ENGSTER: Remembering Gov. McKeithen

With this week's inauguration of Gov. Bobby Jindal, it is appropriate to recall the man saluted by the new governor as his role model.

Jindal frequently mentioned John McKeithen as his favorite Louisiana governor during the year the state's new leader was covering the campaign trail and courting support in North Louisiana, territory of Big John – the pride of Columbia, La.

John Julian McKeithen was born 90 years ago this May in Caldwell Parish and took the oath of office as governor when he was 45. By the time he outpolled popular New Orleans Mayor "Chep" Morrison to win the 1963 election, McKeithen had survived the Great Depression and had been a decorated soldier in the Pacific Theatre in WWII. But he always retained his youthful exuberance when the subject of LSU football was broached in Baton Rouge, Bastrop or Brussels.

During his eight years in the mansion between 1964 and 1971, the Tigers were annually contending for SEC and national honors. Despite two Sugar Bowl victories and one Cotton Bowl triumph, LSU never captured the glory the Ole War Skule has savored the past five years.

Louisiana governors have frequently been connected to the fortunes of the Fighting Tigers on the gridiron. It's a disastrous recipe for re-election if LSU is losing when a governor is seeking a second term in office. Just ask David Treen in 1983 or Buddy Roemer in 1991. Bobby Jindal was born in the final year of the McKeithen Era, but the 36-year-old governor learned enough about Louisiana history at Baton Rouge High School to choose an exceptional gubernatorial model.

The McKeithen years were highlighted by spectacular postseason fortunes for LSU. The Tigers whipped Arkansas 14-7 in the 1966 Cotton Bowl and Wyoming 20-13 in the 1968 Sugar Bowl. Both the Razorbacks and Cowboys were undefeated until they crossed paths with Charlie McClendon's outfit, but LSU was not in contention for the national title because those teams had endured three losses en route to their bowl appearances.

The best years in the reigns of McClendon and McKeithen were in 1969 and 1970. The '69 team was as good as any in the land, but it fell victim to a stellar performance from Archie Manning as Ole Miss rallied from a 23-12 deficit and edged the Bengals 26-23 at Jackson. It was the only defeat in 1969 for McClendon's troops, and the coach occasionally wondered if the pregame movie choice on Friday, Oct. 31, 1969, cost him a national title.

The Tigers reportedly spent the 10th anniversary of Billy Cannon's heroic 89-yard punt return against Ole Miss at a showing of "Easy Rider" on the big screen in Jackson.

McClendon said the provocative film took the edge off his players and made them think more about Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson than Archie Manning and Johnny Vaught. Mac concluded his players would have been better motivated by watching reruns of Cannon's run.

A year later, LSU was primed to be even better with the nation's top defense led by All-America standouts Tommy Casanova and Mike Anderson and an offense featuring hard-running Art Cantrelle and a trio of talented quarterbacks in Butch Duhe', Buddy Lee and Bert Jones.

Days before the Sept. 19 opener vs. Texas A&M, Duhe' died of a cerebral hemorrhage at the LSU infirmary. A demoralized Tiger team was upset in the closing seconds in a 20-18 setback to the Aggies. Gov. McKeithen was so overcome with grief over the death of Duhe' and the defeat to A&M that he punched out a window in his limousine after the game. "There goes the national championship," Big John bellowed as he realized his beloved LSU would not win it all in his eighth and last season in office.

Bobby Jindal inherits a national title LSU team just as Gov. Blanco did from Gov. Foster four years ago. Jindal will be expected to continue the tradition of BCS glory established by Nick Saban, Les Miles, Mike Foster and Kathleen Blanco.

McKeithen's analysis was correct in 1970 when LSU dropped its opener to A&M. After that loss, there was little or no chance of the Tigers winning the NCAA crown. Times have changed, as the 2003 and 2007 LSU units proved.

Who would have thought that LSU could lose at home by 12 points to Florida in '03 and claim national honors a few months later? Who could have predicted that LSU would lose its regular season finale at home to Arkansas on Nov. 23 of last year and win the BCS trophy just 45 days later?

McKeithen was adamant that an LSU graduate should be the head coach of the Tigers, and Big John fought vigorously, but unsuccessfully, to keep Jerry Stovall in command of the program in 1983. Twenty-five years have passed since Stovall was fired, and McKeithen died in 1999 just before the hiring of Nick Saban. McKeithen would have been livid over Saban's defection and ecstatic over Les Miles' rejection of overtures to return to Michigan.

It's unfortunate that Big John didn't live to see his alma mater savor the ultimate glory in the arena that he envisioned and made a reality. Without the investment of enormous political capital and state funding accompanied by the vision of McKeithen, the Louisiana Superdome would still be an architect's dream. For that matter, the PMAC would also not have been constructed without the iron will of John McKeithen.

The Louisiana Legislature once decided to name the Superdome in McKeithen's honor. New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson waged an effective battle to keep Big John's name off the building, contending the Saints would lose millions in revenues. Nearly a decade has passed, and no corporate sponsor has been secured to pay top dollar for its association with one of the best-known sports facilities in the world.

In one of Gov. Jindal's first actions in the house that Huey Long built, he should press for the palace on

Poydras Street
to carry the name of the Louisiana legend who made it all possible. The next time LSU plays in New Orleans, the location should be recognized as the John McKeithen Superdome.


Jim Engster is the general manager of Louisiana Network and Tiger Rag. Reach him at jim@la-net.net.

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