1958 champions put LSU football on national map

Billy Cannon (20) sweeps around left end during the Sugar Bowl against Clemson on Jan. 1, 1959. LSU won 7-0.

It was just this summer when four now-elderly gentlemen sat down to a legendary table and talked about the great old times.

Their names were Emile Fournet, Charles “Bo” Strange, Lynn LeBlanc and Warren Rabb. Their common thread, as it has been for 60 years now, was that they all started on LSU’s 1958 national championship team.

They celebrated the past, and each other. To have made it this far deserves some sort of recognition.

“You get older and you’re just glad to be living,” Fournet said.

The hair, if it remains, may be much grayer compared to the fresh-faced black-and-white team photos they posed for before the 1958 season began, before they knew they were all destined to become LSU football immortals. Back then they were all crew cuts and lineless faces, on the brink of making history they could not even imagine: being the team to deliver LSU’s first recognized football national title.

Saturday they will be honored at halftime of the LSU-Ole Miss game, with the story of their championship season once again taking over the field in Tiger Stadium.

“The stories,” LeBlanc said with a chuckle, “get better and better the older we get.”

Year of the Tiger

Nineteen fifty-eight was the year of the hula hoop craze and Fidel Castro’s communist revolution in Cuba. Madonna was born and Pope Pius XII died. Arnold Palmer won the first of his four Masters green jackets, and the Baltimore Colts beat the New York Giants in overtime to win the NFL championship in what became known as the “Greatest Game Ever Played.”

With little fanfare the microchip was invented, and with great fanfare Elvis Presley was inducted into the Army.

In Baton Rouge, LSU was coming off a 5-5 season in 1957 that featured a 4-1 start and a No. 10 national ranking, followed by a 1-4 finish. Third-year coach Paul Dietzel confided in a friend that he thought he might have been finished if LSU didn’t beat Tulane, but the Tigers handled the Green Wave 25-6 to salvage a .500 season.

Entering 1958, little was expected of the Tigers. LSU was nowhere to be found in the preseason top-20 Associated Press (media) and United Press International (coaches) polls. The Tigers were expected to finish near the bottom of the Southeastern Conference.

“I remember thinking we’re not that bad, we can do better than that,” Rabb said. “Every time we’d step onto the field we got a little better, and by the fourth or fifth game we were pretty good.”

College football in 1958 was a game dominated by the run (Ole Miss attempted only three passes against LSU that year) and featured what are now quaintly arcane substitution rules. A player could only enter a game at the start of a quarter and once in that quarter thereafter. That meant the best 11 players on a team played both offense and defense, bolstered by a second string of dependable backups.

Dietzel’s team went one step further. His best 11 two-way players were the White team, supported by the Gold team that specialized on offense — a misunderstanding sportswriter started referring to them as the Go team after a Week 4 win at Miami and the shortened appellation stuck — and the exotically named Chinese Bandits who specialized on defense.

The three-team system helped keep LSU’s players fresher and allowed them to wear down many of their opponents in the second half. Perhaps just as important was what it meant for team morale.

“Dietzel said we had 33 starters,” LeBlanc said. “The White team would start every game, but the Bandits knew they would be going into the game and the Go team knew they were going to get playing time. We practiced harder and spirits were high because everyone knew they would get a chance.”

The Chinese Bandits, arguably LSU’s third string, got a name Dietzel came up with while an assistant at the University of Cincinnati, borrowing it from a line in a comic strip called “Terry and The Pirates.” A character in it said something to the effect that Chinese bandits were the most vicious people in the world.

It probably wouldn’t have been politically correct today, but then it brought pride to a unit that with the Go team would often enter the game near the middle of each quarter and frequently stop opponents cold.

“The Bandits,” Fournet said, “were quick and fiery.” Vicious was for other teams to decide, but, as the wins mounted and LSU climbed the national rankings, they became a sensation, with fans wearing broad Chinese straw hats to games first provided by a local restaurateur named Jack Sabin.

Everyone loves a winner and the Tigers were winning, marching to their first national championship in the wire service era which began in 1936 (LSU finished No. 2 behind Minnesota in the very first AP poll). But to Rabb, who prepped at Baton Rough High and formed an all-Baton Rouge backfield with Billy Cannon (Istrouma) and Johnny Robinson (University High), it was more than that.

