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LSU's Tiger Stadium roars into its 90th season

Posted August 22, 2014

By Ron Higgins - New Orleans Times Picayune -

 

My name is Tiger Stadium. I'm older, bigger and badder than ever.

This is my 90th full football season. I've grown to 102,321 seats, so you better make those earplugs a little thicker.

I've brought families together for generations. You've cheered, jeered, laughed, cried, lived large with the wins, died a thousand deaths with the losses, fired whoever's the head coach several times per game, second-guessed playcalling, booed officiating and bellowed "Geaux Tigers" and "Tiger Bait" until you were hoarse.

In my student section, you've had blind dates, kind dates, bad dates, drunk dates, dates you never want to see again, dates that you hope call for a second date, fights that usually start over nothing but a spilled drink and occasional marriage proposals fueled with help of your buddies Jack Daniels, Jim Beam and Captain Morgan.

My name has always been my name. I have never been Tabasco Tiger Stadium or Tiger Stadium at Café du Monde Field. I've never sold my naming rights to a corporate sponsor or filthy rich alum.

I've always had a natural grass field. Sometimes I wonder why I've never tried artificial turf, but now I understand the reason. Some coaches actually like to eat my grass.

In recent years, I'm not too vain to admit I've had some facelifts. I even style and profile at night, as I'm now bathed in purple lights inside and out. I don't care if I look like the world's largest purple nightlight. I'm diggin' the new look.

My first game ever was actually what new restaurants call a "soft" opening. In the beginning, I had 12,000 seats and I wasn't even completed when LSU lost to Tulane, 13-0, in the final game of the 1924 season. The Tigers got that losing-to-Tulane thing fixed, but it took awhile.

There wasn't enough funding at times to add more seats to me, but if you know Louisiana politics, we always find a loophole. There was funding available for dormitories, so Gov. Huey P. Long once built dormitories into me that expanded my capacity.

Tigers' fans believe there's a hex that hovers above me when TV networks schedule day games or when LSU is occasionally forced by opponent to wear purple jerseys instead of the traditional white.

The triple voodoo trifecta is playing a day home game in the rain wearing purple jerseys.

They say it never rains in me, but that's not true. We do have sporadic "stiff dew" as current Tigers' coach Les Miles likes to say.

The only sure thing in my house is when everyone stands, raises their flasks or brown paper bags and toasts my public announcer Dan Borne as he reminds everyone "alcoholic beverages in Tiger Stadium are strictly prohibited."

Yet when you hear the Golden Band from Tigerland play DAH DAH DAAAAAH DAH as the opening notes of the pregame show, you know it's time to get on your gameface because kickoff is minutes away.

Visiting teams eventually learn the hard way that when they enter Death Valley - that's my nickname - almost every element is against them.

For instance, I was still green and growing in 1949 when No. 6 North Carolina came to town riding a 22-game win streak, powered by its dynamic running back Charlie "Choo Choo" Justice.

After North Carolina worked out on my field on Friday afternoon the day before the game, there was supposedly a "miscommunication" that caused my field to get watered twice, first by LSU's managers and then by my grounds crew. "Choo Choo" couldn't slog his way through a man-made swamp, and the Tigers won 13-7.

There are also times when my game clock can be a conveniently slow, like in 1972 when the Tigers somehow ran three plays in the final 10 seconds to edge Ole Miss, 17-16.

Poor Ole Miss. No wonder its fans can't stand the sight of purple and gold. Seems like there has been a history of unexplainable bad events that happen to the Rebels almost every time they enter me.

It's not just Billy Cannon's fourth-quarter 89-yard TD punt return Halloween night 1959 for a 7-3 LSU win. Or also Odell Beckham Jr. running the same exact distance with a punt in the fourth quarter in 2012 to rally the Tigers to a 41-35 victory.

In between those returns, there's a whole lot of goofy stuff, like LSU split end Doug Moreau catching a game-winning two-point conversion pass in 1964 that bounced off the shoulder pad of Ole Miss defender Tom Luke. Or in 1970 when the Tigers scored on an NCAA-record three kick returns and intercepted five passes in a 61-17 beatdown. Ole Miss QB Archie Manning gamely tried to play that night wearing a cast over his healing broken left arm.

If a man-made flood, a friendly timekeeper, balmy weather and the wall of noise don't send visiting opponents back home losers, then maybe my replay board director will.

Kevin Wagner was LSU's video production coordinator when he was awarded a game ball following a 30-28 overtime victory over Alabama in Nick Saban's first year as the Tigers' coach in 2000. While officials huddled to debate which team recovered a key fumble at the LSU 14, Wagner kept replaying the play on my massive south end zone replay screen until officials were convinced to award LSU the ball.

"The player of the game is the JumboTron operator," Saban declared.

