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40 years ago: LSU's tragic night

LSU and Clemson still have approximately 69 more hours of waiting before facing off in New Orleans to crown 2019’s college football champion, at least for the highest level.

Forty years ago, college football was all but wrapped up after New Year’s Day. Alabama’s 24-9 victory over Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl, combined with Ohio State’s 17-16 loss to Southern California in the Rose Bowl, ensured Bear Bryant would win his third consensus national championship and sixth overall with the Crimson Tide. Three years and 25 days after defeating Lou Holtz’ Razorbacks, Bryant died of a massive heart attack in Tuscaloosa at age 69.

Sadly, on New Year’s Day 1980, another college football coach–one who recently came to the Southeastern Conference–had less than 10 days remaining on this earth.

Robert “Bo” Rein was named LSU’s coach on November 30, 1979, six days after the Bayou Bengals lost their regular season finale to Tulane in New Orleans. Rein had the unenviable task of filling the shoes which would be vacated by Charles Youmans McClendon, who led the Bayou Bengals from 1962-79, piloting LSU to a 137-59-7 record.

McClendon, who played for Bryant at Kentucky and was an assistant to Paul Dietzel on LSU’s 1958 national championship team, was forced out by LSU’s Board of Supervisors for one major reason: the inability to beat Alabama. Sound familiar? I’m sure a former LSU coach now residing in Lawrence agrees.

McClendon’s teams beat Alabama in 1969 and 1970, when the Crimson Tide suffered its only major downturn in Bryant’s 25 seasons.

Alabama was 6-5 in 1969 and 6-5-1 in 1970, losing to Tennessee and Auburn in both of those seasons as well. The 1969 team lost at Vanderbilt, the last time the Tide has lost in Nashville to the Commodores. The 1970 team lost 42-21 to USC in Birmingham, the game which convinced Bryant and his administration it was time to desegregate.

It didn’t hurt LSU had two of its best teams of the 20th century in 1969 and ’70.

The 1969 team’s lone loss was by three points to Archie Manning’s Ole Miss Rebels in Jackson. Even with the loss, LSU was expecting to receive an invitation to the Cotton Bowl to play the winner of the season-ending showdown between Texas and Arkansas, both of whom were expected to be undefeated heading into the December 6 showdown in Fayetteville. However, Notre Dame opted to end its self-imposed bowl ban which dated to the Four Horsemen and Rockne, and with the Irish now in play, the Cotton Bowl jumped on Ara Parseghian’s team. The Sugar Bowl took Ole Miss instead of LSU, and the Bayou Bengals opted to stay home despite a 9-1 ledger and a No 7 ranking in the final regular season Associated Press poll.

One year later, LSU lost its season opener by two points to Gene Stallings’ Texas A&M Aggies. A&M did not win again in 1970, and by the end of 1971, Stallings was no longer the coach at his alma mater. LSU’s other loss was 3-0 to then-No. 2 Notre Dame in South Bend. When LSU’s plane landed in Baton Rouge the evening of November 21, McClendon learned LSU would be invited to the Orange bowl if and only if the Bayou Bengals defeated Tulane and Ole Miss in their last two games.

No sweat.

LSU took down a strong Tulane club in New Orleans 26-14, then came home and mauled the Rebels 61-17 to win the SEC championship and the date with Nebraska in Miami. The Bayou Bengals fought the Cornhuskers to the wire, but Nebraska prevailed 17-12 for the AP national championship after losses earlier in the day by UPI national champion Texas and Ohio State.

In 1971, Bryant changed Alabama’s offense to the Wishbone, the attack which helped Texas win 30 consecutive games prior to the loss to Notre Dame on New Year’s Day 1971.

LSU played Alabama tough in most years, but the Tide and their attack were simply too much. From 1971-79, Alabama won or shared the SEC championship in every season except 1976, shared two national championships (1973 with Notre Dame, 1978 with USC), and as mentioned before, won the 1979 title outright.

The Bayou Bengals won nine games in 1971, ’72 and ’73, but when LSU went 5-5-1 in 1974 and 4-7 in 1975, LSU fans demanded McClendon’s ouster. It was originally announced McClendon would coach through the 1978 season, but when Dietzel became LSU’s athletic director in early 1978, he extended McClendon for an extra year.

