There will always be a special place in your heart for the teams of your youth, when you first became truly aware of what was going on in sports. Players will never be more mythic, the coaches never so larger than life, and the game never more important.
The Bill Arnsparger LSU teams were my childhood teams. To me, these players are the legends by which I measure all players, consciously or unconsciously. I will never be entirely rational about these teams. How could I be? These were my heroes, and heroes never fade.
So I will try to strip away the myth from the reality, but you know what they say… when in doubt, print the legend.
Stovall Gets the Axe
When LSU hired Bottom Line Bob Brodhead, the writing was on the wall for Jerry Stovall. Broadhead was brought in to modernize and professionalize LSU sports and Stovall is many things, but modern was not one of them. He was a throwback and a link to the days of yore. Stovall was sentimentality and family, and Brodhead was efficiency and business.
Brodhead himself was under no illusions, believing that one of the primary reasons he was hired was to fire Jerry Stovall, but in a way in which the Board wouldn’t get their hands dirty.
Stovall was widely popular as a coach and as a former Tiger great, but when Stovall had a losing season only one year after being named Coach of the Year, Brodhead seized on the opportunity to fire Stovall on the grounds that ties count as losses, and therefore Stovall had a losing record over his tenure.
Brodhead forced Stovall out a week after the season ended, leaving the job to the Board. If he was going to axe a popular Tiger legend, he wanted everyone’s fingerprints on it, not just his. Brodhead was many things, but he was not stupid. Prior to the Board meeting, Brodhead needed a police escort to attend a Tiger basketball game, so if he was going to be reviled by the fans, he wanted everyone’s fingerprints on the knife.
The school’s board of supervisors voted by 13 to 5 to buy out the last year of Stovall’s contract, which Camille Gravel, a member of the board, said would cost about $80,000.
The board’s action came on the recommendation of its athletic committee, which voted, 10 to 2, to discharge Stovall following a heated 90- minute debate before a packed house of 200 observers.
This left the next issue… who to hire?
Brodhead’s excellent memoir Sacked! — which was an invaluable resource for my research — details his options. Dick Vermeil, recently retired from the Eagles due to burnout, said no. He looked into Mike White of Illinois, who was coming off a year taking Illinois to the Rose Bowl (their first since 1963), but didn’t like the price.
Which leads us to one of the more interesting but less explored what ifs… Bobby Ross of Maryland. At this point, Ross had twin 8-4 seasons at Maryland. He would eventually go to four consecutive bowls at College Park, then go a win a national title at Georgia Tech and eventually, a Super Bowl appearance in San Diego with Stan Humphries as his starting QB. The man could coach and very well could have built a juggernaut at LSU in the 80s. He was that good.
Instead, Brodhead leaned on an old colleague from Miami, Bill Arnsparger.
Big John McKeithen, former governor of Louisiana and prominent member of the Board of Supervisors, had already stated his intention to battle my recommendation to fire Stovall. He thought the Coach had the right to finish out the “one little old year left” on his contract.
I gave a short synopsis of the season as it related to the future of the LSU football program and concluded with my recommendation that, for the good of LSU and the Athletic Department, Jerry Stovall be relieved of his duties as Head Football Coach.
I had barely uttered my final syllable when McKeithen began to bellow, and I stood at the podium, in respectful silence, for the duration of his 48-minute rampage. Huey Long would have been proud of Big John’s filibuster. He certainly didn’t disappoint any of the room’s 200-plus occupants who had come looking for fireworks. ...
The three-hour, thirty-minute public hanging concluded with a vote of 13-5 to accept my recommendation to fire Jerry Stovall. In the same breath, the Board voted 17-0 ... to empower me to negotiate a contract with Bill Arnsparger to replace him.
It was the old guard versus the new blood. And look, I don’t want to romanticize the old boys’ network at LSU, which was rife with corruption and internal politics. But Big John had been instrumental in recruiting Collis Temple to integrate LSU sports beyond football as well as being the bagman behind Bert Jones. Brodhead couldn’t see McKeithen as a person, just another dumb rube to be held in contempt.
And it is Peak Brodhead to refer to calling a hearing to fire Jerry Stovall a “public hanging” of Brodhead, not the guy getting fired a year removed from winning the National Coach of the Year. Someone got railroaded, but it wasn’t Brodhead.
1984… Did We Win the Title or What?