A few times, I've had games rescheduled because of hurricanes. Besides the 2005 double-whammy of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Hurricane Betsy came roarin' right up the mighty Mississippi River in '64, making landfall on an October Saturday that the Tigers were supposed to play Florida. That game got rescheduled to December, and the Gators won 20-6 thanks to the efforts of a sophomore quarterback named Steve Spurrier.

That wouldn't be the last I'd see of him, because he eventually coached his alma mater and now coaches South Carolina.

In 1993 when the Tigers were guided by Curley Hallman, one of the few coaches in SEC history named after one of the Three Stooges, Spurrier's Gators scored the most points (58) ever against LSU in my house.

But four years later when Florida was the defending national champion and ranked No. 1, the Tigers won, 28-21. In the final seconds of that game, LSU athletic director Joe Dean was told that there might be a problem at the end of the game if fans rushed the field to tear down my goalposts.

I WANT THEM TO TEAR 'EM DOWN!" thundered Dean, reveling in the only time the Tigers beat a No. 1 ranked team on my field.

Plenty of legendary coaches have walked my opposing sidelines. The best ones knew what awaited them - fired-up Tigers' faithful beating on opposing team buses, Mike the Tiger sitting in a cage next to the opposing team's field entrance, and constantly shrieking fans who only pause when taking a sip of something to stoke their bravado.

Legendary Alabama coach Bear Bryant faced the mayhem head-on. His team always arrived early and walked my field in street clothes two hours before kickoff. The Bear always made it a point to amble slowly to the northwest corner, stand at about the 20-yard line hash marks and let the LSU student body pepper him with boos and insults for several minutes.

LSU fans can bring it when they're angry, especially when they feel betrayed by men who coached the Tigers to national championships and left for new jobs.

Paul Dietzel and Nick Saban were head coaches of the 1958 and 2003 LSU national championship teams. With Dietzel coaching South Carolina in 1965 and Saban guiding Alabama in 2008, both had the cojones to walk through my doors to face the Tigers and a fan base that once put them on a pedestal. 

South Carolina lost and Alabama won in those instances, but there weren't too many LSU fans yelling, "We love you, Coach!"

History indicates that LSU's 7-6 win vs. No. 4 Auburn in the 1988 "Earthquake Game" might have been the most thrilling finish in me, because the crowd reaction from Tommy Hodson's game-winning TD pass registered on a seismograph in the geology building.

But considering LSU needed the win to continue its march to the 2007 national championship, it's hard to top Matt Flynn's 22-yard game-winning TD pass to a sliding Demetrius Byrd with one second left for a 30-24 victory over Auburn.

Since LSU needed just a field goal for the victory, it's the only game I've ever hosted that 90,000-plus fans and a national TV audience were simultaneously exclaiming "What in the hell . ." as Flynn dropped back to pass as the clock ticked down.

Some of the most magical moments are when traditional inter-sectional powers visit me, such as the night Notre Dame came calling for the first time in 1971. The combination of a heavy Catholic population in South Louisiana, plus the game being a primetime ABC telecast, sent the pregame build-up skyrocketing.

The Tigers won 28-8, with Bert Jones throwing two TDs and his cousin wide receiver Andy Hamilton catching three scores, absolutely embarrassing Notre Dame all-everything cornerback Clarence Ellis in the process.

That win brought much pleasure, but the 17-12 loss to No. 1 USC in 1979 resulted in heartache that has stood the test of time. On his deathbed, LSU coach Charles McClendon lamented the phantom facemask penalty called on Tigers' defensive tackle Benjy Thibodeaux that kept USC's winning TD drive alive. USC had a roster that would produce 12 first-round NFL draft choices, two Heisman Trophy winners and two future Pro Football Hall of Famers.

Some nights when you walk in me and settle in your seats, you never know what you'll see that you'll remember for a lifetime.

Like in 1977 when a Tigers' sophomore receiver named Carlos Carson caught the first five passes of his college career - all touchdowns - in a 77-0 win over Rice.

There was the time in November 1982 when the weather forecast was cloudy with a chance of falling oranges. At the end of LSU's 55-21 victory over Florida State when freshman running back Dalton Hilliard accounted for four TDs, Tigers' fans celebrated the win that clinched an Orange Bowl berth by showering their heroes with oranges. It was a good day for Baton Rouge produce stands.

Then there was that crazy game in 2008 when LSU tried to sleepwalk its way through a non-conference game against Troy, which led 31-3 with 11:38 left in the third quarter. Finally, someone unlocked the Tigers' dressing room door and let the real team out, because LSU then scored 37 points in the game's final 16:26 for a 40-31 victory.

At the end of every season, the quiet from December to August allows me to contemplate if I've seen it all. I wonder if it can really get any crazier.

But every September, when I'm full of life again with old friends and new, when the latest Tigers' come bouncing out of my north end tunnel in their clean white jerseys, the party starts all over again.

DAH DAH DAAAAAH DAH indeed.