MULE': Debating the history of LSU football

Ask 'em. Any LSU fan will rattle off the names like a verbal machine (or Gatlin) gun: Billy Cannon, Tommy Casanova, JaMarcus Russell, even Gus Tinsley, et al.

Press them, and they'll spit out the games like a spigot: LSU 14, Arkansas 0; LSU 7, Ole Miss 3; LSU 7, Auburn 6; LSU 20, Alabama 10; etc.


It's all almost a reflex reaction to questions – discussed thousands of times across Louisiana each fall – that require updating almost yearly: Who were the best players in Tiger football history? Which were the most memorable games? What years had the greatest teams?


Tiger Rag is querying them again.


Good questions deserve others.


Did Cannon, the most decorated Tiger of them all, and who first lined up at halfback at LSU 50 years ago, mean more to his team than, say, Russell did last season? Or, for that matter, was he more valuable than G.A. "Doc'' Fenton, who was LSU's first superstar when he played a century ago?


Was LSU's stunning 7-6 upset of Auburn in 1988, the famed "Earthquake Game," or the 14-7 shocker over Arkansas in the 1966 Cotton Bowl a greater achievement than a defeat – even a gallant one – like the gut-wrenching 17-12 loss to Southern Cal, in which the loaded Trojans, with three future Pro Football Hall of Famers on their roster, needed a highly questionable penalty to beat the Tigers in the last minute?


Were the 1958 Tigers a better team than the 1946 Bayou Bengals – or even the 1936 LSU squad – because it had an unbeaten record while the other two each had one loss and one tie?


Sometimes things happen.


Over the course of the next few years, the '46 team had 18 members drafted, 15 of whom played pro ball. The fabled national champs of 12 years later couldn't match that. 


Of course, these types of questions can never be definitively answered. All factors and circumstances – meaning every athlete and team would have to be put in exact situations and against the same quality opponents and similar conditions to see how they fared – are impossible to duplicate. I just can't be. Every player is measured individually by the people around him: his teammates. Some truly great athletes can't consistently shine because they don't have as much help as others; others excel because they do. A back-breaking schedule may hold back a team or an individual player.


Eras can't be compared. All these men played under different conditions – and, as major a factor as anything, rules.


What would the stats of today's athletes look like and how would they perform if they played under the rules of the 1950s, when a player couldn't come out of a game twice in the same quarter without the team being penalized? Or, even earlier, when plays were sent in from the sidelines and no one in the huddle could speak except the messenger without being flagged?


The point is that the games Fenton or Tinsley or Cannon or Russell played at LSU were all vastly different.


Still, after four decades of watching Tiger football, frequently up-close and personal, and some deep soul-searching, some things are absolute in my mind: Regardless of the stats, Casanova remains as great a player as LSU ever put on the field.


The 1969 Tigers, who averaged 35 points offensively and gave up less than 400 yards rushing all season, is the most complete LSU team. The upset of defending national champion Arkansas in the '66 Cotton Bowl by an injured and under-achieving band of Tigers was the greatest game LSU played in that time. But the Southern Cal defeat, considering everything – including the different talent levels – was the greatest effort. There is no right or wrong in any of this, but that's one man's opinions.


Still, the quick research for the project dislodged a couple of names only a few aging Tiger fans might remember: Glenn Smith and Paul Lyons.


Smith was a third-string sophomore tailback when the hard-luck 1967 Tigers, 10 points away from an unbeaten season instead of their three losses, played in the Sugar Bowl against undefeated and seventh-ranked Wyoming. And this wasn't Wyoming in the way you usually think of the Cowboys. These guys were really good, with a couple of future NFL stars in Jim Kiick and Jerry DePoyster.


LSU couldn't get one foot in front of the other in the mud in the first half, trailing the Cowboys 13-0 at the break. Looking for someone to spark his team, Coach Charlie McClendon sent in Smith, who responded with 79 yards rushing, opening up the rest of the Tiger offense, and LSU went on to win 20-13.


Smith was the Sugar Bowl MVP and the toast of his hometown – and he finished his LSU career without ever starting a game.


Lyons was the capable quarterback who McClendon started ahead of the immensely talented Bert Jones for most of two seasons. Lyons was what you'd call a "good college quarterback." Jones was clearly a greatly talented quarterback, but one who wanted to do it his way and not necessarily the coach's way.


In a long-forgotten 1971 game at Wisconsin, one in which Badger fans rained down non-football epithets on the young Tigers, showering them with calls of "Racists! Racists! Racists!" the self-styled "enlightened" Badgers reasoned that anyone from the South must hold certain views. (Isn't that what we now call that stereotyping?)


Lyons threw for 165 yards and ran for 135 yards in a 38-28 LSU victory – one which America was reminded of for most of the next decade. In one of Lyons' runs, he rolled into the end zone and dramatically threw his left arm, ball in hand, over his head.


ABC-TV, which then was the only college football network and which carried that game, used that shot for its opening segment for years afterward. It was a constant reminder of a satisfying LSU victory.


Names and games like that may not mean as much as the most obvious ones in a hundred-year history. But they still bring a strong sense of accomplishment.              




Marty Mule' can be reached at

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