Bo Rein is the great what if of LSU history. It took the administration four years and two Athletic Directors to finally push Charles McClendon out the door, and restart the LSU program with a fresh slate.
Paul Dietzel spent the 1979 season looking for a replacement coach, only to find the doors closed to him at every turn. Bobby Bowden was the top choice, but we’ve already covered how Florida St’s upset win convinced him to stay in Tallahassee. Dietzel turned to his second option, Lou Holtz, who showed no interest in the job.
Dietzel went down his list to coach #3, Virginia’s George Welsh. Welsh also politely declined and now Dietzel had lost the advantage of having such a long run up to look for a new coach. No one from the outside wanted to deal with Louisiana politics, and Dietzel made clear he did not want to promote from within.
Lou Holtz might have said no to the LSU job, but he did leave Dietzel with a parting gift, a recommendation to hire Bo Rein. Rein had been on three of Holtz’s staffs and when Holtz left NC State, Rein took over as the head coach and won two ACC titles in five years. He was part of the Woody Hayes coaching tree and best yet, Rein was an offensive-minded coach.
Throw in the fact Rein was just 34 years old, and he checked every box for LSU: well-credentialed, offensive-first, young, and also with a rep for being tough as nails as a player (and his top players were Outland Trophy winner Jim Richter and a linebacker named Bill Cowher). He was also new blood, and an enthusiastic recruiter, something McClendon never really was.
Just a few weeks later, Bo Rein would get on charter flight to visit Shreveport, a long neglected part of the state. No longer would the LSU head coach recruit the north of the state by phone, he planned to visit in person and build those individual connections and build the proverbial wall around the state.
Assistant coach Greg Williams sets the scene on January 10, 1980:
“That night before dinner, Bo called his house in Raleigh and talked to his mother and father who were watching his two daughters because his wife was away visiting her parents in Portland, Oregon. After dinner, he called his wife and he talked to his wife. Three hours later, he got on the plane and died.”
“Now, how many times does a football coach on a recruiting trip talk to his Mom, his Dad, his daughters and his wife all in one night?
“It never happens. But Bo talked to everybody he loved before he died.”
And just like that, all of the hope and promise of the new era of LSU football died. Rein’s plane lost radio contact and mysteriously flew off course over the Atlantic Ocean. The Rein family would eventually win an out of court settlement in 1982.
Jerry Stovall desperately wanted the LSU head coaching job. He was one of the all-time great players in the program, popular around the team, and had worked as an assistant under McClendon. These strengths were exactly why he was barely considered for the job in 1979.
But now, with tragedy in the air, LSU needed a coach and they needed one fast. Instead of a years long search, LSU had to hire a coach almost immediately.
“There’s only one thing to do,’’ [Paul] Manasseh said to Dietzel, who coached LSU to a national championship 22 years before. “You’ll have to take over the team.’’ Dietzel blanched and said, “There’s no way in the world I am going to do that. You know that there are knuckleheads out there who would jump on that, saying I was looking for an opportunity to get back in coaching. No way.’’
The solution hit Dietzel like a lightning bolt: Stovall. He was a coach, he was familiar with LSU, and he’d be willing to work with the staff Rein had assembled.
“What a tragedy.” Stovall reflected. “It changed the lives of so many people. If LSU needed me, I was ready to help in any way I could. And it wouldn’t have been fair to those men on Bo Rein’s staff to take the job, then insist on my own choices.’
Dietzel recommended Stovall, and the LSU Board of Supervisors hastily called for a meeting for 10 a.m. two days later, on Saturday. After he was named, Stovall admitted he was standing there by an act of God, and added softly, “I would give up any job, I would give up my right arm if it meant Bo Rein could come back. I love LSU, but the loss of Coach Rein makes the conditions sorrowful.’’
Stovall received a contract for a mere $42,000 a year, $8,000 less than that offered to Rein. He also had to keep Rein’s entire staff. Like making a wish on a monkey’s paw, Stovall got his greatest wish, but only in the most nightmarish way possible.
LSU Board member Jerry McKernan captured the mood to Dave Kindred of Inside Sports Magazine, “People dying, a plane flying in the ocean, Dietzel vanishes and reappears…The only thing in life Jerry Stovall ever wanted was to be the LSU football coach. Poof! He doesn’t get it. Then poof! He gets the job when Bo Rein’s plane goes down. Eerie. LSU is the twilight zone in the bayou.”
