John McKeithen will never equal Huey Long's antic fanaticism, and does not want to. The Kingfish led parades, gave blistering locker-room talks and screamed signals to the team from the sidelines. He once threatened to raise taxes on railroad bridges 4,000% if the Illinois Central did not lower its fare for LSU students taking a football train to Nashville; the fare dropped from $19 to $6. Once when he heard that the date of a circus visit to Baton Rouge was hurting LSU game ticket sales, he called the circus manager and told him that he would force him to put every lion, tiger, elephant and gorilla through a sheep-dip to prevent who knows what foul diseases unless the show date was changed; it was. Oddly enough, Huey did not destroy football at LSU. He probably made it what it is.
"I think I can do as much good as Huey did," says McKeithen, "but I'll do it without interfering." Nowadays McKeithen only appears on LSU sidelines to help with pregame recruiting spiels to high school prospects. He shakes the hand of each boy and fervently urges him to come to Baton Rouge, and then the governor retires to his seat upstairs. But he is in there pitching hard all year to sell top players on LSU. When a boy comes to town McKeithen may have him chauffeured around in his white Cadillac. The best prospects always get a personal interview with the governor and often a breakfast at the mansion. During the game last Saturday night an LSU tackle made a spectacular play, and McKeithen jabbed, poked and grabbed a bystander, shouting, "See that 73? 73? That's John Sage from Houston, Texas! He's a fahn boy, a fahn boy. He et all mah breakfast one mornin' up at the mansion. John Sage. We recruited him from Houston."
McKeithen insists that he does not impose himself on Charlie McClendon's staff. "If they ask mah help, I give it fast. If Charlie Mac wants me to talk to a boy, I'm on the phone to his mommy and daddy one minute after the coach hangs up."
Although the governor's enthusiasm is both constant and contagious, he—along with all staunch LSU fans—has been less than absolutely optimistic about LSU's 1968 team. The team was sound, as usual, on defense, and boasted such solid running backs as Tommy Allen and Eddie Ray, but the quarterback situation seemed dim going into the opener against Texas A&M, the Southwest Conference champion. McClendon has long insisted that Freddie Haynes, small as he is, was the only man really qualified to replace the departed Nelson Stokley, who broke many LSU passing records. But there was wide dissent around Louisiana. Haynes was roundly booed during a spring game, and last summer the rumor spread that the only reason he was LSU's No. 1 quarterback was because he was related to the governor. "They's no kin, nohow," snorts McClendon. "Freddie's merited the job."
For a good part of the first half against A&M it did not seem that Freddie Haynes or the LSU Tigers in general would ever merit another breakfast at the mansion. Coach Gene Stallings' well-schooled defense, led by Linebacker Billy Hobbs and 245-pound Tackle Rolf Krueger, kept LSU's runners stalled cold. LSU did not get a first down until more than 12 minutes had gone by.
The Aggies began the scoring with a safety after a snap from center soared over Punter Eddie Ray's head and out of the end zone. Less than two minutes later A&M got the ball on LSU's 46 and Edd Hargett passed for 19 and 25 yards, and then hit Wingback Bob Long for a touchdown. For the first nine minutes of the second quarter LSU's offense remained stuck while the Aggies added a field goal.
It was now 12-0 and even the vaunted Tiger Stadium spirit was turning soggy. The crowd revived a little midway through the quarter—but only to boo angrily when Coach McClendon ordered a punt on third down. Finally, late in the quarter, Haynes's backup quarterback, Jimmy Gilbert, came in after Freddie was knocked dizzy by a tackle, and it was Gilbert who led LSU to its first touchdown, a three-yard plunge by Tailback Frank Matte after a 40-yard drive. The extra point was missed, which seemed natural enough for a team that last year was labeled the Toeless Tigers.
Up in the governor's booth there was an air of rather strained optimism as the third quarter started. "Hey, we gonna intercept one. You watch," shouted McKeithen. "Or we'll recover a fumble. We do that and it's our game. All ours." Even though the Aggies seemed flat and were showing signs of weariness against LSU's deeper squad, the governor was even more uneasy as the fourth quarter began.
"Well," he boomed, "this is a great team, these Aggies. We may not beat 'em. But don't worry. Don't worry! We gonna beat some real good teams this year. Real good!"
And, sure enough, in the fourth quarter LSU did beat a real good team, because suddenly Freddie Haynes took on new stature. Starting on the LSU 44, he picked up nine yards himself on an option play. He had been told at the half to avoid the left side of Texas A&M's line, to keep away from Hobbs and Krueger, so from the Aggie 21, Haynes sent Tommy Allen for four straight slants in the other direction and LSU wound up on the four. Two plays later, performing with the deft timing that an option quarterback must display, Haynes kept the ball until the perfect moment, then pitched to Jim West for the touchdown. That made it 12-12. Would it wind up a toeless tie? No, this time Mark Lumpkin hit the ball true, and LSU had the lead at last.