MULE': Flashback to 1958

To win them all, for any football team, even in the best of times, everything has to fall precisely into place.

It was not the best of times as the LSU squad of a half-century ago reported for fall drills. The Tigers did have some headliners on whom to hang their hopes, like halfbacks Billy Cannon and Johnny Robinson and linebacker Max Fugler. But this LSU team had little depth, had gone 5-5 with the same players the year before, and was under the same fourth-year coach in whom the fans were beginning to lose patience.


LSU was picked in the bottom half of the preseason SEC predictions, and very few people – even Tiger diehards – could disagree.


For a team that had never before sold out its recently expanded 67,510-seat stadium, things did not appear promising.


Yet, it would seem, almost by some grand divine scheme, the dominos fell – and precisely into place. This was the rare case of everything that had to go right going right. LSU went 11-0-0 and won the national championship, bringing All-American recognition to Cannon and Fugler and national Coach of the Year honors to Paul Dietzel.


That team spawned the Tiger program we know today, with its title-contending teams and its horde of nationally renowned athletes who now play in a 93,000-seat stadium where there is seldom an empty space.


The almost miraculous circumstance of how things fell into place – and the people who almost inadvertently contributed to the most fabled team in Louisiana history – is the subject of "The Perfect Season: LSU's Magical Year, 1958" by Bud Johnson.


A keen observer with a reporter's instincts, Johnson was a first-year assistant sports information director then, (and later the school's head SID), and he put his eyewitness recollections, relationships, research skills and writing talents to great use in compiling what is certain to be the definitive chapter in this absorbing moment of LSU history.


This was the backdrop of Tiger football entering the 1958 season, as told by Johnson:


"LSU came out of nowhere. The Tigers had not won a Southeastern Conference championship in 22 years. Other places celebrated the bowl season. Other teams got national television exposure. For most of the 1950s, LSU had its nose pressed against the candy store window of college football."


Not only did LSU finish the season as a surprising No. 1, the Tigers were acclaimed the Associated Press Team of the Year over such world championship winners and superstars as the New York Yankees, with Mickey Mantle, the St. Louis Hawks, starring Bob Pettit, and the Johnny Unitas-led Baltimore Colts.


It was college football's ultimate rags-to-riches story.


"The Perfect Season" goes on sale this week at LSU's Lod Cook Alumni Center on campus or online at (link to "shop"). Price is $24.95.


Here's how things fell for LSU, almost bizarrely: LSU used a power-running offense in 1957. Something else was needed for LSU's pony-light line and talented backs of '58. It just happened that Faize Mahfouz, coach at Eunice High, had been using the Wing-T offense he learned from University of Delaware coaches at coaching clinics. Tiger assistant Clarence "Pop" Strange saw Mahfouz's teams and was excited by the potential of the at-the-time rare offense. He excitedly told Dietzel about it – and its possibilities as a misdirection vehicle that was ideal for LSU's fleet backs.


The coaches at Delaware and Forrest Evasheski of Iowa, the only college coaches using the Wing-T, aided Dietzel in installing the formation.


The upshot was that Evasheski's Hawkeyes turned out to be LSU's closest competitor in the national rankings during the '58 season, finishing as the runner-up.


Therein lies another story. According to Frank James Price's biography "Troy Middleton," in 1955, when Dietzel got the Tiger job, the LSU president leaned toward another candidate, a young Navy assistant named Ben Martin. He had nothing against Dietzel, but Martin was one of those people who excelled at everything, including academics as well as athletics while playing for the Middies. When Dietzel turned out to be the choice of the LSU board, Middleton wasn't unhappy and supported him to the fullest.


Martin went on to become the first coach of the Air Force Academy. And during the '58 season, the Falcons' first season in the sport, he helped clear the way for LSU when Air Force, a huge underdog, stunned the sporting world with a 13-13 tie with Iowa.


There was one other matter that turned out to be of monumental importance on the depthless Tiger roster: three important cogs of that teams – end Billy Hendrix, fullback Red Brodnax, and kicker/fullback Tommy Davis – didn't became academically eligible until the last minute, all finally completing summer school classes successfully.


"With all due respect to the stars of our team," Fugler said, "I don't believe we could have won them all without Tommy Davis and Red Brodnax. Red provided some great blocking for Cannon and Robinson throughout the season. Tommy's punting gave us good field position in every game, and his place-kicking won two ballgames."


In LSU's closest shave, a 7-6 squeaker in the rain against Mississippi State, Hendrix recovered one fumble and forced two more, including the one that led to the Tigers' lone touchdown – a fourth-quarter, fourth-down reception by Hendrix.


All three of those players who came very close to having to sit out 1958 made notable contributions.


Other major factors were the resourcefulness and psychology-mindset of Dietzel, then just 34 years old. Not only concerns about depth, but also his regard for keeping up his squad's morale was a consideration in his greatest innovation: the three-platoon system, in which athletes not only played to their individual strengths but also played just a portion of any game, keeping themselves fresh and also keeping their spirits up.


Johnson notes that in 1953, Harcourt, Brace published a 545-page book that Dietzel, then an Army assistant, immediately obtained, read and retained. "The Rommel Papers" was German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel's papers, letters and account of the North African campaign in World War II.


This quote from Rommel, "I will take morale over material, three to one," became one of Dietzel's coaching tenants.


Those looking for a good read – not only LSU fans, but fans of college football in general – will find "The Perfect Season" a fascinating read.




Marty Mule' can be reached at

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