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Tales of a Superfan 

When your first-born is due and your team is advancing to the Sugar Bowl, which comes first: the baby or the Tiger? When you're talking LSU football, no answers are easy.

It's a sickness, a life-long affliction. At times, I have conned myself into believing I'm above such things. And yet, upon reflection, mine is all the worse, isn't it? I recognize the purple-and-gold Kool-Aid for what it is, but it doesn't save me from swilling along with everyone else.

Our subject is not just football, it is college football, a subspecies still capable of shucking the yoke of corporate politesse. And the locus of lunatics, in college football terms, lies just up the road in Baton Rouge, which, as anyone aligned with the school in any way will tell you, is home to the LSU Fighting Tigers, the defending national champions of college football.

Ah, that was nice, wasn't it? The defending national champions of college football. These are words to savor, for LSU, despite its frenzied fans and innumerable traditions -- a superstition of wearing white jerseys at home, avoiding day games at any cost (save the riches of network telecasts), the roaring live tiger stationed next to the visiting team's tunnel -- has suffered on the football field through much of the past 25 years.

Now glory has been restored. Last January, in New Orleans -- what symmetry -- LSU clawed its way to a 21-14 upset of the Oklahoma Sooners in the Sugar Bowl. It marked the second championship in school history. (We shall dispatch with haste the ignominious co-national championship awarded to Southern California.)

The other title came in 1958, a time when the game was altogether different. For starters, it was still segregated. Star running back Billy Cannon and the Chinese Bandits, the scrappy third-teamers known for wreaking havoc on opponents, remain cultural touchstones in Louisiana. For many, the 45 years since those glory days had been both a blink and an eternity.

For those who weren't around in 1958, such halcyon triumphs seemed as distant as the Ottoman Empire. I am 35. I wasn't cognizant when Bert Jones found Brad Davis in the end zone for a 10-yard, game-winning touchdown on the last play against Ole Miss at Tiger Stadium in November 1972. I vaguely remember the 1979 near-miss against top-ranked Southern Cal, a 17-12 loss decided by a phantom face-mask penalty called against Benjy Thibodeaux.

Writer John Ed Bradley played in that game and, in a stirring tribute to the ineffable pull of LSU football, described the lingering pain. Twenty-two years later, Bradley drove to Baton Rouge to visit Charles McClendon on his deathbed. Just before Bradley left McClendon's bedside, the former LSU coach mentioned the bitter aftertaste of losing that game. And, as Bradley later wrote in Sports Illustrated, emotion overwhelmed him as he responded to McClendon's memories of that long-ago September night:

"'Benjy Thibodeaux didn't face-mask anybody,' I said, the heat rising in my face as I started to argue against a referee's call that nothing would ever change."

Birth of a Champion

My daughter, Katharine, was born last December. She is our first child and, thus, much anxiety and anticipation preceded her arrival. My wife and I, in a lapse of reason and judgment, had concocted a pregnancy coinciding with football season.

Nick Saban, the laconic LSU coach, took no notice of my plight. The 52-year-old football coach, a man so given to terse assessments he often had to reassure reporters and fans of his happiness after major victories, started his fourth season in Baton Rouge with a talented team, but not one expected to challenge for a national title.

Most preseason predictions found LSU lacking in its own conference, forget championship potential. In the Southeastern Conference's West division, Auburn was the projected winner. The other Tigers -- Auburn has long tried to stake a claim on literacy by using three nicknames (Plainsmen and War Eagles are the others) -- were loaded with a stellar defense and a star running back nicknamed Cadillac.

Since I now live in North Carolina, much of my time is spent calculating how to attend a few LSU football games each season. With Auburn's ferocious resume, the Oct. 25 game in Baton Rouge was a must-see. And, as the University of South Carolina is just 90 minutes from my home, LSU's Oct. 18 road game in Columbia made perfect sense. The rest would be TV affairs and, for the odd non-televised game, online radio broadcasts would soothe (or irritate) my nerves.

