By JASON GORDON
BATON ROUGE, LA – I thought I had seen a college football game before Saturday night.
In reality, I did some calculating, and the best I could figure is I’ve been to at least 300 collegiate football games during my days as a reporter and fan.
I saw Vince Young and Colt McCoy save the Longhorns’ chances for a national title with victories in 2005 and 2009 against Texas A&M in College Station.
Even though I had seen close to 100 University of Texas home games, I didn’t think I’d ever see anything that matched the tradition and passion they have for football in Aggieland.
I was wrong.
I finally had the opportunity of a lifetime this past Saturday and was able to attend a night game at Louisiana State University – a place some have called the best atmosphere in the country to witness a college football game.
They were right; LSU’s Death Valley certainly didn’t disappoint.
The fact that LSU was playing its most hated rival Alabama, the No. 1 team in the nation who beat the Tigers in the BCS National Title game in January added an electricity in the air before, during and after the game I had never felt before – not at Texas vs. Texas A&M and not even in the Red River Shootout during the four Texas and Oklahoma games I’ve attended in Dallas.
There’s no doubt the most hated man in Louisiana over the weekend was former LSU and current Alabama head coach Nick Saban. I couldn’t print here some of the things I heard people calling Saban on Saturday. After all, we’re a family newspaper.
The walk four hours before kickoff through a sea of purple and gold, meeting some tailgaters who said they’d been camped in their spots since Wednesday, many of whom didn’t even have tickets to get inside the stadium, awaiting Saturday night’s kickoff was a thrill.
What also struck me was the hospitality of the people in Baton Rouge. I ate grilled catfish and shrimp in several of the tailgating tents and met many people who didn’t care that I was from Austin. They knew the Longhorns hated Alabama and Saban just as much as they did. On this night, it was LSU and the rest of planet Earth against Alabama.
I camped along the rail at the bottom of Victory Hill to get a perfect view of the football team, head coach Les “The Mad Hatter” Miles, the Golden Girls dance line and “Mike,” LSU’s live tiger mascot, all marching into the stadium before game time.
The band stood deadly still and then rocked into a rhythmical jam of “Hold That Tiger,” and the crowd of fans 15 rows deep on the street that stretches close to a mile long went into a frenzy.
Entering Tiger Stadium was like stepping back in time.
It was easy to close my eyes and envision the grainy replays I’ve seen of LSU’s Billy Cannon, the school’s only Heisman Trophy winner, returning his famous punt 89 yards down the sideline for the game’s only touchdown in a 7-3 win over fellow undefeated Ole Miss on Halloween night in 1959 to pave the way for the Tigers’ first national title.
Tradition seeped from the stadium’s rafters, some of which I’m sure had been there since it was built in 1924.
Six renovations to Tiger Stadium since then paved the way for a record crowd of 93,374 to witness No. 1 Alabama, a team many prognosticators felt was unbeatable and a squad that had trailed for only one play all season, build a 14-3 halftime lead.
None of the tricks used by The Mad Hatter, the nickname Miles earned for his unorthodox coaching style, were working.
LSU fans got tired of booing Alabama’s football team and Saban so they booed the Bama band relentlessly at halftime instead, something I’ve never witnessed before.
Despite Miles’ missteps, when LSU started taking that same unbeatable Alabama team behind the woodshed for a second-half whipping that led to a 17-14 Tigers lead late in the game, the stadium was the loudest and most raucous place I’ve ever heard.
You felt the noise and energy reverberate into and through the core of your body.
When Miles decided to go for a second long field goal in the game, which was hooked wide left, to try and take a 6-point lead with under two minutes to play instead of using the nation’s best punter Brad Wing to pin the Tide inside the 10-yard line, it took Bama only 43 seconds to march down the field and score the game-winning touchdown with 51 seconds remaining.
Fans were literally kicking and punching their metal seats with all their might. They couldn’t handle another loss to Bama, another loss to Saban.
Football is a religion in Baton Rouge, and walking out of the stadium that night was akin to a funeral procession.
I’m almost afraid to imagine what the post-game celebratory atmosphere would have been like had the Tigers held off the Tide.
If I had a top-20 bucket list, the number would have been reduced by one Saturday night. It was an evening of college football I’ll never forget.