After the disaster of the Year of the Veer in 1974, LSU had high hopes to improve by getting rid of the disastrous offense which had led to a 5-5-1 season and the offense losing 29 of 41 fumbles.
But improvement would have to be swift, as LSU opened the season against #6 Nebraska in Lincoln. Cholly Mac went back to the I-formation now that he had recruited one of the best running backs in LSU history into the fold, Charles Alexander. But first, it was Terry Robiskie’s time.
Robiskie Runs for 1000
In some ways, Robiskie is a forgotten great of LSU football. He was the first LSU player to ever crack 1000 yards rushing in a single season, and his 2,517 yards still ranks 8th all-time. He walked away from LSU as the school’s all-time leading rusher, only to see his records smashed by his backfield partner, Charles Alexander. But Robiskie was amazing in his own right.
He was the first LSU player to ever rush for 200 yards in a single game (214 against Rice in 1976… we’ll get to it).
Robiskie was all-state in high school and one of the most sought after recruits in the nation, not just Louisiana. He received national interest from all the major powers and was considered a strong lean to Grambling, where several of his family had attended.
But he stuck with LSU due to the involvement of Governor Edwin Edwards, who barely had a passing interest in football. Getting the top recruit in Louisiana, a black man, to attend the state flagship university was hugely important to Louisiana and LSU.
“Charlie Hall was my host at Tulane, I could have been comfortable there and the main reason I didn’t go to Grambling was because Doug Williams had signed with them. But the people at LSU let me know how important it was to sign there,” Robiskie later said.
AJ Duhe and Robiskie were roommates in Broussard Hall, an interracial pairing highly unusual at the time at any school, much less in the deep south.
But with seven black players, and six of them rooming together, it left Robiskie as the odd man out. “I think Coach Mac was trying to trying to break down some barriers still on the team then,” Duhe remarked. “But rooming with Terry was OK with me.”
As Robiskie observed, “I can’t tell you one bad experience I had. But Coach Mac made a point of not just signing good players but good people. You look at the first 10 or 12 black players at LSU, and we were all good people with strong family backgrounds. But I also came to LSU determined to fit in.”
“In today’s world, it would have had the same impact if LeBron James had signed with someone out of high school,” said A.J. Duhe, Robiskie’s fellow signee in the Class of ‘73 and still a close friend. “For Coach Mac (Charlie McClendon), I know it was quite a blessing to get Terry.
“Terry was a big man on campus before he ever got to campus.”
He was a big man on campus after arrival as well. Robiskie would win the 1976 SEC MVP Award and graduate as the school’s all-time leading rusher. That honor would last for exactly one season.
The Losing Season
But first… the iceberg. Despite freshman becoming eligible in 1972 and players still not leaving early, McClendon had a massive roster crunch in 1975. He only had 12 seniors, the lowest number of his entire tenure. The team’s youth would factor large in 1975.
LSU would fight one of the most powerful teams in the nation to a standstill in their own backyard. LSU’s 5-man defensive front dominated up front, and the final statistics show how close the game was: Nebraska held the edge in total offense by 219-197. However, LSU fumbled the ball five times, losing it four, enough to spoil any chance of an upset, as LSU dropped the opener, 10-7.
Tom Osbourne told the media after the game that, “If LSU plays defense all year like they did today, they’ll beat a lot of people. I think we played well, and we’ll get better every week.”
His defensive coordinator, Monte Kiffin, called LSU’s defense “maybe the second best in the country. We’re first.”
It was high praise and it pointed to a really good year. Losing to Nebraska in 1975 was no shame at all. And then, nothing went right. LSU would lose three of its next four games, the only win a 16-13 squeaker over Rice, who would win just two games that season. Most troubling, LSU lost to Texas A&M 39-8, the worst loss to the Aggies since 1955, and also the Aggies first time to win consecutive games against LSU since then. LSU simply couldn’t stop the wishbone. Florida, who ran the same offense, lit up LSU 34-6 as well. These stood as the two worst losses in Tiger Stadium history up until that time.
Steve Cassidy set a school record for tackles (122, still 9th all time) and Ken Bordelon had 21 TFL, a school record which stood until 1994 and has never since been surpassed. But that’s about it for the positive news.