Arnsparger’s LSU career began with a tie against new SEC power, Florida. In a back and forth affair, Florida tied the game up with five minutes to play on Lorenzo Hampton’s 15-yard touchdown run. LSU drove down the field in response and had a chance to win it in the final minute, but Juan Betanzos’ 46-yard field goal attempt blew off course in the 20+ MPH winds.
This tie would loom large later in the season.
LSU would take back to back victories over Pac-10 teams. LSU fell behind early at home to Larry Smith’s Arizona squad, going into the half down 20-13. But the Wildcats spent the second half answering touchdowns with field goals, and LSU survived 27-26 when Michael Brooks forced a fumble with 20 seconds left in the game. Here’s the video and go the about the 2:40 mark if you want to get mad at a missed roughing the punter call from forty years ago.
Arnsparger gained national attention after LSU routed USC, 23-3. The fawning SI profile still has perhaps the best summation of LSU fans ever put to print:
“Coach, I just want to let you know we’re with you,” said the man solemnly, “for now at least.”
A night game against Kentucky was moved to the afternoon for a national ABC broadcast, back when that was still a big deal. LSU dealt unbeaten Kentucky their first loss of the season, an ugly 36-10 thrashing. LSU turned the ball over five times, only to be outdone by Kentucky and their nine turnovers. Dalton Hilliard blew the game open in the third with three touchdowns in a span of 2:09.
Now 5-0-1 and ranked #7 in the nation, LSU played host to Notre Dame, captained by Mike Golic. The Tigers jumped out to a 7-0 lead, but after a 38-yard Juan Betanzos field goal attempt sailed wide, Notre Dame reeled off 20 straight points to take a lead they would never relinquish.
Alan Pinkett rushed for 162 yards and two touchdowns, and commented “This is one of the rowdiest stadiums in the nation, but it was a great opportunity to get back our respectability. We’re leaving with a good taste in our mouth.’’ LSU, on the other hand, was left with the taste of losing to a team coached by Gerry Faust.
Still, the loss didn’t affect the SEC standings, and LSU was still tied with Florida for the SEC lead, barely ahead of Bama, who had four losses overall, but only one in the SEC. LSU traveled to Birmingham’s Legion Field for one of the most high stakes LSU-Bama games in a decade. And this time, the Tigers won, keyed by a Michael Brooks punt block.
Bama dominated the stat sheet. Bama won the yardage battle 332-161. They won first downs 22-8. They outpossessed LSU 40:49-19:11. Jeff Wickersham finished the game with a dismal 12/23 for 87 yards line.
But somehow LSU won. Outplayed and outmystiqued, LSU fought off the Tide, the refs, and the weather to win 16-14. The loss guaranteed that Bama would suffer its first losing since 1957, and officially snapped their bowl streak dating back to 1959.
High off the Alabama win, LSU travelled to Starkville to play Mississippi St, who thankfully had graduated John Bond, the only quarterback to ever beat LSU four times as a starter. Without their star, State still found a way to upset LSU, 16-14
It was a terrible State team even by State standards. The LSU win would be their only SEC win of the season, and starting QB Don Smith was, no lie, a 42.6% passer in 1984. He led the team in rushing, which sounds good until you see he rushed for just 545 yards.
This inexplicable loss allowed Florida to claim the SEC title… or did it?
Charlie Pell was forced to resign due to recruiting scandals and various NCAA violations after the third game of the season, but Galen Hall took over and ran off eight consecutive wins to close out the year. Florida was sanctioned before the season ended but the SEC never made clear if the team was eligible for the title, hoping the issue would resolve itself. It didn’t, so instead the SEC would strip Florida of its SEC title and the NCAA placed a bowl ban on the team.
“Vacating the title was the ultimate slap in the face,” says Trimble, a tackle and a member of “The Great Wall,” what some experts still believe to be the greatest offensive line in SEC history. “We were the Southeastern Conference champions and we won it on the field. To say we didn’t, which is what they said by vacating the title, is the ultimate insult. I have this championship ring and nothing the SEC or anyone else can say takes away the championship we won on the field in 1984. I’m like a lot of my teammates from that team in that if you want my championship ring, you better bring a chainsaw to cut my finger off.”
The way the SEC went about vacating Florida’s SEC title is still a sore source of contention for Trimble. He doesn’t lose sleep over it, but whenever the subject is broached he doesn’t mince words.