The early weeks of the season went smoothly. It was jarring. With LSU, I always expect collapse. Living through the coaching eras of Jerry Stovall, Bill Arnsparger (master of two Sugar Bowl debacles against Nebraska), Mike Archer, Curley Hallman (the worst coach in school history) and Gerry DiNardo (renowned for losing complete control of team discipline and wasting copious amounts of talent) will do that to you.

Saban didn't come without baggage. He had suffered late-season failures at Michigan State before he arrived at LSU in 2000. His prickly, no-nonsense demeanor didn't mesh well with the laissez-les-bon-temps-roulez crowd. Mark Emmert, LSU's chancellor at the time, brought Saban to Baton Rouge with a five-year contract worth $1.2 million annually.

In typical fashion, LSU fans grumbled. After years of complaining about the university's lack of financial commitment when it came to coaches -- Florida's Steve Spurrier and Florida State's Bobby Bowden each, at the time, earned well over $1 million -- some were piqued over Saban's lucrative deal.

Emmert, now at the University of Washington, says the salary was in line with what established, major-conference coaches were receiving at other schools. And, with a major stadium expansion under way at LSU, success on the field was paramount.

"This wasn't a time," Emmert says, "for on-the-job training."

During his first season leading the Tigers, Saban's squad lost -- at home, no less -- to lowly Alabama-Birmingham. This in Louisiana, a state that couldn't accept losing to the University of Alabama when it was led by the greatest college coach in the game's history, Bear Bryant.

Now, muttered the Cajuns and the Yats and the Baptists from up North, we can't even beat Alabama-Birmingham? Send this guy back to Michigan State, and fast.

Pregnant Pause

Saban and LSU rallied after that ignominious episode, winning a berth in the Peach Bowl and scoring a come-from-behind victory over Georgia Tech. The pieces, it seemed, were in place for future glories.

This brief period of detente snapped after the seventh game of the following season, a 35-24 loss to Ole Miss. Not only had the hated Rebels waxed LSU at Tiger Stadium, they had done it with native son Eli Manning at the helm and his father, the former Ole Miss and New Orleans Saints quarterback Archie, smiling from the stands.

At that point in the 2001 season, LSU was 4-3. The chorus for Saban's removal roared. Then, everything clicked. The Tigers, led by a bulky, cocky quarterback named Rohan Davey, reeled off four straight wins to close the season. The streak put LSU in the conference championship game in Atlanta for the first time in school history, where an even more improbable scenario unfolded.

In Atlanta, LSU faced Tennessee, the second-ranked team in the country. With an anticipated win over the Tigers, Tennessee would advance to a national title showdown in the Rose Bowl. The school's orange-clad faithful had snapped up most of the tickets at the Georgia Dome, so certain were they of an SEC championship. LSU fans, in the minority, nonetheless met their longstanding expectations of superior noise and inebriation.

Davey was hurt early in the game, replaced by a nobody named Matt Mauck. Since most LSU fans had never so much as glimpsed Mauck beyond the sideline, Tennessee's defense certainly had not given him any thought. This unusual quandary of quixotic quarterbacking made it hard to defend a string of broken-play scrambles and keepers. Mauck's unexpected grit propelled LSU to a 31-20 win and its first conference title since 1988.

That win in Atlanta put LSU in the Sugar Bowl, which helps explain how I found myself dancing, with neither skill nor dignity, at an impromptu post-game celebration underneath a Georgia Dome overpass as a Cajun RV blasted Def Leppard's "Pour Some Sugar on Me" across the corporate skyline of the New South. This is what LSU football induces.

And the Cradle Will Rock

Saban endured an 8-5 season in 2002, a year marked by devastating injuries and a late-season swoon, followed by a humbling loss to Texas in the Cotton Bowl. Now Mauck was healthy and Saban and recruited another bumper crop of Louisiana talent.

So, 2003: Following quick wins over Louisiana-Monroe, Arizona and Western Illinois, a Tiger Stadium showdown with SEC rivals Georgia presented a huge test. Mauck lofted a 34-yard touchdown pass to Skyler Green with 3:03 left for a hard-fought, 17-10 win. Even more impressive was the LSU defense, which bullied Georgia's crafty quarterback, David Greene, into submission. The nouveau Bandits did unto Georgia those things that are normally done unto LSU.

