It was Thanksgiving week, and Curley Hallman was out of a job for the first time in 26 years, fired from a program he has loved since he was a kid. He was separated from his wife of 19 years. He even missed Buster, the family dog, who had died in August. "You would come home after getting your butt beat," Hallman said last week, "and all ol' Buster wanted to do was lick your hand."
Buster's lickings were by no means the only ones Hallman received in four tumultuous years at Louisiana State. When LSU hired him in 1990 to revive its football program, Hallman was considered one of the hottest coaches in the nation. He had been on national championship staffs at Clemson and Alabama, and in his first job as a head coach he had guided Southern Mississippi to records of 10-2, 5-6 and 8-3. "We've got the right man," said Tiger athletic director Joe Dean at the time.
However, Hallman's first three LSU teams went 5-6, 2-9 and 5-6, including a combined 7-16 against SEC foes, and going into the 1994 season his job was in jeopardy. Then came Sept. 17, when the Tigers played at Auburn, which had won its last 13 games. LSU blew a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter when Hallman kept calling pass plays while Auburn was making five interceptions and returning three of them for touchdowns. Auburn won 30-26, and LSU fell to 1-2.
That defeat seemed to take the life out of the Tigers. When LSU lost to Southern Miss on Nov. 12 to plunge to 2-7, Dean and chancellor Bud Davis decided to buy out the final year of Hallman's $90,000-a-year contract. Stubborn to the end, Hallman refused to resign. So Dean and Davis fired him but agreed to let him coach the final two games.
The Tigers whipped Tulane 49-25 on Nov. 19. That left only last Saturday's game against Arkansas in Little Rock. What follows is an account of a doomed coach's final week—a Thanksgiving week, in which he tried to count his blessings.
About 30 reporters show up for Hallman's weekly press luncheon, and they're surprised to find that he is loose and relaxed. After talking about the win over Tulane and the upcoming game against Arkansas, Hallman—usually a grim and forbidding figure—tells jokes and has a few laughs, revealing a side of his personality that he probably should have shown more often. "He's been great since he got fired," says an LSU beat writer. "It's too bad he wasn't like that earlier."
Hallman distrusts members of the media, most of whom he thinks are only interested in being controversial or cute at his expense. He yearns for the old days when a coach could socialize with and confide in a writer without fear of being betrayed.
Hallman, 47, has some good stories about his playing days at Texas A&M, when two of his best friends were named Mo and Larry. And then there must be great coaching stories. How can anybody who has worked for Gene Stallings, Bear Bryant, Danny Ford and Jackie Sherrill not have terrific stories? "I keep everything inside," Hallman says.
On a warm, breezy afternoon, Dale Brown, LSU's basketball coach since 1972, brings his staff to football practice in a show of support for Hallman. In Hallman's first year in Baton Rouge, when a fight broke out in a dorm between basketball and football players, Brown got in Hallman's face and said, "Listen, rookie...." Before Brown could get much further, Hallman stopped him and said, "I may be new here, but I'm not any rookie. I've paid my dues." The next day Shaquille O'Neal complimented Hallman on how he had handled the situation.
At a few ticks past 7 p.m., Hallman shows up late for his final radio show, which is broadcast from a studio in the athletics office building. He apologizes to the host, saying he dozed off in his office while watching videotape of Arkansas. In the next hour he takes notes as he fields calls from more than 20 LSU fans in four states, most of whom wish him well. "I don't really know if I have any faith in the hierarchy at LSU to bring in somebody better than you," says a caller named Donald.
"Well," says Hallman, "things didn't work out, and maybe out there somewhere there's another opportunity that I'm supposed to be involved in."
After the show Hallman goes to dinner. He orders soup and ribs and talks about what went wrong at LSU. Several times he whips out a felt-tip pen and diagrams plays on the white paper tablecloth. He talks about how close he came to succeeding. A play here, a recruit there. He would like to have had the fifth year, but the administration said no. He puts his pen in his pocket and shrugs. "This week is harder than last week because reality is starting to set in," says Hallman. "I know I'm gone. But I've always said that if you don't get bitter, you've got a chance to get better, and that's where my life is at right now."
Hallman has promised his daughters, Jennifer, 18, and Jessica, 13, that they can accompany him to Little Rock for the last game. He considers calling Ford, the coach at Arkansas, or Ford's wife, Deborah, to see about getting tickets for the girls. Ford is one of his closest friends in coaching, going back to 1979-81, when Hallman was on his staff at Clemson. Last season, when two of Ford's daughters traveled to Baton Rouge for the Arkansas-LSU game and their car broke down, they stayed two days with the Hallman family.