“I get it that rules were broken and the NCAA punished the University of Florida, but look at what happened since then …” Trimble says, his voice trailing off.
To be honest, I’m with Trimble. The Sugar Bowl invited LSU as the SEC champion, but the SEC record books do not recognize LSU or Florida as the 1984 SEC champion. It will always say: VACANT.
The not quite SEC champions would then dominate the first half of the Sugar Bowl. The Tigers flew up and down the field, gaining 291 yards in the first half, but, in an early example of Poseur’s Law, only built a 10-7 lead. Nebraska would gain 184 yards and two touchdowns in the final quarter for a decisive 28-10 win.
When Dalton Hilliard came to LSU, only two people had ever rushed for over 4000 career yards in SEC history: Herschel Walker and Charles Alexander. Hilliard would become the fourth, along with his contemporary, Bo Jackson.
Hilliard would graduate in 1985 as LSU’s all-time leading rusher with 4050 yards, besting Alexander by a mere 15 yards, but also just 150 yards shy of Bo Jackson’s career mark. He scored 44 rushing touchdowns, a school record, and 50 all-purpose touchdowns, also a record. The only LSU player to best him in the next forty years would be Kevin Faulk.
All this despite being listed generously at 5’8” and 195 pounds.
Hilliard also graduated with 5,326 all-purpose yards, which is now third all time in LSU history. Dalton was a terrific, all-time great running back, and maybe the most dynamic player to play in the LSU backfield besides Kevin Faulk.
He put up these numbers while also sharing a pretty crowded backfield. While Hilliard had 19 career 100-yard games, his backfield mates, Gerry James and Sam Martin, each posted three 100-yard games. But truly showing off his dynamic ability is the list of LSU’s all-time receiving leaders from the RB position: James (122), Hilliard (100), Martin (76). Yup, all three of LSU’s historic backfield receiving leaders played at the same time. Hence the famous nickname: the Dalton-James Gang.
The biggest problem was getting him to campus. Dalton wore #21 in high school and that was Jerry Stovall’s number. It wasn’t a retired number, but it wasn’t really encouraged to wear either. Stovall stepped up and gave Hilliard his old jersey number to seal the recruiting deal. And the rest was history.
The Near Miss of 1985
LSU entered the 1985 poised for great things. Both members of the Dalton-James Gang were entering their senior years. So was QB Jeff Wickersham, one of the more underrated players in LSU history. He would complete over 60% of his passes his senior year, though admittedly also had an unbelievable 5/9 TD/INT ratio.
But the key to the team was a stingy, hard-hitting defense led by Michael Brooks. LSU’s defense would allow only 10.3 PPG, good for 4th in the nation. They would pitch two shutouts in SEC play, and hold half of their opponents under 10 points. The defense forced 27 interceptions in 1985, a school record which still stands. They could flat out play.
The Tigers won their two out-of-conference openers at UNC and at home against Colorado St with ease. Then came the anticipated rematch with Florida in the friendly confines of Tiger Stadium… and LSU would get walloped.
The LSU defense made three interceptions, two in the end zone, but it wasn’t nearly enough. Wickersham spent most of the game on his back, getting sacked seven times and throwing two picks of his own. The Dalton-James Gang combined for 38 yards on 16 carries, as LSU finished with negative rushing yards thanks to all the sacks. Florida, still ineligible for the postseason, waltzed to a 20-0 win.
LSU would regain its composure and win three straight SEC games by a combined score of 73-7. With Florida ineligible and beating everyone, LSU still controlled its own destiny when it played host to #20 Alabama. Which we’ve written about before:
Hilliard explodes into the open field navigating his way down to the Alabama 10. LSU calls timeout with :29 remaining.
LSU had one timeout and options. Truly, they had no kicker. Soph. Ron Lewis was 3/11 on the season and had already missed two kicks earlier in this very game. Chancing your luck with him seemed like a losing bet. Which is exactly what LSU tried to do. On 1st and GL, LSU handed to Hilliard, and let the clock run before taking its final timeout.
Lining up for a 24-yard attempt to win the game, the tension felt thick. An LSU win would propel them back up the standings and put them in good position in the SEC. Lewis sailed the kick just right.
LSU would close out the regular season with four straight wins to finish 9-1-1 overall. But they missed out on the SEC title due to the tie to Bama, as Tennessee had just one loss, also to Florida. Again, LSU finished second in the SEC.