“I think one reason for it was we had so many on our team from Louisiana,” said Rabb, who always called Cannon William, not Billy. “Billy and Johnny, myself, Don Norwood and Duane Leopard, we were all from Baton Rouge.”

There were incidents, too, of course, that would make LSU’s NCAA compliance department faint dead away these days.

The Tigers’ 41-0 rout of Miami in the Orange Bowl vaulted LSU into the top 10 for the first time, a victory that featured a long, snaking 41-yard touchdown run by Go team running back Don “Scooter” Purvis. The following week, Purvis went to check his mailbox in the Huey P. Long Field House and found a plain envelope addressed to him.

“I opened it and it had three $100 bills in it,” Purvis said. “I folded it up and headed back to my room. I felt guilty about it, so I went to see (assistant) coach (George) Terry and asked him what should I do. He said, ‘I’ll hold this for you and let’s just see how this pans out, if anyone tries to make contact with you.’ ”

Later that year, after no further contact or cash in the mail, Terry called Purvis back to his office and handed him back the $300.

The Tigers marched on with wins over Kentucky, Florida and Ole Miss, the latter by a 14-0 score in Tiger Stadium. A 50-18 rout of Duke, a team which included future LSU athletic director Bob Brodhead as its quarterback, finally put the Tigers atop the UPI poll after they made it to No. 1 in the AP rankings after beating the Gators.

Immediately, though, the season’s biggest hurdle loomed in the form of 3-4 Mississippi State in Jackson, Mississippi. On a rain-swamped field, State led 6-0 with a touchdown and missed extra point before LSU scored on a fourth-and-goal pass from the 5 from Rabb to Billy Hendrix in the third quarter.

State marched back downfield and attempted a field goal that just missed. After the season, the NCAA widened the goal posts: the same kick would have been good in 1959.

The Tigers took the pressure off with a 62-0 rout of Tulane to wrap up a 10-0 regular season, the Southeastern Conference and national titles and a berth to play Clemson in the Sugar Bowl.

“No one thought we had it in us to win a national championship,” Robinson said, “but we did.”

Different paths

Many of the key players on the 1958 team returned in 1959. Cannon won the Heisman Trophy thanks in large part to his 89-yard punt return against Ole Miss on Halloween night, the most famous LSU football play ever. Its place in history was secured by a goal-line tackle by Rabb assisted by Cannon in the closing moments, keeping Rebels quarterback Doug Elmore out of the end zone.

“I told him, ‘William, if I don’t make that tackle, that run you made wouldn’t have meant anything,’ ” Rabb said. “He would always laugh.”

LSU barely missed out on a second straight national title because of a 14-13 loss at Tennessee the following week, snapping the Tigers’ 19-game winning streak that began with the 1957 Tulane game.

After a sour Sugar Bowl rematch against Ole Miss (a 21-0 loss reminiscent of LSU’s loss to Alabama in the 2012 BCS championship game) the Tigers began going down their separate paths.

Red Brodnax, a senior in 1958, was drafted the following year. Cannon, Rabb, Robinson, Mel Branch and center Max Fugler were all drafted by both teams in the NFL and the fledgling AFL.

Strange, a sophomore in 1958, was double drafted in 1961 by Philadelphia and Denver. Much later it came to light that Cannon and Robinson had both actually been pros when they played in that 1960 Sugar Bowl, Cannon having signed Nov. 30, 1959, with the Los Angeles Rams (he would spurn them to play for the AFL’s Houston Oilers after a contentious legal battle), and Robinson having signed with the Detroit Lions.

Most eventually moved into business, some into coaching. Rabb, at 81, still crisscrosses the state working for a high school class ring company.

Purvis served as a longtime assistant under Dietzel successor Charlie McClendon at LSU, under Dietzel at South Carolina and back again to LSU.

LeBlanc became a high school coach at Larose-Cut Off (it later merged with another school to become South Lafourche) where he won a state title in 1965 and was backyard neighbors with the Orgeron family.

“I remember ‘Bebe’ in a stroller,” LeBlanc recalled, referring to LSU coach Ed Orgeron by his nickname. “His daddy and I were talking over the fence and he was in his stroller, arms flailing, pacifier in his mouth, 6-months old.”

