If Sunday night’s game in New Orleans marked the dawning of a new day in LSU football, Billy Cannon couldn’t possibly repeat the most famous play in program history.
He’d fumble the punt instead of return one 89 yards for the only touchdown against Ole Miss on Halloween 1959 at Death Valley in Baton Rouge.
That play carried the Tigers to a 7-3 victory over what was voted the SEC’s best football team of the decade. It earned Cannon, a product of hometown Istrouma High, the Heisman Trophy and assured the future dentist legendary status in Bayou Country despite some problems with the law.
LSU has been a parish-wide concern since Huey Pierce Long sang “Every Man is a King” on the radio while governor, senator, or any other office he could hold in his home state.
Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “All the King’s Men” details the rise and fall of a Long-like character, Willie Stark, for which Broderick Crawford earned an Academy Award in 1949’s Best Picture. Two-time Oscar winner Sean Penn portrayed Long in a 2006 remake with Kate Winslet playing Anne Stanton and Jude Law cast as Jack Burden, characters made famous by Warren.
The LSU game Sunday night was the last for a Southeastern Conference team on Labor Day weekend. At kickoff in Caesars Superdome, the SEC was 13-0 against intersectional rivals. And until the last play, LSU appeared poised to send its first game under new coach Brian Kelly into overtime.
LSU people are sure to kick themselves over and over after a 24-23 defeat in which the Tigers made two crucial special-team errors in the fourth quarter.
A return man fumbled an FSU punt in the dying minutes, the Seminoles taking over after the player’s scoop-and-score return was nullified. Mike Norvell, former Central Arkansas assistant and once a possible Arkansas head coach (rather than Chad Morris) after a stay in Memphis, watched the Seminoles drive to the 1, … where they fumbled.
Starting quarterback Jayden Daniels, a transfer from Arizona State took the Tigers the distance and threw an apparent game-tying touchdown to Jaray Jenkins with one second left. Damian Ramos’ extra point, like a dud firecracker, barely got off the ground.
Kelly, for whom LSU guaranteed $95 million over 10 years if he would leave Notre Dame, became the first Tiger coach to lose his debut since Gerry DiNardo (another Notre Dame man) in 1995.
As one would expect, Kelly said his team must play better, so such costly mistakes simply won’t do against a good opponent.
It is unclear how good Florida State, long removed from its Bobby Bowden and Jimbo Fisher heydays, might be. But in a state where Florida and Miami cast high profiles, and Central Florida is catching up, Norvell’s FSU program should benefit from that nutty ending in New Orleans.
Kelly, 113-40 in 12 years at Notre Dame, worked the transfer portal heavily after taking the LSU job, although the departed cornerback Dwight McGlothern came up with a key first-quarter interception when Cincinnati was driving in what became a 31-24 Arkansas victory Saturday.
Dazzling success does not ensure job tenure at LSU. Ask coaches Les Miles and Ed Orgeron, both fired a few years after winning national championships at the school.
LSU has been rough on football coaches since Charles McClendon replaced Paul Dietzel, who coached Cannon. As he was known, an Arkansas native, Cholly Mac is remembered less for the 1966 Cotton Bowl win over a Razorback team with 22 straight victories than for repeated losses to Alabama and his former college coach (at Kentucky), Paul William Bryant.
Nick Saban won a BCS championship at LSU before answering the siren calls of the Miami Dolphins and Alabama, the latter program then in chaos. The Tigers expect no less from Kelly, whose Notre Dame team lost to Alabama in a national-title game.
Kelly needs only keep top recruits in the state, which Saban did, to win at LSU. Whether it will be enough, or soon enough, for the fans is a subject for another day. But it’s LSU we’re talking about, so it’s not likely to be a dull experience.