Skip to main content
Original Issue

The night they learned to forget the coach

For four years Louisiana State's Charley McClendon had tried to live down the memory of Paul Dietzel. He finally succeeded last Saturday, but not before Carolina's Dietzel launched a last-gasp psychological blitz

His blond hair gleaming and his garnet tie flapping, Paul Dietzel ran onto the field with his South Carolina football team last Saturday night in Baton Rouge and did not get, as he had predicted he would, "the longest standing boo in LSU history." What Paul Dietzel got instead was an emphatic defeat at the hands of the team and the coach he left behind five years ago when he deserted LSU for Army. The score, 28-12, came as no great surprise, nor did the scene, described by LSU Athletic Director Jim Corbett as "the most dramatic and emotion-packed night in our history."

In addition to being a controversial football coach, Paul Dietzel happens to be a natural showman, who, as Columnist Harry Mehre wrote, "loves the spotlight, regardless of the direction from which it comes." Dietzel built up the gate partly with his pregame comments, partly because he committed the unpardonable sin of leaving the vociferous and demanding people of Louisiana puzzled, hurt and scared. After seven years of him they had become accustomed to his strong handshake, his glistening teeth and even the national championship his team won in 1958. They feared that all that goodness would not linger, and the excellent record of his successor, a sincere, backslapping ex-assistant coach named Charley McClendon, ironically did nothing to ease their frame of mind. McClendon won 29 of 40 regular-season games, three of four bowl games and firmly established himself as the least-known successful football coach in the country.

When he left LSU, Dietzel mentioned that McClendon was starting with a wealth of material, which was true. But, in retrospect, Dietzel's most significant contribution toward McClendon's welfare was the revival of the LSU-South Carolina football series, dormant since 1933. One day in 1959, while searching for a softer opponent to open future LSU schedules, Dietzel, in conference with Corbett, decided to start playing South Carolina again. Games were scheduled for 1960 and 1961, and, after Dietzel left for Army, Corbett signed the Gamecocks for 1965 and 1966.

Then last spring Dietzel decided to leave Army in favor of South Carolina. The tickets for LSU's 1966 home opener with the Gamecocks disappeared so fast that none were left by late May. "Maul Paul" signs cropped up on car and store windows in New Orleans, Lafayette and Baton Rouge, and Dietzel fed the flames of distrust at interviews in which he said such things as, "Those people down in Baton Rouge have been going around congratulating each other that they're going to have a shot at that no-good so-and-so, Paul Dietzel, when he comes back in September." The week of the game he told the first of his regular Tuesday-afternoon press gatherings that "those LSU alumni have been growling all summer. LSU is not interested in beating us badly. They want to humiliate us."

By now the scalpers, who were the real winners, were getting $100 a pair for game tickets, and the classified ads in the Baton Rouge State-Times were supplicatory: "Wanted. Two South Carolina tickets for 1959 Dodge in excellent condition." "For rent: two bedroom cottage on False River for two tickets to South Carolina game." The sports pages carried a daily Countdown to D-Day, and the head of the South Carolina athletic department made sure that there was no confusion about who D was. "They sure don't mean De Witt Clinton," he grinned.

Meanwhile, Charley McClendon was battling to suppress anything that might stir up the South Carolina players—something like 68,000 persons booing their coach. "Can't you see? He's doing all this drumbeating just to fire up his team," said McClendon. "Why, I'm surprised he ever thought he would get booed in the first place. People in Tiger Stadium are so concerned with their own football team they don't really care about the other one."

And through it all McClendon was working desperately to prepare his young, fast and inexperienced team to play well enough to win the most important game of his coaching career. "You can't believe how much I want this one," he said after LSU's final workout on Wednesday. "I've worked under that man's shadow for four years now and, honestly, it's beginning to frighten me. It doesn't seem to matter that we've won 75% of the time since I've been head coach and that we've gone to a bowl every year and won all but one. Regardless of what I do, I'm always compared to what he did or would have done. I keep thinking that maybe if I can just whip his britches this Saturday night it will clear the air around here. I've had to strive, oh, so hard to keep from over-coaching and getting my boys all tight. I've got my whole staff watching me for signs like that. It's just that I'll probably never get a chance like this again. And if I blow it now..."

McClendon's chance arrived on schedule. At 7:27 Saturday evening Paul Dietzel, clipboard in hand, gathered his smartly clad South Carolina team around him under the stands of Tiger Stadium, raised his arm, swung it forward and hollered, "Let's go." Just as it had been when he was at LSU, his team streamed onto the field and under the goalposts, but the boos he had been waiting for were drowned by the roar that erupted as, at that precise instant, the LSU Tigers raced onto the field from the opposite end. The only loud boos heard that night greeted the announcement that "alcoholic beverages will be neither carried nor consumed on the campus of Louisiana State University."

The game that followed, though interesting, was a one-sided duel between LSU's racy running backs and quick, agile defense and the singlehanded talents of South Carolina Quarterback Mike Fair. With LSU Quarterback Nelson Stokley attacking Carolina's flanks at will, the Tigers broke to a 13-6 half-time lead that hardly reflected the edge they had built in the statistics. Stokley and Fullback Gawain Dibetta led the way in running up 215 yards on the ground against an outclassed Carolina defense. The Gamecocks, battling courageously, threw everything at LSU, including wildly jitterbugging defenses and a shotgun offense. However, their brightest moments came during a 76-yard drive for their first touchdown and when Bobby Bryant returned a punt 77 yards for another, which brought the score to 21-12 in the second half.

When it was over LSU had gained 283 net yards to 101 for South Carolina and had a 19-10 edge in first downs.

The overflow crowd of 68,000 cheered McClendon warmly as he was carried from the field on the shoulders of his players and as he leaned down to shake the hand of Paul Dietzel. But the warmest moment of all came inside the LSU locker room after his team had finished its postgame prayer. Captain Mike Pharis underhanded McClendon the game ball and told him, "This is from us, Coach Mac, and it means that we've forgotten all about Paul Dietzel."