Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Thinking, writing about college football

     Let's take a timeout and cover some college football thoughts ...
     No, let's not take a timeout. We'll take the penalty.
     We will get to a number of quick thoughts in a moment, but first ...
     I don't pretend to be a football whiz, would not pass an Xs-and-Os test. But game-management strategy is something we can all second-guess. And I am real good at second-guessing two pieces of strategy.
     Those who have heard me rail for a lot of years know that two of my major pet peeves about college football (also high school football and the NFL) are:
     (1) Taking timeouts when the play clock runs down;
     (2) Settling for the tying PAT kick near the end of games instead of "going for it" -- trying for the winning (or losing) two-point PAT.
     About the "automatic" timeout calls ... you see them almost every game. Play call is slow coming to the quarterback or a team is slow getting lined up, QB looks at the defense and makes play-call adjustments, play clock is winding down toward :00, QB turns to referee and signals time out ... or frantic head coach runs toward the nearby official and -- PO'd -- calls the timeout.
     It is just a reflex action ... timeout.
     And almost always, here is my reaction: That is so stupid!
     My logic: The 5-yard delay-of-game penalty is not nearly as harmful as wasting one of the team's three timeouts per half. Take the damn penalty.
     Heck, yes, there are exceptions: A 3rd-and-short or 4th-and-short play, especially in the other team's end of the field, a crucial late-game down, maybe near the end of the first half with a timeout or two remaining.
     But most of the time ... automatic call ... stupid.
     We have seen the best of coaches do it, repeatedly. Tom Landry was the best of coaches. If I saw his QBs -- Meredith, Staubach, Morton, Danny White -- do it once, I saw it dozens of times. Wasted timeouts.
Arkansas head coach Chad Morris: Two "burned"
timeouts in the second half against LSU did not
 help his team's chances.
     It really came to mind last Saturday in Arkansas-LSU. Twice in the second half, Arkansas simply wasted timeouts with play-clock-winding-down reaction calls. First time with a 3rd-and-9 at the LSU 42 with 6:54 remaining in the third quarter; second time with a 4th-and-10 at the LSU 11 with 12:46 remaining in the fourth quarter.
     Both times, really, taking a 5-yard delay penalty would not have hurt the Razorbacks at all. 
      In fact, after the second one, they hit a touchdown pass. They could have done that about as easily from the LSU 16, and saved the timeout.
     They could have used those two burned timeouts in the game's final five minutes. Arkansas fought hard, but I never got the feeling that it was going to win that game. But it might have a better shot with two more late-game clock stoppages.
     And how times over the years have we seen LSU waste its timeouts on similar stupid calls? (Les Miles and staff were known for their clock-mismanagement gaffes.)
     Those timeouts should be treated like gold. They are so valuable. Protect them almost like you would your kids.
     OK, second point: Playing to win at the end of a game. So many coaches take the easy way out; have the extra point kicked and tie the game, so settling for overtime or -- if it is in overtime already -- another OT period.
     So, bless the coaches who "go for it." Over the years, we have not seen it often. Because the coaches -- in Jerry Byrd language -- have no guts
     But in recent weeks, we have seen three gutty go-for-the-win calls: It worked for Dana Holgorsen and West Virginia at Texas; it did not work for Mike Gundy and Oklahoma State at Oklahoma, nor for Tim Lester and Western Michigan (in overtime) against Ball State on Tuesday night.
     I am not enamored by Holgorsen or Gundy (or many college football head coaches these days), but props to them for those calls.        
---
     Other matters ...
     Have I seen a better college football team than Alabama this season? I have not.
     The season is not over. Can any team can beat Alabama? Good luck. But Clemson (which was fortunate to beat Bama in the CFP title game two years ago) and Georgia (which came so close last season) have a shot. Maybe Notre Dame does ... but I doubt it.
     Keep thinking this, though -- in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram sports department, Oklahoma's 2003 team was being declared "the greatest ever" for most of that season ... until that rout by Kansas State in the Big 12 Championship Game and the Sugar Bowl national-championship loss to ... LSU, coached by Nick Saban.
     Five more national championships later, Saban has his best team ever. As son-in-law observed during Bama's stifling victory against LSU a couple of weeks ago, Bama is taking the fun out of college football ... except for Bama fans.
     We don't have to like it, but more power to them. So Alabama fans are a bit spoiled. Can you blame them?
---
     It is a little more than a week away, but LSU's game at Texas A&M -- always a great rivalry -- is going to be large. A major bowl game will be at stake for the Tigers. Beat the Aggies, and they almost certainly will be 10-2 and in a New Year's Six game. Lose, and it will a nice bowl game, but not a "major."
     It has been a surprisingly successful season for LSU, better than most could have anticipated. Do not think the Tigers are especially a top-six team -- too many lapses, too sporadic, especially an offensive line that some quarters can't block or protect the passer, and a secondary that is talented but spends too much time woofing at opponents and showing off.
