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The infrequent spectator

I said I would be back in less than 24 hours after my last post. I kept my promise, although it’s because I’ve had a stream of consciousness moment, not anything dealing with LSU and Mizzou.

My memory is failing me.

When I went to Wentzville and Lake St. Louis earlier today, I forgot how bad traffic on Interstate 64 west is from Lake St. Louis to I-70. I witnessed it in May when I drove into Chesterfield for my week-long stay.

I shouldn’t be too worried. After all that’s happened between 11 May and 9 October, I should forgive myself for forgetting traffic patterns in western St. Charles County. It was my third trip that way in 13 months, more than I’ve been most places, but still not enough to rise to the status between tourist and resident.

Now if I had forgotten the traffic patterns on the other side of Missouri, I’d have to worry about the old brain.

I haven’t seen an LSU football game in person in almost 17 years.

Tomorrow will be the first time I will be observing an LSU football game as a regular spectator in 25 years.

Every LSU football game I witnessed from 1996 through 2003 was in a press box. Most of them were in the old press box of Tiger Stadium (Death Valley), which was torn down after the 2004 season to make way for a new upper deck on the west side of the stadium, as well as a new press box.

The old press box at LSU was an oven. No air conditioning, and worse, no circulation, period. Breezes barely blow in Louisiana on most nights, and even if it did, there was no way to get the air circulating in the press box, at least on the second level (print media) and third level (private booths). The first level, where the radio and television broadcasters worked, as did public address announcer Dan Borne, had air conditioning. I loved lingering in Dan’s booth as much as I could, because he turned the thermostat WAY down, the way I like it.

I also watched LSU play in the Sugar Bowl twice, defeating Illinois after the 2001 season, as well as the aforementioned game vs. Oklahoma two years later.

The last LSU football game I went to strictly as a fan was with my dad on 16 September 1995, when the Bayou Bengals defeated Auburn 12-6.

Our seats were terrible—ground level boxes at the southwest corner of the stadium. Naturally, most of the big plays occurred at the north end of the stadium, including James Gillyard’s sack of Patrick Nix for a safety and Troy Twillie’s interception on the game’s last play.

On the drive back to New Orleans, my dad remarked he could not hear LSU’s Golden Band from Tigerland because of the crowd noise. LSU’s band at the time was at the northwest corner of the stadium (now it’s near the top of the north end zone), but with so many members, the sound carried well across campus. Not that night.

Tiger Stadium was sold out (80,559), and the crowd had a big part in throwing Auburn off its game. That, and the revenge LSU sought after giving away the 1994 game in Auburn, made the Plainsmen’s task that much more difficult.

I’ve seen five games from the stands at Tiger Stadium—two in 1992 (Tennessee 20, LSU 0; LSU 24, Tulane 12), two in ‘93 (LSU 24, Tulane 10; Arkansas 42, LSU 24) and the aforementioned 1995 game. I also was in the Superdome stands for LSU’s wins vs. Tulane in 1991 (39-20) and ‘94 (49-25).

This will not be my first LSU road game.

That came 26 years ago, when I watched the Bayou Bengals get embarrassed 34-21 by a mediocre Ole Miss squad in Oxford. The game was nowhere near as close as the score; the Rebels led 31-0 before they relaxed and let the Tigers score a couple of cheap touchdowns.

I bought a ticket for $18 through LSU’s ticket office. I had a good seat, 40-yard line behind LSU’s bench about 15 rows up.

I had no idea how to get there and where I was going to stay. I had a car, but there was no way I was going to find a hotel room in Oxford. My dad’s original plan was for me to stay in Jackson, 360 km (170 miles) south of Oxford the night before the game, drive to the game, go back to Jackson, then return to Baton Rouge Sunday.

At this time, Baton Rouge was the farthest I had driven. I could drive back and forth on I-10 between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, but I had no confidence going out of state.

Lucky for me, LSU’s athletic photographer, Brad Messina, was going to drive to the game instead of flying with the team like he usually did. He and Steve Franz, who later became LSU’s athletic photographer, let me ride in the back seat of Brad’s Volvo and crash in their hotel room in Memphis where the team was staying.

