The big questions before Louisiana State and Texas A & M kicked off their seasons in College Station, Texas, Saturday night were these: How smoothly would the youngest major-college coach, LSU's 34-year-old Mike Archer, replace the theretofore hoariest, 60-year-old Bill Arnsparger? How long would the "new" Aggies coach, Jackie Sherrill, be able to maintain his more p.r.-conscious pose? The answers: very smoothly, and at least through one loss.
Archer made his debut a successful one with a 17-3 defeat of A & M, whose 14-game home-winning streak was trampled on by tailback Harvey Williams, a sophomore who provided nearly half the Tigers' offense. Neither team looked particularly pretty—each was penalized eight times and there were five turnovers—but in this battle of defending conference champs, the Tigers of the Southeastern Conference took control early and maintained it.
Archer, LSU's defensive coordinator the last two seasons, has been reminded he's the youngest Division I-A coach "about a thousand times." That doesn't faze him much, although he admits that his eight-year-old mustache—"I'm just too young without it"—is meant to give him the heft of age. Archer is tanned like a tennis pro, chatters like a campus bartender and is self-assured beyond his years. His team, he's happy to tell you, could contend for the national title.
The naming of Archer as LSU's coach tested his buoyant nature. When Arnsparger, now the athletic director at Florida, pushed for him, and the LSU chancellor added his support, the job seemed to be Archer's. But the board of supervisors voted to conduct a more thorough search. So Archer bit his lip and bided his time. After interviewing, among many, Sam Rutigliano, the former Cleveland Browns coach, and Lynn Amedee, the Aggies' esteemed offensive coordinator, the Board backed Archer almost unanimously. It hadn't hurt that 30 Tiger players attended a 3½-hour board meeting to testify on his behalf. "We wanted to keep it in the family," says senior guard Eric Andolsek. Added Williams, "Coach Arnsparger leaving was like my dad dying. But with Coach Archer, it's like my mother took over."
Archer's résumé is brief but sparkling. As a kid in State College, Pa., he mowed the lawn of his neighbors, the Paternos. His mom, Helen, sold tickets for the Penn State athletic department. Mike was a quarterback, punter and kicker in high school and then safety and punter at Miami of Florida. He went straight into coaching, drilling defensive backs and performing other chores at Miami for eight years, five of them under Howard Schnellenberger. In one of those seasons, 1983, the Hurricanes won the national championship.
Arnsparger, then the Miami Dolphins' defensive guru, took the Louisiana State job in '83 and brought Archer with him. Archer was named the defensive coordinator the following season.
Archer's nickname among the players was Little Commish. (Arnsparger was Big Commish.) LSU's defense was his domain; it ranked third in the nation in scoring defense in 1985. "Arnsparger never messed with the defense, even in games," says senior linebacker Nicky Hazard. "Whenever I came to the sidelines, I never heard him question anything Archer said. Archer was in as much control as any head coach." Still, Arnsparger's mind wasn't firmly made up on the cut of Archer's jib until late in a game last season when, with LSU comfortably ahead, Arnsparger started subbing quarterbacks. Archer ripped off his headset and charged his boss, saying, "What are you doing? We're only up 20!" Big Commish may have disagreed, but he liked Archer's spirit.
"Things aren't that different now under Mike, we work just as hard," says LSU assistant Joe Wessel. "It's just a different style."
Archer took it as a good sign Saturday that his players were able to crack jokes about an unplanned 20-minute detour the team bus had to take en route to A & M's Kyle Field. He also got a kick out of watching 280-pound strength coach Milt Williams try to slip on a pair of pants he had mistakenly packed that were several sizes too small. "Someone came up to me in the hotel and said, 'Your team's so loose,' " Archer said after the game. "I said, 'What's wrong with that?' "
The loosest of all may have been Williams, a 6'2", 210-pound glider who rushed for 700 yards last year and caught 27 passes for 272 more. As a high school star he was all but signed and sealed for delivery to Aggieland. He grew up less than 50 miles southeast of College Station, in Hempstead, Texas (pop. 3,456), and when Sherrill spoke at a banquet in Hempstead during Williams's freshman year, he pointed to Williams and said, "I'll be back for you." Small wonder: Williams's first run from scrimmage at Hempstead High, off a pitchout from Johnny Holland, later an All-America Aggie linebacker, had been good for 93 yards.