Louisiana Tech appeared in two of the first three Independence Bowls ever held, in 1977-78, and then again in 1990. Each played a memorable role in the tradition of Tech football.
The 1977 match was the Bulldogs' first after joining the Division I ranks, while 1978 was the final game coached by Tech legend Maxie Lambright, who won nearly 100 games over a 12-year career in Ruston. The 1990 game saw Tech, in only its second season of Division I-A football, play to the Indy Bowl's only tie ever against Maryland.
"This being only the third bowl game since becoming a member of the FBS 20 years ago," Dooley said, "I expect all the Louisiana Tech faithful to take part in the festivities to celebrate the continuing momentum of our program."
The Indy Bowl has been an integral part of that momentum. Lambright led the Bulldogs to their first two berths, during a period in which the winners of the Southland Conference received an automatic bowl bid.
Tech went 1-1, besting Louisville 24-14 on Dec. 17, 1977 and then falling to East Carolina 35-13 on Dec. 16, 1978 – Lambright's final contest.
Back then, Keith Thibodeaux made Tech go. A pair of Thibodeaux touchdown passes, to George Pree and then Larry McCartney, during a 21-point first-quarter offensive explosion keyed the Louisville upset in 1977. That was all the more impressive considering the Cardinal defense boasted future Chicago Bears linebacker Otis Wilson.
Keith Swilley's 21-yard field goal capped a 24-point swing after Louisville scored on a punt return less than two minutes in. The game then turned into a defense battle, with only a single touchdown scored after the half. Thibodeaux was named the game's offensive most valuable player.
The next Tech appearance in Shreveport couldn't have gone any differently. A swarming East Carolina, coached then by Pat Dye (later of Auburn fame), took advantage of early Tech turnovers to jump out to a quick 21-point lead and never looked back, despite a 13-point Tech comeback bid during the game's middle quarters.
East Carolina saw Thibodeaux attempt an Indy record 52 passes, but limited Tech to just 12 rushing yards. ECU fullback Theodore Sutton set his own bowl mark, dashing 143 yards on 17 carries to earn the game's outstanding offensive player honor.
"We knew Tech was going to throw the football against us," Dye said back then, "and they got a lot of yards. They really had enough yards to score more points than they did. But our defense played well, especially inside the 20, and we came up with the big play when we needed it." Thibodeaux had to be taken to the hospital after linebacker Jeffrey Warren smacked him under the chin. Still, over these two contests, he threw for a remarkable 550 passing yards. When Lambright strode to the field to for a post-game handshake with Dye, he closed the book on a Tech career that included three lower-classification national championships and a successful transition to Division I.
It was fitting, then, that Tech's first post-season game after moving up to Division I-A was again in Shreveport. Tech mounted a stirring run to get there, winning seven of its last eight regular-season games.
None was more thrilling than the comeback victory over Colorado State at Joe Aillet Stadium, when Gene Johnson crafted a 17-point comeback effort – including a last-minute touchdown pass to Bobby Slaughter – to win 31-30.
In fact, the Bulldogs only loss over that span was at then No. 5-ranked Auburn, who had to kick a late-second field goal to escape.
Still, former Tech coach Joe Raymond Peace was asked whether Tech truly belonged in the Indy Bowl. "There are only 38 teams playing in postseason games, and we're one of them," Peace said then. "I don't know what other proof you need."
Tech fought back to a second tie – the score was 14-14 at the half – after withstanding a 14-5 fourth-quarter surge by the favored Maryland. Johnson then again hit Slaughter for a touchdown, and Chris Boniol added a field goal to push Tech's lead to 31-20. Following the second of Maryland consecutive comeback scores, Tech linebacker Lorenza Baker returned a kickoff to the Terrapins' 39-yard line – where Boniol nailed a 29-yarder to knot the score up at 34-34 as time expired.
Tech running back Michael Richardson had rushed for 81 yards and two touchdowns to earn offensive outstanding player honors. Baker was the defensive MVP. And Tech had made its case. "I'm pleased with the progress we've made," Peace said afterward, "but we're still in the first chapter of the book as far as Division I football at Louisiana Tech, and there's still a lot of work to be done."
Combined attendance at Tech's three Independence Bowl games was 101,602 fans, including a then-record 48,325 for this Maryland matchup.
The highlight of the halftime ceremonies at each Independence Bowl is the presentation of the Omar Bradley Spirit of Independence Award, named for the five-star general and World War II hero. Past recipient have included President Ronald Reagan in 1981, the late Grambling coach Eddie Robinson and groups like the American Red Cross and veterans of the Vietnam conflict.
Tech's 1978 Indy Bowl included one of the final public appearances by recipient John Wayne, who said: "You find many a man more worthy to honor, but you'll never find one so grateful." Bradley received the inaugural honor in 1977; the Boy Scouts of America were recognized in 1990.
Of the 44 inductees into the Independence Bowl Hall of Fame, founded in 1996, three are from Louisiana Tech: Defensive back Larry Anderson, Boniol and tackle Willie Roaf. They're joined by former bowl participants including current Texas coach Mack Brown, future NFL Hall of Famer Brett Favre, New Orleans Saints running back Deuce McAllister and Alabama coach Nick Saban, among others.