Later as an assistant on McClendon’s final staff in 1979, LeBlanc signed Orgeron to play for LSU before he decided to transfer to Northwestern State.

Into the sunset

“The problem with being one of the few,” as Richard Burton’s character tells a fellow RAF pilot in the 1962 film, “The Longest Day,” “is we keep getting … fewer.”

The surviving members of the 1958 can appreciate that line all too well.

Of the 33 regular starters on the White team, Go team and Chinese Bandits, 20 are still living, perhaps remarkable considering they are all near 80 and no doubt survived football traumas that are much better diagnosed and prevented today.

Interestingly, the vast majority of the 1958 players live or died in Louisiana, unable to break the bond they cemented with the state as young men.

Gradually, over the years, they have seen an inexorable line of their teammates leave the field. Tommy Davis went first, the Go team fullback and place-kicker, who when called upon for the game-winning kick against Florida nonchalantly told his holder Rabb “just tilt it back a little” before making the winning kick in a tense 10-7 victory.

Davis died of lung cancer in 1987 at age 52 near San Francisco, where he had gone on to a great career with the 49ers.

Death has hit the White team the hardest. After Cannon died in his sleep at his St. Francisville farm on May 20, only five of the 11 remain. The six who have died include Mickey Mangham, who died in 2010, the man who caught “a pass the Lord threw” as Cannon called his halfback toss for the Sugar Bowl’s only points.

Five members of the Go team are deceased, including left end Scotty McClain this past October in Lake Charles. Nine starters from the Chinese Bandits are still living, missing only Mel Branch and John Langan. Maybe the Bandits were fan favorites with more than just the people in the stands. Dietzel outlived all of his assistants, dying five years ago this week.

LeBlanc knows the clock is running out. It makes this year’s gathering that much more poignant.

“I don’t know if we’ll have enough left to have a reunion 10 years from now,” he said.

Not that he has any complaints.

“We’ve all had good lives,” LeBlanc said. “We have good memories of the 1958 season. A lot of us have lived off that.”

They have lived the life of kings. Kings of LSU football lore.

Memories of 1958

  • LSU debuted at No. 15 in the AP poll in Week 2 after opening with a 26-6 win over Rice.
  • While LSU won the AP and UPI national championship trophies, the Tigers were not a unanimous selection. Iowa, which went 8-1-1 and beat California in the Rose Bowl, was ranked No. 1 in the Football Writers Association of America poll (FWAA).
  • Back then, the national championship trophies were awarded before the bowl games. Dietzel accepted the AP trophy at the Sugar Bowl banquet in New Orleans on New Year’s Eve, the night before LSU beat Clemson 7-0. LSU could have lost or tied against Clemson and still been national champs.
  • None of LSU’s regular-season games in 1958 were televised. LSU’s first TV appearance came in the Sugar Bowl against Clemson. The game was shown on NBC.
  • LSU’s games kicked off at 8 p.m. then, only slightly earlier than Saturday’s 8:15 p.m. kickoff against Ole Miss. LSU kickoffs moved up to 7:30 p.m. in 1966 and 7 p.m. in 1984.
  • The Tigers beat Tulane by the same 62-0 score in 1961 and 1965.
  • After the regular season, Dietzel was rewarded with a new five-year contract paying him $16,500 per year, a $2,500 raise from his previous deal. The “L” Club also announced it would build a swimming pool in his backyard.

The 1958 season

Sept. 20 LSU 26, Rice 6 (Houston)

Sept. 27 LSU 13, Alabama 3 (Mobile, Alabama)

Oct. 4 LSU 20, Hardin-Simmons 6 (Tiger Stadium)

Oct. 10 LSU 41, Miami 0 (Miami)

Oct. 18 LSU 32, Kentucky 7 (Tiger Stadium)

Oct. 25 LSU 10, Florida 7 (Tiger Stadium)

Nov. 1 LSU 14, Ole Miss 0 (Tiger Stadium)

Nov. 8 LSU 50, Duke 18 (Tiger Stadium)

Nov. 15 LSU 7, Mississippi State 6 (Jackson, Mississippi)

Nov. 22 LSU 62, Tulane 0 (New Orleans)

Sugar Bowl

Jan. 1 LSU 7, Clemson 0 (New Orleans)

