The big questions before Louisiana State and Texas A & M kicked off their seasons in College Station, Texas, Saturday night were these: How smoothly would the youngest major-college coach, LSU's 34-year-old Mike Archer, replace the theretofore hoariest, 60-year-old Bill Arnsparger? How long would the "new" Aggies coach, Jackie Sherrill, be able to maintain his more p.r.-conscious pose? The answers: very smoothly, and at least through one loss.
Archer made his debut a successful one with a 17-3 defeat of A & M, whose 14-game home-winning streak was trampled on by tailback Harvey Williams, a sophomore who provided nearly half the Tigers' offense. Neither team looked particularly pretty—each was penalized eight times and there were five turnovers—but in this battle of defending conference champs, the Tigers of the Southeastern Conference took control early and maintained it.
Archer, LSU's defensive coordinator the last two seasons, has been reminded he's the youngest Division I-A coach "about a thousand times." That doesn't faze him much, although he admits that his eight-year-old mustache—"I'm just too young without it"—is meant to give him the heft of age. Archer is tanned like a tennis pro, chatters like a campus bartender and is self-assured beyond his years. His team, he's happy to tell you, could contend for the national title.
The naming of Archer as LSU's coach tested his buoyant nature. When Arnsparger, now the athletic director at Florida, pushed for him, and the LSU chancellor added his support, the job seemed to be Archer's. But the board of supervisors voted to conduct a more thorough search. So Archer bit his lip and bided his time. After interviewing, among many, Sam Rutigliano, the former Cleveland Browns coach, and Lynn Amedee, the Aggies' esteemed offensive coordinator, the Board backed Archer almost unanimously. It hadn't hurt that 30 Tiger players attended a 3½-hour board meeting to testify on his behalf. "We wanted to keep it in the family," says senior guard Eric Andolsek. Added Williams, "Coach Arnsparger leaving was like my dad dying. But with Coach Archer, it's like my mother took over."
Archer's rèsumè is brief but sparkling. As a kid in State College, Pa., he mowed the lawn of his neighbors, the Paternos. His mom, Helen, sold tickets for the Penn State athletic department. Mike was a quarterback, punter and kicker in high school and then safety and punter at Miami of Florida. He went straight into coaching, drilling defensive backs and performing other chores at Miami for eight years, five of them under Howard Schnellenberger. In one of those seasons, 1983, the Hurricanes won the national championship.
Arnsparger, then the Miami Dolphins' defensive guru, took the Louisiana State job in '83 and brought Archer with him. Archer was named the defensive coordinator the following season.
Archer's nickname among the players was Little Commish. (Arnsparger was Big Commish.) LSU's defense was his domain; it ranked third in the nation in scoring defense in 1985. "Arnsparger never messed with the defense, even in games," says senior linebacker Nicky Hazard. "Whenever I came to the sidelines, I never heard him question anything Archer said. Archer was in as much control as any head coach." Still, Arnsparger's mind wasn't firmly made up on the cut of Archer's jib until late in a game last season when, with LSU comfortably ahead, Arnsparger started subbing quarterbacks. Archer ripped off his headset and charged his boss, saying, "What are you doing? We're only up 20!" Big Commish may have disagreed, but he liked Archer's spirit.
"Things aren't that different now under Mike, we work just as hard," says LSU assistant Joe Wessel. "It's just a different style."
Archer took it as a good sign Saturday that his players were able to crack jokes about an unplanned 20-minute detour the team bus had to take en route to A & M's Kyle Field. He also got a kick out of watching 280-pound strength coach Milt Williams try to slip on a pair of pants he had mistakenly packed that were several sizes too small. "Someone came up to me in the hotel and said, 'Your team's so loose,' " Archer said after the game. "I said, 'What's wrong with that?' "
The loosest of all may have been Williams, a 6'2", 210-pound glider who rushed for 700 yards last year and caught 27 passes for 272 more. As a high school star he was all but signed and sealed for delivery to Aggieland. He grew up less than 50 miles southeast of College Station, in Hempstead, Texas (pop. 3,456), and when Sherrill spoke at a banquet in Hempstead during Williams's freshman year, he pointed to Williams and said, "I'll be back for you." Small wonder: Williams's first run from scrimmage at Hempstead High, off a pitchout from Johnny Holland, later an All-America Aggie linebacker, had been good for 93 yards.