With the vanquishing of Georgia, I began thinking about the SEC championship game, scheduled for Dec. 6 in Atlanta. Katharine was due to arrive in the world Dec. 12, which would make even a little four-hour jaunt to the Georgia Dome a dicey proposal. Casting my faith in LSU's relentless ability to disappoint, I figured either Katharine would arrive early, or LSU would fade, before my little lady-or-the-Tigers dilemma blossomed.

One week later LSU crushed Mississippi State, 41-6. I watched on ESPN2, certain the Tigers would have a letdown after the emotional win the previous week. Instead, they put it away early. LSU was 5-0, its best start since 1973.

Finally, the wrecking ball arrived. Under gray skies, LSU lost to the Florida Gators, 19-7. Such disappointment set up my journey to Columbia a week later, where a friend's tickets in the upper reaches of Williams-Brice Stadium -- the visiting team's section, filled with Boudreauxs and Guidrys and Landrys attired in purple-and-gold finery -- left my wife laboring up the steep stadium steps while wondering, yet again, why she had ever consented to spend her life with me.

It was all for Katharine's own good. After all, as our daughter's days in the womb dwindled, she had yet to experience LSU football in the flesh, relying solely on her father's curses meted out against the backdrop of televised Tiger skirmishes.

Two freshman running backs, Alley Broussard and Justin Vincent, assuaged any concerns Katharine would be greeted with a loss. LSU won, 33-7. Having done our family duty in South Carolina, I boarded a plane for Louisiana the following week as Auburn and the Cadillac arrived at Tiger Stadium, which, as even the most casual fan knows, is always, always referred to as Death Valley.

(A brief digression: Another football-obsessed Southern school, Clemson University, calls its stadium Death Valley (and its team Tigers). Former Clemson coach Frank Howard made the designation stick in 1966, when he installed a rock taken from Death Valley, Calif., at the top of a hill near the field for the Clemson players to rub for luck as they took the field. Nice tradition, but, as Clemson began playing football in 1896, and LSU did so in 1893, the Clemsonites are little more than newbies inhabiting a faux Death Valley. To settle the debate, it must be remembered LSU beat Clemson 7-0 to win the 1958 national title.)

A pre-game thunderstorm prevented the vaunted Golden Band from Tigerland ("Daaah-dah-dah-dum," the first four notes of the fight song, serve as a mandate for horripilation across the Bayou State) from taking the field. But Saban paid no heed. Led by defensive lineman Chad Lavalais, the Tigers smacked the Tigers-Plainsmen-War Eagles, 31-7.

Hot Diggity Dawg

Now LSU was taking command of the SEC West, which meant a return trip to Atlanta for the conference championship was becoming more likely for the Tigers. As the Tigers waltzed past Louisiana Tech and Alabama -- a 27-3 rolling of the Tide that, no doubt, had Bryant growling from the heavens -- I lightly remarked on the SEC title game.

"Wouldn't that be a great story?" I asked my wife, resting my hand on her stomach as Katharine booted imaginary footballs from the womb. "Daddy had to drive back from the Georgia Dome to get home for the birth." The light banter produced no gain. Any trips to Atlanta during the final term of the pregnancy would be one-way affairs.

Chagrined, I fell back on the hope of an early arrival. With a Dec. 12 due date, Miss Katharine could come as early as Thanksgiving. My monumental problems were briefly overshadowed as Saban and the gang headed for Oxford, Miss., for a rematch with Eli Manning and the Rebels. The SEC West title was on the line and Manning was now a strong Heisman Trophy candidate. But Lavalais and the LSU defense proved relentless. In a tidy bit of drama, the Tigers preserved the 17-14 win when Manning tripped over his own lineman as he took the snap from center and fell to the ground on fourth down.