Pat Lyons was particularly dreadful as the quarterback, completing 42.9% of his passes and posting a near incomprehensible 4/13 TD to INT ratio.
The team rallied to avoid the first losing season of Mac’s tenure, but Ole Miss, down by 3, would convert a 4th and 2 in the game’s final minutes to eke out a 16-13 win. LSU would secure the losing season next week against Bama, when LSU would go for it on fourth and goal and down by a score, but Lyons would be sacked. He threw 5 picks on the day, and LSU fell, 23-10.
LSU went into its final game against Tulane, and the very first game played in the brand new Superdome, with Tulane coach Bennie Ellender fighting for his job. An upset win could save his tenure, but it was not to be. LSU finally showed up and crushed the Greenies 42-6. Ellender was fired after the game, the winningest coach at Tulane in 25 years.
Help Mac Pack!
Going 5-5-1 in a year in which you played with a new offense was bad, but it can happen. But following that up with a 4-7 season, the first losing season at LSU since 1956, was nigh on unforgivable. And that’s when the excrement hit the air conditioning.
Billy Cannon was the loudest voice calling for McClendon to be fired. Dave Kindred, then of The Washington Post, wrote the definitive take at the time:
After the only two bad years of his career — LSU won nine games, lost 11 and tied one in 1974 and 1975 — McClendon was called in by the LSU Board of Suprvisors and given a choice.
He had four years left on a 10-year contract.
He could quit on the spot and be paid off. Or he could stay two more seasons.
The Board of Supervisors did what it thought best for LSU. It thought firing Charlie McClendon was the thing because an ex-LSU football player told them it was the best thing.
The player was Billy Cannon, who played on LSU’s national championship team in 1958 and won the Heisman Trophy in 1959. The coach then was Paul Dietzel. McClendon was an assistant coach.
Cannon now is a dentist in Baton Rouge who, like thousands of people in in this state, thinks he knows how to run a big-time college football program.
Because Cannon once could run with a football in his hands, the Board of Supervisors believed he knew what he was talking about.
Making speeches around the state, Cannon told whoever asked that McClendon could not recruit, that LSU was losing too many good Louisiana players to other schools. Why, Cannon asked, did Terry Bradshaw, of Shreveport, go to Louisiana Tech and not LSU?
Cannon said McClendon could not create an offense worth the name. Too conservative, McClendon was a nice guy, sure. Cannon gave him that. But Coach Mac was too nice; he would not fire longtime assistants who were incompetent.
Whenever Cannon spoke to the Kiwanis, or the Rotary, people would ask him if McClendon could motivate his teams. The kids get themselves up for big games, Cannon would answer, but in the basic week-to-week games they were not good enough to beat good teams. No recruiting.
Some of those critiques were fair. McClendon was not an aggressive recruiter, but this was also a completely different era of recruiting in which national recruits barely existed. He recruited quality people who would die to play for LSU. And it worked fairly well.
But the Bradshaw charge? That’s insanity. First off, Bradshaw was a recruit in 1966. It was a decade ago… let it go. And since Bradshaw, LSU had brought in Butch Duhe and Bert Jones, two huge quarterback recruits. But the worst part is this… Terry Bradshaw signed with LSU. He just failed the ACT. Twice.
At the time Bradshaw said he lacked the confidence, and remember, he would have had to beat out Nelson Stokely, LSU’s all-time scrimmage yardage leader for a job. And as Bradshaw said in his biography,
“I loved LSU then and I love LSU now. I’ll always be a Fightin’ Tiger fan. I used to listen to the LSU games on the radio and went down there one time when I was a sophomore in high school and saw LSU play Tulane ... It was exciting to be wanted by LSU.
At first I thought it’d be nice to play major college ball. But down deep I knew I was scared of big-time competition. I really had no confidence in my ability.”
But in the ensuing years, Bradshaw changed his tune:
“I didn’t want to go to LSU,” Bradshaw said. “They didn’t throw the football. They do this year, right? But they never had thrown it. Matter of fact, I’ve always said they haven’t had a great quarterback ever. Even when they had Bert Jones, they didn’t use him properly.”
