Two years ago, after LSU finished 3-7-1, its most dismal showing since 1956, folks in the bayous were ready to treat Coach Jerry Stovall, who had then completed two seasons, as if he were just another crawdaddy—boil him alive. Stovall's record in Baton Rouge was assessed last September by an Alexandria, La. columnist in a piece entitled A 'Do-or-Die' Season for Jerry Stovall. According to the column, Stovall, a former All-America Tiger halfback, got his job "under bizarre and tragic circumstances, when recently-appointed head coach Bo Rein perished in a plane crash. For Stovall it was a dream come true, a fairy tale turned into reality." Written by the Brothers Grimm, no doubt.
Stovall has suffered more than his share of such indignities. For instance, LSU spent about $25,000 to have a Pennsylvania movie outfit put together a highlight film of Stovall's do-or-die season. The 1982 Tigers ended up 8-3-1, placed second in the SEC and made the Orange Bowl. But the music that accompanied the original version of the movie was Dixie, which happens to be the battle cry of conference rival Ole Miss. (When the coaches discovered the faux pas, they had the filmmaker replace Dixie with an innocuous instrumental.) Equally embarrassing, the movie failed to mention that Stovall had been named SEC Coach of the Year, that Quarterback Alan Risher set 24 school records and that the Tigers ranked fourth in the nation defensively. Worst of all, the damn Yankee narrator mispronounced Stovall's name, rhyming it with shovel instead of snowball.
The hapless 1981 Tigers, who included 24 freshmen, weren't hungry enough, according to Stovall, who wishes all his players were like Mike IV, LSU's Bengal tiger mascot. The only time Mike was ever given a football, he crushed it like a balloon. Somebody once tossed a basketball into Mike's cage, and he flattened that, too. Last year the human Tigers showed similar ferocity in earning their stripes. They started by devouring Oregon State and Rice. As they were about to stalk fourth-ranked Florida, an anonymous telegram arrived for freshman Tailback Dalton Hilliard, who wears 21: THE ROAR OF MIKE THE TIGER IS NOTHING LIKE THE ROAR FROM NO. 21 WHEN HE GOES OUT ON THE FIELD. Hilliard had first made like Mike in the opener, gaining 133 yards on 18 carries and scoring three TDs against Oregon State. By the end of the Tigers' 24-13 upset of the Gators in Game 3, he had rushed for more yards, 295, than any Tiger runner in all of 1981.
Hilliard grew up in the sugarcane fields of tiny Patterson, La. His parents couldn't decide whether to call him Dalton or Bruce, so they named him the former—and call him the latter. In high school he ran for 4,888 yards in three years, and folks started calling him the next Jerry Stovall. When Stovall played at LSU in the early '60s, he also wore No. 21. "That's the only similarity between Dalton Hilliard and Jerry Stovall," says Stovall. "He's light-years ahead of what I was. Dalton has an uncanny ability to make right-angle cuts at full speed." Which is 4.6 seconds for the 40.
That may be light-years ahead of Stovall, but it's two-tenths of a second slower than the other Tiger tailback, Garry James. In his college debut last season, against Oregon State, James ran for 128 yards. Between them, Hilliard and James, who of course are known as the Dalton-James gang, scored 25 touchdowns in '82. including 16 by Hilliard, an NCAA record for freshmen. "It's like facing Nolan Ryan one inning and Steve Carlton the next," says Stovall, who uses Hilliard and James on alternating series. "Either one can start and break the game wide open for you." The Tigers will also get help from Fullback Karl Bernard, who has 4.4 speed and missed most of last season with rib injuries.
Stovall likes to describe his tailbacks as "magnets with high mortality rates." Opponents, he says, "usually show up in groups of two or more, and they arrive in a bad humor." To keep overeager tacklers in line, he'll rely on screens and fullback draws as well as the occasional quick flanker pass. Stovall has so many quicksilver messengers in the backfield that Eric Martin, a tailback in 1981, was converted to split end last season. He caught 47 passes for a 17.9-yard average.
With Risher now Wrangling for Arizona in the USFL, junior Jeff Wickersham looks to be the one who will feed Martin passes. Should Wickersham falter, Stan Humphreys, one of the most highly touted schoolboy quarterbacks in the country last season, could get the call. Humphreys hails from the same northern Louisiana country that produced Terry Bradshaw, Bert Jones and Joe Ferguson.
Junior Liffort Hobley, whom Stovall calls "maybe the best defensive back in the SEC and certainly the best safety," heads a green defense. If it can hold off early-season assaults by Florida State, Washington and Florida, Stovall won't care what they rhyme his name with in next year's highlight film.