Rein was a popular choice to succeed “Cholly Mac”. He was a standout football and baseball player for Ohio State, helping the Buckeyes win the 1966 College World Series. He was an assistant for Woody Hayes at his alma mater and Holtz at North Carolina State. When Holtz left Raleigh for his disastrous season with the New York Jets, Rein was tapped as his successor.

Strangely enough, Rein left NC State to serve as an assistant to Frank Broyles at Arkansas in 1975. Broyles resigned as coach after the 1976 season, but remained as the Razorbacks’ athletic director for the next 32 years. Broyles the AD named Holtz to succeed Broyles the coach. I’m sure neither dreamed Arkansas would one day be in the SEC.

Led by Rein, All-America offensive lineman Jim Ritcher (who started for the Bills in all four of their Super Bowl appearances) and linebacker Bill Cowher (the future coach of the Steelers), NC State enjoyed great success in Rein’s four seasons, going 27-18-1 with victories in the 1977 Peach Bowl over Iowa State and the 1978 Tangerine (now Citrus) Bowl over Pittsburgh. The 1979 Wolfpack won the 1979 Atlantic Coast Conference championship, but did not go to a bowl game, while rivals Clemson and Wake Forest did.

Ironically, the Deamon Deacons, coached by John Mackovic, lost 34-10 to LSU in McClendon’s last game, the 1979 Tangerine Bowl.

While McClendon got the 1979 Bayou Bengals, led by quarterbacks David Woodley and Steve Ensminger, ready for Wake Forest, Rein and his coaching staff hit the recruiting trail hard in search of new talent.

On January 10, 1980, Rein and an assistant coach drove to Shreveport to visit with a recruit from Fair Park High, long a power in northwest Louisiana. Following the visit, Rein arranged for a private plane owned by a construction company to fly him back to Baton Rouge. The assistant would stay overnight in Shreveport and drive to another visit the next day.

Travel was much different in 1980 than it is in 2020 in two major respects.

First, LSU did not own its own plane as it does today. Ed Orgeron, as well as predecessors Miles and Nick Saban, have enjoyed a plane provided by the Tiger Athletic Foundation, LSU’s athletic booster club, to travel long distances.

Second, driving between Shreveport and Baton Rouge was a lot more arduous.

Interstate 49 had been proposed in the early 1970s by then-Governor Edwin Edwards, but in January 1980, two months before he left office and gave way to Dave Treen, the highway was still only a dream.

Before I-49, it required a very long journey on two-lane highways to make the trek. One option was to take Louisiana Highway 1 through New Roads and Marksville through to Alexandria, Natchitoches and Shreveport. The other was to take US 190 to Krotz Springs, then pick up US 71, which also went through Alexandria, but bypassed Natchitoches and instead went through Coushatta to Bossier City, on the opposite bank of the Red River from Shreveport.

My family made the long and lonely drive up US 71 on trips to Kansas in the 1980s. It took about five hours to get from Baton Rouge to Interstate 20. We’ll never forget the rocks along the highway in Bunkie which cracked the windshield of our old station wagon in 1986.

When I-49 was finally completed in 1996, that trip was cut to under four hours. With the speed limit now at 75 MPH (121 km/h) on I-49 from Shreveport to US 190 at Opelousas, fast drivers can make it in three hours, 25 minutes.

The assistant coach drove Rein to Shreveport Regional Airport, which fronts the eastbound lanes of I-20. Rein climbed aboard the Cessna 441, piloted by 48-year old Lewis F. Benscotter Jr., for what should have been a 50-minute flight to Ryan Field (now Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport).

There was a line of severe thunderstorms over central Louisiana, so the air traffic control tower at SHV instructed Benscotter to fly east into Mississippi, paralleling I-20, then turn south over Vicksburg, which would parallel US 61.

Shortly after takeoff just after 22:00, Rein and Benscotter were incapacitated. The plane kept climbing, all the way to 41,600 feet (12,700 meters), well above its ceiling maximum of 35,000 feet (10, 668 meters). The cabin pressurization malfunctioned, and without oxygen at high altitudes, Rein and Benscotter slipped into unconsciousness.

