George GurtnerWhen the Louisiana Superdome reopened on September 25, 2006 after being the devastated by Hurricane Katrina and becoming the visual focal point of a city’s suffering to the rest of the world, New Orleans became “America’s City.” The fact that the Dome’s main tenants, the New Orleans Saints, soundly trounced their hated rival, the Atlanta Falcons, 23-3 on that day and likewise became, “America’s Team” made the day doubly sweet and evidenced more than just a sporting event in a once demolished city.
It was an epiphany that stood for all of the athletes and the games they have played in every corner of the state of Louisiana over the past 25 years ... and beyond.
“We drove in from Shreveport for this game,” said Ron Hartnett as he tried to be heard over the blaring of a rock group outside the Dome that afternoon. “We picked up friends in Natchitoches to come down with us. This isn’t just about New Orleans. This is about all of Louisiana. In a way, you find this kind of thing [courage] all over the state, whether it’s a Friday night high school football game in Kinder or LSU winning the national championship. There’s something really special about all this ... it goes way beyond just sports.”
Beer in hand, Hartnett disappeared into the crowd, but the point was well taken.
Louisiana stands front and center when it comes to sporting events, whether it’s high drama carried out over the course of a season, or one of those in-a-flash thrills, memories of which are recalled and relived in escapist fantasies of the proletariat over a lifetime:
• The glory of a single touchdown that somehow stands out above all the other touchdowns scored.
• The death of an idolized athlete who was monolithic in stature.
• A legendary coach leaving behind more than just a record of victories.
• A little known horse winning “the big one.”
All are sports memories that are as much a part of the lore of Louisiana as any tales. How is “greatest” defined? By yards? Most hits? Longest win streak? Perhaps. But the true measure of “greatest” comes when one athlete or event of larger-than-life proportions is kept alive in memories that will not be quashed.
It is said that small minds talk of people, mediocre minds talk of events and great minds talk of ideals. Here then, we transcend images of mere people and events per se, and look to them as the Olympic ideals that go beyond the finish line and the goal line, and come to rest as legends for all time.
Gramblin State University Coach Eddie Robinson, photography Gramblin State University
Edward Gay Robinson was known simply as “Coach Rob” to a nation that thought of him when they thought of black college football. He coached longer than any other coach in American college football history – from 1941, immediately upon his graduation with a master degree from the University of Iowa until 1997 when it became sadly apparent that Alzheimer’s disease was winning its war against him. He closed out his career with a record of 408-165-15, eight black college championships and was the winningest coach ever in college football – surpassing the records of such icons as Joe Paterno of Penn State and Paul “Bear” Bryant of Alabama. Over this seemingly endless career, “Coach Rob” put more than 200 of his players into the National Football League and many of them, hulking giants who had to be individually weighed before boarding the plane for road games, bawled when the final buzzer sounded the coach’s career.
Robinson used to love to jokingly tell the story of how he changed the name of the university to which he dedicated his life: “When I first started coaching here back in the stone age,” Robinson said, “The name was Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute. Heck, by the time the cheerleaders said all of that the other team had scored. I looked at the name of the road sign and it said, ‘Grambling’. Well, that’s what I renamed it.”
Above it all, Eddie (“Don’t call me Edward”) Robinson realized that football, in the end, was only a game. In turbulent times of racial turmoil in America, the coach made his players stand at attention during the national anthem preceding games and never spoke ill ... of anybody.
“America is the greatest country on this earth,” he’d say. “And don’t you ever forget it. What makes this country so great is it’s ability to right itself no matter what small thinking people may do to try to destroy it. Don’t you ever forget that. Now let’s go out there and win this game.”
Pistol Pete Maravich, Photo: Donnie Baumann
Death of the Pistol. Peter Press Maravich always looked like a good strong wind could blow him over, carrying a bony 200 pounds on a pencil-like 6-foot, 5-inch frame, but man when he touched a basketball ... When he was on a basketball court, somebody once called him, “The Wizard of ‘Ahhhs.’” Mostly, they called him, “The Pistol.” He was the playground hot dog personified in an era when most coaches likened their “x’s” and “o’s” strategy to rocket science. They made a movie about him, they wrote songs about him and all over America in newspaper sports departments early each morning the telephone calls flooded in. They never asked, “Did LSU win?” All they wanted to know was, “How many did Pete get?” He didn’t just rewrite the books on LSU basketball, or even college basketball. Pete Maravich, looking one way, dribbling another, then bouncing the ball from behind through his legs for an assist to a teammate in yet another direction left packed houses asking, “Is this really basketball?”