     But victories against three Top-10 ranked teams at the time is impressive. We know now that Miami and Auburn were not anywhere as good as they seemed then, but Georgia is, and that victory was LSU's finest game this season.
     If LSU somehow loses to 1-10 Rice this Saturday, forget all this.        
---
     Closing thought (for now): Like so many people, I believe the College Football Playoff field should be eight teams instead of four, three games for the title instead of two.
     Always going to be a debate over the final four (or eight) teams. But why not make it automatic for the champions of the Power-Five conferences (Big Ten, Atlantic Coast, Pac-12, Big 12, SEC) and the other three best -- chosen by committee -- among independents and other "major/mid-major" conferences (hello, Notre Dame and Central Florida).
     Too much football? Sure. One option would be to (gasp!) eliminate the conference championship games, but they are so popular (and such money makers).
     It would be easier to eliminate one week of the regular season -- we have gone from 10 to 11 to 12 games for most teams. And a thought here is that for the "majors," it would be easy to knock off one non-conference game, especially those total mismatches against non-majors.
     Consider this week: Alabama vs. The Citadel. Are you kidding? (I am not a bettor, but how many points would you give here? Start with 50? 60? 70?)
     Just look at some other SEC "matchups" this week: LSU vs. Rice, Kentucky vs. Middle Tennessee, Georgia vs. UMass, Auburn vs. Liberty, South Carolina vs. Chattanooga. Not too challenging, is it?
      There is one good one, though: Alabama-Birmingham at Texas A&M. UAB is one of college football's best stories, from oblivion to Conference-USA West champs and title game, from out-of-business to 9-1 in two seasons.
      The Aggies, who have the resources to give new coach Jimbo Fisher a billion dollars or so on a 10-year contract, can afford to present UAB a big payday. Under my proposal, one less "money" game a year for the majors would be eliminated.
      Anyway, might have to peek at the A&M-UAB game. But if those head coaches burn a timeout or two, I will flip out ... and flip channels. 
                     

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

A "fake news" story ... from 34 years ago

     The strangest -- or dumbest -- story of my career in sports journalism happened 34 years ago in Magnolia, Arkansas.
     Why bring this up now? Because it is October 23, and in 1984, that is the date this story appeared in the Shreveport Journal sports section. So, (un)happy anniversary.
     It was about 60 inches of "fake news," long, long before that term became (un)popular.
     What it was, actually, was three young men with grudges accusing -- falsely accusing -- the football program at Southern Arkansas University (yes, the Muleriders) of being out of control.
     Their "sensational" story appeared in the SAU school newspaper, The Bray (great name, huh?), and it -- unfortunately -- was picked up in a much shorter version by The Associated Press bureau in Little Rock. 
     Which is how it came to our attention at the Journal. We did not regularly cover Southern Arkansas athletics, other than perhaps short items concerning Shreveport-Bossier or North Louisiana kids. The Shreveport Times did more SAU coverage -- especially when it was still Southern State College (the name changed in 1976) and when The Times still had an Arkansas edition.
     The Times' bureau writer in South Arkansas did a follow-up story to the AP version (more from that below).
     At the Journal, we thought The Bray story was so odd, so intriguing that our editor suggested we check it out. 
     So it was off to Magnolia, where I had not been in maybe 15 years and only then because I went there with my good friend Casey to visit his grandparents who lived there.
     But I had known several good athletes who had played for the Muleriders, and this 1984 SAU football team had several players from Shreveport-Bossier, so there was a story hook.
---
     OK, for the "unethical practices" cited high up in the story:
     • SAU coaches provided players with a liquid drink mixture during games that included alcohol; included stimulants in sealed packages of pills given to players before games; and discriminated against black players in awarding  scholarships and in treatment of injuries.
     • The team physician, orthopedic surgeon Dr. Thomas A. Edwards of Shreveport, misdiagnosed injuries and scheduled surgery when it was not needed.  
     • The SAU coaches provided players with steroids to encourage strength development and permitted the use of DMSO as a pain-killer before games. DMSO (was) considered an experimental drug by the Food and Drug Administration.
     Let's save a little time here, and quickly sum this up:
     The Bray story was total bullspit.
     None of it was true. It was not worth the paper it was written on.

     Here is the lead of my "special report" story: 
     MAGNOLIA, Ark. -- One of two former Southern Arkansas University football players quoted recently in a story in the school newspaper as saying head coach Steve Arnett and his staff are guilty of "unethical practices" says the story "is totally false."
      He went on to say that his quotes in the Oct. 5 story "were twisted. Anyone who knows Coach Arnett knows that."
---
     As you can imagine, Arnett, Dr. Edwards and the SAU athletic director, W.T. Watson labeled the charges "ridiculous." They all said they were not quoted in the story nor were they interviewed. 
     And it would be quite a stretch to think any coach would approve of alcohol or steroids for athletes, much less do it in an open setting, which is how the story described this situation.
