Dalton Hilliard & the Death Valley Experience

It was in September 1983, that the charter plane touched down in Baton Rouge, LA., and the eighth-ranked Washington Huskies emerged into heat and humidity. They were situated seventy miles northwest of New Orleans along the Mississippi River. The Dawgs headed straight for their antebellum-styled hotel for team meetings.

This was in preparation for their showdown with highly-touted Louisiana State on Saturday night—in a place legendary for tailgating.

Washington was coming off a thrilling 25-24 comeback victory over #2 Michigan—a game in which Husky quarterback Steve Pelluer completed fifteen passes in a row in the fourth quarter. "We've been watching film of the Michigan game," said LSU Coach Jerry Stovall before the game. "And that fourth quarter was quite a throwing exhibition. Trying to defense him will be an awesome task."

LSU's Tiger Stadium, also known as "Death Valley", was sold out and then some. Though the seating capacity was 75,672, a record-breaking 82,390 tickets were snapped up for this game. The Washington Huskies, from the far-off Pacific Northwest, visiting Louisiana for the first time, and having been ranked #1 nationally for seven weeks the previous season, titillated LSU fans with a sense of the exotic.

"It was a nationally-known team like the Huskies, competing in Tiger Stadium," said former LSU running back Dalton Hilliard recently to Dawgman.com. "It was like an ESPN-type game, you might say."

One major network wanted to put this game on national TV, but LSU Athletic Director Bob Brodhead refused to change the game to an afternoon kickoff. He reasoned that Tiger fans would revolt or perhaps literally show up at sunrise to start tailgating.

"We're known to have the night games here," said the soft-spoken Hilliard. "The fans would have all day to get pumped up for the game. We weren't a team that cared to have a twelve o'clock, one o'clock or three o'clock game. The fans picnic and watch other college play during the course of the day. They co-mingle with the family and other fans, and just go out there and have a great time. I enjoy it thoroughly myself. When I was a player, I wished I could have tailgated and played at the same time."

Around the tree-shaded campus, fraternities were hosting keg parties. Nearby, a volleyball tournament was taking place. In front of the William B. Hatcher Hall, copious numbers of hamburgers were barbequed and devoured by hundreds of students. In the expansive parking lots around the stadium, tailgaters abounded, including one section that was called "Touchdown Village." A radio had been wired into a gigantic speaker system, and the pre-game show on WFMF could be heard for great distances. The radio personality was feigning a mighty struggle in pronouncing Steve Pelluer's name, and causing hundreds of tailgaters to chuckle. In another parking lot, 170 RVs were parked and large family gatherings were busily consuming hamburgers, hotdogs, Italian sausages, and drinking pop and beer.

"That is part of the tradition of LSU," said Hilliard. "In my era of 1982-1985, we stayed in a dormitory which was in walking distance of the stadium. We had a chance to meet and greet our fans. We would even leave little early down the hill and get a barbeque sandwich or a piece of chicken. The fans, parents and relatives would visit with us. We got to see our fans celebrate before the game, as they were getting ready to watch us perform."

At 5:00 PM, along Dalrymple Boulevard—LSU's Greek Row-- the parties were winding down. As wrote the Seattle Times' Dick Rockne: "The sorority belles and their fraternity beaus were strolling toward the stadium. All, it seemed, were clutching beverages."

In the parking lots adjacent the stadium, tailgating was in full force. Thousands interacted with each other— with a degree of warmth not seen elsewhere in the country, with the possible exception of Lincoln, Nebraska. By 5:30 PM, two hours before kickoff, the student section inside Tiger Stadium was already full. The freeway was shut down as a state police escort guided the Husky team busses to the stadium. As Washington players stepped off, a few dozen LSU fans chanted "TIGER BAIT! TIGER BAIT!" Former Husky Dan Eernissee recalled recently to Dawgman.com: "There were these partying fools yelling TIGER BAIT -- but `tiger' sounded to us like `taugger.'"