It set the tenor for Stovall’s entire tenure.
Jerry Stovall was a great player at LSU, and he helped LSU out in its greatest hour of need. Stovall was purple and gold to the core, but he would never get a fair shake at LSU. He could never shake the perception that he was a replacement, a fill in. He deserves so much more than that.
The 1980 Season
As if to rub salt in the wound, LSU opened up the 1980 season against Florida St, helmed by the guy LSU truly wanted to be their coach. And setting the tone for the Stovall era, LSU lost 16-0. Hokie Gajan fumbled on the first play of the season, setting up a short field for Florida St and an eventual field goal. Alan Risher would fumble the ball on LSU’s second possession, leading to another field goal.
The Noles wouldn’t put the game away until the fourth, when they finally crossed the goal line to take a 16-0 lead with just 2:32 left in the game. Stovall’s career started with not just a loss, but a shutout at home. Worse yet, it rained in Tiger Stadium, and that never happened before.
To Stovall’s credit, he rallied the team immediately. LSU bounced back with two wins over Big 8 teams (Kansas St. and Colorado), and then inexplicably dropped a game to 5-6 Rice, thanks to, count ‘em, five dropped snaps including one on a second and goal play from the three. LSU then reeled off four straight SEC wins, starting with a 24-7 thrashing of #19 Florida.
Sophomore quarterback Alan Risher, arguably the most underrated player in LSU history, would come into his own during this stretch. He would run for two touchdowns against Auburn, displaying his dual threat skills not truly seen in Baton Rouge since Nelson Stokely. McClendon had spent years playing a two-quarterback system, one runner and one thrower, and now in his first year, Stovall had a guy who could do both.
The Auburn game was a legit thriller. After rushing for two scores, Risher put LSU ahead in the fourth quarter with a touchdown pass to tight end Malcolm Scott. But Auburn blocked a punt with 49 seconds left to give Auburn the ball at the 12 yard line and a chance to win. On fourth down from the one, Marcus Quinn intercepted Joe Sullivan’s last gasp pass to secure the win.
LSU went into November as an SEC contender, only to run into the brick wall of Alabama again. LSU capped its four-game win streak with a 38-16 win over Ole Miss, but reality set back in the following week, when Bama crushed the Tigers, 28-7.
LSU travelled to Starkville with a bowl bid on the line. State jumped out to a 14-0 lead, but unbowed, LSU fought right back and tied the game at the half in a high-scoring affair, 24-24. Thirty minutes and the season the line, how would LSU react? By allowing State’s Glen Young to return the opening kick for 104 yards and a touchdown. It didn’t get better from there. By the time the dust cleared, LSU had succumbed to one of the worst halves in the school’s history, turning that tie game into a 55-31 blowout loss.
If you’re a masochist, or a State fan, you can actually watch the second half online. Stick around to the end so you can catch the LSU score, cutting that 31-point lead to 24.
The Tigers rallied for a win over Tulane, but stayed home for the holidays, as this was still before every team on earth got to go bowling. At 7-4, Stovall’s year wasn’t exactly a success, but it was a young team that seemed poised to build for better things in the future.
Alan Risher was a Good Quarterback
“Alan did not have what might be called a rifle arm,” conceded his coach Jerry Stovall, “but he did have that superb quality which set him apart – leadership.”
OK, it’s not the most glowing quote in the world, but Alan Risher’s career 62.0% completion was a school record until Joe Burrow finally broke it. That’s right, Alan Risher was LSU’s most efficient quarterback outside of the guy who just won the Heisman.
When he left campus in 1982, he held the career LSU passing record with 4,585 yards, a mark that is still top ten all-time. Alan Risher was also a fairly accomplished runner, with 542 career rushing yards, putting him in the class of such old-time Tiger greats at Nelson Stokely, Paul Lyons, and Freddie Haynes. He was a true double threat.
Most notably, Risher was an efficient player. He completed a ton of passes, and held the LSU record for most consecutive passes without an interception (137), a mark that also stood until Joe Burrow. He also authored the first 300-yard passing game in LSU history, against Mississippi St. in 1982. Risher was essentially the bridge to the modern era. He deserves a better reputation, as he is the first LSU quarterback whose numbers stand up to a modern lens. And that includes Bert Jones.