THE WHITE TEAM

LE Billy Hendrix 6-foot-0 185 pounds, Rayville — Died May 4, 1999, in Simmesport

LT Lynn LeBlanc 6-2, 201, Crowley

LG Larry Kahlden 6-1, 210 Weimar, Texas — Died April 9, 2010, in Shreveport

C Max Fugler 6-1, 203, Ferriday

RG Ed McCreedy 6-1, 195, Biloxi, Mississippi — Died Dec. 7, 2013, in Lake Charles

RT Charles “Bo” Strange 6-1, 202, Baton Rouge

RE Mickey Mangham 6-1 192, Kensington, Maryland — Died Sept. 16, 2010 in Lafayette

QB Warren Rabb 6-0, 190, Baton Rouge

RB Billy Cannon 6-1, 204, Baton Rouge — Died May 20, 2018, in St. Francisville

RB Johnny Robinson 6-0, 185, Baton Rouge

FB J.W. “Red” Brodnax 6-0, 202, Bastrop — Died Jan. 9, 2006, in Morgan City

THE GO TEAM

LE Scott McClain 6-2, 180, Smackover, Arkansas — Died Oct. 4, 2017, in Lake Charles

LT Dave McCarty 6-2, 200, Rayville

LG Al Dampier 6-1, 201, Clayton — Died Jan. 3, 1998, in Pointe Coupee Parish

C Bobby Greenwood 5-10, 195, Lake Charles — Died Aug 25, 2009, in Lafayette

RG Mike Stupka 6-0, 205, Bogalusa

RT Jack Frayer 6-2, 210, Toledo, Ohio

RE Don Norwood 6-3, 202, Baton Rouge

QB Durel Matherne 5-11, 188, Lutcher

RB Don “Scooter” Purvis 5-7, 160, Crystal Springs, Mississippi

RB Donnie Daye 5-10, 184, Ferriday — Died Dec. 25, 2015, in Baton Rouge

FB/K Tommy Davis 6-0, 204, Shreveport — Died April 2, 1987, in San Bruno, California

THE CHINESE BANDITS

LE Mel Branch 6-1 210 DeRidder — Died April 21, 1992, in DeRidder

LT Emile Fournet 5-11, 195, Bogalusa

RG Tommy Lott 5-9, 188, Texarkana, Arkansas

RT Duane Leopard 6-2, 205, Baton Rouge

RE Gus Kinchen 6-3, 196, Baton Rouge

LB John Langhan 6-3, 183, Carbondale, Illinois — Died Dec. 16, 2000 in Hammond

LB Merle Schexnaildre 5-9, 182, Houma

CB Andy Bourgeois 5-10, 174, New Orleans

CB Hart Bourque 5-8, 165, Gonzales

S Darryl Jenkins 6-1, 163, Franklinton

S Henry Lee Roberts 6-0, 172, Little Rock, Arkansas

RESERVES

Jimmy Bond, Jimmy Givens, Bobby Richards, Gus Reiss, Herb Lacassagne, Gerald Frey, Ken Wittman, John Dunham, Jimmy Greely, George O’Neal, Freddie Davidson, Manson Nelson, Dallas Ward, Carroll Bergeron, Joe Dosher, Fred Blankenship, David Parish, Edgar Charbonnet, Elton Upshaw, Tommy Neck, Al Ott, Ken McMichael, Frank Pannebaker, Charles Tarter

COACHES

Head coach Paul Dietzel — Died Sept. 24, 2013, in Baton Rouge

Assistant coach Carl Maddox, offensive backs — Died Feb. 16, 1996, in Baton Rouge

Assistant coach Charles McClendon, defensive coordinator — Died Dec. 6, 2001, in Baton Rouge

Assistant coach Clarence “Pop” Strange, freshman coach — Died June 5, 1986, in Baton Rouge

Assistant coach Abner Wimberly, ends — Died Sept. 19, 1976, in Oak Ridge

Assistant coach Bill Peterson, offensive line — Died Aug. 5, 1993, in Tallahassee, Florida

Assistant coach George Terry, defensive backs — Died Aug. 21, 1969

Assistant coach Ray Didier, recruiting — Died March 9, 1978, in New Orleans

Head trainer Marty Broussard — Died June 10, 2003, in Baton Rouge

Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.​