As a high school senior, he showed up for a press conference to announce his college of choice, intending to make it A & M. Then he heard two girls belting out the Aggie War Hymn and for some reason, he says, "Something snapped." He stepped to the mike and uttered: "LSU." Really now, what made you change your mind, Harvey? "My lips."
Williams's lips move almost as fast as his legs. So tell us, how do you compare with Eric Dickerson? "Eric runs a 4.3 40, a 10.3 100. I'm the same thing. No, his 100's better, but I don't know if his 40 is as fast as mine. I have more moves than he does, I catch more than he does. I told him at a basketball game in Sealy I was going to break his record [5.877 yards rushing in high school, sixth-best in Texas Class 3A history], then I did. I told him later, 'It wasn't by nothing but six yards.' He said, 'You're going to be great.' "
And say, Harvey, tell us how you feel about the Aggies now. "All that military and uniforms and yell leaders, I don't get off on that stuff. And that dog—Reveille—that dog is so sorry. I can't stand that dog."
Before the game, Williams had this to say about A & M's walk-on kickoff coverers, the 12th Man: "Come on. I ought to break it on them." Of the Aggies' linebackers, who style themselves the Crush Crew: "They're young and running off at the mouth. We'll see what they got on Saturday. We're taking no prisoners. None." Of the Aggie defense as a whole: "I should get about 160 to 180 yards and two touchdowns."
"He's just a free-spirited old boy," says LSU running back coach Jessie Daigle. "Archer just tells him, 'Be able to back up what you say.' "
Last year, when Louisiana State blasted A & M 35-17 in the season opener at Baton Rouge, Williams ran for 56 yards and a touchdown. On Saturday he was hampered by a hip pointer. "If I wasn't hurting," he allowed afterward, "I'd be jumping on the goalpost." Fullback Victor Jones bulled for both of the Tigers' first-half TDs, but Williams accounted for 45 yards in a 73-yard first-quarter drive that culminated in Jones's first score. All told, Williams rushed for 70 yards on 15 carries and had three catches for 52 yards, including a spectacular grab to keep a ball-possession drive alive late in the game.
Archer's inaugural offensive game plan was inventive—and better yet, for LSU, it worked. The Tigers, who were expected to emphasize the passing of quarterback Tommy Hodson to All-America wideout Wendell Davis, ran aggressively and creatively, trapping, countering and generally misdirecting against the young Aggies' straight-ahead charge. Making it all work was a quick offensive line that has been beefed up since being manhandled by Nebraska in the Sugar Bowl. Arnsparger preferred a leaner look, but Archer has other ideas. Only one Tiger could bench-press 400 pounds last year; 14 can now.
Hodson describes his front men as "You know, southeastern Louisiana: fish, hunt, tough, drink beer." Anchored by center Nacho Albergamo, the offensive linemen are probably the soul of the Tigers. Andolsek, who's from Thibodaux, La., and can power-clean 410 pounds, gave succinct expression to their pugnacious spirit when he sneeringly assessed A & M: "They were pretty good. Too bad they didn't win."
But then, Sherrill's Aggies have typically gone into the season like lambs, only to go out roaring. They've lost some important parts from a well-balanced offense that carried them to the Southwest Conference title the past two years—quarterback Kevin Murray, a two-time conference Player of the Year, and first-round NFL picks Roger Vick, a fullback, and Rod Bernstine, a tight end. But Sherrill bagged five blue-chip running backs this year and, with a mere 12 seniors on his roster, may hold sway in the Southwest for some time.
Despite the success of his teams, the Texas media have been all over the tight-lipped Sherrill. Hoping to smooth things out, he hired John Keith, the former sports information director and all-around wit at Oklahoma and New Mexico, to run interference for him. Sherrill has since seemed more accessible and relaxed, even going so far as to fete local reporters with a champagne party on a boat in Lake Conroe, where host and guests aired their gripes. "They got to know me better and understand why I do what I do," Sherrill says. "Johnny has a great line: 'This will probably last until Jackie loses his first game.' " He pauses. "It's a joke!"