On Dec. 6, I was in my living room, mewling as CBS set the stage for the SEC championship. Vincent, the freshman running back who starred in the South Carolina game, led a 34-13 romp over the homestanding Georgia Bulldogs. My self-pity over missing the trip had gone on hiatus as it finally hit me that, yes, there really was a baby on the way. That and the assurance from my wife that a trip to LSU's bowl game would be permissible, assuming all went well with delivery.

This last took on significant importance, as the Big 12 conference championship -- played the same night LSU walloped Georgia -- engendered a series of fortunate events too ridiculous to have been contemplated. Oklahoma, dubbed the greatest college team in history by some experts, fell apart against two-touchdown underdog Kansas State in the Big 12 championship, disrupting an anticipated title bout with Southern Cal.

Based on a Bowl Championship Series formula that makes nuclear fission a snap, LSU -- armed with its 12-1 season, the SEC title and its strength of schedule -- received, on Dec. 7, an invitation to face Oklahoma for the national title in New Orleans.

How Sweet It Is

This being a football tale, there is little need to muddle through the miracle of life. Katharine, five days late but healthy, arrived Dec. 17. I admit to some guilt over skipping what would have been a glorious celebration in Atlanta at the SEC championship, but, alas, births are a bit unpredictable.

My new mission was finding Sugar Bowl tickets while tending diaper duty. Half of Louisiana was already up in arms over the scarcity of tickets. A friend from ABC Sports, the network carrying the game, offered tickets. I boarded a plane for New Orleans on Jan. 2, leaving my wife and 2-week-old daughter in the capable hands of Eli Manning as he tossed touchdown passes on our living room TV.

In the press conferences leading up to the game, Saban, a master of coach-speak, talked about handling success and being task-oriented rather than result-oriented, and so on. The hopes of an entire state sat on him like a beignet binge, but Saban showed no signs of heartburn, save the inconvenience of dealing with frumpy sportswriters when he could be back at the team hotel examining third-and-long formations.

This frightening single-mindedness, of course, is what makes him so successful. And, despite a childhood in West Virginia, Saban displays none of the good ol' boy charm endemic to most Southern football coaches. Saban not only wins, he also represents the school in the manner of an efficient CEO.

On Jan. 4, he won the biggest game of his life, and the biggest in Louisiana since 1958. Behind the ferocious defense, as well as the now-familiar freshman runner Vincent, LSU battered Oklahoma's Heisman-winning quarterback, Jason White, and held on for a 7-point win. I'm still not quite convinced LSU won the national championship, though a quick glance at my national champions cap, T-shirt, commemorative magazine and newspapers all confirm it. No need to get overzealous about a football game, right?

Poll Position

ABC's pre-game show at the Sugar Bowl included an appearance by the renowned "Ragin' Cajun," political strategist James Carville. He is an LSU graduate and an ardent Tigers fan, embodying the state's chief passions: politics and football.

I watched Carville make his way down the sidelines at the Superdome during pre-game warm-ups last January, stopping to pose with the LSU Golden Girls dance team and elicit cheers from the student section. He looked like any other middle-aged man who might have been lucky enough to wind up on the field before a championship football game involving his favorite team: giddy and amused.

Months later, when I caught up with Carville by telephone at his Washington, D.C., office, he seemed a bit impatient and wary about an interview until I mentioned LSU football.

Then, he became animated. And, save a stint helping Bill Clinton become the Leader of the Free World, Carville's story isn't much different from thousands of others in Louisiana. He grew up going to LSU games, worshipping Saturday nights in Death Valley. At 59, he can recall sitting in the stands on Halloween night in 1959 as Billy Cannon scooped up an Ole Miss punt at his own 11-yard line, dodging and darting past seven would-be tacklers and heading for the east sideline on his way to an electrifying 89-yard touchdown run. The play, followed by a goal-line stand, clinched a 7-3 win and catapulted Cannon to the Heisman Trophy.

"My sisters still sit in the same seats where I watched that 45 years ago, and our family will still be there 45 years from now," Carville says. "It's ingrained in the culture. It's not just about the football game. I could give you a thousand reasons. I think what a lot of it has to do with is, fall is our time of year. You've made it through the long summer and that first snap of fall energizes you."

