No political leader is more closely identified with Louisiana State University than the flamboyant governor and U.S. senator Huey P. Long, who devoted his last years to turning a small, undistinguished state school into an academic and football powerhouse. From 1931, when Long declared himself the “official thief” for LSU, to his death in 1935, the school’s budget mushroomed, its physical plant burgeoned, its faculty flourished, and its enrollment tripled.
Along with improving LSU’s academic reputation, Long believed the school’s football program and band were crucial to its success. Taking an intense interest in the team, Long delivered pregame and halftime pep talks, devised plays, stalked the sidelines during games, and fired two coaches. He poured money into a larger, flashier band, supervised the hiring of two directors, and, with the second one, wrote a new fight song, “Touchdown for LSU.”
While he rarely meddled in academic affairs, Long insisted that no faculty member criticize him publicly. When students or faculty from “his school” opposed him, retribution was swift. Long’s support for LSU did not come without consequences. His unrelenting involvement almost cost the university its accreditation. And after his death, several of his allies — including his handpicked university president — went to prison in a scandal that almost destroyed LSU.
I Don’t Fool Around with Losers
Long was not the first Louisiana governor beguiled by LSU’s football program. Baton Rouge native Henry L. Fuqua was a frequent visitor to team practices during his brief tenure as governor in the mid-1920s. Said to have been the youngest student in the school’s history, Fuqua persuaded LSU to admit him at age ten in the mid-1870s when LSU opened its doors to prep-school students from Baton Rouge. Near the end of his five years on campus, the precocious, athletic young man became the baseball team’s star pitcher. Although he never earned a degree from the school, Fuqua loved LSU. His father, James Fuqua, had served on the LSU Board in the 1880s. Governor Jared “J. Y.” Sanders appointed the younger Fuqua to the university’s Board of Supervisors, and he was its vice chairman in 1909–10. And Fuqua’s sister, Annie, was the wife of LSU’s longtime president, Thomas D. Boyd.
Friends recalled that Fuqua’s passion for LSU baseball was exceeded only by his enthusiasm for the school’s football program. Before he was governor, according to an observer, he grew so emotional at one LSU-Tulane game, “it became necessary for him to leave his seat and go out on the back of the stands, away from the game, and recuperate.” As governor, Fuqua often left his Capitol office on fall afternoons for a short walk to nearby State Field to watch the squad’s practice. And he was a fixture at LSU home games, where the university built a special sideline box for him and his guests. “He never missed a game played on State Field,” the Baton Rouge Morning Advocate wrote after he died in October 1926. “With a black cigar clinched between his teeth and his hat pulled down far on his head he watched every play made — cheered the Tigers when they won and only the harder when they lost.”1
During the 1925 season, when the team’s fortunes flagged (after an embarrassing 42–0 loss to Alabama), Fuqua summoned the players to his office. “Around the executive table they sat, and he questioned them one by one, called them by name, seemed to know them as if he, too, were among their number,” the LSU Alumni News reported. “And he talked to them—kindly, confidently, jestingly.” The result of Fuqua’s pep talk, the publication concluded, “was the beginning of a new team. A fighting, plunging, machinelike team that played real football and played it well.”2
That a Louisiana governor cared deeply about LSU football and would give the team an occasional motivational speech was not peculiar, as Fuqua proved. But a governor, like Long, traveling with the squad and comporting himself as an extension of its coaching staff? This was new, and a sign that Long saw the opportunity for reflected glory from LSU’s success on the gridiron.
During his first football season as governor, in fall 1928, Long volunteered to accompany the LSU players to Shreveport for the Arkansas game, possibly the first time a Louisiana governor did so. On Thursday, November 1, he joined the players, the Regimental Band, and fans for the overnight train trip. Somewhere along the way, Long learned that Coach Cohen planned to take the players to a hotel in Marshall, Texas, just across the Texas-Louisiana border, so they could sleep and practice away from the hubbub that always surrounded the State Fair game. Long, who wanted to stay with the team, knew he could not leave Louisiana without his gubernatorial powers devolving temporarily to the lieutenant governor. So, he ordered the players housed at Shreveport’s Youree Hotel. “I thought you’d rather stay here and leave some of your money in Louisiana,” he explained as he directed Cohen and the players off the train.3
Before the game, Long conjured a subtle dig at the Shreveport crowd, many of whom he regarded as Ku Klux Klan sympathizers. (Although KKK influence had declined in Shreveport by 1928, the city had been the informal headquarters of Louisiana’s Klan early in the decade.) When the LSU band led a parade down Texas Street from the First Methodist Church toward the team’s hotel, the unit stopped at the Caddo Parish Courthouse. With the Klan’s strong anti-Catholic sentiments apparently in mind, Long asked the band director, Pop Guilbeau, to lead the cadets in a rendition of the popular song “Streets of New York.” The better informed in the crowd recognized the tune as the campaign song of Democratic presidential nominee, New York governor Al Smith, the first Catholic nominated for president by a major American political party.4
