When Alabama and LSU met in Mobile's Ladd Stadium on September 27, 1958 it marked the beginning of an era for both programs. The game was the first for Paul W. Bryant as head coach of the Crimson Tide as well as the unveiling of LSU's soon-to-be famous "Chinese Bandits."
For Alabama fans, the expectations over the return of the man known as "The Bear" had lent an air of unbridled optimism to the ’58 season. Bryant had been an end on the National Champion ’34 team and worked as an assistant on the Alabama staff before going on to head coaching positions elsewhere.
By 1957 he had earned a reputation as something of a miracle worker by turning around moribund programs at Maryland, Kentucky and Texas A&M. When his alma mater finally called he returned to Tuscaloosa to find the once-proud Crimson Tide program at its nadir.
In the previous three years, the Tide had rolled to a woeful 4-25-2 record that included a 17-game losing streak. From the start, Bryant was determined to turn the program completely around.
"I don't know any of you and I don't want to know anybody," he told his team during his first meeting. "I'll know who I want to know at the end of spring training."
Over the course of the off-season, Bryant put his team through a brutal training regimen that weeded out dozens of players and honed the toughness of the ones that remained. At the same time he reorganized the athletic department, overhauled the coaching staff, and demanded results on the recruiting trail.
By the time the 1958 season began Bryant had put the foundations of his program in place but he had to face the upcoming contests with what he had at hand. His solution was, in his own terminology, "garbage football."
"A lot of quick-kicking and crazy plays that were really as conservative as can be," he explained in his autobiography. "If you don't have the talent to win with talent alone, you have to compensate."
And he was going to have to compensate mighty hard from the start. The Tide's first test would be against a stout LSU team headed by one of his former assistants at Kentucky, Paul Dietzel.
Dietzel arrived in Baton Rouge in 1955 with a host of sterling recommendations from his stints as an assistant at Kentucky, Cincinnati and Army, but not a single day's experience as head coach. His first three seasons had been a bit of a trial for LSU fans as he had only amassed a tepid 11-17-21 record.
A 25-6 win over Tulane to finish the 1957 season had bought him enough good will to hang onto his job another year, but the Tiger faithful were expecting results in 1958. Dietzel was aiming to give it to them. And knew exactly how he was going to do it.
In 1958 the NCAA loosened substitution rules to allow players who left the game to return at the start of the next quarter. The result was a lot of experimentation by coaches to capitalize on the changes.
Alabama instituted a system of three squads designated by color - red, blue and white. The players were identified by a poker chip worn on their necks to keep track of who was eligible to go in at any given time. That made it possible to send in key players when necessary but not draw a penalty when forced to replace them.
Dietzel had another idea. He recognized he was going into the season with a very deep team but one that had a limited number of players who were effective on both offense and defense. His solution was to organize his team into to a "platoon" system that featured three squads of 11 players with specific skill sets that could be swapped out en masse as the flow of the game demanded it.
The first squad, called the White team, was filled with the two-way standouts. They got the bulk of the playing time. The second squad was originally called "Gold," but became known as the "Go" team due to a sportswriter’s error and since they were intended to be use on the offensive side of the ball.
The third squad was made up of the defensive specialists. Dietzel dubbed them "The Chinese Bandits." The name came from the newspaper comic strip Terry & the Pirates that declared the self-said bandits to be "the most vicious people in the world."
Dietzel’s ace in the hole was having the nation's most electrifying player at his disposal, Billy Cannon. The 193-pound dynamo was fast enough to run 100 yards in 9.4 seconds and strong enough to sling a 16-pound shot-put more than 54 feet. On the football field he was almost unstoppable.
After assessing his star player's potential in 1957, Dietzel decided to capitalize on Cannon's skills by introducing the Wing-T offense. Unorthodox blocking up front gave his relatively small line a critical advantage and deception in the backfield gave Cannon and fellow running backa wealth of opportunities.
Bryant, who personally scouted the Tiger's season opener against Rice was suitably impressed. Asked if he thought the Wing-T helped LSU, he responded, "I think LSU helps the Wing-T."
As the Alabama LSU game approached, several days of rain drenched Mobile. More than 34,000 spectators filled Ladd Field for the evening game to see the two vaunted teams battle it out on the soggy gridiron.
Alabama began using the quick kick and stout defensive play to pin the Tigers back and limit Cannon's ability to hurt them. As the first quarter reached its midpoint there was a huge sound, and people began screaming.
One of the temporary wooden grandstands erected at the north end of the stadium had collapsed with more than 1,400 people on it. The game was halted to help pull people from the rubble and summon ambulances for the injured. While there were no fatalities, more than 60 people were injured with 25 seriously enough to require hospitalization.
In the second quarter, Cannon seemed to be making his move with a 13-yard run through the middle, but a hard hit caused him to fumble. Alabama's Duff Morrison grabbed it out of the air and scrambled 45 yards to the Tiger 5-yard-line.
Dietzel responded by putting in the Bandits and the seeds of a legend began to be sown. The Tide gained just one yard in three downs and had to settle for a field goal by guard Fred Sington Jr.
"The Bandits held them and from that time on the Bandits had arrived," Dietzel said later. "I mean they thought they were some kind of stuff."
Still, the young Tide team led the powerful Tiger squad 3-0 at the half. Following the intermission Dietzel opened the playbook and when play resumed LSU served up a host of counters and double reverses that befuddled the Alabama defense.
The Bayou Bengals took the initiative the first time they got the ball after halftime and went 67 yards in 11 plays to score their first touchdown of the night. The drive was topped with a nine-yard pass from Warren Rabb to Robinson.
The Tigers struck again at the start of the final stanza. Cannon carried the load on a 44-yard, six play drive finishing it off with an 11 yard run for the score. A missed extra point made it 13-3 where the score would remain at the final whistle.
While two teams had fought to a statistical draw in the first half, the Tigers had taken control of the game in the second half. LSU finished with 182 yards rushing to Alabama's 100 and the Tigers had gained 73 yards in the air while the Tide threw three passes and didn't complete a single one.
"We lost," Bryant said after the game. "Because they knocked our butts off."
LSU players admitted their butts got knocked pretty hard as well.
"The first one that hit you wasn't too tough," said LSU's Robinson of the Tide tacklers. "But that second, third, fourth and fifth guy was murder."
LSU went on a rampage the rest of the season, racking up wins along the way. A month later they claimed the No. 1 spot in the AP poll after downing Florida under the lights of Tiger Stadium for Homecoming. A victory over No. 12 Clemson in the Sugar Bowl earned LSU an undefeated season and the title of National Champions.
Alabama would finish 1958 with a 5-4-1 record and a season of experience under the demanding conditions a Bryant-coached program demanded. In 1959, with the first class of recruits being brought in by the new staff, the Crimson Tide earned a 7-2-2 record and invitation to the first bowl game of the Bryant era.
Two years after that, Alabama won the first of six national championships under Bryant's 25-year tenure in Tuscaloosa.