In Baton Rouge they say that not even the annual convening of the legislature in Louisiana's skyscraper capitol downtown or the swell splendor of a gubernatorial inauguration can rival the splash of the football season at Louisiana State University. If you don't believe it, just stop by the governor's mansion and ask. Of course, the governor's mansion itself is pretty hard to believe. A $1 million Dixieland Taj Mahal, it is so magnificently jacked up by alabaster columns on the outside and so thoroughly strewn with antiques and brocade on the inside that it makes the White House look tacky.
The present occupant of this bit of Louisiana baroque is one John McKeithen, a strapping country boy from up in Columbia, La., who grew into a graying, handsome, personable man, picture-perfect for the role of governor even though what he would really like to be is the LSU quarterback. He seems totally at home around the mansion—so at home that he sometimes wears a beige jump suit when he greets visitors.
Governor McKeithen has a forceful personality, and in Louisiana a governor, even one in a beige jump suit, can, if he chooses, exercise powers approximating those of the Shah of Iran and Boss Tweed combined. So it is best not to argue when he says, " Baton Rouge is the greatest football town in America, my fren'. Columbus, Ohio don't even come close to the spirit we got right heah in this li'l ol' country town. Football season is the social season and politics don't even come close. When you see football at LSU you see a spectacle, my fren'. A real spectacle!"
Well, there are spectacles and there are spectacles, but the one that the LSU Tigers put on Saturday night in Baton Rouge as they beat a fine Texas A&M team 13-12 was a spectacle, my fren'. The LSU victory was engineered in large part by a scampering, tiny (5'9", 165 pounds) quarterback named Freddie Haynes, the son of a parish sheriff in Minden, La. While Haynes bobbed, dodged and bootlegged his team to victory, Governor McKeithen slammed his hands against the wall of his private booth above Tiger Stadium and 68,000 fanatics shrieked and slammed each other. Never mind that Texas A&M's cool and graceful Edd Hargett was far the better quarterback on the field and only a fluky fumble by A&M on LSU's one-foot line saved the night for the Tigers. No one interested in life, liberty or a continuing pursuit of happiness would suggest such things in Baton Rouge last weekend.
It is an axiom around the Louisiana capital that no man—be he butcher, baker, stringy-bead-swing (local slang for hippie), uppity country club member or governor of a sovereign state—hath greater love than that given by citizens of Baton Rouge to the LSU football Tigers. It is not a law to love LSU, although McKeithen probably could make it one if he wanted. But it is not easy to feel wanted in Baton Rouge unless you are four-square and roaring for the Tigers. There is nowhere to go.
Try Bob & Jakes, for example. It is Baton Rouge's one high-toned nightclub and it has a flossy floor show each evening. But about every 10 minutes the band strikes up some LSU fight song and everyone pushes back his plate of oysters Bienville to stand up and sing. Or, if you are on the LSU campus, go to Free Speech Alley, which is a narrow corridor outside the Student Union Building where the college's minute population of bewhiskered liberals debates opponents from the vast assortment of campus conservatives. Even the beards-and-beads crowd is do-or-die for LSU football.
Or stop at the gate of a refinery in the bleak north end of town. Workers say they arrange vacations, night shifts, bowling leagues and family pregnancies so they won't miss games. Or read the society pages of the local papers. New Orleans society has its Mardi Gras and Baltimore its Cotillion, but Baton Rouge has football, and to every country club president, dinner-dance group secretary and would-be debutante's mother the Texas A&M game kicked off the in-society calendar for the year. Indeed, there are so many cocktail parties before, after and during the game that some of Baton Rouge's jet setters attend in sequined party dresses.
The reason for such a profound commitment to football is not terribly complex. For one thing, except for a journey to New Orleans—which is roughly to Baton Rouge what Paris is to Gary, Ind.—there is not all that much to do in Louisiana once the sun sets over the swamps. So why not fill in the dark hours with football games? Why not, indeed. Louisiana high school football, played almost exclusively at night, pulls enormous crowds. Newspapers such as the
Baton Rouge Morning Advocate spend five or six full pages each Saturday on stories dealing with Opelousas vs. Lafayette and Ponchatoula vs. Destrehan. Of LSU's 19,500 students, 88% are from Louisiana. Thus, as LSU's genial Head Coach Charlie McClendon puts it, "Our players go to college with boys they knew in high school. These kids know the athletes aren't animals, and they admire them. That's why there is better spirit here than anyplace I know. In the stadium the excitement is like an electric wire running from the stands to the field."
True enough. And that LSU electricity has shocked plenty of opponents over the years. In fact, it reaches such a point of ferocity that some coaches will not start their best sophomores for fear they will become unglued by the avalanches of noise, and there is scarcely a sports-writer alive who has not compared a game in Tiger Stadium with the Lions vs. the Christians. The crowd volume is so fierce that Charlie McClendon sometimes has his team work out with a loudspeaker blaring recorded stadium roars. A few gung-ho souls insist that the noise is simply the good, clean sound of rampant school spirit. Others argue that long afternoons before the game with quite another kind of spirits is a factor. But nobody will contest that the level of enthusiasm is astonishing.
Governor McKeithen himself is no mean addition to the bedlam. In his booth atop the stadium, where he is accompanied by friends and four state policemen in sharp blue blazers with only a snazzy pocket emblem to identify their professional roles, he is a rousing menace to be near. As everyone must in Tiger Stadium, he talks at the top of his voice and accentuates the finer points of his commentary on the game with fast, hard finger pokes or elbow prods or palm slaps. "See? See?" he shouts. Then he pokes. "What'd I tell you. I said, 'Roll out, Freddie' and he did. First down! See?" Not since the rampaging days of Huey Long, the flamboyant Kingfish, has Louisiana—or the entire U.S., for that matter—seen a governor so wrapped up in football. McKeithen favors the nickname "Coach," and last fall he skipped out on his own election night to fly to Jackson for the Ole Miss-LSU game.