He ended his LSU career with countless college records including averaging 44.5 points per game and scoring 3,667 points in a three-year career. He was a three-time All American. Maravich was drafted by the Atlanta Hawks of the National Basketball Association and made the NBA All Star Team five times and was named to the NBA 50th Anniversary All Time Team.
But when basketball and all the adulation ended, the man who once admitted he was “dedicated, possessed and obsessed” by basketball, spiraled into a search for something after the game and tried “yoga, Hinduism, something he called ‘UF-ology,’ vegetarianism, living only on fruits and finally macrobiotics.”
“My life,” Maravich once said, “had no meaning at all. With everything I tried, I found only brief interludes of satisfaction. It was like what my whole life had been about. My whole basketball career, all of it. I found brief interludes of ego satisfaction.”
Maravich finally found fulfillment in Christianity, becoming a lay preacher and sharing his own life experiences ... and basketball talents, with children all over the country.
On a cold January 5, 1988, Pete Maravich walked into a gym in California and did what he always did in a gymnasium: He began shooting baskets. Shortly after he began shooting those baskets, he slumped to the hardwood and died. They said it was a heart ailment; a ticking bomb Maravich had carried in his chest all his life.
Peter Press Maravich left behind a wife, Jackie and two sons, Jaeson and Joshua.
Jackie has remarried and lives in St. Tammany Parish where she and her two sons operate “Pistol Pete Enterprises,” a business dealing in Maravich instructional tapes, the last of which he completed a short time before his death. A book entitled simply, Maravich by Jackie Maravich McLachlan and two co-writers was released in November.
Jaeson and Joshua keep their hands in basketball, running camps and assisting their mother with the Maravich business.
“I tried to dissuade Josh from going to LSU,” Mrs. Maravich-McLachlan says. “How do you play basketball in a place named after your father (Peter Maravich Assembly Center, or as the students call it, “The P-Mac”), or even carrying that name - Maravich. But ...”
Her voice trails off, but the legend lives on.
Warren Morris (shot heard round the baseball world gives LSU a 1996 national championship.
LSU’s golden decade ... and then some. Charlie McClendon, the late LSU football head coach had a habit of walking around campus with that familiar bounce in his step and all the bubbly enthusiasm of a first day freshman beaming from that ever present smile.
“Cholly Mac” was an assistant coach when head coach Paul Dietzel took LSU to the national football championship in 1958, so he knew what winning was all about. Sadly, “Mac,” the jolly defensive genius who shared childhood roots with his future nemesis Paul “Bear” Bryant in a tiny Arkansas burg, never witnessed LSU’s rise to baseball “dynasty” under Coach Skip Bertman, nor the Tigers’ return to football glory under Nick Saban.
Bertman led his Tigers to five College World Series Championships during the decade of the 1990s, and none of Bertman’s titles was more dramatic than the 1996 9-8 victory over the University of Miami.
Down 8-7 in the bottom of the ninth with two outs and with seemingly only a sad trip back to Baton Rouge awaiting them, Tigers 2nd baseman, Warren Morris, who had spent most of the season in rehabbing a broken right wrist, stepped up to the plate and sent the first pitch thrown to him over the right field wall, clearing it by inches for a two-run homer. The “shot heard round the baseball world” gave LSU an improbable 9-8 victory and crowned LSU king of all college baseball.
The Hurricanes sat stunned in the dugout their faces buried in towels. Miami shortstop, Alex Cora, who had given his team the 8-7 lead only moments before, fell to the ground, his face buried in the infield dirt.
“I thought I was going to be a hero and we were going to win,” said Cora, who had three hits and drove in three runs and was clearly headed for MVP honors. “We were so close. It was unbelievable.”
“It’s really not so unbelievable,” he said. “I can attribute a lot of to the reason I’m here to coach [Bertman] talking about seeing yourself winning the game, and if you do it enough, it will become real. The last two games [his wrist] were the best it’s felt and today it felt almost like 100%.”
There was lingering shocked disbelief in Florida and pandemonium in Louisiana. The ambling Skip Bertman simply smiled and joked, “Wait a minute while I get into my Team USA jersey.” Bertman was on his way to Tennessee to take charge of the USA Olympic baseball team.
