In Baton Rouge they say that not even the annual convening of the legislature in Louisiana's skyscraper capitol downtown or the swell splendor of a gubernatorial inauguration can rival the splash of the football season at Louisiana State University. If you don't believe it, just stop by the governor's mansion and ask. Of course, the governor's mansion itself is pretty hard to believe. A $1 million Dixieland Taj Mahal, it is so magnificently jacked up by alabaster columns on the outside and so thoroughly strewn with antiques and brocade on the inside that it makes the White House look tacky.
The present occupant of this bit of Louisiana baroque is one John McKeithen, a strapping country boy from up in Columbia, La., who grew into a graying, handsome, personable man, picture-perfect for the role of governor even though what he would really like to be is the LSU quarterback. He seems totally at home around the mansion—so at home that he sometimes wears a beige jump suit when he greets visitors.
Governor McKeithen has a forceful personality, and in Louisiana a governor, even one in a beige jump suit, can, if he chooses, exercise powers approximating those of the Shah of Iran and Boss Tweed combined. So it is best not to argue when he says, "Baton Rouge is the greatest football town in America, my fren'. Columbus, Ohio don't even come close to the spirit we got right heah in this li'l ol' country town. Football season is the social season and politics don't even come close. When you see football at LSU you see a spectacle, my fren'. A real spectacle!"
Well, there are spectacles and there are spectacles, but the one that the LSU Tigers put on Saturday night in Baton Rouge as they beat a fine Texas A&M team 13-12 was a spectacle, my fren'. The LSU victory was engineered in large part by a scampering, tiny (5'9", 165 pounds) quarterback named Freddie Haynes, the son of a parish sheriff in Minden, La. While Haynes bobbed, dodged and bootlegged his team to victory, Governor McKeithen slammed his hands against the wall of his private booth above Tiger Stadium and 68,000 fanatics shrieked and slammed each other. Never mind that Texas A&M's cool and graceful Edd Hargett was far the better quarterback on the field and only a fluky fumble by A&M on LSU's one-foot line saved the night for the Tigers. No one interested in life, liberty or a continuing pursuit of happiness would suggest such things in Baton Rouge last weekend.
It is an axiom around the Louisiana capital that no man—be he butcher, baker, stringy-bead-swing (local slang for hippie), uppity country club member or governor of a sovereign state—hath greater love than that given by citizens of Baton Rouge to the LSU football Tigers. It is not a law to love LSU, although McKeithen probably could make it one if he wanted. But it is not easy to feel wanted in Baton Rouge unless you are four-square and roaring for the Tigers. There is nowhere to go.
Try Bob & Jakes, for example. It is Baton Rouge's one high-toned nightclub and it has a flossy floor show each evening. But about every 10 minutes the band strikes up some LSU fight song and everyone pushes back his plate of oysters Bienville to stand up and sing. Or, if you are on the LSU campus, go to Free Speech Alley, which is a narrow corridor outside the Student Union Building where the college's minute population of bewhiskered liberals debates opponents from the vast assortment of campus conservatives. Even the beards-and-beads crowd is do-or-die for LSU football.
Or stop at the gate of a refinery in the bleak north end of town. Workers say they arrange vacations, night shifts, bowling leagues and family pregnancies so they won't miss games. Or read the society pages of the local papers. New Orleans society has its Mardi Gras and Baltimore its Cotillion, but Baton Rouge has football, and to every country club president, dinner-dance group secretary and would-be debutante's mother the Texas A&M game kicked off the in-society calendar for the year. Indeed, there are so many cocktail parties before, after and during the game that some of Baton Rouge's jet setters attend in sequined party dresses.
The reason for such a profound commitment to football is not terribly complex. For one thing, except for a journey to New Orleans—which is roughly to Baton Rouge what Paris is to Gary, Ind.—there is not all that much to do in Louisiana once the sun sets over the swamps. So why not fill in the dark hours with football games? Why not, indeed. Louisiana high school football, played almost exclusively at night, pulls enormous crowds. Newspapers such as the Baton Rouge Morning Advocate spend five or six full pages each Saturday on stories dealing with Opelousas vs. Lafayette and Ponchatoula vs. Destrehan. Of LSU's 19,500 students, 88% are from Louisiana. Thus, as LSU's genial Head Coach Charlie McClendon puts it, "Our players go to college with boys they knew in high school. These kids know the athletes aren't animals, and they admire them. That's why there is better spirit here than anyplace I know. In the stadium the excitement is like an electric wire running from the stands to the field."
True enough. And that LSU electricity has shocked plenty of opponents over the years. In fact, it reaches such a point of ferocity that some coaches will not start their best sophomores for fear they will become unglued by the avalanches of noise, and there is scarcely a sports-writer alive who has not compared a game in Tiger Stadium with the Lions vs. the Christians. The crowd volume is so fierce that Charlie McClendon sometimes has his team work out with a loudspeaker blaring recorded stadium roars. A few gung-ho souls insist that the noise is simply the good, clean sound of rampant school spirit. Others argue that long afternoons before the game with quite another kind of spirits is a factor. But nobody will contest that the level of enthusiasm is astonishing.
Governor McKeithen himself is no mean addition to the bedlam. In his booth atop the stadium, where he is accompanied by friends and four state policemen in sharp blue blazers with only a snazzy pocket emblem to identify their professional roles, he is a rousing menace to be near. As everyone must in Tiger Stadium, he talks at the top of his voice and accentuates the finer points of his commentary on the game with fast, hard finger pokes or elbow prods or palm slaps. "See? See?" he shouts. Then he pokes. "What'd I tell you. I said, 'Roll out, Freddie' and he did. First down! See?" Not since the rampaging days of Huey Long, the flamboyant Kingfish, has Louisiana—or the entire U.S., for that matter—seen a governor so wrapped up in football. McKeithen favors the nickname "Coach," and last fall he skipped out on his own election night to fly to Jackson for the Ole Miss-LSU game.
