It was Thanksgiving week, and Curley Hallman was out of a job for the first time in 26 years, fired from a program he has loved since he was a kid. He was separated from his wife of 19 years. He even missed Buster, the family dog, who had died in August. "You would come home after getting your butt beat," Hallman said last week, "and all ol' Buster wanted to do was lick your hand."
Buster's lickings were by no means the only ones Hallman received in four tumultuous years at Louisiana State. When LSU hired him in 1990 to revive its football program, Hallman was considered one of the hottest coaches in the nation. He had been on national championship staffs at Clemson and Alabama, and in his first job as a head coach he had guided Southern Mississippi to records of 10-2, 5-6 and 8-3. "We've got the right man," said Tiger athletic director Joe Dean at the time.
However, Hallman's first three LSU teams went 5-6, 2-9 and 5-6, including a combined 7-16 against SEC foes, and going into the 1994 season his job was in jeopardy. Then came Sept. 17, when the Tigers played at Auburn, which had won its last 13 games. LSU blew a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter when Hallman kept calling pass plays while Auburn was making five interceptions and returning three of them for touchdowns. Auburn won 30-26, and LSU fell to 1-2.
That defeat seemed to take the life out of the Tigers. When LSU lost to Southern Miss on Nov. 12 to plunge to 2-7, Dean and chancellor Bud Davis decided to buy out the final year of Hallman's $90,000-a-year contract. Stubborn to the end, Hallman refused to resign. So Dean and Davis fired him but agreed to let him coach the final two games.
The Tigers whipped Tulane 49-25 on Nov. 19. That left only last Saturday's game against Arkansas in Little Rock. What follows is an account of a doomed coach's final week—a Thanksgiving week, in which he tried to count his blessings.
About 30 reporters show up for Hallman's weekly press luncheon, and they're surprised to find that he is loose and relaxed. After talking about the win over Tulane and the upcoming game against Arkansas, Hallman—usually a grim and forbidding figure—tells jokes and has a few laughs, revealing a side of his personality that he probably should have shown more often. "He's been great since he got fired," says an LSU beat writer. "It's too bad he wasn't like that earlier."
Hallman distrusts members of the media, most of whom he thinks are only interested in being controversial or cute at his expense. He yearns for the old days when a coach could socialize with and confide in a writer without fear of being betrayed.
Hallman, 47, has some good stories about his playing days at Texas A&M, when two of his best friends were named Mo and Larry. And then there must be great coaching stories. How can anybody who has worked for Gene Stallings, Bear Bryant, Danny Ford and Jackie Sherrill not have terrific stories? "I keep everything inside," Hallman says.