The game was forgettable, but two incidents in the stands which stood out.

One was where I berated Adam Young, who I worked with in LSU’s sports information office. Adam told me at halftime the game was over, and I denounced him for not having faith in his school.

To be fair, Adam had to suffer through the first three seasons of Curley Hallman’s coaching tenure while working as a student in the sports information office. That, combined with the sudden freefall of LSU’s volleyball program (Adam was the volleyball team’s media relations director from 1992-94) had worn him thin.

Two female student assistants from the sports information office, Nikki Sontheimer (now Amberg) and Rebecca Borne (yes, that one) (now Brennan) found the exchange funny. Rebecca teased me about it quite a bit through the years before things went terribly south between us.

Adam and I patched things up. His wedding to former LSU volleyball standout Luciana Santana in July 1997 was the first I attended.

I had a crush on Nikki, who was four years older. I annoyed the hell out of her during the 1994-95 athletic season, but when I saw her again after the 1996 football season opener, she forgave me too.

Now if only Rebecca will…

The second incident in Oxford came after LSU scored its second touchdown on a blocked punt.

An inebriated Rebel rouser turned to the LSU fans cheering behind him and shot the finger. Lovely.

Oxford is my least favorite SEC location. If it isn’t, it’s in a dead heat with Gainesville and Tuscaloosa. I don’t have any desire to go back.

That’s it for tonight. No, really, it is.

LSU vs. Ole Miss: ye olde memories

My alma mater, LSU, hosts Ole Miss in a three-game Southeastern Conference baseball series beginning tonight in Baton Rouge. The series is starting tonight in order to avoid playing on Easter if at all possible. Of course, if it rains one day, as it is want to do in south Louisiana this time of year, the Sunday can be used as a makeup date. 

The LSU-Ole Miss baseball series may not be as famous as the football series between the Bayou Bengals and the Rebels, but it has a intensity all its own, one which was ratcheted up several notches in 2001, when former LSU catcher and assistant coach Mike Bianca became Ole Miss’ skipper. 

Bianco has taken the Rebels to unprecedented heights, the longest run of sustained success in Oxford since Ole Miss began playing the sport in the late 19th century. The Rebels enjoyed spurts of success under Tom Swayze in the 1960s and early 1970s, and again under former Major Leaguers Jake Gibbs and Don Kessinger in the 1980s and 1990s, but Bianco has made the Rebels a consistent regional participant and brought Ole Miss on par with Mississippi State, something never dreamed possible when Ron Polk had the SEC’s dominant baseball program and the Rebels were just one of the nine other teams in the league. 

Even before Bianco arrived at Ole Miss, there have been some very interesting moments between the Rebels and Bayou Bengals on the diamond in the last quarter century. To wit:

1992–A line drive hits LSU ace pitcher Lloyd Peever in the head. Peever is knocked unconscious and is forced to leave the game, but miraculously, he is not seriously hurt, and does not miss a start. Peever would go on to finish the season 13-0 and earn consensus All-America honors in what turned out to be his lone season in Baton Rouge. 

1995–Many LSU players come down with food poisoning following a team meal in Jackson. LSU loses the opener 6-0 to Rebel All-American Jamey Price, and coach Skip Bertman is forced to scratch scheduled game two starter Brett Laxton in favor of Brian Winders, who has been exclusively used as a reliever throughout his career. Winders pitches the game of his life, firing a no-hitter until two out in the bottom of the ninth, when a Rebel pinch-hitter spoils it with a wind-aided home run. The Tigers win 2-1, but would lose the rubber game 6-2. 

1997–Two years after Winders’ near no-hitter, Patrick Coogan almost does Winders one better. Coogan, who would earn consensus All-America honors following the season, cuts through the Rebels’ lineup better than a knife through butter. He retires the first 11 batters he faces, then has a 1-2 count on Justin Huisman. Two pitches appear to catch the corner, but home plate umpire Larry Waggoner rules them balls, much to the disgust of Bertman. On the full count pitch, Huisman launches a home run. It would be the Rebels’ only baserunner of the game. Coogan sets an LSU nine-inning record by facing only 28 batters in a 7-1 victory. 

