Modern day LSU football fans would scarcely believe the teams that ruled the top of the first Associated Press poll on Oct. 19, 1936.
Minnesota, now decades beyond its days as a Big Ten power, was No. 1. Duke was No. 2, followed by Army, with Northwestern and Purdue rounding out the top five.
No. 10? How about Yale.
But farther down, just below Duquesne and Saint Mary’s of California, sat LSU at No. 13.
The Tigers would rise from there to No. 2 in the final AP poll behind Minnesota. The back-to-back Southeastern Conference champions wound up 9-1-1, with their 21-14 loss in the Sugar Bowl to tiny Santa Clara from California coming after the final poll was released on Nov. 30. Today, the Tigers of 80 years ago still rank among the very best LSU teams ever, selected by Jeff Sagarin's power poll as that season's retroactive national champion.
The 1936 season was one of numerous landmarks for LSU football.
The north end of Tiger Stadium was built as a depression-era WPA project, attaching the east and west stands and more than doubling its capacity to a horseshoe seating 45,000. LSU’s first live bengal tiger mascot, Mike I, named by students for a popular LSU football trainer named Mike Chambers, was purchased that year from Little Rock, Arkansas, for $750. The tiger was housed at Baton Rouge's long gone City Park Zoo until a home could be built for him near Mike the Tiger's current habitat, and reigned for 20 years, longer than any of his successors.
LSU fielded a superb team with aspirations befitting its expanded stadium. Coming off a 1935 season in which the 9-2 Tigers won their first Southeastern Conference title (the league formed in 1933) and played in their first Sugar Bowl, LSU had tremendous depth and size for its day.
“When I was a freshman in 1934, I was one of 22 ends,” Bernie Dumas told the late Peter Finney for his book, “The Fighting Tigers.” “We suited out 11 teams. It was the custom to bring in around 125 freshmen each fall. The boys who made the squad got a free ride (scholarship), and those who didn’t either had to pay their own way or drop out.”
End Gaynell Tinsley, who later became LSU’s head coach from 1948-54, was a unanimous All-American. Guard Wardell Leisk was also a first-team All-SEC guard, while center Marvin Stewart and back Pat Coffee made the second team. Tinsley wound up in the College Football Hall of Fame, and Stewart made the LSU Athletic Hall of Fame.
“I’ve never seen a better looking squad,” Georgia coach Harry Mehre said after LSU throttled his Bulldogs 47-7. “They must have at least 20 men over 6 feet weighing more than 215 pounds.”
Georgia wasn’t the only team LSU handled. The Tigers scored 14 touchdowns in a 93-0 blitzing of Southwestern Louisiana Institute (now UL-Lafayette), the most lopsided win in program history. LSU routed No. 19 Tulane 33-0, the only ranked team the Tigers faced in the regular season, in a game that was broadcast nationwide on radio, and took the measure of Southwest Conference champion Arkansas 19-7. LSU led the nation in scoring with 281 points (28.1 per game).
But it was a mistake-filled 6-6 tie at Texas on Oct. 3 in week two that may have cost LSU both the national title and a trip to the Rose Bowl, which was still a decade away from mandating matchups between the Big Ten and the Pacific Coast Conference (now the Pac-12). The Tigers fumbled the ball six times in the game in Austin that was the only blemish on their record.
LSU would win eight straight after that to finish the regular season 9-0-1, but the Tigers could never eclipse Minnesota. Not even when the No. 1 Golden Gophers lost a 6-0 showdown with No. 3 Northwestern, which later lost to Notre Dame to allow Minnesota to regain the top spot in the final two polls.
LSU’s Sugar Bowl loss to Santa Clara wouldn’t count against the Tigers, as would be the case for years. The AP didn’t award its national championship trophy until after the 1965 season and not on an annual basis until after the 1968 season.
The Tigers again won nine games and finished No. 8 in the final 1937 poll, going 9-2 after another Sugar Bowl loss to Santa Clara (6-0). The only thing that kept LSU from an unbeaten regular season that year was a controversial hidden ball trick that allowed Vanderbilt to edge the Tigers 7-6.