Bertman would win five College World Series titles in all before moving from the baseball diamond to the front office as LSU’s athletic director where he would hire coach for the Tiger’s football program: Nick Saban.
Saban, whose coaching credentials were legion: head coach at Michigan State and Toledo, assistant at Syracuse, West Virginia, Ohio State, Navy, Kent State and in the National Football League’s Cleveland Browns and then Houston Oilers, arrived in Baton Rouge at a time of football doldrums with the program starting to slip. In his five years at Baton Rouge, Saban’s teams won two Sugar Bowls, a Peach Bowl an SEC championship and finally the BCS National Championship by soundly whipping Oklahoma 21-14 in the Sugar Bowl. Although, the Tigers “shared” the national championship with USC who were named champions by the Associated Press and the nation’s college coaches, everybody in college football had signed off on the complex (and convoluted) Bowl Championship Series as the final arbiter on just who is and who isn’t the champion - The Tigers were crowned.
As he held aloft the carved crystal football-shaped trophy, symbolic of the national champion, Saban said almost in a whisper, “This is for everybody who ever played football in Tiger Stadium.”
In a flash, Nick Saban had left to immerse himself back into the NFL, signing on as Miami Dolphins head coach, and Les Myles was brought in to write the next chapter in LSU football lore.
The smiling “Cholly Mac” would’ve loved it.
The Mannings. Archie, Olivia, Cooper, Peyton and Eli: Undoubtedly Louisiana’s “First family of football.” Peyton is already being called, “the greatest quarterback in the history of the NFL.” Eli is touted as “... gonna be better’n Peyton” And then there’s Archie, a two-time All American from Ole Miss who displayed a lifetime of heart in playing mostly for the woeful early New Orleans Saints. Their faces appear on commercials across the land and the entire Manning clan is the epitome of “solid family values of hard work and determination.
Undefeated Tulane. Not since the days of All American running back, Eddie Price in the late 1940s, had Tulane and its fans experienced anything like the 1998 football season under head coach Tommy Bowden of the famous “Bowden Football Family” – Dad Bobby, of Florida State, Brother Terry who led Auburn to an undefeated season and now joined by Tommy. To sum up Tulane’s woeful football fortunes for nearly half a century, one need only look back to Head Coach Tommy O’Boyle’s reaction to a winless season in the early 1960s. As he walked on the field for a practice late in the year, O’Boyle simply threw up his hands, sat down on the bench at the side of the practice field and asked, “Why can’t you guys win?” Shortly after, O’Boyle’s total frustration showed through when he walked over to a pile of humanity and pulled a monstrous, but hapless offense tackle aside and said, “Son you’re big ... but you just eat a lot, that’s all!” But for one shining moment under Bowden’s tutelage, it was 12 up and 12 down, a perfect 12-0 season, No. 7 in the national rankings and all followed by a 41-27 victory over Brigham Young in the Liberty Bowl. Moreover, everyone’s prediction came true when shortly after, Bowden packed his bags and moved on to Clemson. It didn’t take long. In 1999, Tulane dropped to 3-8 and the success of 1998 has never since become close. But for that one shining moment, that one championship season ...
1988 Preakness and Belmont Stakes winner, Risen Star
Risen Star. The dark bay colt was the son of legendary Triple Crown winner, Secretariat. He was bought at the Calder two-year-old-in-training sale in 1987 by Metairie car dealer Ronnie Larmarque and New Orleans entrepreneur, Louis Roussel III. Roussel, cured of cancer, promised to donate 10 percent of all of Risen Star’s earnings to the Little Sisters of the Poor – a Roman Catholic order of nuns. Risen star won the Minstrel Stakes at Louisiana Downs, a victory that launched him on a Hollywood like three-year-old season winning the Lexington Stakes, Louisiana Derby, and two jewels of racing’s triple crown with Racing Hall of Fame jockey and Louisiana Cajun, Eddie Delahoussaye in the irons: The Preakness in the fastest time since his daddy in 1973 and the tortuous 1.5 mile Belmont Stakes by an astonishing 15 lengths. Risen Star finished third in the Kentucky Derby. The colt was named Eclipse Award winner in 1988 designating him as the top three-year-old in the land. An injury forced him to stud where he sired champion Risen Raven and several other million-dollar earners. Risen Star died in 1988, and shortly after the “Risen Star Stakes” race for three-year-olds held annually at the New Orleans Fair Grounds was named in his honor.
