Every four years two of Louisiana’s passions, state politics and football, come together in the fall. This was one of those years. And while the election year was a yawner, the juxtaposition of the two spectator sports reminds me of a particular person who not only played on both fields but also had a major impact on the state’s iconography. Meet Ruffin G. Pleasant.
Pleasant was governor of Louisiana from 1916-1920. He is best remembered for mobilizing the state’s impressive war efforts during World War I.
Pleasant played his politics well. Born in Union Parish, he rose to political prominence in nearby Shreveport, where he was city attorney before being elected the state’s attorney general. Although from North Louisiana, he had the support of the potent New Orleans political machine, which knew it could never elect one of its own but could swing the vote for someone else. (A tipoff that he might have been destined for public service was that his mother’s maiden name was Martha Washington Duty and his father was Benjamin Franklin Pleasant.)
Having been governor is enough of a superlative for anyone’s lifetime, but during his college years, he played football for LSU and was
the quarterback on the squad that in 1893 played the school’s first game against Tulane.
In preparation for that game, which was played on Nov. 25 of that year, Pleasant and football coach Charles Coates went to Reymonds store, on the corner of Third and Main streets in Baton Rouge, to buy ribbons that could add color to the team’s gray jerseys. With Carnival not far away, the store was loaded with purple, green and gold ribbons. The two chose purple and gold. (Green, according to one story, was not yet in stock, but that would have been Tulane’s color anyway.) Coates and Pleasant bought up the supply and made it into badges as decorations for the team to wear.
There are variations of the story, but Pleasant’s involvement has endured, thus he might be most celebrated (with appreciation to New Orleans’ Rex organization, which in 1872 had established Carnival’s colors) as the man who gave LSU football its purple and gold. Looking good was about all that the LSU team brought to that first game as it fell to Tulane 34-0.
Pleasant was born in 1871, so this year was the 140th anniversary of his birth. He died in 1937. Next year will be the 75th anniversary of that. But don’t mourn for Ruffin Pleasant; his name survives. There is a building named for him on the LSU campus, and even though he’s been gone for three-quarters of a century, there’s a Facebook page in his name. If you want to “friend” him, though, a better gesture might be to just wear purple and gold.