LSU Makes Major Impact on BCS and Sugar Bowl
By Dennis Dodd, CBSSports.com Senior Writer
Story submitted Fall, 2008, for the Sugar Bowl’s 75th Anniversary Celebration
What I remember about LSU in the Sugar Bowl …
The fans, definitely the fans. The way they took over New Orleans, three times in five years … The way they showered love on Nick Saban on the night of January 4, 2004 as he walked off the field through a Superdome tunnel. I know. I was next to him … The estimated 50,000 who gathered outside Death Valley in 2007, while 92,000 inside watched the Florida game … They had a bigger treat awaiting them down the road in Nawlins … I remember the boudin those fans offered me .. I remember hearing “Tah-ger bait” over and over and ov-
No group of fans has made a bigger impression on the national championship in the BCS era.
In a mixture of football excellence and a rabid following, LSU is the only school to play two “home” games in the BCS title game. If you include the 2007 Sugar Bowl, that’s three visits to the Superdome since 2004 …
I remember Marcus Spears trying to define the 2004 Sugar Bowl after USC had won the Rose Bowl to eventually claim a split national championship:
“It’s more for our fans to have a good feeling,” said the LSU defensive end. “They don’t want to share the national championship.”
To this day, those fans refuse to share. There have been billboards erected disputing that fact. For years afterward, I received several e-mails reminding me that LSU was the one and only 2003 national champion …
I remember receiver Michael Clayton doing the best job of defining a split title.
“No matter what polls say, no matter what coaches say you can’t determine who is No. 1 unless you play the game,” Clayton said. “Me, personally, I feel like that’s the only true way to get one national champion. If we’re going to share, we’re going to share it. I accept it with honor.”
I remember using this quote near the end of a column in a run-up to the 2004 Sugar Bowl.
“It’s probably not a good time to say this but when you coach pro ball, it’s all about ball. I like that,” Saban said.
We would find out just how much he liked that.
I remember LSU playing the bouncer. Notre Dame played the slacker trying to get behind the velvet rope. I remember Brady Quinn and the Irish being run out of the Superdome by LSU in 2007 and thinking: “Call security!”
I remember “Crazy” Les Miles leading the Tigers back to the Superdome in January, 2007.
You’ve seen him before, I wrote, He’s the guy who flashes across the screen at midnight when the ad rates are cheap, selling you everything from used cars to Ginsu knives.
They call him something different in every market. But in this market he’s Crazy Les, and he’s selling you risk and reward while making it all perfectly sensible.
Just like those crappy Japanese knives that slice through soup cans.
“I know it may appear from the sidelines that, ‘Oh, this guy has lost his mind,’ and that might be true,” Crazy Les Miles said, “but the truth of the matter is we are operating with a set of circumstances and criteria that are in flux.”
At some point this season, Leslie Edwin Miles morphed into that midnight carnival barker. The seemingly conservative, tight-lipped LSU coach veered off the tracks onto a dark path that could have easily gotten him roasted on the spit of public opinion.
Instead it got him to the BCS national championship game against No. 1 Ohio State. And a warning to the world from LSU’s loving hordes: Fear the Hat.
I remember a series of decisions that were — at best questionable, at worst potentially season-ruining — that defined LSU’s season. They gave us a glimpse of what percolated below that trucker-hat now is traditionally rocked by Miles on the sidelines.
Judge for yourself:
- The Fake Field Goal Game.
Playing in the middle of a tropical depression on Sept. 22, 2007, LSU kicker Colt David was deemed reliable enough to run 15 yards for a touchdown on a fake field goal in a 28-16 victory over South Carolina.
“It was definitely a surprise to us that it worked that well,” tailback Jacob Hester said. “I don’t know if that will work that well again.”
The obvious irony was that Miles had outsmarted Steve Spurrier, the man who earned his nickname (Ol’ Ball Coach) in part for fooling SEC opponents for 15 years.
“They executed it perfectly,” said Spurrier, doing everything but doffing his visor. “Give those guys credit for that.”