John Curtis Christian School. The massive campus of this elementary through high school institution in Jefferson Parish’s River Ridge area resembles your average college campus in breadth and scope ... and for other reasons.
There is a “beyond its years” attitude and aura that hovers around all things academic, religious and athletics that is ubiquitous.
Since opening its doors in 1969, the school has amassed 20 state football championships and has been consistently ranked in the top five among the nation’s best programs. At the beginning of the 2006 season, the Patriots had amassed an astonishing 429-46-5 record and went on to win, perhaps, its biggest game ever on the road with a 28-14 victory over Hoover High School in Hoover, Ala. At the time, undefeated Hoover was unanimously rated the No. 1 high school football team in the nation by all organizations that rated prep teams. Through November of the ‘06 season, the Patriots smashed all of its opponents with the exclamation point of the team’s offensive and defensive prowess seemingly being a lopsided 55-14 mauling of Pine High School.
“It’s a total commitment to excellence,” says head coach, J.T. Curtis – son of John Curtis, the man who founded the school in 1962. “It sounds corny and trite, but that’s the key to everything we do and that includes academics, our religious beliefs and foundation and all extra-curricular activities, not just football. Like with any successful program, it starts at the top. It doesn’t begin and end on the football field. That attitude is as strong in the front office where policy is made as in the huddle where plays are called.”
It may not have always seemed that way.
“I played football at East Jefferson High School then Arkansas then Louisiana College,” Curtis says. “I came here at my dad’s invitation [to coach the Patriots] in 1969 right out of college. The coach we had had moved on and the opening was there and just seemed right. I was all fired up and I had played football and I knew everything. Or so I thought. The first year we went 0-10 and scored only two touchdowns the entire season. It was a rude awakening.”
Dad gave son a good talking to over a long period of time about the payoffs that come from total commitment “in everything you do.” J.T. Curtis applied that belief to his team and the tide quickly turned.
Soccer arrives. Since the early 1990s, soccer has taken its place right alongside football as the “sport of choice” for youngsters all over Louisiana. In fact, an entire species of human being evolved and quickly became a catchword of the body politick: “Soccer Mom” – Hair tied back, cell phone firmly planted against her ear – the moms of suburbia became Americana chic as they piloted their battleship sized SUV’s filled with screaming kids to the nearest soccer field. In addition, professional and semi professional teams popped up wherever there was a dry stretch of land all across the state. “Let’s face it,” says Kenny Farrell, coach of the New Orleans Shell Shockers, a Developmental League team now heading into its fourth season of play. “Soccer is the international sport. The world is getting smaller and America is being pulled into soccer madness. Add to that, the fact that the population of South Americans and Central Americans is growing daily all across America and especially here in Louisiana, and you can see why soccer is growing as quickly as it is.”
And finally to capture all of that glory, groundwork has been laid for the shrine that is long overdue: The Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame housed at Prather Coliseum in Natchitoches. Born from an idea sportswriters around Louisiana began kicking around in 1950, the Sports Hall of Fame has been affiliated naturally with the Louisiana Sports Writers Association and in 1958 began nominating, electing and inducting outstanding Louisiana sports figures. Photos, painting, memorabilia, equipment, uniforms ... Athletes such as Pete Herman, Mel Ott, Gaynell Tinsley, Peggy Flournoy, Jerry Dalrymple, Will Clark, Ronnie Estay, Eric Martin, Rick Roby, George Strickland ... the list stretches out to nearly 200. The athletic treasures have been moved from Prather Coliseum to be housed in the Louisiana State Hall of Fame. Until a new museum and permanent Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, now under construction is completed in the Historic District of Natchitoches. “It’s long overdue,” says Bill Baumgarner, Hall of Fame board member, and a past president of the Louisiana Sports Writers. “You’re talking about the pride of Louisiana. Men and women who gave it all. And, what could be more fitting for them than to honor them in a museum that will be one of the finest in the nation.”
And so it has gone over the last 25 years, the legends have risen, separating themselves from the ‘also rans’ and planting their mark firmly in Louisiana legend. They’ve come from the big cities and the bayous and some from out of state. But they all had one thing in common: as individuals, or teams or events, they left their marks forever on the collective psyche of Louisiana.