When he speaks of LSU football, Carville taps into its essence. The game, like almost every other ritual in Louisiana, is an excuse to eat and drink and tell lies. Much of the sacred appeal of playing night games, for example, stems from the additional tailgating time afforded by the later start. Ole Miss has the Grove and Green Bay has its bratwurst battalion. But cochon de lait? Only at LSU. And where else do you find heaping buckets of gumbo and jambalaya?

"You don't go to an LSU game by yourself," Carville says. "Sometimes, you know, I'll go to an Orioles game up in Baltimore with a friend. LSU football, it's not like that. It's everybody."

Which explains why so many RVs arrive for a Saturday night game on Thursday, setting up grills and burners for a 48-hour bacchanalia. My personal favorite: a devout crew of campers known for affixing a ceiling fan on a corner oak tree along the stadium route.

The Big Dipper

When William Faulkner explored the notion of the "human heart in conflict with itself," I suspect he wasn't thinking of LSU football. Yoknapatawpha County is Ole Miss territory, anyway.

Big-time college athletics are, like all entertainment businesses, often sordid affairs, marked by greed, petty feuds, internecine lunacy and not a little inflation of self-importance. James Carville rightly insists that Louisianians don't feel guilt over any of life's pleasures.

I am the embarrassing exception. Part of it stems from my college years as the sports editor at the LSU school paper. I've never liked the LSU football team less than when I covered it. Watching the administration bungle the firing of Mike Archer -- he learned of his demise when a local TV station informed him after a November 1990 practice session that LSU had hired a search firm several months earlier -- provided an exemplary lesson in the ugliness of such endeavors.

My time at LSU also taught me how distant the players are from student life. They tended to congregate at the athletic dorm and most were rarely seen beyond their cliques. Interviewing the players quickly taught a valuable lesson: We had little in common. Many were nice enough, some were not, but these weren't people I yearned to know more about to any great degree. I wanted the interesting stories and I enjoyed watching them play football, but there was no desire to become pals. The feeling, no doubt, was mutual.

Even LSU's greatest hero was anything but. Billy Cannon, the man who made the famous punt return on Halloween Night in 1959, who won a Heisman and who led the 1958 championship squad, was a local punch line by the time I started following LSU. He had been nabbed in a $6 million counterfeit scheme and went to prison for three years. His Heisman was hocked and now resides in a Baton Rouge rib joint for all to see, a testament to glory and stupidity.

Under Gerry DiNardo in the late-1990s, LSU would produce a string of blotter moments. Examples include star runner Cecil Collins, who failed drug tests and also exhibited a knack for breaking into the apartments of female acquaintances uninvited; senior wide receiver Larry Foster, nabbed for purse-snatching; and a number of players implicated in a long-distance campus call-scam. All that cheating and they still lost on Saturdays, too.

The fact that the football program was in tatters during much of my time in school no doubt colored my perspective, as well. A string of failures, beginning with Archer's third season in 1989, would haunt LSU and its rabid followers until Saban arrived in 2000.

Death Valley was still a special place, even during the down years. As with so many other mixed blessings in Louisiana, the hulking old stadium, opened in 1924, and the games' attendant pageantry were attributable to Huey P. Long.

Among other episodes, in 1934 Long banished the Barnum & Bailey circus from Baton Rouge, citing an obscure animal-dipping law -- which required elephants, tigers and the rest of the circus to be treated for potential illnesses before they could cross the state line -- to spur ticket sales for an LSU-SMU football game scheduled the same night. The ploy worked. It was also Long who nabbed the orchestra leader from the Blue Room of the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans, installing him as the LSU bandleader.

As for football, the eminent Long biographer T. Harry Williams described Long's marching band passion as one that led him to his inevitable role as "the most ardent and vociferous (LSU fan) in Louisiana." So ardent that he secured funding for a stadium expansion by installing student dorm rooms at Death Valley -- making the project one of educational purposes, at least technically speaking.