1998–LSU ends the season in Oxford. The Tigers need a combination of two wins and/or Florida losses to clinch the SEC championship. LSU wins game one 11-4. Then it goes south. Ole Miss wins 9-0 and 10-8, leaving the Bayou Bengals one-half game behind Florida, which swept Georgia at home on the final weekend. The Gators benefitted from a rainout at Alabama on opening weekend after the Crimson Tide won the first two games of the series. 

1999–In the rubber game of an otherwise mundane series, Trey McClure makes a leaping catch near the center field fence in the fourth inning. Ole Miss’ runners are on the move, believing there was no way McClure would catch the ball. The Tigers take advantage: McClure to Josh Dalton to Ryan Theriot to Jeff Leaumont for the triple play, just the third for LSU since 1965. 

2001–Bianco’s first Ole Miss team comes to Baton Rouge for Easter weekend in what will be Bertman’s final series vs. the Rebels. The Tigers crush the Rebels in game one 13-2, but the second game is a totally different story.  The Rebels take turns battering LSU pitching worse than a piñata. It gets so bad Bertman elects to let shortstop Ryan Theriot pitch in the ninth inning rather than waste any more arms for the series finale. Ole Miss wins 23-10, but Bertman’s strategy pays off when LSU wins the rubber game. 

In the SEC tournament a month later, LSU is caught with its pants down when Ole Miss turns a routine fly ball into a triple play. The Rebels lose, and would lose again to LSU two days later. 

2002–Smoke Laval’s first SEC road series is in Oxford. Following an 11-3 Ole Miss win in game one, LSU resorts to trickery to help it win the second game.

Wally Pontiff successfully executes the hidden ball trick at third base. I was the only person in the press box who knew what happened when the Rebel runner all of a sudden walked back to the dugout. Score it 5 unassisted, picked off. 

The next day, Ole Miss shells LSU’s bullpen for five runs in the eighth to win 10-8 and claim the series. The decisive blow is a grand slam, one which Tiger center fielder David Raymer almost fell over the fence chasing. The Tigers were 2-4 in the SEC after the series (LSU lost 2 of 3 in its opening series to Vanderbilt), but would recover nicely to host a regional (and win) before being shut out twice by Rice in a super regional at Houston. 

2003–Nothing really notable on the field, as LSU takes 2 of 3 in Baton Rouge. The biggest news comes on the public address system, where my man, Bill Franques, takes two days off to attend to personal business. The radio voice of the LSU women’s basketball and softball teams, Patrick Wright, fills in Friday, while the voice of Tiger Stadium and the Pete Maravich Assmebly Center, Daniel Stanford Borne, fills in Saturday. 

Bill Franques is now in his 29th season as LSU baseball publicity director. TWENTY NINTH season. If he isn’t inducted into the College Baseball and College Sports Information Directors Halls of Fame, I’m going to have to write some nasty letters. Just kidding about the nasty part, but I will inquire. God bless Yvette, his lovely wife, for putting up its Bill being gone so often. Lesser women might not have held up. 

There were so many good men (and women) I met during my years at LSU. I treated many of them very poorly. I feel beyond awful about it, and I still do. I feel like I should go to Birmingham during the SEC tournament and apologize. Maybe my mentor, Herb Vincent, who is now an Executive Associatie Commissioner with the SEC, can help. 

I cannot wait to see Bill next weekend in Lexington. I’m also looking forward to seeing Kentucky for the first time. I’ve heard nothing but great things, but I also hear there is too much smoking, which I don’t like. 

It’s almost noon. I’m at the Buffalo Wild Wings near Liberty (technically, the restaurant is inside the Kansas City city limits, but everyone terms it Liberty since it is in Clay County, and it avoids confusion with the B-Dubs at Zona Rosa, which is in Platte County). Maybe it’s time to order some food. 

Sooner State sadness

If yesterday was not the worst display of college football on New Year’s Day since bowls were regularly played on the day, then it had to come close.