In that winning streak, though, was LSU’s first win in South Bend in school history. It wasn’t a particularly pretty win, as LSU outlasted the Irish 10-7. But the loss would eventually lead Gerry Faust to officially resign as Notre Dame’s head coach.
Tennessee earned the Sugar Bowl bid, and then Brodhead, a pro guy through and through, found himself completely outmaneuvered in the backroom politics of bowl selection. 7-4 Auburn somehow picked up a Cotton Bowl bid which dropped Bama down the pecking order, who swooped in and took an anticipated Aloha Bowl bid away from LSU.
When the dust settled, LSU found itself going to freezing-cold Memphis to play in the Liberty Bowl, a bowl trip so colossally mismanaged it has settled into LSU lore. We’ll let Brodhead tell the story:
“Arnsparger insisted that the players be given travel money and allowed to drive their own cars to Memphis. Can you imagine ninety football players, ranging in age from 18 to 22, who live for five months of the year with every second of every day planned for them, suddenly having cash, freedom and wheels in Memphis for the holidays? Neither could Memphis, and the Liberty Bowl staff told me afterwards that the team absolutely terrorized the city for one solid week.
On the field, the quality of play certainly reflected the good times had by all. Baylor embarrassed the Tigers for four quarters, and when the gun mercifully sounded, the final score was 21-7.”
The players, without direction or supervision, didn’t exactly live it up. They thought they were going to Hawaii, and now they were going to Memphis, in a move that Brodhead not-so-secretly endorsed as a way to save money. As this absolute must-see retrospective video makes clear, the players had Christmas dinner at the Circle K.
They weren’t in the best of moods as game-time temperatures hovered around freezing. When you think you’re going to Hawaii, and instead you end up eating a frozen burrito in a convenience store parking lot on Christmas Eve in Memphis, well, the 1985 Liberty Bowl is what you get. Even Arnsparger knew he screwed up.
“It is my responsibility to have us prepared to play,” said Arnsparger, whose Tigers gave up an average of only 8.4 points a game during the regular season. “We were disorganized in every phase of the game. I did a very poor job.
“We failed to take advantage of the opportunities we had, and we were beaten by well-thrown balls and well-run (pass) routes.”
MICHAEL F’N BROOKS
I cannot be the least bit objective on this: Michael Brooks is the greatest linebacker in LSU history, and the guy against whom I judge every linebacker before or since. I’m fairly certain there’s a generation of LSU fans who feel the same way. Michael Brooks was a linebacking god.
As a junior in 1985, Brooks recorded 75 tackles, 16 tackles for losses and eight sacks for a Tiger defense that allowed just 10.3 points per game. He was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Year and a first team All-American.
He left school with 38 tackles for a loss, a school record, and now 5th best in history. Brooks could do it all: terrorize the quarterback, drop into coverage, or deliver ferocious hits.
His coaches, of course, raved about him:
“We used to call him ‘E.F. Hutton,’ “ said Pete Jenkins, defensive line coach during Brooks’ days at LSU. “You remember they had that commercial that said, ‘When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen’. Well, when Michael said something, folks stopped what they were doing and listened.”
Jenkins started the “E.F. Hutton” tag, fellow LSU defensive member Karl Wilson labeled him as “Killer,” ex-LSU and NFL coach Bill Arnsparger called him “The Threat” and Strahan thought “The Enforcer” moniker fit just perfectly.
But it wasn’t just college. His pro teammates gushed about him as well.
“I was fortunate to play in the league 15 years and be around a lot of great players,” said Michael Strahan, the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2001, a seven-time Pro Bowler and two-time NFC Defensive Player of the Year who was a New York Giants’ teammate of Brooks from 1993 until 1995. “He’s the toughest man I have ever been around and I was with the Giants for one year while Lawrence Taylor was there.
“Of course, ‘L.T’. was tough as nails. But Michael Brooks? Man, I would want him by me if I had to go fight somewhere. That is one solid man of intimidating muscle.”
Michael Brooks lost his father at the age of 16, and he turned his hurt and idolization of his dad into his play. Brooks didn’t say much, he let his play do the talking. Brooks was famously one of the hardest workers on the team, based on the values instilled in him by his dad.
