Finney wrote book on the Tigers - literally

When it comes to LSU football, Peter Finney wrote the book.

We're not talking just of his longtime – a very long time – analysis and dissection of Tiger games. Finney literally wrote the book.


The Fighting Tigers: A Hundred Years of LSU football is the Rosetta Stone for Bayou Bengals fans, a real connection with the purple-and-gold gridiron heroes of yesteryear, with Doc Fenton, Steve Van Buren and Billy Cannon, and an understanding of the colorful Huey Long Era.


"When you talk of LSU football history,'' it was said Thursday night when Finney was inducted into the Manship School of Mass Communications Hall of Fame, "you are  talking of Peter Finney."


Finney, at age 78, the youngest and most energetic sportswriter this side of Ponce de Leon, in his understated way and in the most entertaining manner, has been informing New Orleanians on the pages of The Times-Picayune about the goings-on in sports for more than six decades. From the Olympics to the Super Bowl to the major golf tournaments, Finney has brought his perceptive insights to our little corner of the world while becoming one of the most respected columnists in the sports world.


Yet the best known work of this long and distinguished career is (italics) The Fighting Tigers (end italics), the definitive word on the subject and the one tome every self-respecting LSU fan above the age of 15 will say they have read, though it's not a rah-rah cheer with a hardcover. It's written with the clear eye of a journalist – or a historian – and someone who was there.


There hasn't been an important Tiger game in more than a half-century – indeed, there hasn't been a notable play in that time – that Finney hasn't distilled, analyzed and dissected. He's been on the scene for practically every one, from the last days of Gus Tinsley to the first season of Les Miles. That's a span of nine LSU coaches. Ten if you count Bo Rein who died before ever coaching a Tiger game.


Put it this way: LSU is heading into its 113th season of football and Finney has been writing first-hand accounts of the Tigers for 54 years.


Sometimes life can be fortuitous. It has been for Finney, LSU – and, most especially, Tiger fans.


The book and the ceremonies held at the Manship complex last week are intertwined.

It's interesting to ponder how much might have changed had the thought not occurred to some insightful editor at the now defunct (italics) New Orleans States (end italics) in 1953 that the bright kid covering prep games could be doing more. Had he not asked the kid if he'd be interested in covering LSU football, (italics) The Fighting Tigers (end italics) would not have been written and Finney, a former basketball player/coach at Loyola, would not have earned his masters degree from LSU.


"But I said sure,'' Finney recalled. "Heck, yeah.''


Accepting that assignment not only made him the first LSU beat man for a New Orleans paper, but put him on the scene for the political intrigue that swept Tinsley and athletic director Skipper Heard out of office, the arrival of Pauls Dietzel and Jim Corbett, the birth of the Chinese Bandits and the magical undefeated season of 1958. When he wrote of those events in the book, Finney wrote as an eye-witness.


But covering LSU, and this was no small consideration, also afforded the growing Finney family some extra money. Spending so much time in Baton Rouge gave Finney, who received his bachelor's from Loyola, the opportunity to take some courses, work on his masters – and to continue collecting the benefits of his GI Bill. Of course, in typical Finney fashion, he did it his way, not taking electives like basket-weaving but things like Russian history. At the same time he developed a thesis that could be a textbook in a sports media course: The Evolution of the New Orleans Sports Page.


It was written as concisely then, in 1957, with as much information and entertainment as his column is today.


It was Corbett who came to Finney in the early ‘60s with the idea of working on a Tiger history. "He was always thinking of ways to promote LSU,'' Finney said. "But I was intrigued.''


Journalism is often being in the right place at the right time, and Finney was.


Edwin Gayle, the last member of the 1893 team, LSU's first, was still alive when Finney started the project and was interviewed; Fenton, LSU's first superstar and the centerpiece of the famed 1908 team, was able to provide insights and background; Ike Carrier, a quarterback in the ‘20s and later a member of the school's board when Paul Dietzel was hired, gave valuable assistance; Castro Carazo, whom Huey Long had fired as band director of the Blue Room in New Orleans in order to get him to lead the LSU band, was interviewed; Harry Rabenhorst, who served Tiger athletics in various capacities since 1925, gave background information; and Ran Williams, who had been a student manager in the late ‘20s and early ‘30s, provided detailed information and anecdotes from the Russ Cohen-Biff Jones teams, and their dealings with Huey Long. Williams, then retired, printed pages and pages of his stories and gave them to Finney.


From 1953 on, of course, the book was based on Finney's own coverage and the job obviously became a much easier task. But he remains grateful to the help he received.


"They were so helpful, and their stories so good,'' Finney said of his benefactors. "They made LSU football history come alive.''


No, they helped. The man who made the story come alive was the man – a true gift to Louisiana and LSU – behind the keyboard.




Marty Mule' can be reached at

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