The chair that Charlie McClendon occupies in his paneled office under LSU's Tiger Stadium is leather covered, reclines and has wheels. It is a nice chair, except for the ever-warmer seat that it seems to develop during football season. It has been that way for McClendon ever since he inherited this head coach's chair from Paul Dietzel seven years ago. Dietzel won a national championship for LSU back in 1958, and no one in Louisiana for, lo, these 10 long years has ever felt that anything less than No. 1 was really up to snuff.
It hardly has been fair for LSU boosters to keep the heat on Charlie McClendon's chair year after year, because he has done almost nothing to deserve such treatment. Admittedly, he is not a Dietzel. Paul is tall and blond with a Madison Avenue mien and a GL-70 smile. Charlie is large and blocky, an Arkansas backslapper who gives names like "bushwhacker" to his roving safetyman, and when he decides he wants "something distinctive" for his team he thinks of such things as gold helmets with wild purple tiger stripes slashed across the top—he even may buy them next year.
But perhaps LSU is finally beginning to suspect that Charlie McClendon is building a record that can compare with anybody's. He is 44-17-4 at LSU while facing a schedule that would tire out a tiger. His teams have gone to five bowl games in seven years. His 1962 Tigers upset unbeaten Texas in the Orange Bowl, his 1965 team broke Arkansas's 17-game winning streak and his 1967 squad dumped undefeated Wyoming 20-13 in the Sugar Bowl. But Charlie McClendon is still troubled by the back-chair coaches up there in the LSU stands.
"Everybody wants another great team here. Yes, like the one in '58," he sighs. "Well, so do I. The trouble is we could have a great team one of these years and never know it. Our schedule [which includes Texas A&M, Miami, Mississippi and Alabama this season] won't let us be great."
There are 36 lettermen back from the good but not sensational 6-3-1 team of last year. There is reasonable speed, strength and, of course, experience just about everywhere except the one spot where a No. 1—or even a No. 10—team must excel. At quarterback.
If Nelson Stokley, the fragile little leader of last season, were back, it could be quite a different year. But he departed after becoming one of the best quarterbacks LSU has had in years, and McClendon will probably start Fred Haynes, a so-so senior who saw quite a bit of action during Stokley's convalescent weeks in '66 and '67. Haynes is rugged, confident and reasonably steady. But he is small (5'9", 165 pounds) and he does not have either the good arm or the inspirational qualities of a Stokley. Behind Haynes are some other possibilities. Junior Jimmy Gilbert is more spectacular but less reliable than Haynes. Buddy Lee is big (6'4", 205) and throws well, but he missed spring practice with a knee injury. Sophomore Butch Duhe is a good prospect, but hardly for this year. With rather grim understatement, McClendon says, "We will have some trouble keeping our offense up to what it was last year. But if it were not for this quarterback crisis..."
One can sympathize with McClendon's sadness, for his nonquarterbacks are leading quite a team. At fullback is Eddie Ray, 6'2", 225 pounds, who is an agile runner, a magnificent blocker, a sound receiver, a middling-good passer and a punter who averaged 42.9 yards last year as a sophomore. This season Ray is going to add to his versatility by playing middle linebacker on the goal-line defensive unit, and he just might be used at defensive end, too, because LSU's top man at that position, Jerry Kober, flunked out of school last spring and is ineligible. Shifting with Ray into the myriad formations of LSU's "walking I" attack will be veteran Tailback Tommy (Trigger) Allen, who led the 1967 team in rushing with 534 yards, Tailback Glenn Smith, who was the running star of the Sugar Bowl, and Allen Shorey, a sophomore. At split end is senior Tommy Morel, an off-season guitar and piano player in his own combo. He caught 28 passes for 404 yards last year, plus two TD throws in the Sugar Bowl. The offensive line has weaknesses in the middle, although Guard Tony Russell, All-SEC in '67, is back, along with Tackle Bill Fortier, who is considered a better than average professional prospect.
Graduation took some of LSU's defense, including Defensive End John Garlington, Safety Sammy Grezaffi and Linebacker Benny Griffin. Along with Kobler's scholastic problems, that would seem to leave some unfillable holes. But McClendon says no. "We're hoping the defense will be better than last year," he says. "A little quicker." The middle of the defensive line may be a trifle spongy, although Fred Michaelson, who won his letter as a tackle, looks reasonably good at middle guard. Tackle Carlos Rabb and End Tommy Youngblood are both two-year veterans, and the linebacking should be solid. It could be superb if George Bevan, a sensation as a '66 sophomore before he suffered a severe Achilles' tendon injury last year, can return to play. If he can, then LSU will have as strong a set of linebackers as any team in the country: Bevan, Bill Thomason, who was good as a sophomore last year, and Mike Anderson, a 6'3", 215-pound sophomore who is, in his spare time, a giant-size pole-vaulter. McClendon is particularly impressed with Anderson. "He has the football savvy to read the offense," says Charlie. "He knows where to go, he has the speed to get there and he is a destructive tackier." In the secondary, senior Barton Frye will be LSU's bushwhacking safetyman, and he may be nearly as good as Grezaffi was. He will be supported by Halfbacks Frank Matte and Gerry Kent and the other safety, Jim Lambert, all three seniors.
Whatever else may be different about LSU this season, one thing remains unchanged from 1967 when the team was nicknamed the Toeless Tigers because of its painful lack of placekickers. This year half the Tiger toes on campus, including those of a South American soccer player, have been tried and, so far, all have been found inferior. For want of a foot...
Given his problems, Charlie McClendon does not figure to be in anyone's catbird seat at the end of the season. But his team certainly should perform well enough to keep Charlie sitting cool. Anywhere but in Louisiana, that is.