Paul Dietzel died last month. This left me feeling melancholy, which probably had more to do with lost youth than the passing of a football coach at 89 known to me only through the booming signal of a Louisiana radio station.
There was nothing to top a clear channel (lower cases) AM signal for a young sports nut living on the Minnesota prairie in the 1950s. KMOX (1120) out of St. Louis turned me into a Cardinals fan for life. And the Louisiana station made an enthusiast for LSU football.
I had remembered it as a station out of Baton Rouge. In doing some Internet searching this morning, it might have been KWKH (1130) out of Shreveport. That's probably how I got hooked -- trying to dial in a Cardinals game one Saturday night in September and coming across the LSU Tigers.
The Cardinals radio team was Harry Caray and Joe Garagiola (with a capable backup named Jack Bucks) when I started listening in the mid-'50s. You had to wait until dark, but then KMOX came in clear unless it happened to be a stormy night on the Minnesota prairie.
Listening to the Cardinals became such a habit that even in the 1960s, after moving to the Twin Cities and with the Twins as the hometown team, I still would drive around on occasion to bring in KMOX on the car radio. That was the case in mid-September of 1963, when the Cardinals put together a 19-1 run to move within one game of the Dodgers in the National League.
The Dodgers were at Sportsman's Park (as it still was popuarly known) for a three-game series. They won the opener behind Johnny Podres to get the lead back to two games. Curt Simmons had the task of facing the incomparable Sandy Koufax the next night.
Fifty years later, I can recall Harry Caray's lament when Junior Gilliam doubled home Maury Wills to give the Dodgers a 1-0 lead in the top of the first.
"That's OK,'' Harry said. "We'll get 'em tomorrow.''
Koufax fulfilled Harry's pessimistic forecast, pitching a four-hit shutout (4-0) that raised his record to 24-5 and lowered his ERA to 1.87.
And then the next night, the Dodgers sent up Dick Nen -- a September recall -- to pinch hit and he hit a game-winning home run. Nen became known as "Dick Who?'' in St. Louis sports lore, for the blow that completed a Dodgers' sweep and finished off what had been a rousing Cardinals' challenge.
The fascination with LSU football started in 1958. Night games for college football were unheard of in Big Ten country, but here it was ... live from Tiger Stadium with Baton Rouge, with the most-amazing din in the background that I had heard on a radio broadcast.
I vowed as a grade schooler to some day watch a football game in Baton Rouge. I better hurry.
My oldest son, Maj. James Reusse,. USMC, did make it there in his much-earlier days in the Corps, when stationed in Biloxi, Miss. He met some Cajuns, they invited him to an LSU game, and he woke up the next morning in the front yard of a house in the Bayou, near a large pot of a seafood that was being prepared by his hosts, and decided that he must have had a heck of a good time at the Tigers' game.
As for Dietzel's Tigers, the coach known as "Pepsodent Paul'' for his fine teeth and good looks was in his fourth season at LSU in 1958.The Tigers were 11-17-2 in his first three years, and expectations were modest, until Dietzel came up with the unique plan of using three separate units of players:
The White team, which was the first unit for both offense and defense: the Go Team, which was the second-unit offense; and the Chinese Bandits, who made up the second-team defense.
The Bandits became hugely popular with Tigers' fans, both in Louisiana and on the Minnesota prairie.
There were five home games at Tiger Stadium, played in a six-game stretch from Oct. 4 to Nov. 8. I'm not sure all were night games, but I was regular listener when possible. The Tigers went 10-0, closing with a 62-0 victory over archrival Tulane.
The voting in wire-service polls took place after the regular season in that era. The Tigers were voted as national champs by both the Associated Press and United Press International. They confirmed this ranking with a 7-0 victory over Clemson in the Sugar Bowl.
In 1959, Dietzel's Tigers beat powerful Ole Miss 7-3 on Oct. 31 at Tiger Stadium. Halloween night in Baton Rouge, with LSU as defending national champ, now 7-0 and again rated No. 1 in the country. A 14-year-old in Fulda, Minn. could not have imagined the decadence.
Sadly, the Tigers could not continue on that high. Dietzel's three platoons lost the next week at Tennessee, 14-13, and slipped to third in the polls ... where they remained.
Dietzel reluctantly agreed to another game with Ole Miss in the Sugar Bowl. Quarterback Warren Rabb and Johnny Robinson, Cannon's partner at halfback, were both hurt. The Tigers were thrashed 21-0 in the rematch.
The consolation prize for LSU was that Cannon had been voted as the Heisman Trophy winner, in a landslide over Penn State's Richie Lucas, and with SMU quarterback Don Meredith finishing third.
More than five decades later, I still root for LSU when it plays Alabama or Florida or Georgia, and I still hope to see a game on a Saturday night in Baton Rouge.
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