But what should have been his coronation campaign in 1986 was cut short by a devastating knee injury against Florida. This was back in the day before more sophisticated medical techniques and even though he’d go on to a successful NFL career, he would never be the same player he was prior to the injury. It’s a shame the world never truly got to see the full Michael Brooks Experience. Because he was fucking awesome. Imagine if Devin White hit like LaRon Landry and you’re halfway there.
The 1986 SEC Title
On paper, the 1986 team was not as good as the 1985 team. The senior leaders on offense left for the NFL, to be replaced by freshmen hotshots Tommy Hodson and Harvey Williams.
The team, expected to take a step back, started the season outside the top ten and hosting top ten Texas A&M. LSU simply destroyed A&M to kick off the season, keyed by Michael Brooks’ utter dominance, including a sack and an interception.
What follows is perhaps the perhaps the worst loss in LSU history, when top 10 LSU hosted Miami of Ohio. The game began inauspiciously when Miami blocked a punt setting up a touchdown pass and an early lead for the visitors. It set the tone for a miserable first half in which LSU got inside the five three different times but only came away with three points.
Miami would break the game open with an 86-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter and LSU would never recover. LSU seemed to be caught in quicksand, and the more it struggled, the less progress it made. The Tigers dropped the game, 21-12.
LSU would rebound the following week against Florida, but the news around the program didn’t get any better, as Michael Brooks was lost for the year due to a knee injury. So now, three weeks into the season, LSU had a top ten win, a loss to a MAC team, and now lost the best defensive player in the country.
The Tigers would settle the ship with a win at home over Georgia, followed by a road trip to Kentucky in which the season seemingly hung in the balance in the first quarter. The defense allowed a touchdown on the opening possession, so already down by a score, Tommy Hodson got hit so hard under the chin that he bit through his tongue. He also likely suffered a concussion, getting slammed to the turf headfirst. Mickey Guidry came in for the rest of the quarter and if this happened today, would have played the rest of the game. But this was 1986. As Hodson would later recall:
“I was kind of out of it. I hit my head on the ground pretty hard, and I didn’t know if I had a concussion. He numbed it and put some deadening stuff in there. And he put three stitches on top and two on the bottom and closed it up.”
Hodson returned to the bench in the second quarter, and Arnsparger ordered him back on to the field.
“I thought I was going to sit out the rest of the game. ... I was groggy, and I don’t remember some of the plays. I just went in there and started throwing the ball around and didn’t care about much. I don’t think my mind was right.”
Hodson would lead LSU on two quick scoring drives to close out the half, though Ron Lewis would miss a PAT, followed by the team failing a two-point conversion. Still, Hodson quickly turned a 7-0 hole into a 12-7 halftime lead.
Harvey Williams said that, “When he came in, it was like he was in the Twilight Zone. We couldn’t understand what he was saying because of the stitches I guess. When you see a guy play like that, it picks you up.”
Kentucky would take the lead back, but Hodson would lead LSU back in front again, to a lead it never relinquished, holding off the Wildcats, 25-16. Back then, this was a story which highlighted how tough Hodson was and how the team would do anything to win and not, you know, the reckless disregard for the head injury suffered by a 19-year-old kid.
Dr. William Carona, LSU’s team dentist, told reporters, “It was a gutty way to play. He was tongue-tied for 45 minutes, and he was groggy. What we did to fix him up was pretty gruesome, but it worked.”
Hodson has a scar under his chin to this day.
Two weeks later, LSU would suffer its only conference loss of the season… to Ole Miss. It wasn’t a terrible Rebels team, but Ole Miss certainly had hit upon hard times in the 80s. The game was close throughout, and ended when David Browndyke pushed a 30 yard attempt wide right with only nine seconds on the clock.
It’s hard to blame Browndyke, who hit four field goals on the game. However, it wasted a furious final drive in which every yard was gained by Wendel Davis to set up the kick. It was Billy Brewer’s first win over LSU in four tries, and Ole Miss’ first win in Tiger Stadium since 1968.
“They were complaining before the game the rivalry wasn’t like it used to be,” said senior free safety Jeff Noblin. “I guess it’s back to what it used to be now. What a great feeling.”
Squandering its lead, LSU now entered the Alabama game in a four-team race for the top spot. But even if LSU had beaten Ole Miss, the mission was clear: the Tigers had to beat Alabama to win the SEC.
The national AP wire story can’t help but tell the drama, even in its standard bloodless prose:
Greg Jackson claimed two turnovers and forced another to stop three threats tonight as Louisiana State upset Alabama, 14-10, to turn the Southeastern Conference race into a four-team scramble.