One student who later lived in those stadium dormitories was Gus Weill, who later became executive secretary for another rabid gubernatorial LSU fan, John McKeithen. Weill recalls McKeithen leaving the governor's mansion promptly on summer and fall afternoons to attend LSU football practices. Gov. McKeithen, surrounded by two burly state troopers, reveled in riling up enemy fans when he went to LSU road games, as well.

"Drunk Mississippians gave him particular pleasure," Weill says. "McKeithen would walk through the crowd, separate himself from the troopers and begin hollering, 'Tiger bait! Tiger bait!' One night some great big Mississippian asked McKeithen, 'Did I hear you holler Tiger Bait?' And McKeithen said, 'Yes, I did.' The man said, 'I'm going to whip your ass!' And McKeithen, with a great show of manhood, balled up his fists -- and by arrangement -- had his troopers come take him away before a punch was thrown. He took perverse pleasure in that."

Still, the Kingfish reigned supreme among political interventionists. Long's expectations were straightforward: "LSU can't have a losing team because that'll mean I'm associated with a loser."

Purple, Gold -- and White

"Unfortunately, and I think Saban and them being good has changed this, LSU football is a classically white endeavor in Louisiana," Carville says. "That's changed a little bit. You can't write anything about Louisiana without touching on race."

The same could be said for Southern college football, an institution Marino "Godfather" Casem, a legendary African-American college coach and administrator, summed up best.

"In the East," Casem said in an oft-quoted assessment, "college football is a cultural exercise. On the West Coast, it is a tourist attraction. In the Midwest, it is cannibalism. But in the South, it is religion. And Saturday is the Holy Day."

Football in the South, and in Louisiana, has been good and bad for race relations. Bill Curry, a former coach at Georgia Tech, Alabama and Kentucky, now works as a broadcaster for ESPN. He recalls boosters telling him to never have an African-American quarterback. He spent years searching one out, but was unable to land one before he left coaching.

Curry calls the racism in much of Southern college football's past -- and, to some extent, the present -- shameful. LSU played football for a century before its first African-American quarterback took the reins.

The Tigers have, historically, been no better or worse than their SEC brethren when it comes to racial matters. Lora Hinton was LSU's first African-American player, joining the team in 1971. Most schools in the South began integrating at about the same time, prompted by Bear Bryant's decision to integrate his Alabama squad. And what prompted Bryant? An African-American runner named Sam Cunningham, who scored three touchdowns for Southern Cal in a 1970 win over the Crimson Tide, convincing Bryant once and for all of diversity's merits.

By the late 1970s, African Americans such as Terry Robiskie and Charles Alexander were LSU stars, forever slamming the door on the notion of segregated football along the bayou.

Now LSU, like most big-time programs, has a number of African-American players at every position. One of the school's most popular players in recent years was Rohan Davey, an African-American quarterback. Still, LSU has never had a head coach of color. In fact, the 12-member SEC will have the first African-American coach in its history this season, when Sylvester Croom, a former player under Bear Bryant in the 1970s, takes over at Mississippi State.

And as for the crowd? It remains predominantly white at Tiger Stadium, especially as you go higher up toward the luxury suites. There are a number of societal reasons beyond football for this, but it is an undeniable aspect of the college game in Louisiana and across the South. As one astute academic observer put it, though, the game must also be credited for healing many racial wounds.

Southerners, in essence, put winning football games above racism, which is why Herschel Walker (Georgia), Bo Jackson (Auburn) and Emmitt Smith (Florida) chose to play college ball close to home. Now the grumblings are much more muted. When a school such as Florida banks its future on an African-American quarterback named Chris Leak, no one questions his ability because of race, as they might have as recently as 15 years ago.

Which explains how one of the greatest moments in LSU history, the Bluegrass Miracle at Kentucky in 2002, involved an African-American quarterback (Marcus Randall) throwing to an African-American receiver (Devery Henderson) and no one paid any notice. Racial miracles aside, the Randall-Henderson connection was a 75-yard touchdown pass with no time left on the clock. The ball fell into Henderson's hands after two Kentucky defenders deflected Randall's Hail Mary heave, and he scooted in for the winning score.

