LSU Gameday In Baton Rouge: Waiting On The Colonel

Spencer Hall goes upriver to Baton Rouge for the WVU-LSU football game and discovers a fan base located somewhere between undefeated and the heart of darkness itself.

Kurtz: Are my methods unsound? 
Willard: I don't see any method at all, sir. 

The approach to Baton Rouge moving along I-10 west from New Orleans to LSU is a long, undulating line of grey interstate propped over pilings in the bayous between the Crescent City and the state capital. Long stretches of swamp are broken up only by channels cut into the landscape, long empty lines of water stretching to the horizon. For long stretches someone has nailed signs reading "KEEP OUT" every hundred feet or so to trees along the roadside, trees that border what is absolutely nothing but water, muck, trees, snakes, and other slimy demons of the overactive and fearful imagination. 

It's a hostile environment where everything gets eaten eventually. This is a metaphor. 

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On the Parade Grounds the usual mobile bayou survival camp is set up. They have been here since Friday, or Thursday, or perhaps they never left, since I like to believe some LSU fans simply shift their swamp kitchens from the LSU campus to the bayou and back over the course of the fall. I don't know what they do in spring. In the end, I probably don't want to know. 

The mood and the football team aren't inextricably linked in Baton Rouge: usually there's a baseline of festivity and hostility unaffected by whether the football team is 0-4 or 4-0, though it's been well over a decade since they've had to put up with anything near an 0-4 start. The team is 3-0 going into the game against West Virginia tonight, though Tiger fans are having a hard time finding West Virginia fans to meet, greet, and yell "TIGER BAIT!" at. Either Mountaineer yellow is blending in well with the LSU team colors, or they're wisely waiting out the chaos that could accompany a very late 8:15 CDT kick. 

This mean that a full day's drinking happens before LSU fans even step into the stadium tonight. This should mean a bacchanal-on-wheels, but walking around the campus this is not happening. Without West Virginia fans to taunt or a conference game to stoke the fires, LSU fans seem content to stir their pots of gumbo with wooden paddles, sit in their camp chairs, and otherwise bask in a pleasant haze of dread, bourbon, and cooking smoke. 

I stop by a friend's tailgate and ask him to explain the mood. He hands me an Abita, and sighs. 

"We're just waiting for this thing to blow up in our faces."  

"What?" 

He pauses. "Miles." 

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You may not know what it's like to not live in a democracy. I have, for short periods, had this experience. The general level of absurdity in life doubles. Minor bureaucrats assume occasionally godlike powers. Nothing makes any sense whatsoever, and soon people begin to cope by doing one of the following: 

  1. Sympathizing with their oppressor
  2. Standing in open rebellion
  3. Embracing absurdity 
  4. Withdrawing completely  
Then again, maybe you do know what it's like to live in a non-democratic state. Being a football fan is to accept a certain level of dictatorship in your life. Unless you have a few million to give to an athletic department or even more than that to buy into an NFL franchise, a large slice of your leisure time will be governed by someone with complete authority over their domain. Their removal will not be your decision. Their decisions will be their own. You will deal with it because being a fan is to be a form of peasant, and you must deal with the prevailing conditions in the kingdom no matter how mad the king and his crew of flunkies become. 

You may get to pull a Nicolai Ceacescu once in a while. I felt a palpable glee when, in the middle of the 2004 football season, Ron Zook pulled the last brick out of his tottering Jenga stack of credibilities by losing to Mississippi State. He was a dead man walking, and as a Florida fan the years of complaint had finally added up in the form of a coup d'etat.  The proletariat will forever be grateful to comrade Sylvester Croom for his good work in assisting this glorious people's republic. 

Those moments are rare and illusory. For the most part you deal with the absurdities of the moment. When Les Miles came to LSU the panic was instantaneous but the results held up: despite going for it on fourth down more times than one might think a coach should, mismanaging games late, and calling games like you would in a tipsy game of video game football, Les Miles won ten games a year, fell into a national title despite having two losses in 2007, and kept the skeptics who insisted he was just winning with Nick Saban's players at bay with a long stick made of victory and top ten finishes. 

Then 2009 happened. The LSU offense tanked, Miles blew two games with late game mismanagement, and LSU finished a deceptive nine win season by losing to Penn State in the Citrus Bowl. Fans openly suspected Miles of being something short of a savvy gambler, and more as a ballsy but clueless risk fiend whose "wagers" were made mostly at random. Worse yet, the five year mark saw the departure of the last of Saban's players, meaning the 2009 team was completely his, and made entirely in the mold of a Les Miles team. 

A Les Miles team, it turns out, is made of equal parts talent and terror. Their opener against a UNC team decimated by suspensions became a shootout. The defense dominated the next two games thanks to Vandy and Mississippi State coughing up turnovers, but the scores belied an ongoing offensive anemia. Offense coordinator Gary Crowton is a fun name to mention around LSU fans these days. I mentioned him four or five times at different tailgates. On three occasions his name was met with the universal gesture of thumb and forefinger held in a ring, then moved in front of the body in a curvilinear fashion until the viewer recognized the Universal Wanking Motion.  LSU fans don't want to set Gary Crowton on fire: that would be murder. If he were on fire, though, and just stumbling through the Parade Grounds, he might walk a long way before someone turned a garden hose on him. 