The 1981 Nightmare
First, the good news. Eric Martin returned a kickoff 100 yards against Kentucky. It was the last time an LSU player has returned a kickoff for a touchdown in Tiger Stadium until last season.
Al Richardson (150) and Lawrence Williams (144) combined to be the most productive linebacker combo in LSU history, ranking second and third in tackles in a season in LSU history. They also rank first and third in career tackles at LSU. Rydell Melancon had 10 tackles for a loss, a newer stat at the time, but the first time an LSU player cracked 10 TFL in a season. Greg Dubroc had 5 fumble recoveries, an LSU record in 1981, en route to 11 in his career, still the LSU record.
And a highly touted freshman Eric Martin arrived on campus and immediately staked his claim as the starter… as a running back.
So it’s not like there was no good news in 1981. That’s the good stuff. The bad stuff? Yeah, there was a lot of it. Starting with the fact that Eric Martin is a legendary LSU wide receiver, and had to waste a year in the backfield.
The real problem with the team was it was the worst LSU rushing team, maybe ever. LSU rushed for 135.7 yards per game and scored 15.4 PPG, the worst scoring output since 1975 and the second worst of the past fifty years. Jesse Myles ended up leading the team in rushing by two yards over Martin, with a whopping 292 yards on 72 carries.
Risher was an efficient quarterback, but he was not a big-armed, big play guy. LSU still relied on its running game to score points and for the first time in seemingly forever, LSU simply could not run the ball.
LSU opened the season for reasons passing understanding against Alabama, and found themselves down 17-0 at the half. Bama extended the lead to 24 before LSU finally scored its only touchdown with 13 seconds left when the backup QB, Timmy Byrd, found tight end Malcolm Scott for the score.
LSU then made Gerry Faust’s Notre Dame debut go off without a hitch. The Tiger defense surrendered two touchdowns on the first two drives of the game. Notre Dame destroyed the Tigers from the beginning, and again, LSU scored a touchdown in the game’s final minute to make the blowout look not as severe, 27-9. Notre Dame would finish 5-6 and Faust would never win more than 7 games in South Bend. It’s not like LSU got clubbed by Lou Holtz.
After a 1-3 October capped by a blowout loss to Florida St, LSU stood a 3-5, needing three wins to salvage a winning season. The normally reliable Risher threw a late interception against Ole Miss, allowing the Rebels to kick a second field goal in the game’s final two minutes to take the lead. Risher would lead LSU back down the field for a tie-salvaging field goal, and both teams would avoid the SEC basement by virtue of the tie.
But the worst was yet to come. LSU would drop another to Mississippi St, a now routine experience that showed how far LSU had fallen. Stovall would never beat State in his tenure. Even that wasn’t the low point, as the Bulldogs were actually pretty good in the early 80s.
No, things hit their nadir in the Superdome, where LSU would lose to Tulane, 48-7. It is the most points Tulane has ever scored against LSU, and LSU’s run game managed a mere 37 yards. Tulane didn’t just outrush LSU, but they had more rushing yards (150) than Risher had passing (137).
LSU finished the year a dismal 3-7-1, LSU’s lowest win total since 1956. Dietzel survived the axe in 1956 as the coach, but was not so fortunate in 1982 as the AD. Stovall, only two years into the job and hired under trying circumstances, got a reprieve while Dietzel shouldered much of the blame. Seeking to become a modern athletics program, LSU hired Bob Broadhead of the Cleveland Browns to be the AD, and he was going to demand results immediately. Sentiment, loyalty, and ties to home were old fashioned values, and old fashioned was decidedly out in 1982.
It was a dismal year, the most dismal in thirty years, but one thing did go right: the linebacking corps was perhaps the best in school history, which is saying something. LSU has had its share of great linebackers, and had four consecutive years of All-Americans at the position from George Bevan to Mike Anderson to Warren Capone from 1969 to 1972. Al Richardson was a return to that standard, the first LSU All-American linebacker since then.
When Richardson graduated, he held the LSU record for tackles in a game (21!), season (150), and a career (952). Two of those three records still stand.