Five games, five blowouts. No game decided by fewer than 16 points, and four of the five decided by at least 28 points.

The night ended with another runaway. Ole Miss took a 34-6 lead over Oklahoma State at halftime of the Sugar Bowl and coasted to a 48-20 victory, capping an 11-2 season for the Rebels and victory in their first Sugar Bowl appearance since the end of the 1969 season, when Archie Manning was a junior.

The Rebels played without their best player, All-American defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, who was suspended by coach Hugh Freeze following an incident in an Atlanta hotel where it was revealed he was smoking marijuana. Marijuana may be legal in some states, but it is certainly not in Georgia or Mississippi.

It was two very bad days for the state of Oklahoma.

The Sooners lost in the Orange Bowl to Clemson on New Year’s Eve, ending their hopes of a national championship. Last night, it was the Cowboys’ turn. Combined with Tulsa’ loss to Virginia Tech in the Independence Bowl the day after Christmas, it was an imperfect trifecta for the Sooner State.

Oklahoma State was 10-0 and ranked sixth in the College Football Playoff poll, but ended the year with a giant thud, losing at home to Baylor and Oklahoma to close the regular season, then going to New Orleans and getting thoroughly manhandled by Ole Miss.

The Cowboys need to get better on defense in a hurry. They cannot try to outscore every opponent, a plan which was fatally flawed. Oklahoma State was fortunate to be 10-0 in the first place, as it needed last-second drives to defeat Texas by three and Kansas State by two early in Big 12 play. And don’t forget the Cowboys struggled mightily to win at Iowa State before taking on Baylor and Oklahoma.

Oklahoma State isn’t going back to the dark days of the early 1990s when it was on probation in the post-Barry Sanders years and found itself consistently at or near the bottom of the Big Eight. But if the Cowboys are to stay in the upper crust of the Big 12, they will need help.

For those in Stillwater hoping for better, wait until baseball season. Your basketball team is going to have to fight tooth and nail just to finish eighth in the Big 12. At least TCU should keep the Cowboys (and Texas Tech) out of the cellar.

Such will not be the case in Norman, where Lon Krueger has coached the Sooners to the No. 3 spot in the polls behind Michigan State and Kansas. Provided the Jayhawks and Sooners both win today, Monday’s matchup in Lawrence will be No. 1 vs. No. 2.

Oklahoma football will be a force to be reckoned with in 2016. Baker Mayfield will be on the short list of Heisman Trophy favorites, joined by Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey and LSU’s Leonard Fornette. Bob Stoops will be in Norman as long as he wants, as long as he doesn’t get taken down by scandal as was the case with Barry Switzer in the late 1980s.

Ole Miss had to wonder what might have been all throughout their stay in New Orleans.

The Rebels beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa in September. Yet they blew that signature victory by losing at Florida, at Memphis and at home to Arkansas in overtime. Ole Miss blew the Arkansas game by allowing the Razorbacks to convert a fourth-and-25 in overtime, then committing a facemask penalty on the 2-point conversion attempt, allowing Arkansas another shot, which it converted.

Had Ole Miss beaten Arkansas, it would have played for the SEC championship, not Alabama. The Rebels would easily have handled Florida, even though the Gators beat Ole Miss 38-10 in Gainesville in October. If the College Football Playoff committee truly values conference championships, then there would have been no way Alabama could have been in the playoff ahead of Ole Miss or Pac-12 champion Stanford. And would Iowa have been able to hold a top-four spot after losing to

Thankfully, we did not have to find about Iowa in the playoff. Its pathetic performance in the Rose Bowl proved it was overrated.

On the other hand, Stanford has to feel some animosity towards Ole Miss. The Cardinal would have been in Miami and not Pasadena had the Rebels not blown it vs. Arkansas.

However, that’s all hindsight. It’s Alabama and Clemson in nine days.

Today’s football kicked off a few minutes ago in Jacksonville with Penn State and Georgia facing off in the TaxSlayer Bowl (formerly the Gator Bowl). TaxSlayer? Please.

In 1982, Penn State defeated Georgia, led by Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker, for the national championship in the Sugar Bowl. Today’s matchup holds a lot less intrigue. Just another bowl.


