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Brett Favre and LSU’s deep football depression

The Pro Football Hall of FAme induction ceremonies will be starting in Canton in a couple of hours.

The biggest name of this year’s inductees is Brett Favre, who set many NFL passing records during his career, mostly with the Packers (1992-2007). 

Favre’s biggest game as a pro came in New Orleans, when the Packers defeated the Patriots 35-21 in Super Bowl XXXI. He also defeated Tulane twice in the Superdome as the starting quarterback for the University of Southern Mississippi. 

I have never cared for Southern Miss. What use does it have? With all of the junior colleges across the state, with THREE historically black colleges, plus Ole Miss and Mississippi State, why is Southern Miss even there? I understand it’s close to the Gulf Coast, but it wouldn’t be that hard to drive to Mobile and South Alabama, or to New Orleans. 

Another reason I can’t stand Southern Miss is because it foisted a man who dragged LSU into its deepest football abyss. 

Hudson Hallman. Better known as Curley Hallman, who was Favre’s coach in Hattiesburg. 

If not for Brett Favre, Curley Hallman doesn’t go 23-11 in three seasons at USM, the Golden Eagles don’t beat Florida State in 1989, or Alabama and Auburn in 1990, and he never, ever sniffs the LSU coaching job. 

Brett Favre was the reason why LSU football collapsed. 

What I don’t understand is how Ole Miss and Mississippi State whiffed on Favre. 

The Rebels and Bulldogs were constantly near the bottom of the SEC in the 1980s. Certainly Favre could have done wonders for either team. 

The biggest problem for Ole MIss was it was on probation when Favre was being recruited by then-coach Billy Brewer, who himself would become ethically challenged later in his tenure. In 1987, the Rebels were banned from television and bowls, so maybe the idea didn’t appeal to Favre.

Brewer and his assistants committed egregious recruiting violations in the early 1990s. In November 1994, the NCAA came awfully close to giving Ole Miss the death penalty. The Rebels were very lucky to get away with a one-year TV ban, two years without postseason play, and the loss of 25 scholarships for 1995 and 1996. 

As for Mississippi State, its coach at the time, former Bulldog quarterback Rockey Felker, wanted to keep running the option, which had been the bread-and-butter of his predecessor, Emory Bellard, the father of the Wishbone formation. Favre running the option? No way. Felker had a sentimental attachment to the option, having run the Veer at MSU under Bob Tyler, who was as ethically challenged as Brewer. 

Mississippi State has historically been a terrible passing team. Their recently departed quarterback, Dak Prescott, throws the ball well, but he made much more happen with his legs with the Bulldogs. 

LSU was set at quarterback with Tommy Hodson. No way Favre was beating out a Louisiana native who led the Bayou Bengals to the 1986 SEC championship, their first since Bert Jones played in Baton Rouge in 1970. Then again, Jones was NOT the full-time starter in either of his first two years. Maybe a Hodson/Favre rotation would have worked wonders. Or maybe not. 

For some reason, Bill Curry, the new coach at Alabama in early 1987, didn’t see fit to drive down Interstate 59 a couple of hours.  If Curry had taken the time to look at Favre, maybe he doesn’t get a brick thrown through his window at home, and maybe he doesn’t bolt for Kentucky after three seasons. 

Actually, Hallman lucked into Favre. Jim Carmody, his predecessor at USM, recruited the kid from Kiln to Hattiesburg. Hallman was an assistant at his alma mater, Texas A&M, in 1987 before succeeding Carmody in 1988. 

Curley Hallman had no business as the head coach of an SEC football team. He made it worse on himself by hiring bad assistant coaches. His running backs coach, Steve Buckley, played as many downs of college football as me. ZERO. He was a cheerleader in college. 

Of all of Hallman’s assistants, only one, Phil Bennett, found work in a major conference after leaving LSU. Bennett went on to be the defensive coordinator at Kansas State, head coach at SMU, and then defensive coordinator at Baylor, where he is still employed. 

It wasn’t until Nick Saban came from East Lansing to Baton Rouge in 2000 that LSU finally pulled itself out of the swamp and into the elite echelon of college football.

I contend it would have been much better had Favre gone to Ole Miss or Mississippi State. Sure, he may have beaten LSU four times the way John Bond did for State from 1980-83. But at least Curley Hallman would never have led a team out of the tunnel at the north end of Tiger Stadium. 

Two decades ago…

Two events happened in the sporting world 20 years ago today. One affected my life directly. The other didn’t, but it certainly affected tens of millions of sports fans in one way or the other.

Second thing first. Today marked the first day of the 1994 Major League Baseball players’ strike. The strike would wipe out the postseason, which was supposed to be the first year of the wild card and expanded playoffs. The strike would not be settled until April 1995, when U.S. District Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor–the same Sonia Sotomayor who now sits on the Supreme Court–issued an injunction forcing the owners to reinstate the 1993 collective bargaining agreement and let the players come back.