Bert Jones signed with LSU in 1968, two years after Bradshaw. There’s no way Bert Jones had any bearing on Bradshaw’s decision. Furthermore, NO ONE threw the ball in 1966. OK, Steve Spurrier did. But Stokely had 100 yards less passing than Joe Namath at Alabama.
He’s tried to claim he intentionally failed the ACT test, but I don’t honestly believe that story. I mean, no one likes being called stupid.
“I ended up taking a test they call the ACT test,” Bradshaw said, “and I flunked it, which was the greatest day of my life. … I took the test again. Flunked it again — really bad this time. So they said, ‘You can’t come here.’
“So I was planning on going to Louisiana Tech all along. Unfortunately for me, later on it came out I was dumb because I didn’t pass the ACT test. I didn’t want to pass the ACT test. I was kind of proud of myself because without reading those questions and making those little circles, I did pretty doggone good, I thought.”
But laying the failure to land Bradshaw on Mac is crazy. He signed him, it was 10 years earlier, and even without Bradshaw, LSU was a top ten team. It was just a convenient line to use.
However, after the 1976 season, the Board of Supervisors voted 10-5 to reduce McClendon’s contract. Not fire him, mind you, just reduce the value. Surely, no one would take such an insult, and he’d walk, solving the problem on his own.
McClendon accepted the reduced contract. The Board of Supervisors, if they were to fire Mac, were going to have to actually fire him, not do some lame half measure.
1976: The Year of Almost
Again, the season started against Nebraska, but this time in Tiger Stadium. This time, neither team would cross the goal line, most frustratingly when LSU settled for an 18-yard field goal. However, in the game’s final minute, Mike Conway’s potential game-winner from 44 yards out sailed just wide. Nebraska escaped with a 6-6 tie.
The Tigers won their next two and headed into the SEC opener against Florida with a top 20 matchup that mattered a lot to both teams. From the SI report:
Served compliments of a fan, the LSU football team sat down 48 hours before playing Florida and dined on 100 pounds of breaded alligator meat. “It tasted pretty good,” was freshman Linebacker Jerry Hill’s assessment. “Just like fish.” Obviously looking for a similar repast, LSU, which hadn’t won out of its home state in 35 months, then took off for Gainesville, where the Florida Gators hadn’t lost in 35 months. And still haven’t.
In an untidy game marked by fumbles lost and easy scores on both sides, Florida turned LSU away just five yards from its goal in the final seconds, and it was the Tigers who were finally eaten, 28-23. Unbreaded, and, until then, unbeaten.
LSU had a chance to take a lead late, but again, the offense stalled. It was a theme of the season because, if anything, it was an even worse passing offense than in 1975. Pat Lyons, in his second year as a starter, posted the still unbelievable line of 54/133 for 685 yards, 40.6%, and 3 TD and 8 INT.
Lyons career line was 127/302 for 1,640 yards, 42.1%, 7/21 TD/INT. For an LSU QB with at least 1000 passing yards, he ranks last in completion percentage, TD/INT ratio, yards per attempt (5.4), and passer rating (81.4). It boggles the mind that McClendon decided this was when he’d ditch the two quarterback system.
It’s not like offenses had moved forward overall. Only 3 SEC QB’s passed for 1000 yards that season and not a single qualifying SEC starter completed 50% of his passes. Passing offenses were still bad, but… not THIS bad. It’s not as if the game had passed LSU by, but the offense was certainly regressing.
The early promise was erased. LSU closed out the season with wins over Tulane and Utah, getting to 6 wins and on the positive side of the 500 ledger, but for the third straight year, LSU missed a bowl.
Terry Robiskie rushed for 1,117 yards and 12 TD, winning the SEC MVP Award, but it was for a team going nowhere.
The Root Hogs
LSU returned a tremendous amount of talent for the 1977 season, especially its Heisman contending running back, Alexander the Great. But what would make the offense work was an offensive line keyed by Robert Dugas, a two-time All-American (1977 and 1978).
