With half the regular season having been played, Georgia is headed to Baton Rouge for a critical encounter with the LSU Tigers, a team with renewed optimism, brought on by a new coach with an old hand (Offensive Coordinator Steve Ensminger who once toiled between the hedges) with potency, national rank, along with such tradition as “jambalaya, crawfish pie and a file-gumbo.”
There has always been a mystique about LSU, dating back to the fifties when the Tigers had the biggest stadium (60,000 plus) in the SEC and played their games on Saturday night when the outside world could only be reached by radio. On the east side of the league there were listening parties, the centerpiece of which was the radio broadcast of the LSU (and Ole Miss) games.
In Nashville, when television was budding into an impactful medium, Larry Munson listened to his friend John Ferguson call LSU games over the 50,000-watt clear channel signal on WWL, emanating from New Orleans, but not for long. He had to turn in early to get up before daybreak to go tape his weekly fishing show.
In Payne Hall, the athletic dorm at Georgia during this era, we gathered around the one affluent player who had a radio that could pick up the signal that told us what was going on in Baton Rouge. In the background, you could hear the roar of the fans which made your mind race with fantasy and envy. What would it be like to see a game at Tiger Stadium?
It became the goal of many SEC fans on the Eastern side of the conference to be an eye-witness to a game in Tiger Stadium. Georgia had often played games in Baton Rouge, but that was before Tiger Stadium became the iconic facility that was the class of the SEC. In that era, all the football coaches, except at Kentucky with Bernie Shively, were athletic directors. They, more often than not, scheduled games with their friends.
Bernie Moore, the LSU coach who would become the commissioner of the SEC, had coached Wallace Butts at Mercer. The teams played as far back as 1928 and there were back to back games in 1936, but the rivalry became serious during the forties with Bernie Moore and Wallace Butts becoming head coaches at LSU and Georgia, respectively.
The legendary Dan Magill often recalled the story of LSU coming to Athens and becoming bent on storming the field when LSU upset the Bulldogs between the hedges. That happened to be the day that the Hanna Bat Co. gave away miniature baseball bats as a promotion. Hanna was second only to Louisville Slugger in manufacturing baseball bats which were distributed across the country.
The aggressive LSU students were not aware that the Georgia student body was armed with those miniature bats, but what they didn’t realize was that there was a heavy duty wire fence that ran down the center of Georgia’s famous hedges.
When the LSU cadets tried to jump over the hedges, they got hung up in that fence and the Georgia students then took action with the Hanna miniature bats. The cadets were easily subdued and were chased to the train station where the visitors found sanctuary before the long, train ride back to Baton Rouge.
If you are familiar with that story, you could not enjoy it to the fullest if you didn’t hear Magill recall it over several cans of beer at Harry’s Restaurant at Five Points. To hear Magill tell any story of any favorable Bulldog vignette, made you think that it was a greater than the underdog overachievers at Thermopylae. Magill was the bard for the ages.
LSU has always had outstanding teams and players and their glory was not confined to football. Dating back, they had a Herschel Walker type back, named Steve Van Buren. Then came Billy Cannon in the fifties. There were Shaq and Pete Maravich who made Tiger basketball nationally prominent. LSU has been excellent in track and baseball seemingly forever.
For years, Louisiana car tags carried the slogan, “Fisherman’s Paradise.” The state of Louisiana has a mix of cultures and traditions. There is so much to explore and enjoy from a nice dinner at Beau Bridge to immersing yourself into Cajun culture along the Atchafalaya Basin. I spent a memorable evening at the Cajun Grand Ole Opry in Eunice and was the beneficiary of a tour of Avery Island and the Tabasco production facilities, hosted by the late Paul McIlhenny, whose daughter is a UGA graduate.
It was fascinating to hear the foreman speak in French to the army of workers, who produced the world famous product. The French, by the way, like Tabasco sauce as do most international societies.
Of course, there is nothing like football on a Saturday in Baton Rouge. The signature game, historically, for Tiger aficionados has always been the 1959 LSU victory over Ole Miss in one of the classic games of the SEC. The pre-season favorites to win the conference title was LSU and Ole Miss. The Tigers had won the national championship in 1958 with Billy Cannon and was considered the team to beat. Close behind those two was Auburn.
When Cannon returned a punt 89 yards, with Ole Miss leading 3-0, that knocked the Rebels out of the conference race. The next Saturday in Knoxville, LSU, having celebrated all week, needed to score on a two-point conversion play late in the fourth quarter to stay undefeated. Tennessee stopped Cannon on a rush and that knocked LSU out of the running (as it turned out).
This opened the door for Georgia to become the surprise team in the league which set up a showdown for the SEC title between the hedges when undefeated, but once-tied Auburn, came to town. Georgia’s 14-13 upset enabled the Bulldogs to win the championship.
I have always had a fascination about the Billy Cannon run. I was listening with some of the Georgia stars at Payne Hall. Little did we know how impactful Cannon’s run would be for the ‘Dogs.
When I was a senior at Georgia, the SEC track championship was hosted by LSU. I went over to Tiger Stadium and walked down the field, imaging how it was on Halloween night when Cannon returned that Ole Miss punt.
I was too young, too immature to think about the significance of my campus experience. Years later, it began to sink in. College football was something special.
Since that trip to Baton Rouge, I have become a “campus collector.” I will go out of my way to spend time on a college campus, and I always visit the football stadium and relive vicariously the home team’s unforgettable moments.