The doomed plane flew over Tennessee and North Carolina. In a sad twist of irony, the plane passed directly over the NC State campus.

Air Force fighter planes from Norfolk attempted to contact the plane. Nothing. The Cessna finally ran out of fuel off the coast of Virginia and nosedived into the Atlantic shortly after 01:00 Eastern.

Robert “Bo” Rein was 34 years old. He had been LSU’s coach for all of 42 days. His final record: 0-0-0.

Technology in 1980 was primitive. ESPN debuted four months earlier, but it did not have the resources to send someone to Baton Rogue, and besides, most Americans didn’t have cable. Of course, most households didn’t have a computer, and the Internet was for government use only.

Most found out by reading an evening newspaper (Baton Rouge’s evening paper, the State-Times, was still publishing, as was the States-Item in New Orleans; the Russell County News was published four days a week then and delivered in the late afternoon) or watching Roger Mudd (substituting for Walter Cronkite on CBS), John Chancellor (NBC) or Frank Reynolds (ABC) on the evening news. If you had a friend or relative in Louisiana, you found out sooner I’m sure.

Herb Vincent, who was born and raised in Little Rock but grew up an LSU fan, was about to begin his second semester in Baton Rouge when Rein’s plane went down. He may have been the first LSU student to learn of the tragedy from legendary LSU sports information director Paul Manasseh.

Vincent was one of only a handful of students on campus that Friday, because classes for the spring semester were to start the following Monday. The only other students on campus were LSU’s men’s basketball, women’s basketball and wrestling teams, those who had important jobs, and possibly a few football players lifting weights.

Nearly 20 years after Rein’s tragic death, an eerily similar fate befell golfer Payne Stewart four months after his victory in the U.S. Open at Pinehurst. A private plane which was scheduled to ferry Stewart, his agent and three others from Orlando to Dallas went well off course. By time it ran out of gas, it crashed into a field in South Dakota.

In 2015, a documentary about Rein was aired by the SEC Network. It was well-produced, thanks in large part to Herb’s guidance.

Jerry Stovall, the 1962 Heisman runner-up and an assistant to McClendon in the late 1970s, was named Rein’s successor less than 48 hours after the plane crash. Stovall did the right thing by keeping all of Rein’s assistants, while also adding Pete Jenkins, in hindsight the best thing he did in his four seasons.

It’s speculated Rein may have led LSU to great glory in the 1980s. Even with Georgia assuming superpower status thanks to Herschel Walker, Florida ascending, Auburn becoming elite again under Pat Dye, and Alabama still competing well under Ray Perkins and Bill Curry, the Bayou Bengals could have ruled the roost under Rein if he had been able to keep the best high school players from Louisiana at home.

It’s also fair to speculate if Rein lived, Bill Arnsparger never leaves the Dolphins and gets another shot at being an NFL head coach; Mike Archer would have coached the Miami Hurricanes at some point, either succeeding Howard Schnellenberger or Jimmy Johnson; Curley Hallman would have still been in Hattiesburg long after Brett Favre departed for the NFL; and Gerry DiNardo would have languished at Vanderbilt a few more years.

Nick Saban stays at Michigan State until he finds more money somewhere else. In fact, he may very well have ended up at Alabama in 2001 after it fired Mike DuBose.

Les Miles coaches three more years in Stillwater before succeeding Lloyd Carr at his alma mater, Michigan.

On the other hand, something tells me Ed Orgeron is coaching the Bayou Bengals right now anyway. Orgeron would have come to LSU right out of college and stayed in Baton Rouge, resisting overtures from Ole Miss and at least 20 other Power Five schools.

Rein retires at 70 after the 2015 season, and Big Ed leads LSU into the 2016 season opener vs. Wisconsin at Lambeau Field. Joe Burrow comes to LSU from Ohio State with Rein’s encouragement, wins the 2019 Heisman, and all is right with the world (unless Clemson wins).

That’s the beauty of what-if. The not so beautiful part? It couldn’t happen, because the man at the center of this what-if left us far too soon. Rest in Peace, coach Rein. You would have been a great one.