LSU-A&M: From old rivalry comes new tradition

The Tigers and Aggies will meet Thanksgiving night in College Station, beginning a new tradition for two schools that have plenty of history together.

Back in 1992, when Arkansas and South Carolina joined the Southeastern Conference to give the league 12 teams, then-LSU athletics director Joe Dean Sr. decided to take a chance on igniting a rivalry.

Dean, along with legendary Razorbacks A.D. Frank Broyles, pushed the Tigers and Hogs together, made their matchup the annual regular-season finale and even made a gaudy trophy about the whole affair, to boot.

This weekend will officially bring that arrangement to a halt. After 22 years LSU is moving on to Texas A&M and Arkansas to Missouri to end their seasons.

It’s a move LSU brass willingly admit was at least partially made because as the locale changed from Little Rock to Fayetteville every other season the two played, so did the weather.

“It’s funny how things work out,” mused Verge Ausberry, LSU senior associate athletics director and football scheduling czar. “When we play Arkansas up there, the weather’s usually bad, rainy and cold. We got there a week or two earlier this year and it was still cold up there. Little Rock is more southern and closer to our temperatures. Fayetteville is northern, up in the mountains. Climate can affect the team that way, so we wanted to be able to face them a little earlier. I think that will be a better thing for LSU.”

Still, Ausberry isn’t willing to dump any more of the swap’s rationale at the feet of Arkansas. The move to a new opponent – and, ostensibly, rival – in that spot is more about the opportunity to rekindle a flame with the Aggies, according to Ausberry.

“I think it came out comfortably,” Ausberry said, looking back. “I don’t think it was about anything negative (with Arkansas). It just came. It was an opportunity that presented itself. We looked at the positives and negatives of doing that, and the positives outweighed the negatives. So now we have LSU playing A&M, and Arkansas finishes up with Missouri. Those two are a lot closer to each other. It might be a better rivalry, so it sets up those types of things. And I think LSU and A&M is a big rivalry. So I think that was playing into it.”

Ausberry, a standout defender at LSU in the late eighties, remembers well the days of playing Texas A&M every season. Even though times have changed, he feels enough familiarity remains to give this game needed juice.

“Oh, it’s a natural rivalry, let’s be honest,” he continued. “Especially back when I played, A&M had most of their kids from Louisiana. We all knew each other. We were all friends on those teams. All the kids from Houston and Port Arthur, it came down to LSU and A&M for where they were going to commit. I would definitely say it was a natural rivalry because you’re so close. We didn’t have the Internet and all that back then. Now kids know kids in California, New York. We just knew the kids in Texas because we all played the same high schools and played against each other.”

Les Miles knows the history of LSU-A&M, too.

As The Hat detailed earlier this week, longtime family friends first made him aware about 15 years ago while he was on the staff of the Dallas Cowboys. At that time LSU was still ahead in the all-time series, which now leans the Tigers way 29-20-3, but the Bayou Bengals had lost five straight from 1991-95.

“I was told when I came here that it was absolutely a rivalry game, and I understand that,” Miles reflected. “When I was with the Dallas Cowboys, our best friends were A&M graduates. I would spend Fourth of July with my wife in the backyard at their house in their pool. To be very honest with you, I’ve never seen a group of people so love their school.

“So I fully understand how the group that call themselves Aggie fans, how they love their school. And then I was told when I arrived here that the current record was not good and that we needed to do everything that we could to uphold our end of the rivalry. Yes, I recognize it is a rivalry.”

Miles has indeed done his part. The 2010 Tigers capped off an 11-2 season with a 41-24 thumping of the Aggies in the Cotton Bowl. What’s more: Since Texas A&M joined the SEC in 2012, LSU is the only Western Division opponent the Aggies haven’t defeated.

Back to the negotiating table, where Ausberry and athletics director Joe Alleva had little problem getting the league behind a plan that Texas A&M, Arkansas and Missouri also supported. What came next was figuring out when the game would be played given it will always fall on Thanksgiving weekend.

“A&M came to us and the conference about playing that game on Thanksgiving night. That’s a spot they used to have with Texas all these years,” recalled Ausberry. “We talked about it and had to do some things, like make sure we were open before that game or playing the right opponent beforehand since it’s really only a four-day stretch or a three-day stretch you have running up to that game. I think the promising thing about it was both of us were putting in a plan, to play them at their place on Thanksgiving but then to play on our schedule in Baton Rouge.”

LSU was able to line up its second bye week of the 2014 season on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, making a game Thursday night a viable option. Perhaps the bigger revelation, confirmed by Ausberry, is just how much say-so the Tigers had in the matter.

“Oh no, it wasn’t like forced down our throat,” clarified Ausberry. “To play on Thanksgiving night is a non-traditional date. Both schools have to agree to that. The SEC won’t come in and make you do that.”

On the topic of when the game will be contested in Baton Rouge in 2015, Ausberry said “it depends.” CBS has the first right to an SEC game on the Friday after Thanksgiving, but that information for next year is not known yet. All he could guarantee is that the game won’t be on Thanksgiving day or night.

But that doesn’t mean LSU will shy away from the Turkey Day arrangement for future games in College Station.

As Ausberry points out, it requires a year-by-year outlook (and the bye week situation, which is changing, is paramount), but he reminded that an extra few days of rest before the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta is desirable for the program.

“I don’t think we’ll have a problem with that as long as the schedule works out the week before the game,” said Ausberry. “I’m not going to play Auburn or Alabama or anything right before going to A&M, and I don’t think they’d want that on their side, either. I think if it came to it, they’d look at it and say let’s push it back to Saturday or Friday. You still have to look at it year by year. Look at the SEC the next couple of years, there’s only going to be one open date. So if we do it on Thanksgiving, we have to make sure we’re doing it the right way.”

No matter when they suit up against each other, which LSU and Texas A&M did for the first time in 1899, there’s a growing sense this will become one of the Tigers’ premier rivalries on a yearly basis.

This season the Aggies have eight Louisiana players on their roster while LSU boasts 14 native Texans. That kind of closeness, as well as regular competition on the recruiting trail, gives Ausberry faith the A&M game will take off, only maybe not in the same way – or in the same direction – as rivalries like LSU/Alabama or LSU/Florida.

“I think it’ll be a good rivalry. It always has been, but I think it’ll be a good-natured rivalry,” Ausberry concluded. “I don’t think it’ll be so much dislike that’s around so many of those other rivalries. Most of the people in Houston are either from Louisiana or have relatives here, family here. Houston is just like another (outpost) of Louisiana. So I think it will be a very healthy rivalry.

“We have a lot in common, LSU and A&M, same type of schools, big military schools. We have a great relationship with the people over at A&M. They help us out, and we help them. Another reason I think it’ll always be a good rivalry is we’re so close. They’re the closest SEC school to us – five hours down the road.”

This time it’s LSU’s turn to make the trek down I-10, embarking on a new Thanksgiving weekend tradition.

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