he’s the worst coach of the modern SEC era.
Let’s put it like this: LSU is 11th all-time in wins. And Hallman had a .364 winning percentage at LSU. It’s tough to find similar modern failure at such a historically successful program.
Scott Frost is on the pace at Nebraska, but he’s only two years in and at .375. The Dooley disaster at Tennessee still resulted in a .417 win rate. The only true equivalent is John Blake’s .353 win percentage at Oklahoma.
But it also makes little sense to simply snap our fingers and say, “Don’t hire Curley.” The way I look at LSU history, there were three major events which set LSU down the path of hiring the worst coach in school history. Let’s look at reversing any of those…
CRITICAL EVENT 1: What if Bo Rein’s plane doesn’t crash?
Charles McClendon was the LSU coach for 18 years. You can make a case he could have won more, particularly late in his tenure, but he did provide LSU with tremendous stability. Over the next 12 seasons, LSU would employ five different head coaches. And that sort of coaching upheaval wreaked havoc on the program.
Bo Rein was one of the most well-regarded young coaches of his era, having come up under Woody Hayes. He also had already started winning. Rein went 27-18 at NC State, won two bowl games, and won the ACC title in 1979.
He was most often compared to George Welsh and Mack Brown, which is a pretty good range for success, and what he could have brought to LSU. With the Bear retiring, the landscape opened up, and LSU likely would have competed for SEC titles and almost certainly wouldn’t have used so many coaches to do it.
Even if he is a continuation of the conservatism of Cholly Mac, the program never descends into lawlessness like it did under Mike Archer, prompting LSU to bring in the strict disciplinarian of Curley to right the ship. Even a failed Rein tenure likely doesn’t result in Curley.
CRITICAL EVENT #2: What if LSU doesn’t hire Mike Archer?
It certainly would have been better for all parties. Archer was the youngest head coach in the country, and simply wasn’t ready for the promotion. Had he gotten a few more years of experience, he likely would have done a better job as head coach, and even if it didn’t work out, he almost certainly would have gotten a second chance to coach again, instead of becoming a career coordinator.
This is where the Spurrier Myth is born. LSU could have hired Spurrier, but Arnsparger recommended Archer, then took the Florida AD job and hired Spurrier. It’s a great conspiracy theory and LSU fans repeat it like gospel, but it just ain’t true.
First off, Archer was hired in 1987. Florida hired Spurrier in 1990. Secondly, and we’ve looked into it, there’s no contemporary record Spurrier was a legit candidate. Spurrier got his first head coaching gig in 1987: at Duke. Spurrier may have been on the radar, but he was not a serious candidate for the LSU job. They were not taking a guy with no college head coaching experience who hadn’t yet worked the Duke miracle to take over an SEC title contender.
The most likely hire in 1987 wasn’t Spurrier, but Mack Brown. He was starting to work his own miracle at Tulane, making the Greenies competitive for the first time since World War II, and LSU could have stolen their rival’s coach instead of him taking the UNC job a year later.
But that’s not as much fun as pining over the Fun ‘n Gun.
CRITICAL EVENT #3: What if Brett Favre doesn’t upset Alabama?
Curley Hallman got the LSU job for three reasons: 1) he had a record as a disciplinarian and LSU was in the market for one after Mike Archer; 2) connections to the Bear, however tenuous, were a big deal still in 1990; and 3) Southern Miss pulled off some huge upsets.
In the season opener of 1989, Southern Miss shocked #6 Florida St. They also lost to Mississippi St, TCU, Texas A&M, Auburn, and Alabama. So let’s keep perspective. But it was 1990 in which USM made its mark, knocking off both Bama and Auburn and losing to Mississippi St. and Georgia by a combined 4 points.
It gave Hallman legitimacy when really he was the beneficiary of one of the greatest quarterbacks ever, who he didn’t even recruit. If those upsets don’t happen, Hallman’s profile doesn’t raise to the point that he gets on LSU’s radar and gets the LSU job.
But at this point, the wheels were too far in motion. The LSU Board was committed to a reactionary hire and if it hadn’t of been Curley, it would have been someone else.
So… What if Curley wasn’t hired?
Off the bat, LSU avoids the depths of the Dark Ages. LSU has a downturn, but not a complete disaster, and we don’t have to sit through a 2-9 season or six straight losing seasons.
But that also means we miss out on the Bring Back the Magic Game, as there would be no magic to restore. Curley was fired after the 1994 season. By 2003, LSU won the national title. That’s a remarkably quick turnaround. Do you trade the Dark Ages to risk not having the 2003 title at all?
Because we’ve come this far, let’s take it one more step…
CRITICAL EVENT #4: What if LSU hired Terry Robiskie instead of Gerry Dinardo?
Pat Sullivan was LSU’s first choice, but after accepting the job, he then backed out of the deal, leaving LSU scrambling for a second option. LSU settled on the Vanderbilt head coach. Dinardo went 18-26 at Vandy and never had a winning season. Even at the time, it’s a fairly baffling hire, one that was made in the panic after publicly losing their top choice.
Dinardo did a good job at LSU. He rebuilt the recruiting pipeline, won right away, even won 10 games once. Things went bad in the final two seasons, but he definitely pulled the program out of the ditch and built a foundation for the Golden Age we’ve now enjoyed.
But… Terry Robiskie interviewed for the LSU job. He was an LSU great and at the time, a receivers coach in the NFL. He would go on to be a successful coordinator, though he never got a head coaching gig (ok, he was an interim head coach in Cleveland in 2004) He was a perfect fit for LSU: a school legend, pro experience including a Super Bowl ring, young, and probably willing to work at a discount.
He also would have broken the SEC head coaching color line a decade before Sylvester Croom. It’s hard to believe that he wouldn’t have been able to recruit as well as Dinardo but he also likely wouldn’t have tied his ship to Lou Tepper.
Terry Robiskie would have possibly been more successful than Dinardo, and he made more sense on paper at the time of the hiring. LSU should have hired him, and I truly believe he would have a long, successful LSU career…
… which means LSU never hires Nick Saban.
Maybe Robiskie never wins a national title. A lot of things broke right in 2003. We’re changing too many things to know. But I do think he would have been a consistent winner in Baton Rouge with a creative offense. Jesus, Robiskie made Jay Schroeder a competent NFL quarterback and he did win a Super Bowl as the Raiders’ OC.
But let’s go back to Saban. When LSU hired him, it was a total off the board choice. Saban had enjoyed four years of .500 football at Michigan St, and then a 9-2 year in 1999 which he parlayed into the LSU job. But if LSU isn’t looking in 1999 due to Robiskie still coaching successfully, then Saban never jumps ship.
Saban likely keeps coaching good not great Spartan teams, and he never gets the blank check he got at LSU. LSU was a uniquely positioned big name program on hard times. Would Saban have gotten another opportunity like that as the long-tenured Sparty coach?
If Saban never gets that big shot, he never gets to make himself a crazy big name, and never gets to build his monster at Alabama. He either keeps running a successful but unremarkable program at Michigan St, or he gets one of the other sleeping giant jobs like UCLA or Georgia Tech. Either way, his career looks a lot different.
Yes, I’m saying it… Curley Hallman caused the Alabama dynasty. That butterfly flapped his wings, and the hurricane ensued. LSU should have hired Terry Robiskie. LSU would have been a better program, and it would have spared the college football world from Nick Saban’s Alabama monster.