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Patrick Reusse

Patrick Reusse has been covering sports in the Twin Cities since 1968.

Reusse: Why I grew up cheering for LSU in rural Minnesota

My youthful exuberance for Gophers football reached a heightened state by being an eyewitness to a kickoff return for a touchdown on Nov. 13, 1954. The crowd on that Saturday at Memorial Stadium was 65,464, the third-largest for a home game in Gophers history.

My ongoing fascination with LSU football also involved a kick return, this time on a punt, against Ole Miss on Halloween Night in 1959.  Tiger Stadium was bursting that Saturday night with a howling crowd of 68,000, and a clear-channel radio station in Louisiana was sending its signal to a radio in Fulda, Minn.

I was checking out these two kick returns on Tuesday morning and found what I considered to be a wonderful coincidence:

Bob McNamara’s kickoff return against Iowa, where he ran into a tangle of Hawkeye tacklers and came out the other side, covered 89 yards to the end zone, and Billy Cannon’s punt return in which he bounced and powered through seven Ole Miss tackle attempts also covered 89 yards.

McNamara’s kickoff return broke a 7-7 tie in the first half and the Gophers came away with 22-20 victory over No. 9-rated Iowa. It lives in the memory of a then-9-year-old kid who was kneeling in the front of the overflow of fans that was allowed to watch from behind the end zone at the closed end of a stadium.

Cannon’s punt return came very late in LSU’s 7-3 victory over Ole Miss and, apparently, it lives on the video board in Tiger Stadium, replayed as part of the pregame ritual for every home game.

Limited though was access to highlights six decades ago, the Cannon punt return was seen on enough black-and-white TV sets across the country for the next couple of weeks that it cemented the LSU running back as a landslide winner of the Heisman Trophy: 519 first-place votes compared to 98 for runner-up Rickie Lucas, a Penn State quarterback.

Watch Cannon's punt return here

Actually, my rooting interest for the Bayou Bengals (as the home broadcast team would refer to them) developed in 1958, and discovering the odd fact that LSU played most of its home football games at night.

Saturday night games? We’d never heard of a such a thing in Big Ten country, but there it was, direct from a stadium in Baton Rouge, La., and what hooked me was the constant din in the background – during plays, between plays, during timeouts, always the din of noise from the crowd.

Bear Bryant, the Alabama coach, said that playing at Tiger Stadium on a Saturday night was like “being inside a drum.’’

Remember, I’m talking about the 1950s, when people claimed their uncomfortable bench seating in places like Memorial Stadium, sat down and watched, and then responded with either a cheer or a groan, depending on the development of a play.

We had robust moments of fan involvement with the Gophers but we didn’t have 2 hours and 15 minutes of a din, as those crazy galoots in the stands at Tiger Stadium were providing.

Anyway, covering the Gophers since becoming a Twin Cities sports columnist in 1979 has required objectivity, and I’m comfortable to have avoided the label of Gophers homer – even if my mind can call back that McNamara kickoff return at a moment’s notice.

As for LSU, I’ve always rooted for the Tigers from a distance, since the unbeaten 1958 national championship team – led by “Pepsodent Paul’’ Dietzel, a guy from Ohio with a impressive set of choppers when he smiled.

The Tigers were forecast to finish ninth in the SEC entering 1958, when Dietzel unveiled a three-platoon plan that was stranger than night games:

The “White Team’’ would be his best players, the starters, the two-way players; the “Go’’ Team would be the second-team offense; and the “Chinese Bandits’’ would he his second-team defense.

Wacky in that era of two-way stars, but successful.

More recently, LSU won a national title for the 2003 season, with Nick Saban as coach, and in 2007, with Les Miles as coach. Saban annoyed me with his arrogance even back then. Miles fit LSU with his off-center personality, but the outstanding athletes assembled there deserved much more creativity in offense.

Then along came Ed Orgeron, the interim coach when Miles was fired after a 2-2 start in 2016. The man from the Bayou Lafourche, an LSU coach from Hollywood Central Casting, was given a shot to take over in 2017.

And then for 2019, Orgeron got rid of the offensive shackles, hired Joe Brady to design a wide-open attack to take full advantage of those athletes.

Brady went four- or-five wide and allowed Joe Burrow to fling it all over. He became LSU’s second Heisman winner, and in a landslide, just like Billy Cannon 60 years earlier.

As addictive as was watching that offense and Burrow’s accuracy, including in Monday’s 42-25 victory over Clemson to win LSU the national championship, my fascination has been Orgeron -- Bayou-born, a reformed barroom brawler, a man trailed by a thousand stories, commanding a loyalty from friends that saw him through low points and seem to love him to death.