     The player -- African-American -- who in the story accused the coaches of discrimination and made the steroids/amphetamines charges -- had been a starting tackle the season before but had flunked out of school.
     In talking with a couple of the African-American players from Shreveport, they completely rebutted the charges,  dismissing any discrimation by Arnett and his staff.
     One said was the story was "a low shot" and that SAU players considered it "a joke."
      Arnett told The Times that the story was "a cheap shot" and noted that the SAU staff was "particularly angry about the personal attack on Dr. Edwards, who has volunteered his services for so many years to our program."
     The university president, Dr. Harold T. Brinson, noted his concern "about the ethics of an investigative reporter who would deliberately misrepresent the truth in order to try to entrap a medical doctor. It makes me wonder if he has taken liberties with the truth in other areas of the investigation and writing."
     I can answer that: Yes!
---
      So, how did this come about? Because the young men were out to embarrass the coach and the program and because the school newspaper basically was unsupervised. 
      The player who made the charges refused to talk to me, and just to show how weak the story was, four active SAU players were quoted. They were labeled "Jones," "Smith," "Moore," and "Doe." (Can you believe how juvenile that was?) 
      The story was written, and concocted, by a 34-year-old sophomore who had been on the SAU campus for only a couple of months. The school newspaper editor was a former SAU football player who dropped off the squad after he did not receive a scholarship.
       My recollection of conversations with the writer:
       Before the trip to Magnolia, I twice talked with him by phone, and twice he cut the talk short by hanging up. I did track him down on campus and we sat -- in the school cafeteria, as I remember it -- and discussed the story.
     He was a wimpy, little guy -- like me? -- and he walked with a limp because, as he told me (it is in my story), his right leg had been amputated below the knee five months earlier.
     He had admitted that he made a visit to Dr. Edwards' office to have his left knee examined. And it was clear from our conversation that he was not happy with that visit.
     He admitted that he told Dr. Edwards it was hurting from an old college football injury from years before (we came to find he never played; to see him in person, that was no surprise). But Dr. Edwards, in his examination, did find loose cartilege and suggested surgery as an option.
     The writer also consulted his personal physician, who rebutted Dr. Edwards' opinion and said surgery was not needed. (Read on.)
     In an interview with the hometown Magnolia Banner-News, the writer claimed  "we documented ourselves very carefully and the story speaks for itself."
     Of course, that too was bullspit.
     As the great, late Jerry Byrd would have said, the kid was "clueless, clueless, clueless" about real journalism.
     And with me, he turned beligerent.
     From my story ...
     When asked why he did not confront Arnett and Dr. Edwards with the charges and if he considered accusations from anonymous players as "documented" evidence, [writer]  angrily said, "If you are going to take this tact, I don't have anything else to say to you. You're being very antagonistic with your questions. You take your job and go elsewhere with it."
     With that, he got up and stalked off. End of that talk. 
     A day or two later when I called to speak to the school newspaper editor, the writer answered the call and said, "he has been given your message and he doesn't want to talk to you.
    "No member of The Bray wishes to speak to you," he added. "We do not want to be part of a biased, slanted, sensationalized story. You print it and we'll have our attorneys look at it."
    Pressed for the name of his personal physician, he dodged the question repeatedly. Finally he answered, "Non-dairy coffee creamer. Print that."
    I did.      
---
    Of course, the story caused consternation for the school, the head coach and staff, athletic director, Dr. Edwards and the community. It was the talk of that small town for a little while, but -- naturally -- an investigation by the university's athletic committee turned up ... nothing.
     Those people also realized it was all a crock.
     Don't believe there was any follow-up to the story, and SAU's football program continued on without reprecussions.
     What I remember most was the writer's haughty, ugly attitude and talking with the woman who nominally was in charge of the school newspaper. She maintained she had no role in this, though, and as I recall (but could not find), I wrote a separate story on the lack of supervision of the school paper. 
      Nor did I keep a copy of my 60-inch story. Could not even recall the date. But I remembered doing it because it was such a strange, bizarre -- and dumb -- tale. 
      But with help from Donna McCloy in charge of archives at the SAU Library, we found the date of The Bray article and then the good folks at the Shreve Memorial Library -- which has microfilm of Shreveport Journal papers -- found my story, copied and sent it to me.   
     It was fun reading it again. It was worth the trip to Magnolia and, of course, at the Journal, we had the freedom to write as long a story as we needed. 
     This certainly was more than a fake news story deserved.
     Do not know -- and don't care -- what happened to the writer and school paper editor, but I hope they did not choose journalism for a career. 
     Coach Arnett, who had been defensive coordinator at SAU for three years before becoming head coach in 1982, had modest success in four seasons (20-18-2 record), and resigned after the 1985 season, little more than a year after this story. 
     In a small-world development, when I went to Jacksonville (Florida Times-Union) a few years later, the head coach at Gainesville High School, starting in 1989, was ... Steve Arnett. Same guy. 