Some dictatorships are more absurd than others, but LSU's may be the strangest of all right now in college football. No one's happy at 3-0, and every win only seems to prolong the inevitable collapse LSU fans see just around the corner. I ask a retiree what he thinks will happen in the game tonight. He smiles. 

"I've been an LSU fan for fifty years. I'm out of hope." 

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The stereo system at Tiger Stadium is huge. It has all the raw power of a stadium system but none of the harsh blasting treble, making it a happy blend between the Horn of Gabriel and a booming trunk full of woofers cruising down the street at midnight. I settle into the press box. The windows are open, and the sticky night air fights with the blasting air conditioning. Standing right on the line between the two, my hands are warm and my back is cold. LSU's kickers are warming up, and Jay-Z's "On To The Next One" booms from the LSU scoreboards.

 

The 808s sound like artillery firing far over the horizon. Pregame rolls on: Mike the Tiger makes his rounds, since for the second week in a row he's decided to get in his cage, something he either does or does not do because he is a tiger, and they aren't big on discussion. As is custom, West Virginia has to walk right past Mike as they come on to the field. There are no fewer than fifty bars and a layer of plexiglass separating Mike from the opposing team, and it is a given that when they move past the Mountaineers see none of those bars or the glass. It's a live tiger: the trappings become invisible in full sight of the thing itself. 

This is still Baton Rouge on a Saturday night, but the dread of what may come is still palpable.The uneasy crowd is right: Jordan Jefferson, the struggling junior quarterback, is intercepted on his first drive, but in true 2010 form is bailed out when LSU recovers a Mountaineer fumble on the WVU seven and slams it home with Stevan Ridley. This takes four tries, and in the few haywire seconds before the 4th and 1 the stadium seems caught between exasperation and storming the pressbox to get at the offensive coaches. 

This is the only touchdown the offense will see on the night. Patrick Peterson, the Tiger's frenetic corner and punt returner, will weave through Mountaineer kick coverage for a kick return TD, but otherwise the night belongs to the Tiger defense and their accomplice, the bizarro West Virginia offense. Drake Nevis and Barkevious Mingo terrorize Geno Smith. Noel Devine misses much of the game with a toe injury. Jeff Mullen, WVU's offensive coordinator, and Crowton take turns one-upping each other with fiddly, unproductive play-calling. The Mountaineers are so ineffective that when LSU pins them deep with back to back punts inside the ten yard line, you know the game is over. 

Yet even with the defense suffocating West Virginia, LSU manages to baffle. With the lead and nine minutes on the clock, Crowton calls for Jordan Jefferson--who has struggled all night and who will not top one hundred yards passing for the game--to throw three straight passes instead of burning clock. On the next series interception-prone Jarrett Lee appears under center for some reason. Even with a win, the bewilderment is palpable. Not even winning makes sense anymore at LSU, and there is no celebratory lingering in the stands after the win.  

As they did in Atlanta following the UNC near-miss, Tigers fans don't so much leave as flee the scene of a public crime. 

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Football in the dark in a projection screen. This may also be a metaphor. 

By the time I get done posting, the campus is largely deserted. Three years ago this would not have been the case: tailgates would not be hurriedly packed away, and in the dark there would be beer drinking, and giddy picking over of the leftovers from the day while the game was hashed and rehashed in glow of the campus streetlights. 

It's late, but it's not that late. Those who do remain have their radios tuned to the postgame show where Miles, sounding agitated, says he's proud to be 4-0. He's talking as I walk under the Spanish moss hanging from the live oaks, his voice wandering as one car radio fades out into another on the way across the Italianate campus, empty arches and the light from a low moon shining between the branches.  

It feels like the jungle. Once I took a truck to Cambodia from Thailand before the road between Angkor Wat and the Thai border was paved. At night the truck broke down on a long road not unlike the long highway into Baton Rouge. On either side was rice paddy, long stretches of potentially mine-strewn marsh. Truckers stopped for the night and cooked their dinners by the light of tiny fires on the shoulder. In the distance were lights from a rally, or a meeting, or god knows what requires a bullhorn and lots of screaming at 10 p.m. in the middle of a Southeastern Asian jungle. Whoever had the bullhorn was repeating the same phrase in Khmer over and over again, and without response from the audience. It was and is one of the most unnerving things I've ever heard. 

Trying to find my car in the dark, with Les Miles booming over car radios and glum silence greeting him, it became clear what we were dealing with here.  Miles' methods had become...unsound. In fact, there might not be a method at all, but in the jungle sometimes effort, repetition, and the right prey was enough for a while. LSU's was under the sway of their own Kurtz, and in their own version of Heart of Darkness it was stay with him or risk the danger of starting over completely.

LSU fans had made friends with their mortal terror: playing ugly football, and hoping the Colonel in charge of them all would stay just sane enough to see them through the year. Every football dictatorship is different, but LSU's state was all too clear: it had gone absurd and frightening at the same time, which is how you get the world's least content 4-0 fanbase listening to their own madman quietly in the dark. Something's coming up the river for the Colonel, and they know it. The rest is a matter of playing out the script. 

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