The event which affected my life took place in Baton Rouge. It was LSU’s football media day, where Curley Hallman would preview his fourth season as the Bayou Bengals’ coach, coordinators Lynn Amedee (offense) and Phil Bennett (defense) would talk about their respective units, and the players would be available for one-on-one interviews with members of the media.

Looking back on it today, Hallman was very lucky to have been LSU’s coach in 1994. The Bayou Bengals were awful during the first seven games of 1993, with the lowlight being a 58-3 loss at home to Florida. I understand Florida was on its way to the SEC championship and 11 victories, the last being a thumping of then-undefeated West Virginia in the Sugar Bowl, but no SEC team should lose by 55 points in their home stadium unless the talent gap is grossly unfair, which was the case for Kansas and Kansas State when they faced Nebraska and Oklahoma in the 1980s.

Yes, LSU was in a down period in the early 1990s, bottoming out at 2-9 in 1992. However, there was more than enough talent for the Bayou Bengals to at least remain competitive in the SEC, even if they would go 2-6 or 3-5 in the league. There’s no way LSU should have been in the depths with the likes of Kentucky and Vanderbilt, and at that time, the two new additions to the league, Arkansas and South Carolina.

Hallman saved his bacon by taking LSU to Tuscaloosa 28 days after the debacle vs. Florida and stunning the defending national champion Crimson Tide,, ending Alabama’s 31-game undefeated (there was no overtime in college football regular season games until 1996, so ties were still unusual, although not rare, during this era). The Bayou Bengals had a chance to go to a bowl game in ’93, but Arkansas came to town two days after Thanksgiving and shredded LSU’s defense by running the Wishbone to death, scorching the Tiger Stadium sod for 412 yards rushing en route to a 42-24 victory.

Following the ’93 season, Hallman made his only coaching staff change which ever made sense by terminating defensive coordinator Michael Bugar, a longtime friend, and installing defensive ends coach Phil Bennett in the position. Bennett enjoyed a stellar playing career at Texas A&M and promoted an aggressive, attacking style which he learned while playing for the Aggies under R.C. Slocum, who was then a defensive coach at A&M, and later would become the head coach at College Station in 1989.

At media day, Bennett proved to be the only one of the three speakers who had a clue. Hallman rambled on as usual and did his best to dance around as many reporters’ questions as possible, and Amedee looked like he had no interest in being there.

The 1994 season would pretty much bear out that media day. Bennett’s defense was first in the SEC, but Amedee’s offense was beyond putrid, especially in game at Auburn when the other Tigers won 30-26 despite not scoring an offensive touchdown. The end result: a 4-7 record, and Curley Hallman was fired with two games remaining, although he was allowed to coach those games, which turned out to be victories over Tulane and Arkansas.

The more important facet of LSU’s 1994 media day were the people I met that day.

I already knew Herb Vincent, LSU’s sports information director, from a meeting we had in July 1993. We kept in touch through the year, and he let me watch the 1993 football game vs. Utah State from the press box. Herb had achieved a great deal by August of 1994, even though he was still 16 months shy of 35. Herb graduated from LSU, where he worked in the sports information office under the great Paul Manasseh, and after stints with the USFL’s Los Angeles Express and the SEC office in Birmingham, he was hired full-time at LSU in early 1988. In August 1988, when then-sports information director Jamie Kimbrough took a post at South Carolina, Herb was promoted to the top job.

Herb brought in a pair of brilliant men, Bill Franques and Kent Lowe, to serve as his associates.

Bill was assigned to baseball, where he learned the ropes from the master, the one and only J. Stanley (Skip) Bertman, eventually taking over the duties of public address announcer at Alex Box Stadium and color commentator for the radio broadcast of away games. Bill also does a lot of work on the television side with the coaches shows, and he’s the co-host of LSU Sports Journal. He will enter his 27th season as LSU’s baseball publicity director when the 2015 season opens in February. I hope one day he’ll one day join Skip and his current boss, Paul Maineri, in the College Baseball Hall of Fame.

Bill deserves sainthood for putting up with me and my many, many, many mood swings. He could have easily kicked me to the curb, and nobody would have blamed him, least of all me. But he stuck by me and became a better friend than I ever deserved. I still miss our lunches at Ivar’s Sports Bar in Baton Rouge. Ivar’s is worthy of its own post, and I’ll get to it soon.

Kent came to LSU after a distinguished career as the publicity director for Louisiana Downs, a thoroughbred race track in Bossier City, across the Red River from Shreveport in the northwest corner of the state. Kent was at LSU in the late 1970s and early 1980s to earn his master’s degree, and it was then he met Bayou Bengals men’s basketball coach Dale Brown. The two men kept in touch throughout the 1980s, and when the position as Brown’s publicity director came open, Herb knew where to turn.

Kent and I were not as close during my days at LSU, but I have nothing but admiration for him. He could easily have become very frustrated by the struggles of LSU’s men’s basketball program through many years, but he kept his cool, he kept smiling and he kept a positive spin on everything no matter how bad things were. Kent is beloved by all in the LSU athletic department, as well he should be.