The seeds of greatness were there in 1981, and they would pay dividends in 1982. Richardson and Williams were an insanely productive duo, but they were backed by Melancon, who set the school record for TFL in a season, and Dubroc, who somehow collected 11 fumble recoveries in his career, a record which still stands.
These weren’t even the guys who would go on to long NFL careers. Defensive tackle Leonard Marshall would play over 10 years in the NFL, would be named NFL Defensive Linemen of the Year twice, and won two Super Bowls. Eugene Daniel, taken as an afterthought in the eighth round, lasted 14 years in the NFL, 13 with the Colts team that drafted him.
And the most legendary player on that defense may have been Ramsey Dardar. The supremely talented defensive tackle was named the SEC Defensive Lineman of the Year in 1982, doing the dirty work of holding up the linemen so Williams and Richardson could rack up those gaudy tackle numbers. Dardar still had 15 career sacks, so it’s not like he didn’t get his moments to shine as well.
But when he left LSU for the pros, life took a dark turn. He developed an addiction to crack cocaine, had repeated run ins with the law, and most tragically, in 1997 lost his child when he was struck by a car in a parking lot. He would then serve another 18 years in prison for a drug-related offense, where he would finally get clean. His wife continued to stand by him, telling the Tiger Rag:
“Ramsey’s the type of person, he’s very kind hearted,” she says. “The man I fell in love with, married, I was hoping and wishing he came back. I think he did. If I was going to leave, it was leaving something he turned into.”
When he finally got out of prison, clean and living on the straight and narrow, he was welcomed back into his family, including his LSU one. Pete Jenkins, his defensive line coach in 1982, was still here at LSU with Ed Orgeron in 2017, and welcomed him back in the LSU football facilities.
LSU isn’t just family when times are going well. We’re all purple and gold for life.
The 1982 Season: My Favorite Year
No sports legends can measure up to the ones you had as a kid. The players aren’t just players, they are veritable gods. And there is no history, only that one moment in time. The now is everything. And no matter how old you get, that one team will always hold a special place in your heart. They will always be legends.
For me, that team is the 1982 LSU Tigers. That defense. The James Gang. Eric Martin. Alan Risher. This is the team that, for me, defined LSU football. I cannot remotely be objective about this team.
LSU opened the season unranked and lightly regarded, and did little to move that needle even with twin blowouts of terrible Oregon St and Rice teams. But LSU’s third game changed the nation’s perspective, as LSU upset #4 Florida in Gainesville, 24-13. As a two touchdown underdog, LSU dismantles Florida, spearheaded by freshman Dalton Hilliard, who has over 200 yards of offense and scores all three Tiger touchdowns.
LSU would enter the AP poll at #18, and promptly fail to beat Tennessee. LSU blew a 10-point fourth quarter lead as Fuad Reveiz hit a 52 yard field goal with two minutes to play to tie the game for the Vols, but missed his second attempt from the same distance as time expired to allow LSU to escape with the tie. Tennessee star Willie Gault stole the show with a 96-yard kickoff return for a TD. Still, LSU actually climbed in the polls as a result.
LSU would continue its winning ways, marching out to a 6-0-1 record when it travelled to Birmingham to play Alabama, a team that LSU had not beaten in 12 seasons. What happened next is one of the classic games in LSU history.
“People don’t ask ‘who’ first. They ask ‘how many.’ “ End of comment.
After last Saturday, the ‘who’ included an Alabama team so experienced and so deep that even as late as Friday, four weeks after an inexplicable loss to Tennessee, Bear Bryant was calling his 7-1 squad “the best bunch we’ve ever had.” And for LSU, the “how many” became seven. But the other numbers generated in the game at Birmingham’s Legion Field—the most important but perhaps the least impressive being the stunning 20-10 score—left no doubt about LSU’s credentials as a defensive force. Consider: Alabama was held for the entire first half without getting a single first down; Alabama, which had been the fourth-best rushing team in the nation and the fourth-best in total offense with averages of 300.5 and 446.2 yards per game, respectively, was held to 45 yards on the ground and 119 yards total.
“I have never been caught back there so many times,” said Lewis afterward. “And it wasn’t that I didn’t know where they were coming from. They never let down. Never. They just beat us.”