     Had no occasion to visit with him or phone him. But we could have had a good mutual remembrance. And we would have agreed that we knew one BS story when we saw one.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Researching baseball is ... history

     The subject is the history of professional baseball in Shreveport-Bossier, and after 21 months of research, here is where we are:
     Finished (for now). Might need to do more. But ready to move on.
     Of course, over the years I had done plenty of research, and had much material on pro baseball in Shreveport. Have a backlog of columns and stories, and have done several blogs.
     Always have loved researching athletics history, especially pertaining to Shreveport-Bossier, North Louisiana and Louisiana in general, and especially high school sports and pro baseball. 
     Spent so many late-night or off-day hours looking at microfilm over the years that -- oh, my eyes -- it meant wearing glasses fulltime much sooner than it should have and it was time spent when I should have been studying good/great writing, and trying to improve my craft.
      It was a hobby, almost an obsession, fun for me, and often useful for background info in stories and columns.
The history of pro baseball in Shreveport should begin
with the 1956 season, and Ken Guettler's
 62 home runs, the Texas League record.
     Anyway, when someone in Shreveport, in December 2016, suggested a book on the subject (actually I was the second choice), I did not feel like I had enough material to do that and be satisfied.
     So, more research and another "project" for my list. Trying to stay busy, and it is not difficult.  
     Well, it took a while because (1) I expanded the area to include North and Northwest Louisiana, with all the talent from there that went into pro baseball and (2) there were a lot of breaks in the research time.
     Like, maybe 21 breaks -- to match the months -- or maybe it was 211 breaks. Contrary to what some people believe, we do have a life other than athletics, research and writing.
     So here we are with a great backlog of material -- on the early days (from 1895) and then the Gassers, Sports,  Captains, and, yes, Swamp Dragons (yuk!).
     Does that mean a book is in the works?
     Maybe. Working on it. Might not happen, but let's see.
     Know it will have a limited and regional audience, but that's fine. It is a project that suits me.
     The original idea came from a link to a publishing company that has done a substantial series of books on baseball (and other sports). In baseball, those include selected cities -- Memphis and Birmingham are examples -- and their histories in the game.
     We have been in contact with that company, have provided a proposal/outline. But we are just starting; we are a long, long way from a deal. Do not hold your breath waiting.
     Might have too much material, too many facets. Could be cost-prohibitive. The intention is, well, for the company and the writer to generate enough book sales to make it worthwhile.
     But making the effort is worthwhile. And if the book does not develop, this will become a series of blog pieces -- for my friends, for Shreveport-Bossier (and North Louisiana) resources that might want them.
     We have begun doing preliminary pages on Google "Docs" as examples of the material we have.     
     Not saying this is a complete history of pro baseball in Shreveport-Bossier and North Louisiana, but there is a lot of depth there. We could give you details, but that would spoil the fun.
     Much of the research came from books on the Texas League, and files on the Internet, and the greatest amount of info came from the microfilm files of The Shreveport Times -- especially the writing of Jack Fiser and Bill McIntyre, sports editors/columnists/writers over a five-decade span. Fun reading their words.
     Later writers included Scott Ferrell and John James Marshall, and many others. Appreciate their help.
     So stay tuned.
---
     One example of how research goes, how a funny twist develops ...
     Lou Fitzgerald was the Shreveport Braves' manager for the 1969 season and the first 12 games of 1970. He was a veteran baseball man, a minor-league player dating to 1942, a manager for 20 years (beginning in 1951 and ending ... in 1970 in Shreveport).
     Yes, we were his last managing stop -- with the Atlanta Braves' Double-A farm team.  
     OK, looking for background info on Mr. Lou, I found this photo on this Internet astroland.net page. He is wearing a Shreveport Sports uniform.
     What the heck? Why?
     Knew he had never played for Shreveport. Knew his 1969-70 uniform had "Braves" on the front.
     Could not figure it out. Called Taylor Moore, the Captains' team president/part owner for 25 years and a longtime fan of Shreveport teams. He also was puzzled. 
      We thought maybe that Fitzgerald had played for Marshall, Texarkana and Longview -- all East Texas teams -- from 1947 to 1952, and some of those teams were "farm" teams for the Sports, that might be the answer.
      But not likely. We were not sure.
      Three months later, the answer came almost by accident.
      Happened to do a "Lou Fitzgerald" search on  newspapers.com, and deep in the results was a file from the   April 20, 1957, sports pages of the Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser
      And here was the photo, that same photo as we'd seen, with the man wearing the "Sports" uniform. Read the photo caption ... and there is the answer.
      (Connection: Montgomery's team was in the same league -- the Alabama-Florida League -- as Pensacola.)
     Just to confirm it, we then came across another file, this one from a more familiar source: The Shreveport Times, dated March 14, 1957. 
     The story was on the annual baseball school and tryout camp -- for area players -- that the Sports held at our familiar stadium (then called Texas League Park). Included in the story: "Instruction will be provided by manager Lou Fitzgerald of Pensacola, with whom the Sports have a working agreement."
