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.
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.
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."
He pauses. "Miles."
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:
- Sympathizing with their oppressor
- Standing in open rebellion
- Embracing absurdity
- Withdrawing completely
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.
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.