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.
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.