     And just an educated guess: When Lou took the field, he was wearing a Shreveport Sports uniform. 
     So there. Thought you would like to know.      

Sunday, September 23, 2018

It must have been a darned good game ...

     Some quick thoughts on college football ...
      First, Louisiana Tech at LSU ...
     Confession: I did not watch the game. Too many mixed emotions. As I have said often (and written twice in recent weeks), love both schools, never want either one to lose.
     So I just let them play, and saved myself the agony of watching and not having my heart racing.
LSU could not pile up the score on Louisiana Tech
(Getty Images photo)
     Checked on the score twice -- once right before halftime (LSU, 24-7) and once when I knew the game was done (LSU, 38-21 ... and, obviously, it was much closer than that).     Do not think LSU is the fifth- or sixth-best team in the country right now, not based on its inconsistent play in each of its four games (victories) this season -- play well for one or two quarters, mediocre in one or two quarters.
     The Tigers got some great breaks -- bounces of the ball, missed officiating calls -- against Tech. This I know from reading about the game, talking to a good source about it, and watching highlights on YouTube and the LSU web site.
     Figured the Bulldogs would give them a fight. Tech's program is solid, its teams are fun to watch, and LSU -- more often than not -- plays to the level of its opponent. 
     Yes, the Tigers more than did that in two impressive victories against Miami and Auburn, and although the final score against Southeastern Louisiana was 31-0, it was an extremely tepid second-half showing by LSU.
     Still can't see better than an 8-4 or 9-3 record for LSU -- not on same level with Alabama and Georgia certainly, and a tough SEC West road ahead. 
     Tigers have too many offensive-line issues, and secondary is shaky, especially if the defensive front seven can't get more pressure on the passer than it did against Tech.
     Tech should compete well in Conference USA, but next Saturday's test at North Texas will tell a lot. UNT might be the conference's best team this season.
      Finally, glad Tech made a good showing at LSU. Did not want (or expect) a blowout loss, and that $1.3 million payday softens the effects of a loss. 
      (Oh, and it will be Tech at LSU in men's basketball in a couple of months. That will not be as heart-rendering for me.)
      • Texas much deserved the victory against TCU. But to declare the Longhorns' program "back" among the elite is premature. Let's see (1) how UT does against Oklahoma a few weeks from now and (2) how it fares when it comes to Fort Worth to face TCU next year.
     • I rarely pay attention to the poll rankings, don't even look at preseason predictions and do not think they are important until the sixth or seventh week of the season. And, remember, it is just a bunch of sports media and/or coaches doing the rankings. Everyone has an opinion, and you know what the saying is about opinions.
     That said, this Alabama team is so much better than anyone else in the country, it deserves a battlefield promotion ... to the NFL. 
     • What makes college football so great is the big underdog -- especially, the mid-majors --  beating the "majors." So, giant-killer Troy beating LSU last year and Nebraska this season, Old Dominion knocking off Virginia Tech yesterday, North Texas routing Arkansas, Fresno State routing UCLA,  and this "almost" shocker yesterday -- Army taking Oklahoma to overtime. 
     Maybe in the 1940s, Army beating OU would have been routine. In the 1950s, it would have been a great matchup. Since then, those programs have not been in the same hemisphere. 
     So, again, great for college football. Not so great if you are on the losing end (hello LSU, Arkansas, Nebraska, UCLA).     
     • We have railed often about how overbearing college football head coaches can be, how they are given god-like treatment. Two items -- and two of my favorite targets in this regard, Nick Saban and Gary Patterson -- caught my attention today.
      Saban, closing his media session yesterday after his team's romp past Texas A&M, said "... I would appreciate it if you would sort of look at some of the things we didn't do so well ..."
      That is part of his "rat poison" theme, which he loves to use to keep his players grounded and motivated. Yes, the rest of the country feels so badly for those less-than-perfect Alabama players. 
      Let's see ...  53 points per game, average winning margin 41 points per game. So many things wrong.
      Ridiculous, preacher Saban.
      TCU down 15 points, 2:44 remaining, 4th-and-4 at its 38 ... Patterson had his team punt the football away to Texas.
       Punt? Needing two scores? What were the Frogs' chances after they punted?
     Asked about his "strategy" afterward, Patterson said he had two timeouts remaining and he was hoping for his defense to stop Texas, get the ball back and score quickly, then recover an onside kick.
      "... I don't play to lose," he said. "I don't play to get through it, but I had two [timeouts]. ... I know how to manage games. It wasn't that play that got us beat. I can promise you that. And you had a backup quarterback in the game."
     Excuse me, but that is BS. He waved a white flag, that's all. 
      Yes, he can manage games (162-59 record in 18-plus seasons) and I often have said that Patterson and his staff do as good a job as any school in the country. 
      But, sorry, this was a mistake. Heaven forbid a coach making $4.75 million -- base salary -- a year admit a mistake. Coach P (for paranoia) will not do that.