Long visited Russ Cohen later that day in his hotel room, only to find the first-year coach pacing in an anxious fit. “Sit down,” Long ordered, “you’re nervous as a cat.” Discovering that Cohen worried about the size of the Arkansas players, Long sent one of his bodyguards, Joe Messina, to the lobby to assess the opposing squad. Messina reported that the Razorbacks he saw were not unusually large. “There’s nothing to worry about,” Long assured Cohen. “They’re not too tough. Messina says so.”5
As the team ate in the hotel’s dining room that night, Long breezed in, accompanied by his elder son, nine-year-old Russell. (The next day would be his tenth birthday.) The governor gave the team a pep talk—among the first of many such speeches he delivered to LSU players over the next five years. “Hell, you ought to beat ’em. We got better roads in Louisiana, free schoolbooks, and better everything.” It was not clear how better roads and textbooks translated into superior play on the gridiron. But Long had an even stronger argument in his arsenal: the relative size of the Arkansas players. As Long spoke, he noticed some Razorbacks walking by the restaurant’s door. “See that, fellows? They ain’t got a thing. Joe Messina just scouted them in the lobby.”6
Dressed in a suit, wearing a light-colored fedora, and swinging his familiar walking stick, Long paced the sidelines during the afternoon game the next day. “No box for the governor when the ‘Old War Skule’ is battling,” the Shreveport Times reported. LSU lost, 7–0.7
Besides the Arkansas contest, no game was more important to LSU fans than the school’s annual showdown with Tulane University. Established in 1834 as the publicly funded Medical College of Louisiana, Tulane was the South’s second-oldest medical school. In 1847, the legislature renamed it the University of Louisiana. It earned its current name in 1884, two years after a wealthy New Orleans merchant, Paul Tulane, bequeathed $1 million to the school. The school, which moved to its present campus on St. Charles Avenue in 1894, was rare among the nation’s private universities in that it had first been a public institution. For decades, as LSU had struggled to find its footing as a prominent university in Louisiana, the more sophisticated, urban Tulane loomed large and almost always overshadowed the smaller, quasi-rural school to its north. Its enrollment, budget, scope, and ambition had always outpaced LSU. For the 1929–30 school year, for example, Tulane’s total enrollment was 3,578, compared to 2,171 for LSU. And Tulane boasted Louisiana’s only medical school.8
For decades, the two schools had enjoyed an intense athletic rivalry. LSU’s first football game, in New Orleans in 1893, was against Tulane. (LSU lost, 34–0.) The teams, eighty miles apart, played each other most of the ensuing years and every year since 1911, except the season lost to the First World War in 1918. LSU’s opponent for its first game in Tiger Stadium, in November 1924, had been Tulane.
For Long’s first LSU-Tulane game as governor, a 6–1 LSU team traveled by train to New Orleans to play the 6–3 Green Wave. Before a crowd of 30,000 in two-year-old Tulane Stadium, Long staged a show of neutrality. He wore LSU-colored ribbons on one coat lapel, and Tulane-colored ribbons on the other. He started the game on the Tulane side. At halftime, he crossed the field to cheers from LSU fans, who he joined for the second half. The game disappointed both sides, however, as neither squad scored. The contest ended in a 0–0 tie.9
To this point in his governorship, Long had encouraged the idea he was not favoring LSU. No one around LSU’s football program believed that. He never appeared at Tulane football practices or traveled with the team. But he still wanted Tulane fans and New Orleans voters to think he supported each school equally. Even as late as January 1930, at the Roosevelt Hotel’s Tip-Top Room, Long attended the annual banquet of Tulane’s Side Lines Club, devoted that year to celebrating the Green Wave’s perfect 9–0 season, including its defeat of LSU. “I want to announce my appreciation of a great team,” said Long, an ex officio member of Tulane’s governing board, “and I did not care to see anything happen Thanksgiving Day [the day of the LSU-Tulane game] to take the championship away from Tulane.” Although he assured Tulane fans he had no special fondness for LSU, he soon proved that his affection for the Baton Rouge school was unique.10
- “Governor Sanders Shakes the Louisiana Plum Tree,” Times-Picayune, May 22, 1908; “‘Marse Henry’ was Sportsman as Well as Statesman, Loving Call of Great Out-of-Doors,” Morning Advocate, October 12, 1926.
- “Governor Was Loyal Alumnus to End,” LSU Alumni News, October 1926; “Tigers Lose Ardent Friend in Passing of Henry Fuqua,” Reveille, October 16, 1926.
- “Tiger Team of 26 Players Leaves to Battle Arkansas in Shreveport Sat.,” State-Times, November 2, 1928; Bowman interview, THWP.
- Rabenhorst interview, THWP; Silverman, New York Sings, 90; Harrell, “The Ku Klux Klan in Louisiana,” 398–400.
- Rabenhorst interview, THWP.
- Bowman interview, THWP.
- “Sidelights,” Shreveport Times, November 4, 1928; Sidney Bowman interview, T. Harry Williams Collection, LLMVC; “Fifty-Five-Yard Run from Intercepted Pass in Third Period Wins for Arkansas,” Shreveport Times, November 4, 1928.
- “Eighty-First Annual Report for the Session 1929–30,” State Department of Education of Louisiana, Bulletin no. 186 (October 1930): 28–29, 151.
- “Baton Rougeans Report a Fine Trip to New Orleans with Weather Ideal and No Accidents,” State-Times, November 30, 1928; “On The Sidelines at Grid Classic,” Times-Picayune, November 30, 1928.
- “Tulane Signs with Vandy for Games in 1931 and 1932,” New Orleans States, January 8, 1930.
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