- The Fourth Down Game.
Five fourth-down gambles, all successful, were the basis for the 28-24 victory over Florida on Oct. 6, 2007. Miss any one them and it’s hello, Capital One Bowl. But that was Crazy Les. Three of those gambles came in the fourth quarter. Two came on the game-winning drive. The final one on fourth-and-short from the Florida 7 with 2:10 left, eventually led to Jacob Hester’s game winning plunge with 69 seconds left.
“That was a game for the ages,” defensive end Tyson Jackson said. “At one point it wasn’t even about football anymore. The game was about if we could prove that we had a heart the size of our bodies.”
- The What-Was-He-Doing Game?
“I think about that all the time,” receiver Demetrius Byrd said of the game-winning touchdown pass he caught with one (1) second left against Auburn. “To me, that was a turning point of the season.”
For any other team, yes. For LSU, just another midnight infomercial. Miles spent the postgame and weeks since the 30-24 victory defending the risky pass call. He wasn’t arguing just against critics, but also decades of football common sense.
Hello? A 39-yard field goal from the reliable David would have sufficed. Instead, Miles yielded to offensive coordinator Gary Crowton who had gotten a signal from the sidelines from Byrd.
“I waved my hand up to the press box to let him know that, ‘I’m open over here on this side. Single coverage,’ Byrd said. “I told him I’d be there for you.”
When the play was actually called in the huddle, part of Byrd couldn’t believe it.
“I was like, ‘I’ve got to make this play to get open.'”
“To tell you the truth I thought we were going to play for the field position for Colt to kick a field goal,” Hester said. “I looked at the clock and I couldn’t believe it.”
“I don’t think it was that unusual …,” Crazy Les said. “I just think that we are overanalyzing.”
- The Saban Bowl.
The Tigers overcame 14 penalties, three interceptions and whatever residual Nick Saban issues they had to win in the fourth quarter for the third time in four games, 41-34 on Nov. 3, 2007.
With the game headed to overtime, LSU’s Chad Jones sacked and caused John Parker Wilson’s fumble that was recovered neatly on the Alabama 3. Seconds later Hester ran in the game winner with 86 seconds left.
Coaches like to think their profession is so complicated it takes a PhD. (which few of them have). Mere mortals can’t possibly understand the intricacies. Crazy Les gave us given us a different message: Go for it.
I remember LSU being ranked No. 1 in the AP poll for the first time since 1959. It was last year before that epic Florida game. That week James Carville invited me to tailgate. That week those fans invited me to sit down for some boudin. That week John Ed Bradley called me from his car heading away from Baton Rouge to his hometown of Opelousas, La.
I remember Bradley baring his soul to me. He played at LSU and left in 1979. He has been back twice. In his mind, he has never accomplished as much in his life than he did at LSU. Everything else paled. Remember, this was an accomplished author and journalist (Sports Illustrated, Washington Post).
Bradley spent that week publicizing his book It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium in and around Baton Rouge. He did not, however, go to the game.
“I have a hard time going to the stadium,” Bradley said. “I get emotional.”
In Southern Louisiana the good comes with the bad it seems. The damage from the hurricanes was mental as well as physical. The annual threat of damaging storms will never go away.
“The ranking does represent rebirth and victory over some incredibly difficult times,” Bradley said. “There’s so much pain to get through here. Thank God, we have this diversion.”
Crazy Les pulled the Tigers through, of course. LSU triumphed again in New Orleans. That made it three victories in New Orleans in four years. LSU not only ruled college football, it ruled a ravaged city and helped uplift one ravaged soul.
On the floor of the Superdome amid another celebration 11 months ago I remember thinking, “I wonder if John Ed made it tonight?”
For the past 20 years, Dennis Dodd has covered college sports (mostly football and basketball) for the Kansas City Star, St. Louis Sun, Omaha World-Herald and The National. For the past 10 years, he has been the national college football writer for CBSSports.com.