       • The other side: Louisiana Tech head coach Skip Holtz, about a 4th-and-1 play -- a quarterback sneak -- that did not work late in the game at LSU (the Tigers piled it up and stopped it short).
     "I'm upset with myself on the fourth-down call I made," Holtz said. "Not the decision to go for it, but the call. I should have called a timeout. It was a dumb call. I want to put our players in a position to succeed, and I don't think I gave our guys the best to do that [on that play."
    A dumb call. Got that, Gary Patterson?

Monday, September 17, 2018

The book on LSU's No. 20: Billy Cannon

     Finally, after a delay of three years or 10 months (take your pick), I read the book on Billy Cannon ... and I enjoyed it; I would recommend it to longtime LSU fans.
     As Jerry Byrd Sr. would have said: What took you so long?
     OK, I had two other lengthy reads I wanted to finish -- The Right Stuff (by Thomas Wolfe) and The Best and The Brightest (by David Halberstam), plus my other writing/research projects, a major move in our lives, and just everyday things to do.
     How is that for an explanation/escuses?
     Knew I would like reading about Billy Cannon because -- like most anyone who jumped on the LSU football bandwagon in 1958 -- he was a hero beyond compare.
     A Facebook friend from Shreveport -- Richard Thompson (Fair Park High 1967 graduate) -- sent me the book, and I thank him. I am grateful.
     Not long after the book was published, in 2015, I looked for it here (in Fort Worth bookstores). No luck. Billy Cannon is not a hero in Texas. 
     Never had a chance to look for it, or neglected to do so,  on visits to Shreveport. My bad.
      Anyway, Richard Thompson to the rescue. The book came in the mail ... and sat here for 10 months. Meanwhile, Billy Cannon left us (died May 20 at age 80).
The LSU sports information web site cover page in late May 2018.
      Many know the gist of Cannon's life: high school superstar at Istrouma (Baton Rouge), state champion running back in football, and in the 100-yard dash and shot put, and -- yes -- reputation as "a thug," LSU All-American and Heisman Trophy winner, the legendary 89-yard punt return on Halloween Night 1959 against Ole Miss, 10-year pro football career, then a career in dentistry (first as an  orthodonist, especially for children), the ill-fated counterfeiting involvement, conviction and prison term, and then the long rehabilitation, the two decades as dentist at the Angola State Prison, and the reunion with the LSU community and re-establishment as the state's biggest football star of all time.
      What a life. What a story. 
      And before I read the book came Cannon's death and the many, many tributes to him. 
      So last week was my time to read the book, and it took only 3-4 days (some 225 pages). I was that interested.
      Appropriate that Richard be the one to send it. He is more responsible than anyone for the book being written, except for Cannon himself and the author (Charles N. deGravelles).
      Here is why (excerpts from the book's prologue):
      In spite of Cannon's well-known reticence, one man refused to give up on the idea of a Billy Cannon biography. Richard Thompson remembers how, after LSU's 1958 national championship season, Cannon visited his middle school in Shreveport. For Thompson and his fellow students, Cannon was a celebrity of the caliber of Elvis. Thompson got to shake the hand of his hero. He never forgot the moment.
     Thompson spent much of his career in Louisiana government, including as an undersecretary in the Department of Corrections and Public Safety. He worked closely with Burl Cain. For years, he and Cain approached Cannon about a book -- and met rejection -- again and again. Last year, in 2014, Thompson's persistence was finally rewarded when Cannon agreed to a book -- with one stipulation. The biography had to include the innovative improvements Warden Cain had instituted at the Angola Prison -- changes that Billy Cannon had personally witnessed and of which he was a part. ...
     Thompson mentioned a little-known writer who was differerent from others; in addition to experience as a journalist and writer, he had been a volunteer chaplain at Louisiana State Penitentiary, generally known as Angola, for 25 years, three of those as a spiritual advisor for a death-row inmate.
---               
     So that is how deGravelles was picked as the writer, and the book's acknowledgments begin with, "Thanks to Richard Thompson for initiating and putting the pieces of this project together and for support along the way." 
     My opinion: deGravelles did a fine job of research, and of putting the words, the story, together.
     The book does not hide from the flawed character that Cannon was, from his early days and his family's poor, hardscrabble existence in rural Mississippi, to his emergence in athletics and a sometimes prima donna, hard-to-handle attitude, his off-the-field gang-like status, his college recruiting tales, pro football adventures and, well, his money-making schemes.
     Billy often was not one to play by the rules.
     Easy to perceive that the several references to Cannon's selling of LSU football game tickets he collected came from Billy himself. Let's say, it was a quite lucrative venture for him, from his high school days through his LSU career.
     And obviously, he also did quite well financially in the summer jobs provided for him by LSU boosters. 
     If I have a quibble, it is that there is a read-between-the-lines element of the "incentives" for a superstar player of his caliber. No doubt, he and the Cannon family were provided "anything you need,"  as promised by the car dealer who sealed Billy's commitment to attend LSU.
