Stakes are high as LSU, Arkansas eye taking the 'Golden Boot'
David Bazzel was not trying for subtle. His idea, some 15 years ago now, was to create "the gaudiest, heaviest, most expensive trophy in America." The bigger goal was to manufacture an important, impassioned rivalry. And so on Friday, when top-ranked LSU hosts No. 3 Arkansas, the winner gets the "Golden Boot" -- four feet tall, 175 pounds, 24-karat gold in the shape of the states of Arkansas and Louisiana.
There are other fairly important stakes, of course, including an almost certain berth in the BCS championship. They're saying it might be the most important game in Tiger Stadium since 1959, when Billy Cannon broke all those tackles on that punt return to beat Ole Miss. It's Arkansas' biggest opportunity since the Big Shootout in 1969, Hogs vs. 'Horns and heartbreak.
"It's the perfect storm," said Bazzel, a former Arkansas linebacker.
LSU-Arkansas won't make anyone's list of college football's great rivalries. Depending on your definition, it might not even be a rivalry -- though not for lack of trying. But at the very least, the annual SEC West battle has become must-see TV, a reason to finish Black Friday shopping early. Ready to fast-forward unbeaten LSU into the SEC championship game, and on from there to New Orleans on Jan. 9? Fine, go ahead. Odds-makers have LSU favored by almost two touchdowns. But consider that Arkansas has won three of the last four meetings. The last six games have been decided by a total of 21 points. And rankings haven't really seemed to matter.
Each game ended with the winner grabbing the boot to celebrate. Actually, it takes several winners to hoist the monstrous prize, which is just the way Bazzel intended it. "That's part of the fun," he said.
It's what Bazzel envisioned in 1996, when he went to then-Arkansas athletic director Frank Broyles with a proposal. Arkansas had been in the SEC for four years and didn't have a rival. LSU didn't have a true rival, either -- not that the Tigers were looking for one.
When Bazzel convinced Broyles the annual game with LSU needed a trophy, Broyles called Joe Dean, his LSU counterpart. Each school pledged $5,000, and Bazzel, a Little Rock resident, had the trophy made by a local jeweler. The results were ... well, it took some getting used to. Maybe you've seen the movie
"I mean, it's big," said former LSU coach Gerry DiNardo. "It's very heavy. ... That may be the rivalry's biggest claim to fame."
DiNardo knew about the trophy, but didn't think much else about it -- didn't even tell his players beforehand. On a rainy afternoon in Little Rock, the Tigers won, and DiNardo and a player ran over and picked it up, because that's what they were supposed to do. But size didn't immediately translate into magnitude. "It wasn't a big deal," he said.
Not at first -- though LSU senior associate athletic director Herb Vincent would like to clear up one misconception. "It was never used as a doorstop," he said, saying it was instead placed in a corner -- a very nice corner -- of the school's Hall of Fame room. But Vincent doesn't deny the trophy was once misplaced -- and no one knew it was lost.
That first year, it was supposed to be shipped from Little Rock to Baton Rouge, but it never showed up. Several weeks later, Vincent got a call from a local TV station. They'd been getting calls from a guy wondering if they'd like to come shoot some video of the giant trophy in his garage.
Turned out, according to Vincent, the jeweler's daughter's boyfriend had been visiting from Baton Rouge, and was asked to take the trophy home and deliver it to LSU. He'd loaded it into his pickup, but somehow never got around to the actual delivery. If he hadn't called the TV station looking for publicity, who knows? "To be honest," Vincent said, "we weren't looking for it." The first battle for the boot might have been the last.
But gradually, the trophy has grown on people, and the series has, too. It doesn't hurt that the game has almost always been played the day after Thanksgiving, wedged between the holiday and the last Saturday of the regular season. Or that the last few games have been rollicking, back-and-forth affairs. A few examples:
Trindon Holliday popped a huge (and very, very fast) kickoff return to give the Tigers their third straight win in 2006. Darren McFadden used the wildcat formation to win a triple-overtime thriller in 2007, knocking LSU out of the BCS championship hunt, at least for a moment (a week later, complete chaos pushed the Tigers into the title game, where they beat Ohio State.)
In 2008, the Razorbacks got a last-second touchdown pass to win -- dubbed "Miracle on Markham II," in reference to the street that runs next to Little Rock's War Memorial Stadium ("Miracle on Markham" came six years earlier, and was an even more spectacular finish). A year later, LSU won in overtime. By comparison, Arkansas' 31-23 win last season, which secured a Sugar Bowl berth while nudging out LSU, was relatively dull.
It hasn't mattered much that LSU has been the better team most years. There's never been much love lost between the fan bases, and the hostility has grown with the series. So have the slights, real and perceived. Before the 2007 game, Les Miles mispronounced Arkansas as "Ar-Kansas" rather than "Ar-kan-saw." With Miles, you never know -- but the Razorbacks were appropriately insulted. When McFadden had finished engineering the 50-48 win in three overtimes, he said: "They weren't saying it right, so we wanted to let them know how to say it."
"It's probably better," DiNardo said, "than most manufactured rivalries."
The stakes have never been higher than now. But the winner always gets the boot, an event that needs to be explained from Miles' unique perspective.
"I promise you when it comes to the challenge of keeping that trophy, that's something that we want to have happen," said Miles a year ago, before the Tigers played the Hogs. "I can also tell you that the 'boot' kind of reminds me of the shape of our state. I can tell you that a boot is also a piece of clothing worn on the foot.
"The key is to not be given the boot."
The idea is to carry it off. Just make sure you bring a couple of friends to help.