Louisiana state university is one of the South's great colleges, and it has been around for a long time. Its first president was a young Army officer named William Tecumseh Sherman, and it once had a cheerleader named Huey Long. At one time LSU also had an undefeated and untied football team, but that was in 1908, and nothing quite so exciting has happened in all the years since. Or at least not until now. Maybe the reason is that LSU, in the past 50 years, has had nothing like Billy Abb Cannon and 11 other young men known as the Chinese Bandits.
Saturday night in Baton Rouge, LSU overwhelmed Duke 50-18, thereby winning its eighth ball game of 1958. It was the first time since 1929 that anyone had scored 50 points against a Duke team. Cannon caught a 63-yard touchdown pass, raced 25 yards for another score and kicked two extra points. Coach Paul Dietzel's quick and lean and hungry young men took advantage of every break—most of which they made for themselves, which is always the mark of a good football team—and swarmed all over the hapless Blue Devils from Durham like a cloud of angry bees. And the Chinese Bandits blocked a punt, recovering the ball on the Duke two to set up a touchdown, which they subsequently scored themselves to the great delight of the vast crowd. Despite their other talents, the Bandits do not score many touchdowns.
When it was all over, no one in the wildly ecstatic crowd which jammed Tiger Stadium to the light standards, no one in the vicinity of football-crazed Baton Rouge, no one in the entire state of Louisiana doubted that this was the No. 1 college football team in the land. And Iowa, Army and Auburn to the contrary, they were almost certainly right.
Picked to finish far down in the 12-team Southeastern Conference before the season began, the Tigers have been chewing up everything that has come their way, including good ball clubs like Rice and Florida and Mississippi and Duke.
November 17, 1958
The problems which faced Dietzel this year were simple enough. He had all the ingredients for a ferocious backfield, with Cannon, two speedsters named Johnny Robinson and Scooter Purvis, a tough fullback who likes to knock people down in Red Brodnax, and a good quarterback in Warren Rabb. He also had some fine linemen, led by an exceptional center, Max Fugler, who is not only large and aggressive but can outrun the backs on most football teams. But most of the linemen were not very big, and there just didn't seem to be enough of them. Somewhere along the way it was almost certain that they would wear out. So Dietzel, a tall, handsome blond-haired fellow, decided he would have to let everyone get into the act.
Dietzel picked his 11 best football players and called them the White team, which is the color all LSU football players wear these days despite the purple and gold school colors. Then he took his next 22 players and divided them according to offensive and defensive abilities. The offensive 11, which has a lot of speed and can move the ball almost as well as the starters, he named the Go team. The defensive crew he named the Chinese Bandits. Never, at LSU, are the Bandits called the third string—which they really are—or the third unit or the third team or the third anything else. They are simply the Bandits.
"They are," says Dietzel, "the darndest bunch of kids you ever saw."
Made up primarily of sophomores and 1957 red shirts and reserves, with last year's student manager, Gus Kinchen, playing one end, the Bandits have logged almost a quarter of LSU's total playing time. In crucial moments they have afforded the starters some much-needed rest. Under the more relaxed substitution rule in effect this year, Dietzel has been able to keep his regulars from wearing out by the simple process of pulling them out before they even have a chance to get tired. The Go team has filled in capably on offense—it has played almost a quarter of the time, too—and the Bandits have done a remarkable job on defense.
"They're not really that good," they will tell you at LSU, "but they think they are, which seems to be what counts."
Dietzel's touch of psychological inspiration did not suddenly blossom forth this year. Rather, it began back in 1950, when he was defensive coach under Gilman at Cincinnati. Feeling that some boost in morale was needed by the relatively unsung defensive platoon in those days of free substitution, he came up with a quote from the comic strip, Terry and the Pirates. "Chinese Bandits," said a sinister-looking Oriental gentleman one day, "are the most vicious people on earth." So Dietzel told his Cincinnati crew that since it was pretty mean and ornery, henceforth it would be known as the Chinese Bandits.