Jackson picked off a pass in the end zone after Alabama had reached the 13-yard line and recovered a fumble on the L.S.U. 18. The L.S.U. strong safety then forced a fumble when he hit Alabama’s Bobby Humphrey just shy of the goal and a teammate, Kevin Guidry, pounced on it in the end zone for a touchback.
The Bobby Humphery fumble is one of the great plays of LSU lore. A desperate LSU defense, on its heels and wildly outplayed all game, stiffened up in the game’s final moments to make one final stop. Greg Jackson completed his trifecta of turnovers with a game-saving hit on Humphery, who would win the SEC rushing title.
It was the Miami of Ohio game in reverse, only on a bigger stage and far more important to LSU’s title hopes. Let’s quote ourselves:
LSU’s longest drive of the second half was a mere 2:32. The offense gained just 46 yards on 36 plays, providing little to no help to the defense. Hodson threw two interceptions, and LSU punted on six of its seven possessions in the second half until finally running out the clock.
Bama spent almost the entire second half in LSU territory, but ended up with only a field goal to show for it. Alabama made four trips inside the 10 yard line, and came away with 10 points. It was a heroic defensive effort, keyed primarily by Hill and Greg Jackson. Hill forced a fumble and had an interception, while Jackson had an interception, forced a fumble, AND recovered one.
But even then, LSU hadn’t won the title yet. The SEC didn’t break ties back in those days, even with a head-to-head tiebreaker, and let the Sugar Bowl take either team tied for the title. It was no secret the Sugar Bowl coveted Alabama over anyone, so LSU needed the Tide to lose another game.
Happily, Auburn obliged with the classic Reversal of Fortune game. An Auburn blog has covered it in their review of past games.
Auburn’s final play originally called for Scott Bolton to be the reverse man, but he never made it into the ballgame, and the play call took way too long to get relayed into the huddle. Lawyer Tillman ran out wide right, barely got set as the ball was snapped, and took the pitch from Tim Jesse out of the backfield. He used a big block from Vincent Jones and slipped into the endzone with 32 seconds left to play. 21-17 Auburn. Watching the replay, you can see the Tillman was trying to call timeout
In the end, every contender lost its second game in November save LSU. Auburn lost its first game on the 1st to Florida. Georgia lost the Cocktail Party on the 8th, the same weekend LSU topped Bama. Auburn lost again, this time to Georgia on the 15th. Ole Miss dropped its game to Tennessee on the same day, and fell out of the top 20. Finally, Bama lost again on Thanksgiving weekend to Auburn.
When the dust settled, LSU was left as the only one-loss team in conference play. They were the undisputed SEC champions.
We have covered this before, and I want to reiterate that there really is no truth to the legend that Arnsparger told LSU not to hire Steve Spurrier so that he could hire him at Florida.
Some parts of the legend are true: Arnsparger did recommend his defensive coordinator for the head job. But when he did that, Arnsparger was still trying to maneuver himself to taking over Brodhead’s vacated position as LSU’s AD, so it doesn’t make sense that he would be trying to intentionally sabotage LSU at that point.
But let’s back up.
Bob Brodhead’s wild and tumultuous tenure came to its end on October 21, 1986, when he tendered his resignation “in the best interests of all concerned.” We’ll get into the circumstances of Brodhead’s resignation in another installment, but let’s just say it is never a good sign when the FBI has you under investigation.
Arnsparger showed all of the loyalty to the man who hired him that we had come to expect by immediately angling for the AD job. According to Jerry Simmons’ excellent memoir, Arnsparger spent the fall politicking for Brodhead’s job but lacked the political acumen to pull of the move. He was passed over.
Still, the idea was in his head, and Arnsparger resigned his post after the Mississippi St. game, probably in order to take the Florida AD job. Arnsparger had interviewed for the job in August, catching Brodhead completely by surprise. Arnsparger was in the first year of a new deal, but he could terminate the contract without penalty if he took a job outside coaching.
“I’ve done just about everything in coaching, and it has left me with a great deal of satisfaction,” he said.
“But right now, there is a sense of challenge still out there. Maybe this is it.”
A team in upheaval travelled to New Orleans. LSU jumped out to a 7-0 lead thanks to Wendell Davis setting up a short Harvey Williams TD run. The defense held Nebraska to just 36 yards in that first quarter, and things appeared to be going well.