      Based on what I have read or heard about the college  recruiting inducements for gifted, prominent North Louisiana athletes in the same era -- John David Crow (Springhill) and Kenneth Beck (Minden) in football, Jackie Moreland (Minden) in basketball -- you can assume Cannon was in that same realm.
---
      There are multiple North Louisiana ties to Cannon mentioned in the book, most prominently eight reference to Tommy Davis.
      Crow, the Heisman Trophy winner (at Texas A&M) two years before Cannon, is on pages 3 and 10. 
      Two Northwestern State athletes, Charley Hennigan (wide receiver from Minden) and Charlie Tolar (running back from Natchitoches), were Cannon's teammates with the Houston Oilers in the brand-new American Football League (1960-63), league champs the first two years and overtime losers in the third year.
      Cannon's final high school game, the 1955 state championship against Fair Park in Shreveport, is covered in a lengthy paragraph on page 76. 
     When he died in May, I posted two clippings from that game. Had about two dozen people tell me they were at State Fair Stadium that night.
      It was a 40-6 Istrouma romp in which Fair Park, like many other teams, hardly could tackle Cannon. He ran 16 times for 169 yards and his third touchdown was an 83-yard pass play (referenced in the book) with which he ran the last 60 yards. And he finished the season with a state-record 229 points.
     Speaking of Fair Park ... back to Tommy Davis.
     He was Cannon's teammate at LSU in 1958, a fullback and, more importantly, the Tigers' superb punter and placekicker, a huge factor in the perfect season.
       Davis was the star player on Fair Park's 1952 team, the only one in school history to win the state championship. My opinion (and that of many others), he was Shreveport's most accomplished football player of the 1950s and early 1960s.
       After two years at LSU and a U.S. Army (and service football) stint, he was back at LSU for a crucial role in the 1958 national championship. He was part of the all-offense Go (short for Gold) team, which alternated with the all-defense Chinese Bandits in that era of platoon substitution.
     But it was his kicking that is remembered by those who know -- two late-game winning kicks (a field goal in a 10-7 victory against Florida, the winning PAT to edge Mississippi State 7-6), and his punting. As book notes, "many considered [him] the best collegiate kicker in the country ..."
     In the mid-1960s, Cannon -- by then a tight end with the Oakland Raiders -- and Davis, a rare pro punter and placekicking specialist for the San Francisco 49ers who twice made the Pro Bowl -- renewed their friendship in the Bay Area. After his decade in the NFL, Davis' career punting average was the second-best ever behind Sammy Baugh.
      One more North Louisiana tie: Murrell "Boots" Garland, who struck up a friendship with Cannon on a track/field trip in 1957 and as the dorm proctor at Broussard Hall, LSU's athletic dorm, where he and Billy spent hours being pals. As  the book notes, he was "garrulous and funny" like Billy, and just as much of a storyteller, upbeat and full of mischief. A character who, for example, played Pistol Pete Maravich's high school coach in a movie. 
      Boots was from Shreveport, a Byrd High and LSU graduate, and early in his long, winding coaching career was George Nattin Jr.'s assistant in basketball at Bossier High (1962-64).
      He would become almost legendary -- Boots would laugh and agree -- as a track and field coach. His 1969 Baton Rouge High team won a state championship; he was head coach at LSU one year, and a longtime assistant there, known primarily as a "speed coach." His speciality was working with athletes in any sport, any level -- high school, college, pros -- to improve their running techniques and maximize their "speed" abilities. 
     Billy Cannon would not have needed help in that department. But of all his buddies, Boots Garland -- as the book makes clear -- was the most involved in his rehab after prison, a frequent visitor to Cannon's dentist office at Angola and eventually the go-between contact for Billy's return to involvement with LSU football. 
     Boots, who died in January 2016, played an important role in Cannon's later life. Good for him. 
---       
     On the book's next-to-last page, there is a paragraph about the (LSU-themed periodical) Tiger Rag's 2010 list of "The Top 150 Most Influential People in LSU Athletics History." No. 1 on that list? Is there any doubt?
Richard Thompson and wife Blanca at the
recent LSU-Southeastern Louisiana game at
Tiger Stadium (he is an SLU graduate).
      Richard Thompson now lives in Baton Rouge and in Puerto Rico (home of his wife Blanca). "I go back and forth; I have business in both places," he said. And, yes, they were in Puerto Rico a year when it was devastated by Hurricane Maria.
     We'll leave the last word on the book to him because he said he sat in on 40 hours of interviews with Cannon and Charles deGravelles.
     "Billy was a hood, even at our Fair Park standards," Richard wrote me. "It would have been a bad influence on anyone back then.
     "After he served his time [in prison], his fake self-esteem went from 110 to zero. All the bad things he did as a young man, he made up with goodness in his later life. Working on inmates at Angola was not for his paycheck, but it was his redemption."
     If you read the book, you will appreciate that.