John McKeithen will never equal Huey Long's antic fanaticism, and does not want to. The Kingfish led parades, gave blistering locker-room talks and screamed signals to the team from the sidelines. He once threatened to raise taxes on railroad bridges 4,000% if the Illinois Central did not lower its fare for LSU students taking a football train to Nashville; the fare dropped from $19 to $6. Once when he heard that the date of a circus visit to Baton Rouge was hurting LSU game ticket sales, he called the circus manager and told him that he would force him to put every lion, tiger, elephant and gorilla through a sheep-dip to prevent who knows what foul diseases unless the show date was changed; it was. Oddly enough, Huey did not destroy football at LSU. He probably made it what it is.
"I think I can do as much good as Huey did," says McKeithen, "but I'll do it without interfering." Nowadays McKeithen only appears on LSU sidelines to help with pregame recruiting spiels to high school prospects. He shakes the hand of each boy and fervently urges him to come to Baton Rouge, and then the governor retires to his seat upstairs. But he is in there pitching hard all year to sell top players on LSU. When a boy comes to town McKeithen may have him chauffeured around in his white Cadillac. The best prospects always get a personal interview with the governor and often a breakfast at the mansion. During the game last Saturday night an LSU tackle made a spectacular play, and McKeithen jabbed, poked and grabbed a bystander, shouting, "See that 73? 73? That's John Sage from Houston, Texas! He's a fahn boy, a fahn boy. He et all mah breakfast one mornin' up at the mansion. John Sage. We recruited him from Houston."
McKeithen insists that he does not impose himself on Charlie McClendon's staff. "If they ask mah help, I give it fast. If Charlie Mac wants me to talk to a boy, I'm on the phone to his mommy and daddy one minute after the coach hangs up."
Although the governor's enthusiasm is both constant and contagious, he—along with all staunch LSU fans—has been less than absolutely optimistic about LSU's 1968 team. The team was sound, as usual, on defense, and boasted such solid running backs as Tommy Allen and Eddie Ray, but the quarterback situation seemed dim going into the opener against Texas A&M, the Southwest Conference champion. McClendon has long insisted that Freddie Haynes, small as he is, was the only man really qualified to replace the departed Nelson Stokley, who broke many LSU passing records. But there was wide dissent around Louisiana. Haynes was roundly booed during a spring game, and last summer the rumor spread that the only reason he was LSU's No. 1 quarterback was because he was related to the governor. "They's no kin, nohow," snorts McClendon. "Freddie's merited the job."
For a good part of the first half against A&M it did not seem that Freddie Haynes or the LSU Tigers in general would ever merit another breakfast at the mansion. Coach Gene Stallings' well-schooled defense, led by Linebacker Billy Hobbs and 245-pound Tackle Rolf Krueger, kept LSU's runners stalled cold. LSU did not get a first down until more than 12 minutes had gone by.
The Aggies began the scoring with a safety after a snap from center soared over Punter Eddie Ray's head and out of the end zone. Less than two minutes later A&M got the ball on LSU's 46 and Edd Hargett passed for 19 and 25 yards, and then hit Wingback Bob Long for a touchdown. For the first nine minutes of the second quarter LSU's offense remained stuck while the Aggies added a field goal.
It was now 12-0 and even the vaunted Tiger Stadium spirit was turning soggy. The crowd revived a little midway through the quarter—but only to boo angrily when Coach McClendon ordered a punt on third down. Finally, late in the quarter, Haynes's backup quarterback, Jimmy Gilbert, came in after Freddie was knocked dizzy by a tackle, and it was Gilbert who led LSU to its first touchdown, a three-yard plunge by Tailback Frank Matte after a 40-yard drive. The extra point was missed, which seemed natural enough for a team that last year was labeled the Toeless Tigers.
Up in the governor's booth there was an air of rather strained optimism as the third quarter started. "Hey, we gonna intercept one. You watch," shouted McKeithen. "Or we'll recover a fumble. We do that and it's our game. All ours." Even though the Aggies seemed flat and were showing signs of weariness against LSU's deeper squad, the governor was even more uneasy as the fourth quarter began.
"Well," he boomed, "this is a great team, these Aggies. We may not beat 'em. But don't worry. Don't worry! We gonna beat some real good teams this year. Real good!"
And, sure enough, in the fourth quarter LSU did beat a real good team, because suddenly Freddie Haynes took on new stature. Starting on the LSU 44, he picked up nine yards himself on an option play. He had been told at the half to avoid the left side of Texas A&M's line, to keep away from Hobbs and Krueger, so from the Aggie 21, Haynes sent Tommy Allen for four straight slants in the other direction and LSU wound up on the four. Two plays later, performing with the deft timing that an option quarterback must display, Haynes kept the ball until the perfect moment, then pitched to Jim West for the touchdown. That made it 12-12. Would it wind up a toeless tie? No, this time Mark Lumpkin hit the ball true, and LSU had the lead at last.
At this point A&M struck back. Edd Hargett fired two superb passes for 47 and 23 yards, and suddenly Tiger Stadium burst into noisy alarm. The governor pounded the wall. The Aggies were on the LSU five. Two plays gained one yard. Then Hargett pitched wide to Bob Long. Long raced to within a foot of the goal, was hit just as he took the last step toward the end zone and dropped the ball. It rolled—as if obeying a gubernatorial decree—through the end zone and out of bounds for an automatic touchback and LSU took over, its victory in hand. The stadium was delirious. The governor was delirious. Texas A&M probably was delirious, too. That Baton Rouge is one real football town, my fren'.