MULE': Changing Tiger History

It would be interesting to see how Scout.com, or any of the dozens of other current recruiting sages, rated C.J. Alexander – if they had existed a half-century ago.

Today they all grade each in-coming collegiate athlete, and each school's class as a whole, even ranking how the nation's football programs fared. It's a subjective exercise, at best, compiled by human beings who often see – and project – what their own biases and points of view tell them.

Alexander didn't win the Heisman Trophy. According to LSU's all-time list, he didn't even win an LSU letter. There is no telephone listing for him in Donaldsonville, his hometown, so he can't fill in the blank spaces.

But Alexander helped alter the course of Tiger football.

In these heady, euphoric even, days in the aftermath of what the so-called experts are universally describing as yet another stellar LSU recruiting class, the kind the fans always assume will win a national championship or two, it's good to remember how many prospects pan out – and how many don't.

In 1954, Alexander must have had a lot of potential because then-Tiger coach Gaynell Tinsley went far out on a limb to gain his football services.

That, and a series of circumstances, real and contrived, put Tinsley's neck on the chopping block, and provided the backdrop for the first steps toward LSU's national championship four seasons later.

It's amazing to see how some things work out. For Tiger fans, this is a doozy.

According to Dan Hardesty, the late sports editor of the defunct Baton Rouge State-Times, a meticulous reporter, in his book, The Louisiana Tigers, pointed out how the recruiting process of '54 further poisoned already toxic waters surrounding the LSU "family,'' and played a role in radically changing the direction of Tiger football.

At that time the NCAA offered no academic guidelines for athletic grants-in-aid, and the LSU Athletic Council adopted a school rule which said that an athlete must have at least a "C'' average in high school to receive an athletic scholarship to LSU, or that "the coach concerned shall secure a statement'' from the high school principal to the effect that he felt the prospect could handle college classroom work.

There were three prospects Tinsley recruited after the '54 season for whom such statements were necessary.

Given his seven-year record of 35-34-6, Tinsley had enemies on the council, and they wasted little time in charging the coach of violating university policy by recruiting those players, including Alexander, who was Donaldsonville. The charge was to be presented to the Board of Supervisors, and there was a general sense that this was a kangaroo court and a convenient excuse to fire both Tinsley and athletic director Skipper Heard.

Heard had nothing to do with football recruiting, but was already on the outs with LSU President Troy Middleton, who went to the Legislature in 1952 pleading his case for a new library. Heard also addressed the state body but asked that first priority of allocating funds go to enlarging Tiger Stadium. As Hardesty put it, "The battle lines were drawn.''

Tinsley, who was given a new three-year contract in '53, was caught in the middle. The majority of the Board, who had voted the new pact, probably would have stood by him – except that Middleton had determined it was time for Heard to walk the plank, and several Board members who sided with the university president allied themselves with those trying to oust the coach.

In order to get one, they both had to go – even if Tinsley was proved innocent, which he was.

Tinsley told Hardesty that Tulane was trying hard to recruit Alexander, so he went to Donaldsonville, explained to the principal about the letter he needed, and received assurances it would forthcoming. Tinsley signed Alexander.

Tinsley eventually got the required letter, and he said, "You couldn't write a better testimonial.''

The evidence clearly on his side, Tinsley was cleared of any wrongdoing.

But he said when he walked out of the meeting with he knew what was still going to happen. "I was thinking, well, it's like you're tried for murder,'' Tinsley said, "and they tell you you're innocent, but they still hang you.''

They did. Tinsley was replaced by Paul Dietzel and Heard was replaced by Jim Corbett, and under that dynamic team four years later LSU was No. 1.

But the name of C.J. Alexander, so prominent in the recruiting wars of '54, was nowhere to be found on the 1958 Tiger roster.

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Marty Mule' can be reached at MJM981@Bellsouth.net

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