Bobby Hebert, Orgeron’s quarterback at both South Lafourche High School and Northwestern State, has said: “I’ve got stories that there’s no way … you’d have to torture me to tell.’’

Last week, I had a phone conversation with Gary (Mojo) Morgan, a Northwestern State teammate for Orgeron’s full career with the Demons – 1980 to 1983. As do all old friends, Morgan refers to Orgeron as “Bebe,’’ which is bay-bay, pronounced real fast.

He admits to being in Bebe’s presence for a few altercations in local hangouts. A few days before we talked, Mojo had been asked by Louisiana sports radio host Jordy Hultberg “if there was that one story’’ about Orgeron that had never been told.

“I like Jordy; we had a fun conversation,’’ Morgan said. “But I said, ‘Jordy, let me tell you something. One thing we always preached about those stories … leave ‘em in the locker room.’ ‘’

Note: Congratulations to the Gophers for finishing No.10 in the final AP rankings. Objectively, it was a fine season.

Reusse: Browns fans surely excited after playoff look at Stefanski's offense

The Detroit Lions made a deal with Matt Patricia, New England’s defensive coordinator, to be their new coach during the two-week break before the Super Bowl in Minneapolis on Feb. 4, 2018.

The Philadelphia Eagles, with Nick Foles at quarterback, lit up the Patriots for 538 yards in the ZygiDome shootout, and scored a 41-33 upset victory.

Detroit was then left to announce officially one day later that Patricia, the architect along with head coach Bill Belichick of that futile defensive effort 18 hours earlier, would be its next coach.

We smirked and asked, “Who else but the Lions?’’

We now have the answer: the Browns.

Last week, Cleveland officials came to the Twin Cities to interview Kevin Stefanski, the Vikings offensive coordinator. The Browns also had interviewed Stefanski after last season, as the replacement for interim Gregg Williams, who had replaced the fired Hue Jackson during the 2018 season.

The Browns went with an internal hire, the aptly-named Freddie Kitchens, and then fired him at the end of this season. That increased Browns owner Jimmy Haslam’s number of head coaches fired to five in eight seasons. It also allowed Kitchens to join Rob Chudzinski as being fired after getting one season as Haslam’s head coach.

The likelihood was Haslam knew Stefanski was his choice this time, but the Browns had to make it look like a search, so the trip was made to Minnesota last week.

The interview was a mild interruption in the Vikings’ short week of preparation before heading to the West Coast to play San Francisco in the second round of the NFC playoffs.

Back in December, the offense ordered by coach Mike Zimmer (run, then run some more) -- and crafted by Stefanski and wise old Gary Kubiak – was an abomination in a showdown game with Green Bay.

It was so bad that it became freaky visit to a football time machine; more like Murray Warmath’s Gophers in a battle with Jack Mollenkopf’s Purdue Boilermakers in the 1960s at Memorial Stadium than a modern NFL game in Minnesota’s $1.15 billion gift to Zygi Wilf.

The Vikings had seven first downs and 139 yards against a Packers’ defense with a modest resume. That made the regular-season finale against the Bears meaningless, and the Vikings lost that December exhibition.

This was followed by the upset playoff victory over New Orleans in the Superdome – with an offense featuring the smashing runs of Dalvin Cook and rookie Alex Mattison, and the best clutch effort of quarterback Kirk Cousins’ NFL career.

Who could have guessed in the six-day run up to the game with the 49ers that “7’’ would return as a magic number for the Vikings’ offense?

They had seven first downs again Saturday, this time with 147 yards, in the 27-10 loss. At one point, Stefanski’s offense went 27 minutes without a first down.

On Sunday, it became public Stefanski will be the next head coach for the Browns, the next wanted poster on Haslam’s office wall.

Funny thing is, Stefanski was mentored in Minnesota by Pat Shurmur, and he might want to bring the fired Giants’ coach to Cleveland, but Shurmur was the coach inherited and thus the first to be fired by Haslam after the 2012 season.

I believe there have been some suggestions that Shurmur is less thanan admirer of the Browns’ wacky owner.

Oh, well. Certainly, the Browns fanatics that happened to tune to Saturday’s NFC game, and watched the Vikings soar from 81 yards to 147 on their last two garbage-time possessions, are thrilled by what they witnessed -- as well as the idea young, trim Stefanski will now be the coach trying to convince quarterback Baker Mayfield not to behave (and often play) like an idiot..

That last look at Stefanski’s Vikings offense … there hasn’t been such a confidence builder for a new fan base since Patricia brought the Patriots’ Super Bowl effort with him to Detroit. And look at big Matt -- he hasn't been fired yet.