Maybe last year a flash like that would have broken our morale,” said Defensive Tackle Leonard Marshall, “but not now. We had stopped them all game, and 10 points wasn’t going to change that.” Added Dardar, “That TD pass came the one time—the one time—we didn’t put enough pressure on Lewis. We just started pounding them back. If ‘Bama doesn’t get the ball, ‘Bama doesn’t score.”
Indeed, ‘Bama made just two first downs the rest of the game—for a total of six to LSU’s 20—and immediately after the second, after the Tide had marched into LSU territory late in the game, Tackle Bill Elko chased Lewis down from behind yet again and forced Alabama’s seventh fumble and fourth turnover.
Alan Risher celebrated with a victory dance at midfield and would tell reporters it was “the biggest win for anyone associated with LSU in the last 12 years.” No one argued, not even his coach. Stovall called it his biggest win as a coach. “It’s been a long, long time, You can’t understand what it’s like to get hit in the mouth 11 years in a row.”
The 1982 Coda
LSU entered the top ten thanks to its win over Alabama. The Tigers now sat at 7-0-1, but still needed a win over Mississippi St to keep pace with Herschel Walker and Georgia in the SEC race. As we know, LSU did not keep pace.
John Bond rushed for 91 yards and threw for another 128, enough to key a Bulldogs upset of LSU in Starkville. Baton Rouge native Dana Moore kicked the game winner from 45 yards with less than a half a minute left.
Risher commented, “That loss was a killer. It was painful. You think you might have a chance to play for the brass ring, and you go over there and play like that.”
With the Sugar Bowl and the SEC title now off the table, LSU now faced Florida St in Tiger Stadium with an Orange Bowl big on the line. It is one of the greatest games in the history of Tiger Stadium, and one we’ve written about before.
The major takeaways from the game were this: Jerry Stovall told the TV networks to take a hike, and they did, forcing the game to be played at night, much to the chagrin of Bobby Bowden (and probably new AD Bob Brodhead). LSU fans threw so many oranges on to the field that LSU was repeatedly assessed with delay of game and unsportsmanlike penalties. And Dalton Hilliard was an absolute bad ass who ran roughshod over the Noles, keying a 55-21 victory.
LSU immediately accepted the Orange Bowl birth and once again responded to one of the biggest wins in LSU history by promptly crapping the bed. This time against Tulane.
Now, losing to State was irritating, but at least the Bulldogs were pretty good in the early 80s. John Bond still dots that program’s record book. But Tulane? A year after getting blown off the field by the Greenies, LSU followed it up with one of the more mystifying losses in program history.
Tulane QB Mike McKay astutely observed, “The thing that hurt LSU is they couldn’t jump on top right away. They wanted to blow us out, not beat us.”
Instead, McKay passed for 234 yards on a 23 for 31 night, and helped Tulane repeatedly answer every LSU score. The Tigers took the lead three different times, only to lose that lead each time, the last time a 31-yard catch by Reggie Reginelli. Risher would throw an interception on LSU’s last desperation drive as Orange Bowl officials watched horrified from the press box.
Stuck with a team that lost to Tulane, the Orange Bowl was sparsely attended and suffered some of the lowest ratings in the bowl’s history. It’s a shame, because everybody missed a hell of a game. OK, it was sloppy, as Nebraska committed six turnovers, and the key play was LSU failing to get a punt off on 4th and 18.
Jerry Stovall told his team before the game they would win it on a field goal with 30 seconds left, and he was very nearly right. Juan Betanzos booted a 49 yarded with 5:05 left to cut the Huskers lead to one. LSU would never get the ball back and Betanzos would not get a chance to make Stovall’s premonition come true. LSU lost 21-20, and a team that had such promise and delivered such huge wins, finishes the season a mere 8-3-1. Football is a cruel mistress.
Above, a clip from Men of LSU, a public television documentary about LSU football from 1982. The clip above features a few words from Stovall and some game footage. If you want to see a full snapshot of LSU fandom in the 1980s, we covered this documentary in full back when I found it almost a decade ago. - PodKATT
After the 1982 season, Stovall was named the SEC Coach of the Year. Understandably, the man wanted a raise for his accomplishment, as well as delivering two of the biggest wins for LSU in a decade.