Indeed. At his postgame press conference, Sherrill fielded questions in good spirits. His defense had played well, particularly his young blitzing 'backers, who replace a foursome that was drafted by the NFL. But his offense hadn't clicked. The only time it did was on a third-quarter, 47-yard scoring drive directed by senior quarterback Craig Stump. But freshman Lance Pavlas replaced Stump on the next series—because, it turned out, Stump was off having a drink of water when his name was called. "We were going to put him back in the game, but when we turned around he wasn't there," said Sherrill mildly.
For now, the new Jackie Sherrill had to take a backseat to a new Mike Archer and to a running back who has now broken the Aggies' hearts with his hips as well as his lips.
TIME TO AIR IT OUT
A Memo from the far reaches of the northwest to the Downtown Athletic Club, New York City: Put down quarterback Chris Chandler of Washington as an early front-runner for the Heisman Trophy. On Saturday, Chandler completed 18 of 31 passes for a touchdown and a career-high 314 yards to lead Washington to a 31-21 defeat of Stanford at Husky Stadium. Chandler, a 6' 3½", 204-pound fifth-year senior, displayed arm strength, touch, mobility, toughness and leadership. In fact, in his 16 games as a starter, Chandler has accomplished what a decade of winning seasons at Washington couldn't: He has sold Don James, the conservative "Dawgfather" of the Huskies, on the big play. Suddenly, James is uttering phrases like "air it out" without cringing.
Stanford came out in a double-eagle defense, with both safeties up close and the cornerbacks playing man-for-man on the Husky wideouts. The idea was to stuff Washington's traditionally strong inside running game and invite the pass. When Chandler saw the enemy's formation, he knew his mission. "But first I did something a little uncharacteristic for me," he said after the game. "I checked off to a run."
Thereafter he methodically demonstrated to Cardinal coach Jack Elway, who as the father of NFL quarterback John should know better, that it's risky to challenge the good ones. Chandler hit all manner of passes, including eight to receiver Darryl Franklin for 209 yards. Franklin caught a 36-yard fade along the left sideline in the first quarter, a 45-yarder for a touchdown in the third (the righthanded Chandler threw while rolling left) and a 47-yard bomb off a fake run-option and pump-fake screen pass that James calls the "whirlybird."
"I'm not bragging, but they were right on the money," said Chandler, an erratic practice performer who explained his sharpness in two words: "Game day."
"If teams are going to play 'man,' " he added, "they better be able to really play 'man.' I hope they keep trying."
Stanford, meanwhile, did well to stay close. Its own Heisman candidate, running back Brad Muster, aggravated an ankle injury and left the game in the first quarter. After that, the Cardinal hopes rode with quarterback Greg Ennis, who said before the game, "I don't have the ability of a Chris Chandler."
Chandler almost went to Stanford himself. He finally picked Washington—and then spent a redshirt season and another season and a half on the Husky bench questioning his decision. But when he got a chance to start in the 10th game of his sophomore year, he beat USC with a 98-yard fourth-quarter drive that included three successful fourth-down plays. Last season, Chandler passed for a school-record 20 touchdowns.
So, for the first time, James is openly lobbying for one of his players to win the Heisman. And the Washington sports information office has instructed its assistants to make sure in their reports to radio stations to preface any reference to Chandler with the words, "Heisman Trophy candidate."
However, many Husky fans—hardened by watching the likes of Sonny Sixkiller and Warren Moon get ignored by Heisman balloters—are cynical about Chandler's chances. "Zero to none," said Andy Hopper of Seattle during a recent phone-in poll conducted by The Seattle Times. "People back East still think we have Indians roaming around on horseback." Jim Singleton of Renton, Wash., was even more direct: "There's no way he's going to win it. Let's be real!"
Duly noted. Then again, real is precisely what Chris Chandler has become.