When two-platoon football went out in 1953, however, the Bandits were forgotten—until this year. Now they are the darlings of the South.
A Memphis disc jockey named Fred Huddleston has written a song about them which the LSU band plays whenever the Bandits go on the field. A Baton Rouge elementary schoolroom voted to change its class name to the Chinese Bandits. Jack Sabin, who runs the Goalpost Restaurant on the edge of the LSU campus, drove down to New Orleans one day, picked up 1,400 Chinese coolie hats and gave them away with meals. They were all gone by nightfall. Last week, just before the Duke game, a member of the LSU freshman team walked up to Dietzel one afternoon and said: "Coach, if it's all the same with you, I'd just as soon not play on the first string next year. I'd kinda like to be one of the Bandits." And when one of the Bandits actually was promoted to the starting unit to replace a guard hobbled by injury, he gave Dietzel an indignant stare and said: "O.K., but as soon as possible I want to get back to the Bandits."
With such esprit de corps, it is hardly surprising that the entire squad has been affected. The White team and the Go team are almost as proud of the Bandits as the Bandits are of themselves.
Despite the wonderful team spirit, however, despite the blossoming coaching excellence of the 34-year-old Dietzel, despite the solid performances of Rabb, Fugler and the rest, everyone knows that LSU has escaped mediocrity once again only because of the presence of Billy Cannon. Blessed with a magnificent physique, tremendous speed and an apparently bottomless supply of gutty determination, LSU's bowlegged left halfback may be the best college football player in America.
Standing 6 feet 1 inch in height and weighing a rock-hard 204 pounds, Billy can run 100 yards in 9.5 seconds, a feat which he accomplished twice last spring in his spare time away from football practice. He is also as strong as a young bull.
A good-looking, likable boy with crew-cut brown hair and friendly hazel eyes, Billy grew up just outside Tiger Stadium's north gate and used to sell peanuts and cold drinks in the big concrete stands when he was a kid. He always wanted to play football there himself, but for a while it appeared he would end up playing instead in the LSU band. Unable to make the Istrouma Junior High team because he was so small that no one could find shoes to fit him, he reluctantly took trombone lessons—but, just in case, he kept on playing football with the neighborhood kids. By the time Billy finished high school LSU was more than happy to let him play anywhere he wanted, just so he didn't go away. Grown up to 195 pounds, Cannon scored 229 points his senior year in high school, became an All-State and All-America schoolboy player, led Istrouma to a state championship and was a record-setting dashman as well.
A good student, Billy could have gone to any one of 50 colleges, but LSU was the logical choice. His older brother, Harvey, played football for the Tigers until an injury stopped him, and Billy's father has been an employee of the university, a custodian in the dormitories, since an industrial-plant injury years ago forced him to give up heavy work.
Cannon's 1956 freshman team included Rabb and Robinson and Fugler and was perhaps the best in the school's history. They bowled over everything in sight, and LSU supporters could hardly wait for the 1957 season when they would come up to the varsity as sophomores. When 1957 finally arrived, however, it was slightly disconcerting to Tiger fans to discover that sophomores, even such gifted ones as these, usually manage to play like sophomores. Billy averaged 5½ yards a carry, gaining 583 yards from scrimmage, and led the conference in kickoff returns, but he is the first to admit that there was an awful lot he needed to learn about playing football.
"I made," he grins now, "quite a few mistakes."
WHEN THE CHIPS ARE DOWN
Apparently the year of experience was all that he needed, however, for no one has been able to catch LSU's No. 20 doing anything wrong since. Less spectacular than last year because of all the attention he receives from the opposition—every defense is keyed to stop him and two or three linebackers usually dog his every step—Billy has still managed to gain 512 yards in eight games. Only twice has he been able to get his hands on kickoffs—other teams now seem to have the word that there are better places on the field to kick a football than the spot occupied by Billy Cannon—and these he has run back 82 yards. He has caught passes and thrown them, done much of the punting and kicked extra points, defended magnificently and become a bone-crunching blocker. But it is when the Tigers need vital yardage, when things are getting tough, that Cannon is at his best. When LSU faces third down and six, everyone in the stadium knows who is going to get the ball.
