What goes around comes around, that old adage advises, and those who doubt its authenticity need to look no further that the prelude to this year’s Chick-Fil-A Bowl that pits LSU against Clemson.
One writer tells readers how LSU will beat Clemson in Atlanta without breaking a sweat. Another advises that fans will hear Clemson has no chance in Monday’s game, noting that the SEC club “is super-talented on both sides of the ball and has the advantage at nearly every possible position.”
Some old-timers out there with long memories recall the same thoughts, chapter and verse, from once upon a time.
The same teams met in a different bowl, but in essence, nothing has changed in the 54 years since Clemson and LSU squared off in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans on New Year’s Day, 1959.
“We didn’t get any respect going into the game,” Harvey White, the Clemson quarterback 1957-59, says now.
Perhaps that’s only natural. LSU came to New Orleans undefeated and armed with a stable of all-stars such as Billy Cannon and Bo Strange and Max Fugler and the Chinese Bandits. Clemson? Well, those Tigers had been thrashed by arch-rival South Carolina, had absorbed their then-annual loss to Georgia Tech and had scraped by to win six times by a touchdown or less. The odds-makers favored LSU by at least 15 points.
Indeed, a Sugar Bowl historian reports that the LSU coach, the youthful Paul Dietzel, lobbied behind the scenes to get Clemson an invitation with the expectation the ACC team would be easier prey than the fans’ popular choice, Southern Methodist and quarterback Don Meredith.
And a New Orleans sports writer threw fuel on the fire. He wondered where Clemson was and whether Clemson was a vegetable or a fruit. He considered the fact that LSU had to play such a lowly foe a disgrace and wrote that Clemson coach Frank Howard must be the greatest politician of all time to get his team a game against the nation’s No. 1 squad.
Afterward, the tune changed.
“They kept telling us we’re not worth a (darn),” Howard said. “I don’t know; maybe we’re not. But you keep telling a feller that long enough and it begins to get under his hide.”
“We helped Clemson’s reputation a great deal,” White says.
Oh, LSU won 7-0 in one of those bruising, physical games that typified the time to finish a national championship season, but the SEC team knew fortune had smiled favorably. A bad snap on a punt and a dropped pass turned the tide, and Howard growled afterward, “I expect a lot of them Chinese Bandits (LSU fans) left a lot of money laying around” from lost bets.
Television did not bring every game into living rooms in those days. Indeed, the network required Clemson to wear darker jerseys than their traditional orange in order to contrast better with LSU’s white uniforms, thus any pictures of the Tigers in blue is not trick photography.
“Our power against their speed,” Clemson fullback-linebacker Rudy Hayes says in appraising the matchup.
His team’s speed is a primary reason Dietzel preferred to face Clemson. And in terms of depth under the one-platoon rules of the day, he had developed three units — his starters, the White team that played both offense and defense; the Go team, offensive specialists; and the Chinese Bandits, in reality the third string that he turned into defensive dynamos.
“Coach Howard had us scared to death of those Chinese Bandits,” says Clemson tackle Harold Olson, a retired minister. “But we had a time that we will never forget. We did everything but win.”
Clemson planned to play its usual ball-control style and did not even attempt the first of its four passes until late in the game. The ground attack — “Coach loved four yards and a cloud of dust,” Hayes, the game’s leading rusher, says — chewed up the clock, and the defensive alignment with the tackles moved wider than usual thwarted LSU’s outside runs.
Howard had seen on film the results of a wide-open game against LSU. The Bayou Bengals hammered Duke, a familiar ACC foe, 50-18, and afterward Blue Devils coach Bill Murray said, “We’ve met bigger teams, physically stronger teams, but never a team quite so fast.”
“We had size on them,” White says. “(Tackles) Lou Cordileone and Harold Olson weighed north of 245 pounds and Cordileone was as fast as a lot of running backs. (LSU) didn’t have many players who weighed much of 200, the norm of the time.
“Our tackles made a big, big difference. I know LSU didn’t gain a whole lot of yardage.”
Clemson owned a 168-114 advantage in rushing yards and LSU had a 68-23 edge in passing yards. Clemson ran 68 plays to LSU’s 48 snaps.
