About 20 minutes before kickoff between No. 7 LSU and South Carolina, Tiger Band marched out from the south end zone for its traditional crowd salute.
Other than the Tigers taking care of business against the Gamecocks with a 45-24 win, that was the only normal thing that happened in or around Tiger Stadium on Saturday.
LSU Athletic Director Joe Alleva vowed earlier this week to make South Carolina feel welcome after deadly flooding forced officials to relocate the game from Columbia, South Carolina. Baton Rouge may have felt like home for the Gamecocks and their small pocket of fans in the southeast corner of Tiger Stadium, but it was a far cry from the usual game-day experience.
An eerie silence hung over the area near the Pete Maravich Assembly Center about three hours before kickoff, occasionally pierced by the sound of construction on the new gymnastics facility. The Tiger Stadium video boards, which usually feature the LSU logo, instead sported South Carolina’s state flag.
The sprawling tent city of tailgates that smothers LSU’s campus on fall Saturdays was nowhere to be found. Tiger Stadium usually features the only green grass visible on game day, but often-tailgated-upon stretches of campus were left empty.
The few tailgaters who did make it out were up to their usual tricks: cooking food, blaring music and partaking in a beer or 10.
But what the tailgating scene lacked in numbers, it made up for in hospitality.
“We’ve walked past tailgates, and people we don’t even know said, ‘Hey come get some food,’” South Carolina student body president Jonathan Kaufman said. “It’s been overwhelming.”
The university took it a step further, hosting a joint tailgate for LSU and South Carolina fans on the Parade Ground. Rather than jeers of “tiger bait” from the purple-and-gold-clad masses, Gamecock supporters were treated to hugs and comforting conversations.
As kickoff approached, the usual swarm of fans streaming into Tiger Stadium was little more than a trickle. But the fans once again showed their support for the people of South Carolina by donating to American Red Cross members stationed at every entrance.
“You’d be amazed how many people have given something,” one Red Cross worker said. “People are up walking to me and giving me change out of their pockets. I don’t even have to ask them.”
The scene inside Tiger Stadium was much like the one outside of it.
LSU closed off the entire east-side upper deck, and the south end zone was virtually empty save a few scattered fans.
The student section was about two-thirds full next to many unfilled seats in the northeast corner, which sported the South Carolina state flag along with a flag of the team’s “Block C” logo.
The Painted Posse, a group of LSU students who normally paint a football player’s name across their chests, spelled out “SEC UNITED.” The student who sported the “C” was painted white and garnet, South Carolina’s colors.
LSU announced attendance for the game to be 42,058, an uncommon sight for players used to nearly 100,000 adoring fans.
“It was strange with like 40,000 people,” sophomore running back Leonard Fournette said.
LSU coach Les Miles didn’t find it strange at all.
“I so enjoyed that crowd,” Miles said. “They sounded just like 100,000 to me. There was a very loyal contingent that was in that stadium.”
But the less-than-half-filled stadium for an SEC game wasn’t the most unusual part of the day. The weird stuff was yet to come.
About an hour before kickoff, LSU student government presented Kaufman and South Carolina’s student government with the keys to Tiger Stadium.
“It was touching,” Kaufman said. “It was so gracious of them to go out of their way, especially with the keys to the stadium.”
After its stadium salute, Tiger Band played an unfamiliar tune: South Carolina’s alma mater.
The video boards and PA system played a Gamecocks’ hype video and “Sandstorm,” the traditional pre-kickoff song in Williams-Brice Stadium.
As the technical home team, South Carolina ran out of the tunnel behind its state and team flags first.
On any other Saturday, LSU fans would have booed the procession.
Instead, they cheered.
Tiger fans roared when LSU emerged as well, only this wasn’t quite the team they were used to seeing. The SEC limits road teams to travel only 70 players, and that rule applied to LSU as the “visitor” in its home stadium. The Tigers also donned purple jerseys with white helmets and pants because South Carolina had predetermined this game to be a “whiteout” before the season.
Then, for the first time in program history, LSU’s captains called the coin toss while standing on their own logo at midfield. That’s a privilege reserved for the visitors.
Even the voice echoing off the empty bleachers was a different one. Regular PA announcer Dan Borne, a Catholic deacon, missed just the second game of his 30-year career to officiate a wedding. Bill Franques, the PA announcer at Alex Box Stadium, filled in for Borne.
While the game may have been odd for LSU fans, South Carolina quarterback Perry Orth took note of the welcoming environment.
“Everyone in the area was very welcoming,” Orth said. “Everyone in this area kind of understands what we’re going through right now with Katrina. It was nice to see the fans cheering us on.”
So what was all this for? South Carolina residents like Kaufman, who saw roads get destroyed, houses washed away and friends in dire need of clean water.
“A really good friend of mine’s house completely flooded,” Kaufman said. “It’s gone. They don’t think they can salvage it. He’s living with somebody from my church until the rain stops.”
Perhaps the most meaningful alteration to the game was the hardest one to spot.
Two red crosses were stamped on each sideline, a reminder that Saturday was about more than just a football game.
“South Carolinians are much like people from Louisiana, we’re very resilient,” Kaufman said. “We have seen a massive response from people volunteering and giving their time, money or supplies. ...LSU is a class act, and we are proud to share a conference with them.”