Before kickoff, The Golden Band from Tiger Land thundered its way into the stadium to the raucous cheers of the LSU fans. Then the Huskies emerged from their tunnel—and were greeted by a special host. "There was a live tiger outside our locker room pacing back and forth in a cage," recalled Eernissee. "I mean, I love the Malamute and all, but…"

"We put Big Mike right there as soon as the visiting team comes out of their locker room," said Hilliard with a laugh. "We like to park Mike the Tiger right there next to them. We have the loud speaker right there and hopefully we can get a growl out of him. Sometimes he helps us out like that."

Then the stadium announcer proclaimed in a booming voice: "IT'S SATURDAY NIGHT IN DEATH VALLEY… AND HERE COME YOUR FIGHTING TIGERS OF LSU!" The team ran onto the illuminated field, the atmosphere crackling with electricity.

Once kickoff commenced, the fleet-footed Hilliard went right to work. On second and goal from the Husky 4-yard line, Hilliard took the handoff and sped around right end for the touchdown. Washington responded by driving the field and scoring a touchdown to knot it at 7-7. But two series later, Hilliard broke free for a 65-yard dash to the Washington 15-yard line. Soon after, Tiger QB Jeff Wickersham plunged in from one yard out. From there, the game quickly got out of hand. Hilliard went on to tally 125 yards on 21 carries, and his teammate Garry James racked up 101 yards on 20 carries. Their counterpart, UW's Jacque Robinson, was held to 21 yards on 9 carries. Pelluer was 27 of 41 for 312 yards, but was largely held in check.

Hilliard, gracious and soft-spoken, confessed he doesn't recall many details from that 40-14 massacre of twenty-three years ago. Nevertheless, for vivid commentary, one doesn't have to go any further than former Washington Coach Don James.

"I remember that game more than most, it's interesting," said James recently. "I coached in so many games. I was stationed down in Louisiana while in the military and I played at Miami, so I had played in the Southeast. I also coached at Florida State. So I knew about the tiger, I knew about the stadium and about the crowds. Going into that game we thought their offensive line was the best we had seen, and the best line we would play. And then they had Hilliard and James, two great running backs…

"But that officiating was incredible," said James, whose team amassed 109 yards in penalties. "We wouldn't have won the game, I don't think. But they were rushing our offensive line with spin moves. In other words, you're a blocker, I'm rushing you, and I do a complete spin and give you my back. What can you do? You've got to block my back. Well, the umpire said that was illegal. He said we couldn't block their defensive players in the back. I was like, what if they line up backwards and go after our quarterback backwards? Are we just supposed to let them go?

"They would lay a defensive end over a tackle and try to go to his outside, then plant and spin and go to the inside gap," continued James. "Well, is the offensive tackle supposed to take his hands off him? You move your feet and keep your hands up, and if you hit him in the back, you hit him in the back. That's never been called like that. It seemed like a lot of those came after we completed a pass. It was one of the worst nightmares of officiating and also a nightmare in the terrible way that we played."

As Washington exited the field toward the locker room, the raucous crowd chanted TIGER BAIT! TIGER BAIT! At the conclusion of the recent interview, Hilliard was asked about that particular tradition.

"Yes, that's our motto," he said. "The fans chant that the whole game. Those two words have been a focal point in LSU history for the tradition and supporting cast. We used to have a guy here who was a Tiger fan. We used to practice on the other side of the stadium at an area called the Ponderosa. He would come out there with his big loudspeaker hollering TIGER BAIT! And getting us ready for the Saturday game... I still go to games these days, and it is still very much a part of our tradition."

"There was one thing that was mind-boggling about that game," added Don James. "You can look this up, but I don't think LSU won another game after that, and Stovall got fired. I'm pretty sure that they didn't win a game the rest of the way, with a great team like that. It was one of those incredible things about college football."

Don James was mostly correct. After demolishing Washington, LSU lost three in a row, managed to beat South Carolina, before losing their remaining games to finish 4-7. Coach Jerry Stovall was promptly fired at the end of the season. Dalton Hilliard went on to play for several years in the NFL and is currently a member of the New Orleans Saints Hall of Fame.

The Huskies finished the 1983 regular season at 8-3, before losing to Penn State in the Aloha Bowl.
Derek Johnson can be reached at derekjohnson1@verizon.net

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