Also that day, I met two other people who would become woven into the fabric of my life.

One was Dan Borne, the public address announcer for LSU football and men’s basketball games. Dan is a native of Thibodaux, a bayou town about 75 miles south of Baton Rouge. Thibodaux is hard-core Cajun, and many of the people there and the rest of Lafourche Parish speak French as their first language. I was quite familiar with Lafourche Parish, since every year I was at Brother Martin High School, the Crusaders would venture deep down the bayou to Galliano to play South Lafourche in football. Galliano is only 30 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, and much of that area was nearly wiped off the map by Hurricane Betsy in 1965, and bore the brunt of Hurricane Gustav in 2008. Since Katrina made landfall in Mississippi, Lafourche did not take nearly as bad a hit, but it was bad enough.

Dan came to Baton Rouge in the late 1960s and was an anchor for WAFB-TV, the CBS affiliate, throughout the 1970s before being named Executive Assistant to Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards in 1976.It was Dan who had the terrible responsibility of briefing the press on October 20, 1976, the day a drunken ferry operator killed 72 people (not counting himself and five other crew members, all of whom were also soused to the gills) by guiding a boat full of cars into the path of a tanker on the Mississippi River in St. Charles Parish. The tanker sliced the ferry in two and sent cars into the muddy river.

Dan gave up that post when his third child, and second daughter, was born four days before Christmas 1976, or 69 days after I was. The girl born December 21, 1976 to Daniel and Lissette Borne would alter my life, both good and bad, in ways I could never imagine when I first met her that fateful August Friday in 1994. Dan has been president of the Louisiana Chemical Association for nearly 30 years, and he has been very effective lobbying Louisiana’s legislature and the state’s Congressional delegation for issues which are extremely important to his native state–and mine.

I have a lot I want to discuss regarding Rebecca Borne, but that’s a subject which I need to think through, because I’m sure I’m going to feel a very wide range of emotions.

Rebecca was valedictorian of the St. Joseph’s Academy Class of 1994. St. Joseph’s is an exclusive all-girls Catholic school in Baton Rouge, one which has produced hundreds of movers and shakers in Red Stick. Strangely enough, her older sister, Elizabeth, chose to attend Baton Rouge High, a public magnet school with a reputation as one of the nation’s best. Dan and Lissette’s two sons, David and Jason, opted for Baton Rouge Catholic, the all-boys equivalent of St. Joseph’s in Baton Rouge. Catholic is run by the Brothers of the Sacred Heart, who also run Brother Martin, my alma mater.

Coincidentally, the volleyball coach who came to St. Joseph’s four months after Rebecca graduated also has played an important role in my life. She”ll be the subject of a post or two or three very soon.

I nearly forgot about Adam Young, who was a senior and a student assistant in the sports information office when I came to campus. Adam became a good friend to me and gave me a chance to write for Tiger Rag, a publication devoted to LSU athletics, during my third year of school. Adam, who grew up in Alexandria in central Louisiana, was nice enough to invite me to his 1997 wedding where he married Lucy Santana, who came to LSU from Brazil and was a standout volleyball player. They settled in Shreveport after the wedding.

Adam and Lucy’s wedding was one of only two I have attended; the other was Bill’s to Yvette Lemoine in 1999 in Bunkie, a small town 100 miles northwest of Baton Rouge.

One person I did not meet at LSU’s 1994 football media day was Michael Bonnette, who became LSU’s sports information director in August 2000 when Herb left to take a position at a now-defunct television network in Birmingham. Michael, who had just been given a full-time position in LSU’s sports information office following a year as an intern, was in the hospital recuperating from knee surgery after tearing ligaments during a recreational softball game. He would not come back to work full-time until the week of the first football game that season, which also happened to be the first week of college classes for me.

Michael has done a great job in succeeding Herb. He had the unenviable task of navigating the choppy waters surrounding Nick Saban’s tenure, not that it was choppy on the field, but Saban has had a reputation of being difficult. It seems Michael really enjoys being around Les Miles, and Les really appreciates him.

Coincidentally, Herb is back in Birmingham as Associate Commissioner for Public Relations for the SEC. He’s been leading the drive to launch the SEC Network, which finally comes to fruition at 5 p.m. Central Thursday. I was thinking Herb would be in line to succeed Joe Alleva as athletic director at LSU, and he still may do so, but he’s got financial security for himself, his lovely wife Jamey, and their daughter Kennedy in Birmingham. I’m sure they’ve got a very nice home in a gated community in Hoover or one of the other upscale suburbs. He deserves it.

Sadly, one person I met that media day is no longer with us.

Shelby Holmes, who graduated as valedictorian at Baton Rouge’s McKinley High School a year before I graduated from Brother Martin, was shot and killed last October near his home in an apparent robbery gone wrong. Shelby lived in a rough neighborhood about a mile and a half north of the LSU campus, and he had his problems–we all did–but he had his life together when he tragically died.

I’ve enjoyed this trip down memory lane. If you like it, please let me know.