An Hour of Joy

LSU became the Tigers because of a particularly ferocious Civil War unit known as the Louisiana Tigers. It has been noted about a billion times that college football, for many Southerners, replaced the Civil War as a symbol of valor and redemption as the region wallowed in educational, social and economic malaise.

I don't find myself wondering about Petersburg and Sharpsburg when I watch the Bayou Bengals, but I can see some merit to this theory. For one, it could help several generations of grad students find a ripe thesis topic while watching a lot of college football. Hard to argue with that, if you can pull it off.

Even my mixed emotions only go so far. When I buy my new cap each season -- and my wife asks me yet again why I've purchased a khaki LSU cap identical to the ones filling my closet -- and the season approaches, I am helplessly smitten. Ridiculous as all these rituals may be, the LSU football season makes me feel the 800 or 900 miles between me and my home state is the equivalent of a city block. When Nick Saban tells a TV interviewer he enjoyed the national championship celebration for all of an hour before he started worrying about this season, you have to believe he's serious about his work.

This is why Katharine faces the hellish prospect of hearing me talk about what it was like to be at Death Valley in 1988, when an undefeated Auburn team had a 6-0 lead late in the fourth quarter.

It was then, as you will recall, that Tommy Hodson took LSU to the Auburn 20, where he converted on fourth-and-9, putting the ball on the 11. Two plays later, Hodson found Eddie Fuller for an open touchdown, but Fuller dropped the ball. Then -- this is when my daughter's eyes will glaze over -- Hodson told Fuller in the huddle, "Next time, catch it." On fourth down, Fuller did. LSU wins, 7-6, and, yes, the geology department's seismograph records a vibration at the same time, thus giving the game its legendary "earthquake" moniker.

She will also be forced to hear of the purple-and-gold legacy, which, as we all know, stems from an 1893 football trip to New Orleans. The Tigers, concerned their gray uniforms were a bit drab, went to Reymond's Store seeking ribbons to add a bit of dash. The store was stocking Mardi Gras colors -- purple, green and gold -- but the green hadn't yet arrived. LSU took the purple and gold in stock. Forget Andrew Jackson, this is true history.

Did I mention our old-school H-style goalposts yet? The Cajun-ready G-E-A-U-X Tigers shirts and the "Nick C'est Bon" bumper stickers? Or LSU's wonderful tradition of marking the field in 5-yard increments rather than the standard 10 along the sidelines? And the 1997 nationally televised upset of Spurrier's top-ranked, defending national champion Florida Gators at Death Valley?

Wait, wait, I haven't started on 2004 and the opener with Oregon State. ESPN's GameDay crew will be there all day, showing the nation yet again that we eat and drink and do little else in Louisiana.

All this and still no mention of how the LSU board scrambled to raise Saban's salary after the Sugar Bowl, making him the highest-paid coach in the country with a minimum payout of $2.3 million this season. Nobody muttered; instead, they crowed. "Give the man what he worth," Boudreaux and Guidry and Landry all insisted. "And tank God he didn't go to dem Chicago Bears, no."

When you're out of time, you're out of time. You mention your all-time favorite player -- Dalton Hilliard, a delightful, shifty runner from cosmopolitan Patterson, La. -- and you let James Carville demonstrate how sick all this passion can truly be.

Last fall, several days before the Auburn game, a man called Carville and asked to interview him about LSU football. He grilled the political strategist for 25 minutes, asking whether Saban and the LSU staff were employing the receiving corps to full effect, what defensive schemes should be implemented, and so forth.

"At the end of the thing, I finally ask the guy what the story is for," Carville says. "And he goes, 'For my newsletter.' So I ask what kind of newsletter is it? 'For my tailgate group.' I'm thinking, well, shit, man, I hope it's a big group after all that effort. 'How many people in your group?' Dead-serious, this is the answer he gives me: 'Five, sometimes seven.' And I just thought, my God, you've got to be kidding me. I get questioned like it's the 9/11 Commission and it's for all of five guys." Daaah-dah-dah-dum!

click to enlarge RHETT THIEL
click to enlarge RHETT THIEL


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