     In the end, he was -- as LSU radio announcer J.C. Politz said at the end of the 89-yard punt return on Halloween Night 1959, a legendary and best-ever LSU football memory -- "Billy Cannon. Great All-American." 

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Opening Night at Joe Aillet Stadium -- 50 years ago

The first touchdown in the first game at Joe Aillet Stadium, 1968 season, by
Louisiana Tech fullback Buster Herren (31). No. 50 is center John Harper.
 (photo by Ralph Findley)
(Note: The last in the series commemorating the first 50 years of football at Louisiana Tech's Joe Aillet Stadium. This story is about the first game there and the view from the new press box.)
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By Nico Van Thyn
(Louisiana Tech student sports information assistant, 1965-69)
      The first football game at Louisiana Tech's new stadium -- then just Tech Stadium, renamed Joe Aillet Stadium four years later -- was Sept. 28, 1968, a night game against East Carolina University.
      The most notable player in the game, of course, was Terry Bradshaw -- future Pro Football Hall of Famer, four-time Super Bowl winning quarterback.
      Fortunately, he was on our team. Louisiana Tech won easily, 35-7, in what was to be a season of revival for Tech football (9-2 record, after dips to 4-4, 1-9 and 3-7 in previous seasons).
      The stadium opening was, as you can imagine, a long-anticipated event after decades in the old Tech Stadium on the main campus.
      The new place was less than a mile away, in an area which had been woods just a few years earlier but was picked out -- and envisioned for development -- by Joe Aillet, the longtime and by then legendary Tech athletic director-head football coach.
      The press box at the old stadium had a certain charm because it was a tight fit -- two levels of seating, maybe 10 to 12 people on each row. So the occupants were in close proximity; it was not cozy.
      The two radio crews, home and away, were near the ends on the top level; it wasn't much of a secret what the announcers were saying.
      Obviously, the new stadium and new press box brought much excitement. We watched it being built over a two- or- three-year period.
      It wasn't a long walk up to the old Tech Stadium press box, not as long as the walk to the new stadium press box. And the first couple of years, it was a walk; the elevator -- maybe for lack of funds -- was no installed then until much later. We got shafted on that.
      So for the press box crew -- Tech's sports information department and the radio and film people -- it meant carrying up equipment up through the stands and back down afterward. A hassle, but Paul Manasseh -- Tech's SID that year before moving to a long tenure as SID at LSU -- never let much rattle him.
      Seating was plentiful in this press box, there was elbow room for everyone, and there was a deck above for film and (when needed) TV crews (this was before the upstairs area was expanded years later).
      But seating downstairs wasn't exactly comfortable, especially at first. Structurally, seats were built too close to the working tables, so people whose bellies were somewhat expanded -- we did have a couple of sportswriters who fit that description -- were unable to get into those seats. Adjustments had to be made quickly.
      Second problem structurally: The area behind the seats on the lower level was too tight -- a tight squeeze just trying to move down the aisle. That never did get much better.
      Third problem the first night: Although the air conditioning system surely had been tested, this was a humid Saturday night. When the air conditioning got cranked up, the windows in the press box looking out on the field fogged up.
      Those of us trying to watch the game and keep statistics had to move around to find non-fogged areas. We even had to go outside the press box for a while to do our work.
      That did get cleared up in a short while.
      As for the football game, the Tech team came in feeling very good, having beaten an SEC opponent in the opening game the week before. Winning at Mississippi State 20-13 was a boost to the program after three mediocre seasons. (True, Mississippi State did not win a game that season, 0-8-2 record, but it was a "major" opponent for Tech).
      Bradshaw, taking over as the permanent QB starter when Phil Robertson -- future "Duck Commander" -- decided not to play after being the starter in the 1966 and 1967 seasons (with Terry as his backup), showed his great promise in the first two games of 1968.
      East Carolina was a new and very interesting opponent for Tech, and a challenging one. For one, it was one of the few college football teams still running the old single-wing offense -- a tricky scheme for the opposing defense. Two, under coach Clarence Stasavich, the Pirates were coming off consecutive season records of 9-1, 9-1, 9-1 and 8-2.
      But Tech's team was up to the physical and mental challenge. And East Carolina could not stop Bradshaw's passing to talented receivers such as Tommy Spinks, Ken Liberto, Robbie Albright and tight end Larry Brewer. 
      Tech's running game balanced the attack, and it was fullback Buster Herren who scored the first touchdown in new Tech Stadium history.
      The new stadium, strangely, did not mean a big boost in home attendance. This was years before official turnstile counts; crowds listed were guestimates by the wise media people in the press box.
      Attendance for the East Carolina game was listed at 10,000 -- the original stadium capacity was 24,000 -- and that was what was listed for a couple of the conference games at the old Tech Stadium the previous season.
      For the remaining three home games in 1968, the listed attendance was 14,000, 10,000 and 5,000 (a cold night game vs. New Mexico State on Thanksgiving). The press-box windows did not fog up that night.