But Hallman decides to let the girls watch the game from the sidelines, something he has never permitted. It's one thing he can scratch off his list of many things to do.
An incurable list-maker, Hallman has sat down at times during the week and made note of the people and events that have shaped his life. That list was topped by his mother, Lola, who raised eight children in Northport, Ala., without steady financial support from Curley's father, Samuel, a carpenter who had trouble finding work. Nor has Hallman forgotten his older sister, Mildred. When Curley was in his early teens, she would sit up with him and listen to LSU games on the radio. Even now Hallman gets excited when he recalls Halloween night in 1959, when Billy Cannon made his 89-yard punt return to beat Mississippi 7-3. He hopes Mildred won't be angry with LSU for firing him.
"We all knew what we were getting into when we got into this profession," Hallman says. "I hitchhiked all night to take my first coaching job, in Orange, Texas. It was a 22-hour trip, and I had maybe $3.50 in my pocket. But I've always wanted to be a coach, and I still do."
After a morning practice Hallman turns the players loose so they can spend Thanksgiving with their families. He then puts on his "Thanksgiving suit"—it's a family tradition to dress up for the holiday—and picks up his daughters, who live with his wife, Dale. They join about 20 others for a Thanksgiving feast at a mansion on a farm outside Baton Rouge. Curley has been living in a much smaller house on the farm since he and Dale separated earlier this fall. It's also where Jessica has been taking riding lessons.
During dinner one of the caterers spontaneously begins singing a gospel song, Give Us This Day, her voice rich and clear and soaring. "Everybody's fork hit the plate," Jennifer says later. "It was just a gorgeous moment. This has been a stressful year for our family. Everything seems to be coming down at once. I guess what I've learned is that you should make the best of every moment because you never know how long it'll be that way."
After taking his daughters home, Hallman returns to his office, changes clothes and resumes the cleaning-out process. It's one of those times he misses Buster. "A tough day," he says. He makes more notes and lists.
At her mother's house, Jennifer, who's a high school senior, also writes. She puts into her journal that the first "different" Thanksgiving was "really neat" because she got to spend some happy time with both her dad and her mom. And she will always remember the gospel song.
The chartered plane that was to take the Tigers to Little Rock has developed mechanical problems, so another one is being brought in from Houston. The two-hour delay means no last picture show—Hallman always took the team to a movie on Friday nights before a game—so he settles for a final team dinner at Piccadilly Cafeteria in Baton Rouge.
At the hotel in Little Rock, Hallman is pleased that Jennifer and Jessica wanted to make the trip. They stay in his suite and remind him of his promise that they can be on the sidelines. "And you're not going to weasel out of it," Jennifer says.
Hallman grins and shakes his head. "She's a Hallman," he says. "She's stubborn."
It's a miserable day in Little Rock's War Memorial Stadium—foggy, drizzly and cold. Fortunately Jennifer and Jessica have brought their heavy coats. "It wasn't supposed to be this cold," says Jennifer, shivering as she sips a cup of coffee.
While the players warm up, Hallman and Ford visit at midfield, feeding the rumor that Hallman might replace Joe Kines as Arkansas's defensive coordinator if Kines gets one of the head jobs that are open around the country. At 12:35 p.m., Hallman heads for the locker room. The girls are waiting by the tunnel, and he slaps hands with each. Inside, he checks his game plan and paces nervously until it's time for his pregame talk.
"Real briefly, men," Hallman barks. "I've talked to you the last three or four years about that road in your life, that ladder you climb. What it provides for you is an opportunity." He's walking among the players now, pausing here or there to touch somebody on the shoulder pads. "Great or small, opportunities are always going to be there. It's a matter of what you do with them. Take the opportunity today. Enjoy yourself. But whatever you do, make sure you can walk off the field with your head held high."
Years from now Hallman will remember how hard his last LSU team played on this forlorn afternoon. After spotting Arkansas a 6-0 first-quarter advantage, LSU comes back to lead by 9-6 at halftime. In the third quarter the Tigers take control, stopping the Razorbacks on fourth-and-one at the Tiger 11, and then scoring on a 47-yard pass play from quarterback Jamie Howard to split end Brett Bech. The final score is 30-12, LSU.
When it is over, Hallman trots to midfield, shakes hands with Ford and heads for the locker room, accompanied only by the Louisiana state trooper who travels with the team. However, about 20 yards from the tunnel, Hallman suddenly spins around, looking for Jennifer and Jessica. And there they are, smiling and teary-eyed as they fling themselves into their dad's arms.
The LSU band is playing. The fans are cheering. An arm around each of his daughters, Curley Hallman walks off the field, his head high, a man who still has reason to give thanks.