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Tigers Football, Politics Could Mix Again

by (@LSUsports)
Tigers Football, Politics Could Mix Again

By David Steinle
Special to

Another election cycle has come and gone, and now the task of making the tough decisions on Capitol Hill and the nation’s 50 states begins, as men and women across the nation have been selected to make those decisions in 534 of the 535 House races, all 50 governor’s races and 99 of the 100 U.S. Senate elections.

That one senate seat that is unaccounted for, of course, is in Louisiana. In case you have been in a cave since 8 p.m. on election night, the race for the U.S. Senate will come down to a runoff between incumbent U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu and Elections Commissioner Suzanne Haik Terrell on December 7, which Dan Rather constantly referred to as Pearl Harbor Day.

But for LSU football fans, they’re hoping to be nowhere near the state of Louisiana when the election returns are counted on the night of December 7. They’re hoping that their beloved Bayou Bengals are in the Georgia Dome, playing either Georgia or Florida for the Southeastern Conference championship.

Unlike Landrieu, who couldn’t control her destiny when it came to the more than one million Louisianans who cast their ballots on Tuesday, the Tigers are certainly in control of their fate when it comes to defending their SEC title.

Yes, the 31-7 loss to Auburn on Oct. 26 is a sobering reminder of the stakes that are played for every week in the nation’s best college football. But the bottom line remains the same as it did before that lousy Saturday on the Plains, and that is LSU needs help from nobody but themselves to have a chance to repeat as conference champions.

Ironically, when Landrieu ran the first time for the Senate, the primary was held on Sept. 21, 1996 — the day LSU went to Jordan-Hare Stadium and took a dramatic 19-15 victory in a game that is more famous for the fire that destroyed the old Auburn Sports Arena (the Auburn sports information office dubbed the game, “The Night the Barn Burned”).

Should LSU return to Atlanta, it will once again set up a very interesting day for what are two of Louisiana’s greatest passions — LSU football and politics. In fact, the two are so intertwined that the LSU political science department could probably fill up three sections of a course on the link between LSU football and Louisiana politics if it ever offered such a course.

Since Baton Rouge is not only the seat of state government but also the home of the flagship university and its nationally renowned athletic program, it’s only natural that Louisiana politicians through the years have wanted to get on the front of the Tiger football bandwagon.

It all started in the early 1930s with the Kingfish himself, Governor and U.S. Senator Huey Long. Long was an unabashed supporter of LSU and used his considerable powers to help build the Tigers into one of the south’s great football powers. It was under Huey’s watch that night football became a sacred rite of Tiger Stadium in 1931, and three years later, he pulled off one of the greatest ticket promotions in LSU history.

In 1934, with ticket sales lagging for an LSU-Vanderbilt football game due to a circus, Long reminded the circus handlers of an obscure Louisiana law that required all animals to receive an antibacterial dip before entering the state. The circus handlers were thrown; the football game’s ticket sales soared.

Long was assassinated at the state capitol he built in 1935, but in the three decades after his death, he could have never envisioned what became of the phenomenon we know today as LSU football. Over the 28 seasons after Long’s passing, LSU claimed five SEC championships, participated in seven Sugar Bowls and 12 New Year’s Day bowl games, and won the 1958 national championship.

Strangely enough, no governor after Long had close connections to the Tiger football team until 1964, when a little known Public Service Commissioner from rural Caldwell Parish in northeast Louisiana assumed the new mansion along what is now Interstate 110. But over the next 25 years, the Tigers would have no bigger fan than John McKeithen.

McKeithen is known for other things around other parts of Louisiana — building the Superdome, ending segregation, becoming the first governor to be re-elected — but around Baton Rouge, the greatest claim to fame for Big John was his big support of the LSU athletic program, and most notably the late, great coach, Charles McClendon.

After the death of athletic director Jim Corbett in 1967, it was McKeithen who led the charge before LSU chancellor Paul Murrill and the Board of Supervisors for McClendon to assume Corbett’s duties as athletic director. Although the Board chose Carl Maddox (a very wise move that is still paying dividends to this day), McClendon got a substantial raise and the power he would need to keep the Tigers competitive with Bryant, Dooley, Jordan, Vaught and the other powers of college football.

McKeithen would give Tiger fans another gift just prior to leaving office when he helped negotiate a new contract and a substantial raise for McClendon following the 1971 season, when it appeared Texas A&M was prepared to give him a 10-year contract and one big farm around College Station to replace Gene Stallings.

In his final months in the mansion, McKeithen would be instrumental in the hiring of basketball coach Dale Brown, and even after his political retirement, he could still be seen in his box at Tiger Stadium, watching his favorite team take the field, and much more often than not emerge victorious.

Governor Dave Treen appointed Big John to the Board of Supervisors in the early 1980s, where he was on the Board that hired great LSU coaches like Sue Gunter, Karen Bahnsen, Pat Henry and Skip Bertman (all of whom are still in Tigertown, with Bertman now serving as athletics director), along with football coaches Bill Arnsparger and Mike Archer. It was McKeithen who also issued one of the all-time great lines in LSU history during the 1983 hearing that led to the dismissal of football coach Jerry Stovall, when McKeithen told the late athletic director Bob Brodhead, “Sir, you do not know LSU like I do, and you never will.”

The world of politics and football would mix again in 1971 surrounding just who succeed McKeithen in the governor’s chair.

While the Tigers were dusting off Iowa State in the Sun Bowl in El Paso on Dec. 18 of that year, back home on the Bayou, a 44-year old congressman from Crowley named Edwin Washington Edwards was locked in a life-or-death race against a 35-year old state senator from Shreveport, J. Bennett Johnston, for the Democratic nomination for governor (this was the last year of the party primaries in Louisiana; the open primary law took effect in 1975). In fact, The Morning Advocate ran in its front-page story the day of the primary that the LSU football game would likely have an impact on turnout.

Whether or not the football game did impact turnout is still up for debate to this day, but in the end, Edwards edged Johnston by 4,488 votes and went on to four terms as governor. Johnston would rout McKeithen the next year to replace Allen Ellender in the U.S. Senate, but one couldn’t help but wonder if many of Johnston’s voters were distracted by the goings-on in El Paso, as likely the majority of LSU fans backed Johnston.

Three decades later, could it happen again? Landrieu and Terrell will be as visible as LSU coach Nick Saban, Bradie James and the rest of the Tigers for the next four weeks, trying to convince the people of Louisiana that their agenda is right on Capitol Hill for the next six years.

The candidates can’t follow the voters into the polls. Fortunately for LSU, no such drama or mystery exists on their path to the SEC championship-four games, four wins, and it’s book the trip back to Atlanta.

Politics and football-it can only happen here in Louisiana. Enjoy!