LSU had some early chances, losing two fumbles — one at the goal-line — in Clemson territory and giving up another possession on a botched fake field goal. Meanwhile, LSU’s defense kept the Tigers penned in their own territory for the scoreless first half.
The wise-cracking Howard, who responded to a question about LSU’s Chinese Bandits by saying, “My boys play like a bunch of one-armed bandits, noted afterward, “I ’spect them (LSU fans) were sweating big-time at the half.”
Like this year’s bowl match, what chance did those 1958 Tigers — 8-2, ACC champions, no look-at-this wins — have against the nation’s No. 1 team?
“Can they beat the Chinese Bandits?” Wake Forest coach Peahead Walker, who frequently exchanged good-natured insults with Howard, asked rhetorically. “Sure they can. They’ve had a Mongolian Idiot coaching up there for 20 years.”
But don’t be fooled by the hillbilly image Howard put on for the public, says Harvey White, who called his coach “a very intelligent man who knew his football.”
And here they were at halftime and 12th-ranked — but unappreciated — Clemson had forged a stalemate over 30 minutes with the nation’s No. 1 team.
“Everybody thought we would be outclassed, but we were very competitive with them,” Olson says. “(The media) played the game up as country boys against the big city guys, but I tell you what, the country boys could easily have won the game.”
Clemson marched to the LSU 27 on its first possession of the second half, but a fumble stopped the drive. The Tigers got the ball back on a punt — and disaster struck. On fourth down in a punting situation, the ball slipped out of snapper Paul Snyder’s hands, hit blocker Doug Cline and LSU recovered at the 11-yard line.
LSU, now without injured quarterback Warren Rabb, picked up two yards in two plays before scoring on a halfback pass from Cannon to Mickey Mangham with 2:31 left in the third quarter. Cannon kicked the extra point for a 7-0 lead.
“I threw it and prayed,” Cannon said after the game. “I was looking for (halfback Johnny) Robinson, but they had him covered. Then I saw Mickey and let it go. The Lord threw that pass.”
Truth time: Hayes said LSU could have scored on the game’s first play on that halfback pass to the other side of the field with Robinson throwing to Cannon.
‘They came to my side on a sweep with Cannon and the fullback leading the runner,” Hayes remembers. “I moved up to take on Cannon’s block, but he swerved right past me. I thought, ‘Oh, my goodness. That’s my man (in pass defense).’ A defender could put up his hands without looking for the ball in those days and that’s what I did chasing Cannon. (Robinson) threw the pass over Cannon’s head.”
The longer the Tigers stayed close, the more confident they became. They needed one play and they go it — and failed to capitalize.
Facing the 7-0 deficit, Clemson took over at its 17-yard line midway the fourth quarter. Seventeen plays later, the Tigers faced fourth down at the LSU 24. On a now-or-never opportunity, a screen pass looked golden.
“Then we’re going to two (two-point conversion) and whip ’em,” Howard told reporters.
“Sure,” Hayes says, “we’d have gone for two. You know what Coach Howard always said, ‘A tie is like kissing you sister.’ ”
Alas, the sure-thing pass fell incomplete and Clemson turned the ball over on downs.
“I dropped back (to pass) and saw George (Usry) wide open,” White says. “The film shows I got hit just as I threw the ball and it had no pace on it, no zip. That threw the timing off and we missed connections.
“But I tell you this. The sideline was wide open. We had a sure first down and probably a touchdown. It’s just one of those unfortunate things.”
Maybe a touchdown? “No, a sure touchdown,” says Hayes, the game’s leading rusher with 55 yards on 17 carries. “But let me tell you about our defense. Cannon came in with all those accolades and he got about 50 yards (actually 51 on 13 carries).”
The teams went on a Mississippi River cruise together after the game, and by happenstance, Clemson‘s Olson and LSU’s Cannon met along the ship’s rail. They talked a bit, and Olson says, “I got on him pretty good, and he had to admit we gave them a pretty good tussle.”
Yes, they did, and Howard said, “They have a fine football team, but I don’t think they looked any better than us, and I don’t think we looked any better than them.”
All these years later, the game previews sound familiar to older folks with good memories. What awaits? Will history repeat?