But what made the Root Hogs so memorable was not just their talent on the field, but their success off of it. The line included two future doctors (Dugas and Chris Rich), a dentist (/jay Whitley), and a best-selling author (John Ed Bradley). Not bad for academic achievement. Dugas himself was an Academic All-American as a pre-med student, and made the Dean’s List five times.
Alexander, of course, deeply appreciated his line. “You can have all the ability in the world, but you really don’t have anything if you don’t have the guys up front. I still keep in touch with those guys, and we try to get together at least once a year for an LSU football game.”
John Ed Bradley, of course, published one of the greatest books ever written on college football, much less LSU. It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium is a classic and one of the best insights on what it was like to be a football player in the 1970s. If you haven’t read it, what are you waiting for?
Daddy had no use for showboats and loudmouths. He believed that humility was equivalent to class in a man, and nothing pleased him more than to hear a player deflect the praise he’d earned and credit his teammates instead. Players who danced in the end zone after scoring were buffoons. Those who calmly handed the ball to an official were to be admired.
Opelousas produced few athletes who went on to play in Baton Rouge. Those who did carried a large part of my father’s identity with them. I remember when John Weinstein and Skip Cormier played on LSU’s defensive line in the early 1970s. Both made big hits in important TV games that we watched as a family. Every time the announcers mentioned either Weinstein’s or Cormier’s name, Daddy turned in his seat and faced his children. “He’s from here,” he said.
We mock those values today. But it was the team’s fundamental decency, derived from its coach, that made integration so seamless but also informed how the team could play with the blue bloods of college football despite a massive talent disparity. LSU was a religion, and no one comes before the team.
The 1977 Stumble
So this loaded team with its best running back ever, an incredible wide receiver, a great line, and the usual attacking defense which swarmed to the ball went into the 1977 season ranked 12th in the preseason poll…
…and promptly did a faceplant.
LSU opened the season with a loss to Indiana, coached by a brash young coach named Lee Corso under the eye of AD Paul Dietzel. Corso had been on the cusp of a big win for a year or so, and finally got one at home against LSU, 24-21.
Losing to Nebraska was one thing, but losing to Indiana? This wasn’t the biggest loss of the Cholly Mac’s career, nor was it the death knell, but let’s also not undersell this loss. After two down years, LSU came back with a loaded team and a chance to show those years were an aberration not a decline, and failed to do so. It wasn’t the final nail in McClendon’s coffin, but it was a big one. It showed LSU was probably never going back to competing for New Years Day bowls under Mac.
The team bounced back the following week and worked out its frustrations against Rice, in one of the most epic ass-kickings in LSU history. Carlos Carson caught five passes, all for touchdowns. Five consecutive touchdown catches is still an NCAA record (six, actually, as the streak extended into the next game). His 201 yards made it the first 200-yard receiving game in LSU history.
LSU called off the dogs but couldn’t really help themselves LSU rushed for 502 yards as a team, a school record which would stand for one month, when they rushed for 503 yards against Oregon. That is still a school record. As a team, LSU would rush for 3,352 yards, breaking an LSU record set the prior season and never topped and only seriously challenged once, by the 2015 team.
LSU destroyed #9 Florida 36-14 and beat Ole Miss in the final minute on a Steve Ensminger run to the flag. And oh yeah, we have video.
Great Moments: 1977 at Ole Miss
This week's Great Moment in LSU Football: Then-QB Steve Ensminger scored the go-ahead TD at Ole Miss on Oct. 29, 1977, to lead the Tigers to victory, 28-21. Recently-announced SEC Legend Robert Dugas is playing right tackle.Posted by LSU Football on Friday, October 7, 2016
However, LSU lost to the best Kentucky team ever and was again absolutely buried by Alabama in a 24-3 drubbing in which the quarterbacks combined to go 3 of 15. LSU bounced back to beat Mississippi St after two years of losses (which were later wiped out by the most bullshit NCAA probation of all time – a player was deemed ineligible for getting a 20 percent discount at a store which was proven to be available to all students, not just football players… This is seen as a lawless period in NCAA football but the NCAA also wildly misused its powers).