LSU entered the 1983 season as SI’s preseason #12 team, but even the glowing preview noted the indignities endured by Stovall:
Stovall has suffered more than his share of such indignities. For instance, LSU spent about $25,000 to have a Pennsylvania movie outfit put together a highlight film of Stovall’s do-or-die season. The 1982 Tigers ended up 8-3-1, placed second in the SEC and made the Orange Bowl. But the music that accompanied the original version of the movie was Dixie, which happens to be the battle cry of conference rival Ole Miss. (When the coaches discovered the faux pas, they had the filmmaker replace Dixie with an innocuous instrumental.) Equally embarrassing, the movie failed to mention that Stovall had been named SEC Coach of the Year, that Quarterback Alan Risher set 24 school records and that the Tigers ranked fourth in the nation defensively. Worst of all, the damn Yankee narrator mispronounced Stovall’s name, rhyming it with shovel instead of snowball.
Brodhead held the extension over Stovall’s head and, without his star quarterback, LSU struggled to find its footing. The team was game in a 40-35 loss in the season opener to Florida St, and then looked to be on its way to a good season after drubbing #9 Washington 40-14. That was the high water mark.
LSU would lose three in a row and six of the next seven. It was a season that simply spiraled out of control on Stovall, and now fans showed up with Get Stovall a U-Haul signs, after they failed to help Mac pack. Brodhead brought the axe down days after LSU beat Tulane in a nationally televised Thanksgiving game.
Brodhead, already tired of the collegiate way of doing things, had his eyes on a pro coach to come take over the LSU program and run things in a professional manner. Brodhead counted ties as losses, so he argued Stovall failed to have a winning record.
The unceremonious dumping of a Tiger legend swung the mood of an always fickle fanbase. Now, LSU fans showed up to the basketball games with “Dump Brodhead” signs, as the state rallied behind its native son Stovall against this Yankee interloper.
The issue has become prominent statewide. There have been student pep rallies in support of Stovall, and supporters took out a full-page advertisement in the sports section of The Baton Rouge State-Times today stating that it would be making a mistake to dismiss Stovall.
‘’What does L.S.U. want?’’ asked the advertisement. ‘’It has a native son who has succeeded in every competitive endeavor he has undertaken, including All-S.E.C., All-America, All-Pro, S.E.C. and National Coach of the Year.’’
The issue has become so controversial that even Gov.-elect Edwin Edwards became involved. When it became obvious that Stovall didn’t have enough votes on the board to be retained, he sought Edwards’s help.
But Mr. Edwards did not back Stovall. Instead, in a meeting with Brodhead and Chancellor James Wharton of L.S.U. Mr. Edwards said he would offer to raise a $1 million trust fund from which an additional $100,000 a year would be allocated to supplement the salary of a new football coach if one were hired.
We’ve had meddlers-in-chief in the governor’s office, but Edwin Edwards was the rare Louisiana governor who didn’t give a damn about LSU football. His failure to back Stovall doomed the effort to keep the coach.
Just days later, Brodhead hired Arnsparger, as he had already lined up the successor before firing his coach. The fix was in.
Stovall, ever purple and gold, took his sacking in stride. ‘’I am no longer the L.S.U. football coach, I am now the team’s biggest fan. I don’t have any plans, except that I’m looking for a vocation.’’
Never once in his life did Stovall publicly bemoan the university, the way he was fired, or the man who did the deed. It was not in him to hurt LSU. He never could raise his voice in such a manner.
Bob Brodhead died in 1996, at the age of 59. LSU had fired him over a decade prior and he responded by writing a tell-all memoir which savaged the university. Feeling were still raw in 1996, and as such, not one LSU representative went to his funeral. Except Jerry Stovall.
You can question Stovall’s merits as a football coach, but you can never question him as a human being. We salute one of the greatest Tigers, both on and off the field. After all, he gave me the memories of 1982, that wildly imperfect season.
I finally get to tell him thank you.
Greatest Games From Every Season
1980: Auburn, 21-17: The Home Crowd Wins It
1981: Kentucky, 24-10: Eric Martin Takes It to the House
1982: Florida St., 55-21: The Night it Rained Oranges
1983: Washington, 40-14: The James Gang Beats Don James