Aside from all those who were hung over, bless their hearts, the unhappiest man in America last New Year's Day might well have been Charlie McClendon, the good ol' country boy who coaches football at Louisiana State University. During the season his team won nine games and lost only to Ole Miss in Jackson (LSU's best record under McClendon), and "Cholly Mac," as he is known at Bob and Jake's and all the other hot-spots around Baton Rouge, was looking forward to taking the Tigers to a bowl—just as he had done six of the seven previous years. But then Notre Dame decided to end its 45-year moratorium on postseason games and that development touched off a wild game of musical, uh, bowls among the nation's top teams. At the end there wasn't a place left for LSU in any of the major events, so McClendon decided to spend New Year's Day watching the games on two TV sets, eating his heart out all the while. As McClendon puts it in his best fresh-off-the-farm manner, "Man, I was like to destroyed."
Maybe so, but it did not take long for McClendon to put himself—and LSU's team—back together again. In spring practice Cholly Mac shuffled a few veterans around, threw in a few sophomores to plug the holes and—bang—the LSU Tiger came up looking as mean and tough as ever. "I wouldn't be surprised if last year's team wasn't the best I ever had," says McClendon, "and as a coach I've got to say that maybe this year's can be just as good."
What makes McClendon's optimism so interesting is that this year's LSU team will play one of the most ambitious schedules in the school's history. The Tigers warm up with five in a row at home, but then the going gets tough—beginning with an Oct. 24 date at Auburn. In November the Tigers will make trips to Alabama, Notre Dame and improving Tulane. And, of course, there is the final game, the biggest of them all—Ole Miss and Archie Manning in Tiger Stadium on Dec. 5.
Just how the Tigers fare against their imposing opposition will depend largely on a young man with the lovely name of Casanova—Tommy Casanova, to be exact. A 6'1", 195-pound junior, Casanova is considered to be the best all-round athlete on the LSU team, a "real thriller," as Cholly Mac puts it. Last season Casanova spent 90% of his playing time at cornerback, the rest in an occasional stint at tailback. This season, however, McClendon says Casanova will play tailback 80% of the time and fill in at cornerback only at those moments when the Tigers are in deep trouble. It is a calculated risk, taking Casanova away from a defense already weakened by graduation, but Tommy made his coach look good in the spring game, gaining 198 yards. "He's got the moves to be a great runner," says McClendon. "On one play in the spring game, he got his head knocked off. He coulda quit if he had wanted to, but instead he gained 55 yards on the next play."
It is difficult to say whether LSU's fans are more excited about Casanova or sophomore Bert Jones, who might be the finest quarterback to play at Baton Rouge since Y.A. Tittle. A son of Dub Jones, the old Cleveland Brown star (and the only man in history to play for Tulane when it beat LSU and for LSU when it beat Tulane), Bert may become the first sophomore to start at quarterback for LSU since 1951—if he can beat out senior Buddy Lee, "If we were opening this week the quarterback would be Lee," says McClendon. "But Jones came awfully fast. It seemed like some of the defenses in the spring game confused him, but Bert's an intelligent athlete. It's going to be interesting to see what develops."
LSU's defense will be young and inexperienced, which can be a deadly combination when the Tigers face quarterbacks such as Manning, Alabama's Scott Hunter and Notre Dame's Joe Theismann. "We have to get our defense together," says McClendon, "but I think we'll be O.K. once we settle down."
If McClendon was unhappy about last year's bowl situation, he also is enough of an optimist that now he can say: "Maybe something good will come from it yet. Our people at home might not take going to bowls for granted. And it might be an extra incentive for our kids this year." Which means that Cholly Mac doesn't expect to "spend this New Year's Day watching TV.
Outside Tiger Stadium before a game, fans visit the LSU mascot—a tiger, what else?