In case first-year coach Bill Arnsparger had misplaced his perspective after LSU's 23-3 victory over USC last Saturday in the Los Angeles Coliseum, a Tiger fan who poked his head into the team bus set him straight. "Coach, I just want to let you know we're with you," said the man solemnly, "for now at least."
At least 5,000 other LSU fans who chartered to California were with him, too, as Arnsparger's rebuilding magic continued. After a 21-21 tie with Florida in their opener, the Tigers have now won three straight. In 1983 Jerry Stovall won only four all season, which precipitated his dismissal and the surprise hiring of Arnsparger away from the Miami Dolphins. After the four-year roller-coaster reign of Stovall (22-21-2), rabid LSU fans now are looking ahead to the Sugar Bowl—and beyond. "You could be elected governor, Coach," another fan shouted at him. "For now at least," said Arnsparger with a smile.
Things aren't so rosy at USC (2-1), which, like LSU, saw Saturday's game as a gauge of its rebuilding progress after a disastrous 1983 season (4-6-1). "We've got to get together and see how we can produce a semblance of an offense," said coach Ted Tollner. Actually, that's exactly what he has. His two-tailback system (which produced only 113 rushing yards against LSU) is not so much an indication that either Fred Crutcher or Zeph Lee can do the job as it is that neither can. America's Position may soon be occupied by freshman phenom Ryan Knight, though he has been slower than expected at picking up the nuances. Tollner has now lost five of the 14 games he's coached at USC by 20 or more points; his predecessor, John Robinson, lost only two by that margin in seven seasons. "It's times like these that can splinter a team," Tollner added.
LSU all but splintered last year when Stovall went 0-5 in the SEC. Arnsparger hardly seemed a logical candidate to replace him. He was 56 years old and most observers thought he'd never give up the security of being Don Shula's defensive guru and assistant head coach. But LSU athletic director Bob Brodhead, the Dolphins' director of finance before he went to LSU in 1982, knew that Arnsparger had deep feelings for Louisiana, his favorite state on the college-draft evaluation circuit.
"No matter what level a coach is at, he could waste a lifetime trying to create 78,000 people in the stands," said Arnsparger, before the USC game. "We have that here." Although Miami reportedly offered Arnsparger a four-year contract worth $1 million to stay, he decided to go to Baton Rouge for about $150,000 annually—$80,000 in salary and $70,000 for a TV show and various promotional appearances. He has a house a half mile from the Mississippi, and "I can see the stadium from my porch."
Before Arnsparger could get down to X's and O's in Baton Rouge, he had to deal with two important details. LSU fans had reacted negatively to Stovall's corporate white-shirt-and-tie look on the sideline—when a man goes winless in the SEC, only a hair shirt will do—so there was a sigh of relief when Arnsparger said he would wear slacks and sport shirts in the team colors. "Geez, for a month I thought I was talking to a bunch of clothing salesmen," he says. Point No. 2 was his team's waistline. "The first time we got together I just thought many of them looked too fat," he says, "and that was confirmed by the tests we did." So he set demanding body-fat ratios—15% for linemen, 10% for backs and tight ends, 6% to 8% for the skill positions—and almost every player had met the requirements by the start of fall practice.
"I cut out late snacks, rice and white bread," said offensive tackle Lance Smith, who, having shucked almost 40 pounds to end up at 265, is Arnsparger's prize exhibit. Last year the Tigers were known as the Lunch Bunch; now they're the Lean Machine. Particularly on defense, and most notably in the case of sophomore outside linebacker Michael Brooks, who's 6'1" and 230 pounds with 4.5 speed. LSU was trailing 3-0 10 minutes into the first quarter when Brooks blitzed USC quarterback Kevin McLean, filling in for the injured Sean Salisbury, and forced a fumble that end Karl Wilson recovered at the USC 14. Three plays later Dalton Hilliard went over from the two. In the second quarter Brooks recovered a fumble by Lee (linebacker Gregg Dubroc made the hit) at the LSU 21, and quarterback Jeff Wickersham engineered a drive that culminated in another two-yard Hilliard TD and a 14-3 LSU lead at halftime. An interception by safety Steve Rehage helped set up a 46-yard field goal by Juan Betanzos that made the score 17-3 late in the third quarter.
While Arnsparger is considered a defensive genius, his system at LSU is fairly basic. "We don't do a lot of crazy stuff," says Brooks. "We spend a lot of time in practice learning how to read rather than a lot of time hitting, which is what we did under coach Stovall." Even more surprising, Arnsparger is leaving the calls to secondary coach Mike Archer, who's on the horn to defensive coordinator John Symank in the press box.
"Here's a man who's the greatest defensive coach in the world, and he's leaving it to us," says Archer, whom Arnsparger hired away from the University of Miami. "He can hear everything that's going on through his headphones, but not once has he overruled us."
Says Symank, "Once in a while in meetings, with his great defensive knowledge, he'll just go to the board and tell us why something doesn't work, but he's very open to suggestions."
On offense, Arnsparger has moved LSU out of a basic I formation and into a motion-oriented pro set that often employs Hilliard and the multitalented Garry James in the same backfield, a combination Stovall wouldn't use despite much hue and cry in Baton Rouge. James first heard about the change when Arnsparger called him at home during semester break in January. "I started thinking. 'Wait a minute, who's going to be the fullback?' " said James. "I didn't ask him then. I didn't want to ruin my vacation."
Not to worry. "With two runners like Dalton and Garry," says Arnsparger, "I removed the term 'fullback' from our dictionary." He installed Hilliard as running back, lining up behind the quarterback, and the speedy James (4.3) as tailback, a bit of a misnomer because he can, as Arnsparger puts it, "line up anywhere"; in LSU lingo, James is called the Bengal Back. Generally, James goes into motion from a flanker spot, but his unpredictability as the Bengal Back has been discombobulating defenses. Example: In the second quarter James noticed a USC cornerback playing 10 yards off him, an automatic "recognition play" for Wickersham. Though a draw had been called, Wickersham just stood up and flipped the ball to James, who gained 15 yards to the USC two, setting up Hilliard's second touchdown.
Arnsparger and his offensive coordinator, Ed Zaunbrecher, have other wrinkles, too, one of which led to the final LSU touchdown, in the third period. They spread freshman wide receiver Glenn Holt to the right and put him in motion toward the sideline. When he ran straight up the field, nobody picked him up, and he caught Wickersham's pass for a 34-yard touchdown. "The man has coached at all levels," says James. "I guess the bottom line is that he just knows more football than coach Stovall."
And he seems quite content away from the Dolphins. He spends Sundays looking at film and meeting with his coaches; he doesn't watch the Dolphins on the tube. But surely there must be something he misses about the pros. "Tell you the truth," he says confidentially, "I do miss being able to open up that cold beer right after the game."