"Billy's by far the best athlete I've ever coached," says Dietzel. "He's stronger, faster, tougher. He can do more things well. And he improves from week to week. Give him a step and he's gone. But if there's no room, he'll run over you. When he does it hurts.
"He's a tremendously intelligent boy—in some ways, he is really brilliant—and he has grown up. He's mature, and he knows what he wants out of life. He's a leader—this team is unusual in that respect; Fugler and Rabb and Robinson are leaders, too, and I think that explains our success as much as anything else. Billy Cannon is a great individual football player," says Dietzel, "but even more important, he's a great team man."
Cannon is certainly intelligent, and this goes far beyond his B average in a predental course. With a deceptive Deep South drawl, he is smart enough to talk about his blockers instead of about himself and to give all the credit for LSU's startling success to his teammates, his coaches and even to the howling mob of fans. And also, of course, to his wife and family, without whose help he would have had quite a bit more trouble living down a teen-age indiscretion involving a stolen bottle of whisky and the long arm of the Louisiana law. It is an incident which has been overpublicized both locally and nationally and really wouldn't have been so bad except that Billy Cannon was Billy Cannon—and he got caught. Billy had to check in with the probation officer for a month or so, and then everything was all right.
"I've always been sorry it happened," says Cannon. "But I guess all kids make mistakes. In one way, I guess it was good for me. I learned a lesson I'll never forget."
Typical of Billy, this too is an understatement. He has been a model student and citizen ever since. Married to his high school sweetheart, Dorothy Dupuy, in the summer of 1956, Billy is now the father of two little girls—Terri Lynn, who was born just before the '57 season, and Gina Leigh, who was born just before this one. The Cannons live in a house a few blocks from Istrouma High. The house is in Billy's name but actually, he says, "It belongs to my daddy and the mortgage company. Mostly the mortgage company."
With only Mississippi State this weekend and Tulane on November 22 separating LSU from its first perfect season in 50 years, the school and the city have gone football mad. Impromptu pep rallies wind their way across the lovely old campus almost every night, the flames of bonfires lighting up the yellow stucco walls and red tile roofs of the buildings and threatening the existence of the moss-hung oaks and cypresses which dot the grounds. Because United Press International placed the Tigers second to Iowa last week in its football poll (the Associated Press, perhaps in self-defense, had them No. 1), LSU students hanged the UPI in effigy. The enthusiasm even overflowed onto the practice field; Dietzel had to halt one workout while a cheering horde of students, accompanied by the band, paraded across the field and stopped to give a few cheers.
Baton Rouge has always been crazy about football, and last year, even with a team which lost half its games, LSU set a Southeastern Conference attendance record. This-season that record has been smashed to bits.
LSU has been playing its games at night for more than 20 years, and in Baton Rouge they do not consider this strange at all. In fact, it is almost a necessity. An industrial town, Baton Rouge operates on a three-shifts-a-day schedule, and night football enables workers from two shifts to see the games. "I didn't care much for it at first," says Dietzel. "Now I think it's great."
"For a while, it seemed a bit peculiar to me, too," says LSU's dynamic young athletic director, Jim Corbett. "Now I wouldn't have it any other way."
Because it's a night affair, LSU football has become perhaps more of a social event than would be possible someplace else. Instead of having parties after the game, people in Baton Rouge dress as if they were going to the opera, have cocktail parties and buffets before the game, then troop to the stadium en masse. "Sometimes they have parties after the game, too," says Athletic Director Corbett, "although that makes a rather long day."
You would almost think that the city and the school would never want to see the '58 season end. And yet they can hardly wait, which isn't entirely due to anticipation about the Sugar Bowl. What they are waiting for is next year, when they can really prove how good LSU is. You see, there are only three seniors on Dietzel's entire squad, which means that in 1959 almost everyone will be back. Cannon and Fugler and Rabb and Robinson. The Go team. And don't forget those Chinese Bandits.