Then the roof caved in. LSU managed just 32 rushing yards on the game, as the offense completed dried up. The defense held out for a half, as the Huskers took the lead right before the half, 10-7. In the second, they opened up a can of whoop ass, en route to a 30-15 win which wasn’t nearly as close as the score. It was the Huskers third bowl win over LSU in five years.
So… Was Arnsparger a Good Coach?
A mere three years after his tenure began, Bill Arnsparger swooped off into the night, only to rematerialize as the AD of Florida a few months later. He would serve as their Athletic Director from 1986-1992, hiring both Steve Spurrier and Lon Krueger, reversing the historical fortunes of Florida’s football and basketball teams.
On the positive side of the ledger, Arnsparger went to a major bowl in all three of his seasons at LSU. He won an SEC title in 1986, and never finished worse than a game off the title pace. He never lost to Alabama, and beat Notre Dame for the first time in school history.
Well, Jerry ended up getting fired and Bill came in. With Arnsparger it was totally different. The workouts were totally different. It was more professional. Bill brought that NFL style to LSU which the players accepted a lot better. When Bill would walk in the room, all the horse playing would stop. You could hear a pin drop.
Everyone had heard about him from the NFL and he immediately earned everyone’s respect.
A lot of players didn’t have that same respect for Stovall and his staff the way they did for Bill. He never raised his voice. He would never yell or scream at you. He was a calm man and he knew the game of football.
He really expanded me as an athlete and as a linebacker, because when Stovall was there all they had me do was rush the passer. When Bill came in, he changed the defense that had me dropping in coverage and expanded me as a linebacker. It improved my vision. I could start to see the entire field and see what it was like to be an actual linebacker. He taught me how to be a linebacker and how to be a professional. He taught us how to carry ourselves, how to play, and how to handled yourself on the football field. He taught us how to be a man and to take on responsibilities.
On the negative side, he is responsible for some of the worst losses in LSU history: Miami of Ohio, losing the SEC title by dropping a game to an otherwise winless Ole Miss team, losing to Gerry Faust with a top ten team, and repeatedly getting his ass kicked in bowl games.
He ended up going 26-8-1 overall and 4-3-1 against ranked teams. He won some of the biggest games in LSU history and returned LSU to the top of the SEC, but his teams were maddeningly inconsistent and had the tendency to blow games against outmatched teams. He never won 10 games.
When Arnsparger was hired, Brodhead complained in his book that the local media hated the pick just because he was an outsider. In an attempt to show the limited thinking of the old boys club, Brodhead cited Ron Higgins’ criticism as particularly short-sighted:
The four problems with Arnsparger in a nutshell? He’s too old (almost 57 years old); he’s from Miami (fans will point to Brodhead’s so-called Miami Connection), he’s from the pros (LSU folks don’t take kindly to a pro coach stepping into a college atmosphere) and he’s not a proven major college winning head coach.
Considering Arnsparger coached for a mere three years at LSU, bolted to Florida, would actually return to the pros after the Florida AD job, and lost three games every year at LSU… not exactly a bad call by Higgins.
The common complaint of the 80s is that Stovall could recruit but couldn’t coach, Arnsparger could coach but couldn’t recruit, and Archer could do neither. The talent pool bears this out. Arnsparger largely won with Stovall’s recruits, though he does get credit for Tommy Hodson and Harvey Williams. Still, the brightest lights of his tenure were all Stovall recruits: Brooks, Wendell Davis, the Dalton-James Gang, and those amazing linemen Nacho Albergamo and Eric Andolsek.
The well would dry up almost immediately after Arnsparger left. The last two consensus All-Americans at LSU of the era would be Nacho and Wendell Davis, in 1987. Greg Jackson would earn non-consensus All-American honors in 1988. LSU wouldn’t have another All-American player until Kevin Faulk in 1996.
Mike Archer is the architect of his own demise, but Arnsparger got out right before the talent cupboard went bare. He bears some of the blame for the fall that was to come. In 1986, however, it seemed like the good times would keep on rolling.
Greatest Games From Every Season
1984: LSU 16, Alabama 14: Bama Dominates, LSU Wins
1985: LSU 14, Alabama 14: Never Rely on a College Kicker
1986: LSU 14, Alabama 10: Bama Coughs It Up