One of the Southeastern Conference's most storied and longest-running traditions will comes to an end this season as LSU’s Tiger Stadium will not host a night game between the Bayou Bengals and a league foe.
The Tigers have not faced an SEC opponent this season in a home night game. When CBS tapped this weekend's contest with Auburn for the network's afternoon telecast, a 76-year streak came to an end. LSU’s final conference home game of the 2011 season, against Arkansas, has already been scheduled for an afternoon kickoff.
In 1934, all of the Bayou Bengals' home games where held in the day. Thus LSU’s streak of seasons with home night games against SEC foes began with a win over Georgia on Oct. 10, 1936. It ended 262 games later with a 29-7 victory over Mississippi State on Sept. 18, 2010.
In a letter this week to fans explaining the absence of an SEC night game this year, LSU Athletic Director Joe Alleva described the tradition as "the hallmark of LSU football" that is "revered by football pundits and feared by Tiger opponents." With good reason. Over the course of the last eight decades, LSU rolled up a .729 win percentage against conference foes in Tiger Stadium after sundown.
The genesis of the tradition began with Thomas Pickney "Skipper" Heard, whose association with the LSU athletic department began in 1924 while he was a sophomore and he began work as an assistant student manager with the football team. Two years later, upon graduation, he was named the graduate manager of athletics.
Heard essentially took over the bulk of the day-to-day operations of the athletic department from Russ Cohen, who served as the school's athletic director in addition to his duties as the Tiger's head football coach. When Cohen departed in 1933, Heard became the second athletic director in LSU’s history and served until 1954.
One of his first challenges Heard faced was dealing with the regular scheduling conflict of hosting rival Tulane from New Orleans. His solution was to install lights and hold the games in the evening.
"We felt playing on Saturday nights would not only solve this but also make it possible for many of our fans, busy on Saturday afternoon, to attend our games," Heard explained. "For example, we had many well-to-do fans whose duties running nearby plantations made it impossible to get away on a Saturday afternoon."
There was also the fact that early season night games would avoid the brunt of the Bayou State’s late summer heat and humidity.
The first lights cost $7,500 and were in place for the 1931 season. The first night game in Tiger Stadium was a 35-0 blowout of Spring Hill that drew just 7,500 people. The novelty of the concept created problems for the LSU athletic department when opposing schools demanded large cash guarantees to come to Baton Rouge.
As the popularity of night games gained traction in the Bayou State, a trio of events transpired to help give the concept a huge boost.
The first was a series of stadium improvements overseen by Heard. He convinced the administration to use $250,000 for dormitories by putting them inside the stadium. The result: Tiger Stadium was expanded to a concrete capacity of 20,500 with additional seating in wooden bleachers at each end of the field. A WPA-financed expansion in 1936 would push the capacity of the stadium to 46,000.
Next was the formation of the Southeastern Conference in February 1932. The new league was comprised of 13 institutions that elected to depart the Southern Conference two months prior. The new group was much more unified geographically and shared the philosophy of football being the preeminent sport at each institution.
The first SEC opponent to face the Bayou Bengals under the lights of Tiger Stadium was Sewanee for Homecoming on Oct. 29, 1932. The Tigers won 38-0 and would tie Vanderbilt 7-7 for the only SEC night game of the following year. In 1934 LSU beat Auburn (then Alabama Polytechnic Institute) and Mississippi State in the two conference games under the lights prior to the pause in 1935.
The final thing that established the tradition of Saturday Night in Tiger Stadium was Bernie Moore. The former LSU assistant took over in 1935 after former head coach lost his job due to a public disagreement with Louisiana Senator Huey Long. In his first three years at the helm, Moore lead the Tigers to two SEC Championships and a trio of Sugar Bowl games.
The success of the LSU team, particularly against conference foes, brought out banner crowds to Tiger Stadium on Saturday nights. The dominance of the Bayou Bengals under the lights led to the endurance of a tradition that continues unabated despite the conclusion of a streak of games against conference foes.
Clemson vs. NC State, 1965
In 1965, the NCAA finally lifted the limitations on substituting players and sounded the death knell of the two-way player that dominated the sport until that time. It was the first step to a more fast-paced version of the game that would earn the sport even wider popularity over the following decades.
Prior to that period, the rules commanded that players could not return to the game for the remainder of the half if they left the game. The result had been series of platoons, by which coaches would swap out entire units to cope with the requirements of the game on the field. Howard used a variation of the earlier platoon system to take advantage of the new rules.
When the rules committedemade its changes in 1965, it didn't immediately allow the free substitution we know today but instead put specific conditions on exchanging players during play. While the clock was running, only two players could be swapped out, but when the clock was stopped, entire units could be rotated in.
Since the clock stopped on every change of possession, that opened the door for free substitution that astute coaches like Clemson's Frank Howard lept on with gusto.
His Clemson team boasted no fewer than four units - two each for offense and defense - that Howard could swap out as necessary during change of possessions. The idea was to use the Tiger's depth to overwhelm lesser opponents, and the first test came against NC State in the 1965 home opener.
In the previous two seasons, NC State head coach Earle Edwards had earned a reputation of making a lot of very little. Despite a 13-8 record over the two seasons, the Wolfpack earned an appearance in the Liberty Bowl as well as a conference championship and co-championship.
Clemson had been blanked by NC State 9-0 the season prior at Riddick Stadium in Raleigh, NC. The Wolfpack defense was so dominant that afternoon the Tigers were unable to get the ball past the State 32-yard line.
Going into the 1965 season, Howard had a team that was missing key stars like running back Buddy Gore due to injuries but boasted tons of depth. The four platoons and the introduction of an I-formation offense allowed him to surmount his weakness and, hopefully, prey on an unusually thin NC State squad.
The Wolfpack started fresh, holding the Clemson running attack to 88 yards in the first half and keeping the score 7-7 going into the locker room. In the second half NC State simply wilted. A trio of Wolfpack fumbles in the third quarter destroyed any hopes of gaining the initiative. Clemson ran for 116 yards in the game's second half and scored on drives of 59 and 75 yards in the final quarter.
"There wasn't any master minding on my part," Howard said. "It just boiled down to the fact that we had better players and just hit 'em a little harder, 'specially when they was getting tired in the third quarter."
After the game Edwards admitted his team's lack of depth was a problem against the Tigers, but that it was exacerbated by the fact his players "didn't know their right from their left" regarding blocking assignments.
The game would have profound implications for the 1965 ACC championship. Duke and South Carolina finished the season with matching 6-4 records and shared the conference crown. Months later it was revealed that the Gamecocks had used academically ineligible players during the season.
The ACC ordered South Carolina to forfeit four games it had won with the players in the lineup. With matching 5-2 conference records, NC State and Clemson earned co-champions status (despite the Tigers' head-to-head victory on the field) and Duke was forced to settle for second place.