Missed big time

Ole Miss might as well had not left Oxford. Their performance today in the Peach Bowl is beyond putrid.

I don’t like the Rebels, period. I dislike Ole Miss more than any other SEC school. I get tired of Ole Mss thinking they are more refined and more cultured than the ‘rednecks’ which populate Auburn, Gainesville, Fayetteville, and especially Starkville. Rebel fans think because they eat on tablecloths during tailgate parties, they are more civilized than their peers at LSU. Because their students wear coat and tie or dresses to games, they’re more sophisticated than Missouri.

I’ve been to Oxford enough times to know that if Ole Miss weren’t there, it would be just another small Mississippi town with a few gas stations, a few restaurants, and not much else. Other than having Ole Miss there, Oxford isn’t much except for a bigger town on a four-lane highway from I-55 in Batesville to Tupelo, the birthplace of Elvis and the largest city northeast Mississippi.

One thing about Ole Miss that galls me is the total control Greeks have over that campus. If you are not a member of a fraternity or sorority, you have absolutely no chance to getting elected to a position in the student government, which means the Greeks have almost unlimited access to the faculty at Ole Miss. I would not be surprised if Greeks often get grading breaks not afforded to non-Greeks.

Problem is, if you don’t have a family member who was in a fraternity or sorority, or your family does not have money, good luck trying to get in. People like me would have less than zero chance.

Sadly, the Greeks run student life at Alabama as well, although it isn’t reported, simply because there’s too much other news coming out of Tuscaloosa (read: Nick Saban’s football dynasty). The Greeks have run Alabama since the days Bear Bryant and George Wallace were students, and that’s over 80 years ago.

Ole Miss, which beat Alabama in October but stumbled later with losses to LSU, Auburn and Arkansas, is getting destroyed by TCU in the Peach Bowl, the first of the six ‘access bowls’ now under the control of the College Football Playoff committee. The Horned Frogs, who finished No. 5 in the CFP rankings released Dec. 7–one spot shy of qualifying for the playoff–have steamrolled the Rebels throughout and lead 42-3 in the fourth quarter. TCU is aiming for its second 12-win season in its last five, pretty remarkable considering the Horned Frogs were among the doormats of the old Southwest Conference for the last 35 years of that conference, from 1960, the year Bob Lilly graduated and went on to his Hall of Fame career with the Cowboys, through 1995, the last year of the conference.

TCU originally was going to be accepted into the Big 12 when it formed to give the new league a foothold in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, but Ann Richards, then the governor of Texas and a big mouthpiece for Baylor, threatened to torpedo the Big 12 if the Bears were not taken in. Texas, Texas A&M and Texas Tech were eagerly accepted by the rest of the Big Eight; it just came down to Baylor and TCU. SMU was not an option due to the lack of a baseball team; Rice is too small; and Houston has a history of numerous NCAA rules violations.

The Horned Frogs are coached by Gary Patterson, who grew up in Rozel, Kansas, a tiny dot on the map between Larned and Jetmore. Patterson has led TCU to unprecedented heights, heights not seen since the glory days of the 1950s under Abe Martin.

Ole MIss has played in a couple of Cotton Bowls and a couple of Gator Bowls in January over the past 25 years, but today’s Peach Bowl can truly be called the Rebels’ first bona fide major bowl game since Archie Manning propelled Ole Miss past Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl of January 1, 1970. That year, there were only four games on New Year’s Day, and if you played in the Cotton, Sugar, Rose or Orange, you must have had a pretty good season.

Ole Miss went 7-3 in 1969, but they caught a huge break when 9-1 LSU turned down the Sugar Bowl. The Bayou Bengals were hoping for a Cotton Bowl berth against top-ranked Texas, but the Cotton instead snatched up Notre Dame when the Fighting Irish ended their 45-year prohibition on playing in bowl games. LSU was offered a spot in the Bluebonnet Bowl vs. Colorado, but said no, meaning it sat home at 9-1.

