How the once mighty had fallen. Under coach Curley Hallman the image of Louisiana State as a Southeastern Conference power—the image of the fabled Chinese Bandits in 1958 and of Heisman Trophy winner Billy Cannon in '59—had sunk into so much bayou muck. With a 5-6 record in 1991, followed by 2-9 in '92 and a 3-5 start this year, Hallman was poised to become the first coach in a century of Tiger football to have three straight losing seasons. In Baton Rouge average attendance at Death Valley, or Debt Valley, as some had begun calling it, had tumbled to 63,104, the lowest in 23 years. On Oct. 12, three days after being blown out by Florida 58-3 at home, Hallman got a call from Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards that was intended to encourage him but was perceived as only a stay of execution.
How the mighty fell. With a 31-game unbeaten streak, the longest in the nation, Alabama was a 3½-touchdown favorite over Hallman's hapless and seemingly hopeless LSU crew last Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa. Led by part-wideout, part-quarterback, all-high-wire-act David (the Deuce) Palmer, the fifth-ranked Crimson Tide was 7-0-1 and in the hunt for its second straight national championship. But five 'Bama turnovers later, in the biggest upset of the season, an uninspired Tide team had tumbled 17-13, and LSU had risen from the ashes.
The game may have radically changed the trajectory of Hallman's career, and it seemed fitting that it happened only five miles from Northport, Ala., where Hallman grew up; that it happened against Alabama coach Gene Stallings, for whom he played defensive back at Texas A&M from 1966 to '68; and that it happened at a stadium named in part for Bear Bryant, who hired Hallman as an assistant in '73. On Friday, Hallman visited a number of touchstones from his past, first taking his team to the Partlow Developmental Center for the mentally retarded in Tuscaloosa, where his sister Marilyn spent the last 18 years before her death, in 1967, and then going alone to his mother's grave site in Northport. "I love my hometown, I have a lot of ties here," Hallman said on Saturday.
A hard-edged disciplinarian, the 46-year-old Hallman had set his jaw even more firmly as the buzzards circled; the guard that's posted to keep reporters out of LSU practices is testimony to a program under siege. But Hallman also loosened up this season, rescinding his ban on earrings. Eddie (Boo) Kennison, the Tigers' premier return man, has taken full advantage of the new jewelry rule, wearing rings in both lobes to complement the chain around his neck that holds a four-inch dagger—for purely symbolic reasons, of course. "If I've got a football in my hand and you try to take it from me," says Kennison, "I'll cut you up."
After LSU squeaked past Ole Miss 19-17 on Oct. 30—a win that surely kept Hallman employed—Kennison tossed this little dagger: "After we beat Alabama this week in Tuscaloosa, we'll be on cloud nine." Those words not only gave the Tigers a confidence boost but also established something of a meteorological motif. After a walk-through at Bryant-Denny on Friday, LSU senior center Kevin Mawae assembled a players-only huddle and urged his teammates to play the next day's game as if it were a bowl. The sky darkened.
"I told the guys, 'Look, if we win this game, Alabama will have a gray cloud over their heads this season,' " Mawae recalls. " 'And we'll be the ones who put it there.' "
And even though 'Bama had clinched the SEC Western Division title before kickoff, not all was blue skies in Tuscaloosa. Quarterback Jay Barker, who had emerged as a solid passer this fall after a shaky '92 season, was out with an injured shoulder, and an air of uncertainty hung over his replacement, sophomore Brian Burgdorf. Still, Stallings had his trump card, the Deuce.
After Barker went down against Ole Miss on Oct. 23, the 5'9", 170-pound Palmer shifted from pass catching to hike taking, and with six plays scribbled on his wristband he spirited 'Bama to a 19-14 comeback victory. Then, in the ensuing fortnight, the Tide coaches loaded Palmer with snaps at practice and instructed him in running the offense.
Against LSU, Stallings watched his worst-case scenario unfold. On the Tide's first possession, the team's leading rusher, Sherman Williams, injured his shoulder, essentially sidelining the ground game; Alabama's biggest run would turn out to be a 43-yard fake punt.
Burgdorf, meanwhile, struggled to move the team. After he threw a third-quarter interception that allowed the Tigers to march to a 7-0 lead, Stallings replaced him—not with Palmer but with freshman Freddie Kitchens. That move proved disastrous when Tiger safety Ivory Hilliard picked off Kitchens's passes twice on consecutive drives, helping LSU go up 14-zip.
"Palmer is a once-in-a-lifetime player," Hallman said. "I expected to see him sooner at quarterback."
Had he seen Palmer any sooner, Hallman might have started figuring the remaining payments on his five-year contract. Entering the game with 3:16 left in the third quarter, Palmer took the Tide 80 yards in nine plays, hitting fullback Tarrant Lynch with a three-yard sidearm touchdown pass as Palmer was being tackled. After Andrè Lafleur booted a 36-yard field goal for LSU with 4:22 to play to make it 17-7, Palmer directed one last assault, this time tossing a 22-yard TD strike to Kevin Lee.
"We should have gone to David Palmer sooner," said Stallings after the game. "That is nobody's fault but mine."
For the Tide it was the first loss since a 35-0 defeat at Florida on Sept. 14, 1991. "I was hoping to get out of here without ever having to experience that feeling again," said senior offensive tackle Matt Hammond. But it was another feeling—that of invincibility—that contributed to 'Bama's downfall. All too often, Alabama has relied on Palmer or Barker or its ornery defense to perform a last-minute rescue against an overmatched opponent. "If we are going to be national champions, then we need to play like it every game," Lynch said.
And just that suddenly, the haze has lifted at LSU. Hallman coached wisely and well, lifting his starting quarterback, sophomore Jamie Howard, for senior Chad Loup in the second quarter, a move that settled his team down. Now, if the Tigers beat Tulane and Arkansas at home, they will clinch a bowl appearance, which would be their first in five seasons.
"I'm so excited I can't talk," said Tiger athletic director Joe Dean, who has been under at least as much fire as Hallman. The air can be mighty thin on cloud nine.