LSU finished third in the SEC, its only two losses to Bama and Kentucky, who each won 10 games, and earned a bid to the Sun Bowl to face Stanford, whose coach Bill Walsh was busy revolutionizing football with his West Coast offense. It was a classic matchup of old and new school, run versus the pass.
LSU took a 14-10 lead into the half, but the offense stalled in the second half and the Cardinal came back to post a 24-14 victory. The teams lived up to their reputations, as LSU rushed for 307 yards, keyed by Charles Alexander’s 197 yards on 31 carries. But Stanford threw for 269 yards. But it was LSU’s pass game that made the difference when Steve Ensminger threw a late interception to doom the Tigers’ chances.
It was a symbolic loss. The game was changing, and even though LSU had one of the best running backs on earth, that was not going to be enough in the coming era. But for now, let’s talk about how awesome Charles Alexander was.
Alexander the Great
Charles Alexander is easily the greatest running back in LSU history in the era between Dietzel and the modern Golden Age. There should be statutes of this man around campus and he’s largely forgotten by modern fans and even older fans, who have done more to preserve the legacies of Cannon, Stovall, and Taylor.
But Charles Alexander was a bad motherfucker on the field. Let’s enjoy what a powerful and explosive runner he was:
Now, let’s get to the resume: two-time first-team All-American, broke 27 school records and 9 SEC records. His 1977 season was his masterwork, as he set the LSU record for rushing yards (1,686) and yards per game (153.3). Those records stood until Leonard Fournette and still rank second all-time in LSU history. His season was keyed by four big games: 237 yards against Oregon, 231 against Wyoming, 199 against Tulane and 183 against Vanderbilt — all wins.
He still ranks third all time in school history in career rushing yards (4,035) and in rushing touchdowns (40). He also topped 100 yards in nine consecutive games, a school record which still stands, though it was tied by Fournette.
Somehow, Alexander only finished ninth in the Heisman balloting in 1977, due to the existing bias against non-seniors winning the award and, well, the existence of Earl Campbell. But his numbers stacked up: Campbell rushed for 267-1744-18 and Alexander 311-1686-17. He was named the 1977 SEC Player of the Year.
Alexander finished fifth in the Heisman voting in 1978, though his season wasn’t quite as strong. It would be LSU’s last Heisman finalist until 2011, when Tyrann Matheiu finished fifth and the last offensive player to be a finalist until Joe Burrow won the award in 2019.
Most impressively, Alexander was the first SEC player to rush for 4,000 yards and the first to score 40 touchdowns. He still ranks ninth all-time. He was enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame in 2012.
So why isn’t he considered to be part of the inner circle of SEC greats, where he almost certainly belongs? Two words: Herschel Walker. Alexander finished his career in 1978, owning the SEC record book, and two years later, the greatest running back in college football history showed up and took an eraser to everything Alexander built.
The first player to 4000 yards doesn’t seem so impressive when two years later, Herschel embarked on a career of 5,259 rushing yards in just three seasons. Billy Cannon won the Heisman, but Charles Alexander was better. Yeah, I said it.
He should be treated like the LSU football royalty he is.
In 1978, Carl Maddox turned 65 and according to LSU policy at the time, he was required to retire. Maddox wasn’t quite ready to retire and would take the Mississippi St. AD job, but the opening largely was a competition between former coach Paul Dietzel and basketball announcer Joe Dean.
Dietzel, always a strong negotiator, took the job after receiving assurances that the McClendon situation had been taken care of. Dietzel’s writings are massively self-serving, but his claims are truly backed up by the record here, he was snookered by the Board of Supervisors, who absolutely hired him to fire his longtime rival. It was a dirty move.
And now Dietzel was stuck. McClendon was clearly on his last years and the Board wanted to fire him the previous year but lacked the guts to do it. So Dietzel worked out a compromise in which McClendon would stay on through 1979, so he could take the job as President of the American College Football Coaches Association. It also gave Dietzel time to find a successor, though he did have to deal with the bad press of getting accused of back stabbing his friend. In Dietzel’s words, he said allowing McClendon to stay until 1979 was done in “Good taste and dignity.”
