“Red” Swanson had a Midas Touch. He could find gold where other athletic prospectors were going bust.
Some of the most glittering names in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame would be unknown now if Swanson hadn’t been on the Pelican State sports scene. As a relentless recruiter in the 1930s and ’40s, and later when he was no longer in the game, Swanson could find them, even those whose potential hadn’t yet surfaced; and as a coach he could develop them.
“He was personable, knowledgeable and capable,’’ said Clyde Lindsey, a four-sport letterman at LSU who played under Swanson in football, basketball and baseball.
Saturday night in Natchitoches, Swanson’s impact on state sports history will be recognized with enshrinement in the Hall of Fame.
It’s hard to calculate the impact Arthur Leonard Swanson had on the fortunes of LSU athletics after he arrived as a versatile lineman/back from Quitman in rural Jackson Parish in 1922. He played with distinction in that period, including in the first game in Tiger Stadium. From 1931-37, he coached Southeastern Louisiana to a 41-17-4 record, a .694 percentage that is still best in Lions’ history.
Swanson coached some of LSU’s best players before, during and after World War II, served on the school’s Board of Supervisors, and what he should always be remembered for, his uncanny gift for spotting the potential in seemingly average players who would seemingly be transformed into mega-stars.
It was Swanson, who died in 1987, who discovered:
“Baby Jack’’ Torrance, who played for him at Oak Grove High. Swanson delivered him to LSU where Torrance became a world-record holder and Olympic champion shot-putter as well as a lineman on the Tigers’ early 1930s powerhouses.
Joe Adcock the baseball player. It was Swanson, then LSU’s basketball and Southeastern Conference-winning baseball coach, who talked the rangy basketball forward into trying out for a sport he had never played before. Adcock became a power-hitting All-Star first baseman in the major leagues. There was only one problem. Adcock would say: “I had never even played high school baseball. Heck, I didn’t even have a glove.’’
Jerry Stovall, a skinny halfback/safety who attracted little interest as a prep player in West Monroe. It was Swanson who first saw the possibilities of the skinny prospect, and, as a member of the LSU board, recruited him, then pressured the reluctant head coach to sign Stovall, now a member of the College Football Hall of Fame.
“I think Mr. Swanson put a gun to coach (Paul) Dietzel’s head,’’ Stovall theorizes today.
As the line coach for Bernie Moore from 1938-1949, a memorable period in which LSU featured superstar difference-makers such as Steve Van Buren, Alvin Dark and Y.A. Tittle, Swanson developed a formidable group of blockers that included All-American Ed Champagne, Fred Hall, and Walter “Piggy’’ Barnes, each among the SEC’s best tackles for their times.
“He was a good coach,’’ saidLindsey, the retired principal of Baton Rouge’s Istrouma High and an end on those mid-1940s LSU teams. “But the main thing about coach Swanson was his eye for talent, whether others could see it or not. When he zeroed in on a kid, he probably knew as much about you as you did yourself. He did his homework.’’
Lindsey would know. Growing up in the middle of Swanson’s recruiting territory of north Louisiana-East Texas, he came to Swanson’s attention at Kilgore Junior College in Texas, a venture that would pay huge dividends for LSU. Lindsey originally was headed to the University of Texas but had a change of heart when he felt the Longhorns reneged on some promises. Swanson had also been recruiting another nearby prospect, Y.A. Tittle of Marshall, Texas.
Tittle was predisposed to go to LSU, the result of attending games in Baton Rouge when his brother Jack played at Tulane. Tittle loved the atmosphere, excitement, the tiger in the cage, just about everything about LSU football. Then he suddenly changed his mind and declared for his home-state University of Texas.
In a story that has become mythic in Louisiana, though not all the details, Tittle’s Longhorn lean changed when Swanson checked on the possibilities of landing Lindsey.
“I was a couple of years older than Y.A., but I had played against him in high school and knew him a little bit,’’ Lindsey said. “I knew Tittle wanted to go to LSU, but Texas had put some intense in-state pressure on his daddy, so he went to Austin until school started. When I went over to Baton Rouge, I told coach Swanson that I didn’t think Tittle was very happy and that he might want to give him another call.’’
As the story goes, Swanson got in his car, motored to Texas and talked to the 17-year-old Tittle, who was not yet enrolled in school. When Tittle told the coach he really wanted to go to LSU as he originally planned, Swanson made him call coach Dana Bible and tell him. Tittle faked the call on a public phone with Swanson looking on, went back to the car and said everything was all right.
On the return trip, Swanson stopped in Houston, picked up another prospect, Jim Cason, and off they went to LSU.
For the record, the haul Swanson made off with on that little adventure was: a four-sport All-SEC athlete in Lindsey; a future Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback in Tittle; and an eventual All-Pro halfback in Cason. The latter two are in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame.
Talk about a bonanza.
Years later, after coaching Southwestern Louisiana Institute to a 5-4-0 record in 1950, Swanson accepted a state job as director of the Louisiana Training Institute in Monroe, along with a seat on the LSU Board of Supervisors. At LTI, a place for troubled youth, a nearby kid with athletic promise caught Swanson’s eye. It was Stovall, whose grandparents worked at the facility. Watching Stovall grow up and play at West Monroe High, in Swanson’s mind he saw a can’t-miss prospect.
It became a regular custom for Swanson to load up his sporty old Roadmaster, make room for Stovall and hit the road from north Louisiana to Baton Rouge on Saturdays to take in LSU games. Stovall fell in love with LSU, but LSU was not especially enamored with him — until Swanson had a couple of heart-to-heart talks with Dietzel.
Recruited by just three schools (Northeast Louisiana, Louisiana Tech and LSU), Stovall was the 52nd and last player signed by Dietzel in 1959. He became a two-time All-American and the Heisman Trophy runner-up of 1962, then an All-Pro safety in the NFL, and a 1981 Louisiana Sports of Fame inductee.
Stovall turned out to be yet another gold nugget in Swanson’s glittering career, which made Louisiana, and particularly LSU, sparkle brightly.