Sadly, too many 6-6 and 7-5 teams are playing bowl games hardly anyone cares about. The attendance reflects that. I’m sorry, but no way 6-6 Miami and 6-6 South Carolina should have been in a bowl. Same for 6-6 Arkansas and 6-6 Texas. I think eight wins should be the bare minimum.

Negative State-Ment

LSU will play for a college football national championship one day. It probably won’t be in 2014.

The Bayou Bengals were thudded back to earth last night in their own lair, as Mississippi State rolled up 570 yards and built a 24-point lead before holding off a furious fourth quarter rally to prevail 34-29. It was the Bulldogs’ first victory in Tiger Stadium since 1991, Curley Hallman’s first year as LSU coach, and the first for State anywhere since 1999, Gerry DiNardo’s last in Baton Rouge. Nick Saban was 5-0 vs. State at LSU; he lost to the Bulldogs in his first season at Alabama. Jerry Stovall was 0-4 during his tenure vs. the Starville Dogs; no wonder he got the axe after losing 45-26 to State in Death Valley in 1983.

The worst part for LSU had to be Dax Prescott, the State quarterback who completely befuddled the Bayou Bengal defense, should be wearing purple and gold, not maroon. He was an All-State performer at Haughton High, a Shreveport suburb. If Prescott would have signed with LSU, the Bayou Bengals would have had a viable alternative to Zach Mettenberger the previous two seasons, and he certainly would have beaten out Anthony Jennings this year. Instead, he’s got State poised to break out and enjoy its biggest season since it won the SEC West in 1998.

I would much rather see State succeed than Ole Miss. I cannot stand Ole Miss. I am sick and tired of the national media, and especially those in Mississippi, thinking the Rebels are the end-all be-all of football in that state. To me, Ole Miss is a bunch of highbrow elitist snobs who think they are a class above the rest of the SEC, and Oxford is a enlightened place, in contrast to “redneck” Starkville, Auburn, Fayetteville and Gainesville. Ole Miss probably wishes it was in the ACC where it would fit in with other snob schools like Virginia, North Carolina and Duke.

I’ve been to Oxford, Mississippi enough to know without Ole Miss, Oxford would be no better than Natchez, Laurel, Meridian, Columbus or any other Mississippi city of 10,000 to 30,000. At least there’s a four-lane highway extending from Interstate 55 to Oxford, which is true of most places in Mississippi. You wouldn’t think it, but Mississippi’s roads are far more modern than you would find anywhere else in the south. I would venture to say Mississippi is now fourth in terms of time spent within the state, following Louisiana, Kansas and Missouri, although I’ve been to far more places in Mississippi than Missouri, where my experience is limited to Kansas City, Columbia and St. Louis, save for passing through the northwest corner of the state from KC to the Iowa state line.

LSU now has to pick itself up off the mat. It will have a tune-up next week against a bad New Mexico State team, but then it has back-to-back trips to Auburn and Florida. Lose those two, and the Bayou Bengals could be very well staring down the barrel of their first losing season since 1999. Les Miles has had only one losing season as a head coach, and that was his first at Oklahoma State,, where he inherited a very bad team from Bob Simmons. That team went 4-7, but he beat Oklahoma in Norman.

Today it’s about the NFL. I’m at Buffalo Wild Wings, which is starting to fill up, but the crowd might be a little light early since the Chiefs and the Broncos don’t start their games until 3:25. The Saints are looking for their first victory, and if they don’t beat the Vikings, shame on them. I hope everyone pummels the Vikings, who are paying Adrian Peterson $692,000 a week to do nothing. Peterson is a child abuser whom I hope goes to prison for a long time. This monster has no business around children. Period.

I also am rooting hard against the Ravens. I have never liked the Ravens, thanks to (a) Art Modell just ripping the Browns out of Cleveland so he could pay off his hundreds of millions in bad debt and (b) employing perjurer and likely murderer Ray Lewis, but now with the Ray Rice scandal, there’s another reason to despise them. It’s typical of Baltimore, which is a crime-infested rathole. The Orioles are owned by Peter Angelos, a trial lawyer who has given tens of millions to left-wing wackos.

Okay enough ranting. On to the games.