Dietzel and Mac’s relationship was fraught in the best of times. I do honestly believe Dietzel was trying to find a dignified way for McClendon to retire, but it wasn’t hard to spin things to Mac that Dietzel betrayed him. Dietzel was hired to deal with the McCelndon problem, so it wasn’t coming from Dietzel. Had they hired Dean, he would’ve fired McClendon as well, and maybe not let him stick around for two more seasons.
LSU raced out to 4-0 start in 1978, only to drop a heartbreaker at home against Georgia. LSU held a 17-7 halftime lead, but Lindsey Scott returned the second half kickoff for a touchdown. The play flipped momentum and Georgia came back to win 24-17.
LSU won its next two games to get to 6-1 going into Bama. LSU scored first, taking a 7-0 lead. Then came the critical play: Chris Williams intercepted a pass and returned it for a 79-yard touchdown, giving LSU a two touchdown lead… only for a clipping call to take the score off the board. Mike Conway’s 44-yard field goal would also be taken off the board by a penalty. In a tight game in the fourth quarter at 17-10, things fell apart when Williams muffed a punt at the two. Bama recovered and eventually won 31-10. It was a comedy of errors which had become routine against Bama.
LSU would again finish 8-4, losing its bowl game again, this time to Missouri in the Liberty Bowl.
The Soul Patrol
LSU integrated its football team in 1972. Terry Robiskie, recruited in 1973, would be the first black LSU player to win the SEC MVP Award and Charles Alexander, signed in 1974, would be its first black Heisman finalist.
Just six short years after integration, LSU’s defensive backfield starters were all African-American, and they dubbed themselves The Soul Patrol, which let’s be honest, is one of the greatest nicknames of all time.
Corners Chris Williams and Willie Teal, paired with safeties Marcus Quinn and James Britt, recorded 16 interceptions in 1978. From 1978-1980, they would have a total of 33 interceptions. They are the forefathers of DBU.
But first among equals was Chris Williams. Still my favorite stat is that Chris Williams holds the LSU record for interceptions in a game (3), season (8), and a career (20). Chris Williams’ 20 career interceptions is still the SEC record. He was a two-time All-SEC corner (1978 and 1980) but somehow never an All-American.
Cholly Mac’s Final Year
McClendon’s final year was marked, poetically, by some of the most gut wrenching losses in the history of the LSU program. Charles Alexander was gone, but this was still a solid team with a bruising defense. They opened the season with a 44-0 rout of Colorado in Boulder and a 47-3 beatdown of Rice at home.
Then came perhaps the most storied loss in LSU lore: the USC game. I won’t belabor the game anymore, as we’ve already written about it before. But the story of the game was that of the Tiger faithful and their support of the team. It is the myth of Tiger Stadium in one game.
“It was so loud,” Ensminger said. “Our offensive tackles were not more than four feet away from me, and they couldn’t hear the signals. They kept watching the snap out of the corner of their eye. Our fans just kept hollerin’ as loud as they could.”
LSU would drop yet another heartbreaker to Alabama. LSU would only lose two SEC games all year, to Bama and Georgia, who combined to go 11-1 in SEC play. LSU fought Bama to a near draw, losing 3-0 on a rainy night in Tiger Stadium.
The Washington Post game story reads like a slow-motion tragedy:
“We just weren’t good enough,” Charlie McClendon said to Bear Bryant, the pupil to his old teacher, the LSU coach to the Alabama coach, the man fired to the man whose teams got him fired.
“Cholly Mac, I’m so sorry,” said Bryant, who coached McClendon 30 years ago and now has beaten his LSU teams nine straight years, a dominance that was a factor in LSU firing McClendon.
“You’ve done a great job,” Bryant said when the men met at midfield in a chilly, misting rain that fell all night long, lending a touch of melancholy to the coaches’ last such meeting.
“You’re No. 1, Babe,” McClendon said, and Bryant said, “You gave us all we could handle.”
For only the fourth time in this decade, Alabama did not score a touchdown in a game.
If McClendon’s career were a movie, that’s the final scene. His mentor, after beating him again, comforting him at midfield on a rainy night. But the biggest loss of the season, and maybe the most important loss in program history, took place a few weeks prior.
Dietzel’s coaching search had run into dead ends with Lou Holtz and George Welsh, two of his top three choices. But his ultimate top choice was Bobby Bowden at Florida St. Bowden had built FSU out of nothing.
Bowden recalled, “At that time Florida State wasn’t thought of. I had the support here [FSU], but it was kind of like Southern Mississippi – do you think they can do it? No. ... I was kind of in a quandary in Tallahassee, because I’m not sure we can do it. It wasn’t just my thinking but anybody’s thinking. It was like, “Bobby, if you get the LSU job, take it.””
He was seriously considering the LSU offer and, well, let’s let Bowden tell the story:
“I’d always wanted to be a coach in the Southeast, like Alabama or Georgia,” Bowden said. “But nothing suited me better than LSU. That was a prime job back then, because you had the whole state to yourself (for recruiting).
“He (Dietzel) was going to offer me the job. He’d already told me he was going to offer it to me. I remember the press kept asking me what I was going to do. I told them I’d talk about it at the right time.
“That was the weekend, the game, where I really made the decision to stay at Florida State,” he said. “That was back in the days when people didn’t beat LSU at home. I went into that game thinking if we can beat them, maybe we can get it done down here.
“And after we won (24-19), Ann (Bowden’s wife) and I talked about staying, and then they came back and gave me what I wanted.”
Had LSU won that game, Bowden likely decides that he cannot win it all at Florida St and takes the LSU offer on the table. Instead, the win in Tiger Stadium convinced him that FSU really could win anywhere against anyone. LSU dominated the first half, outrushing FSU 139-23, but went into the break down by a point.
FSU picked up on that momentum and extended its lead, holding off a late LSU charge to win 24-19. The Seminoles would finish up an undefeated season in 1979, capping things off with an Orange Bowl win over Oklahoma. By that point, Bobby Bowden had already signed a five-year extension to stay in Tallahassee. LSU missed out on its man.
LSU closed out Coach Mac’s final regular season by losing the Battle of the Rag for just the second time since 1948. Worse yet, the reason was simple: Tulane was a better team. LSU accepted a bid to the Tangerine Bowl, where they would beat Wake Forest, but the career of McClendon ended in disappointment.
And as much as I’ve framed these seasons as a disappointment, and they were, LSU still went 23-13 in McClendon’s final three seasons. Yes, the program had taken a step back, but let’s not pretend it was the Hindenberg. In 18 seasons, McClendon had one losing season. That’s one less than Dietzel had in just seven seasons in Baton Rouge.
He also managed to avoid even the hint of scandal in an era of SEC lawlessness. In the late 1970s, the NCAA cracked down on the SEC, resulting in probation for Mississippi St. (1975), Kentucky (1976), Georgia (1978), and Auburn (1979). Florida’s truly epic violations lay in the very near future as well. Outside the SEC, Oklahoma went 21-0-1 in 1973-44, won a national title, all while banned from postseason play due to NCAA violations.
As McClendon moved out of his home after the year, he wondered where all of the people were who promised to help him pack. Which sums up the nature of the man: wounded, but still a decent and admirable man.
In his own words, “football coaches are the most optimistic people in the world.” The optimism had run out, and the winningest coach in LSU history was forced out after a season of bitter defeats. Even his staunchest defenders had to admit that it was time. On the other hand, even his staunchest critics could never attack the man’s character. McClendon was a relic of another era, and unsuited for the near professional game that college football was about to become.
Still, let’s let the man have the last word (link to video).
LSU could no longer compete by running the football and recruiting local kids who played above their abilities for the honor of the state and their hometowns. The game was moving into the TV era, and it had no place for the long ties to the past. It no longer had room for the likes of Cholly Mac.
We’re all poorer for it.
Greatest Games From Every Season
1975: South Carolina, 24-6: Always fun to beat Dietzel
1976: Nebraska, 6-6: The standoff with a blue blood
1977: Ole Miss, 28-21: Comeback in Jackson
1978: Florida, 27-21: Alexander rolls a rival
1979: USC, 12-17: Makes Notre Dame look like Romper Room