When LSU and Texas lock horns Saturday night (OK, maybe not the best choice of phrase) it will be a game with national championship contenders in both the No. 6-ranked Tigers and No. 9 Longhorns.
For LSU, it won’t be the first time a trip to Austin has been laden with national championship prospects. A mistake-marred game at Texas nearly 83 years ago might well have cost the Tigers the first wire service era national title and a trip to the Rose Bowl.
LSU’s three modern era national championship teams — 1958, 2003 and 2007 — are ones most Tiger fans can recite by rote. Some may even remember the 10-0 Tigers of 1908, which the NCAA recognizes as a national champ along with Pennsylvania.
But the 1936 Tigers are something of a forgotten team these days. But those who saw LSU play say it was, for its era, one of the best Tiger teams of all time.
Though the nation was in the grips of a depression in the mid-1930s, it was the first golden era for LSU football. Coach Biff Jones left the program after the 1934 season because of a tiff with then-powerful U.S. Senator Huey Long, but he left behind a talented foundation built by virtually limitless recruiting.
“When I was a freshman in 1934 I was one of 22 ends,” former Tiger Bernie Dumas told the late Peter Finney for his seminal LSU football history, “The Fighting Tigers.” “We suited out 11 teams. It was the custom to bring in around 125 freshmen each fall.”
Bernie Moore took over in 1935 from Jones. From that season through 1937 the Tigers went 27-5-1, including a 23-game regular season unbeaten streak and LSU’s first two Southeastern Conference titles in 1935 and 1936.
The 1936 squad was the pinnacle of LSU’s interwar success. Led by All-American end and future coach Gaynell Tinsley, the 1936 Tigers led the nation in scoring with a quaint 28.1 points per game while allowing only 35 points total. But it was a 6-6 tie at Texas on Oct. 3 that separated the Tigers from even greater glory.
On a broiling afternoon in Austin, LSU quite literally fumbled away the national title thanks to an outmanned but zealous group of Longhorns. The Tigers fumbled an amazing 10 times, losing six.
“They were tackling the ball, going for it on every play,” LSU player and later assistant coach Clarence “Pop” Strange told former State-Times sports editor Dan Hardesty for his 1975 book “The Louisiana Tigers.” “They seemed to have been coached in ways of knocking or pulling it away from the ball carrier, and they concentrated on it throughout the game. Our backs and ends just couldn’t seem to hold the ball.”
It was a fumbled second-quarter punt return by LSU’s Arthur “Slick” Morton (do you love 1930s nicknames or what?) that set up Texas at the Tigers’ 42. Three plays later, Longhorns halfback Hugh Wolfe zipped around the right end to score. A dropkicked extra point try (yes, a dropkick) sailed wide and Texas led 6-0 at halftime.
After trading fumbles, LSU moved from the Texas 38 for a score in the third. Morton, atoning for his earlier error, scored the tying touchdown five plays later, but Pat Coffee’s extra-point try was blocked, leaving the score eternally at 6-6.
LSU, which opened with a 20-7 win over Rice, came home to thrash Georgia 47-7 and blank Ole Miss 13-0. When the inaugural AP poll was released on Oct. 19, 1936, the 3-0-1 Tigers were No. 13.
LSU sailed through its final six regular-season games, the closest result a 12-0 Homecoming victory over Mississippi State. En route, the Tigers thrashed UL 93-0 (still LSU’s most lopsided victory ever) and closed with a 33-0 rout of No. 19 Tulane, then an SEC member, on Nov. 28.
The Tigers went to No. 2 after crushing UL and stayed there in the final poll on Nov. 30. Back then, and until the mid 1960s, polls were released before the bowl games. Sitting just ahead of LSU was a 7-1 Minnesota team, whose defeat came against highly regarded and No. 3-ranked Northwestern 6-0 (the Wildcats had been No. 1 earlier in the season).
There was still hope that the Rose Bowl, which didn’t become an exclusively Big Ten-Pacific Coast Conference (forerunner of the Pac-12) affair until the 1946 season, might invite LSU. When word came that Rose Bowl officials had set a time to announce the matchup, LSU athletic director Skipper Heard told reporters, “They haven’t contacted me. I don’t know who it will be, but it won’t be LSU.”
The Rose Bowl invited No. 3 Pittsburgh to face No. 5 Washington, a pair of 7-1-1 teams. LSU settled for a return trip to the Sugar Bowl, falling to No. 6 Santa Clara 21-14 in what was generally regarded as an uninspired performance.
LSU is still waiting for that first Rose Bowl appearance, though the Tigers will play in the Rose Bowl stadium against UCLA in 2021. Meanwhile, tributes flowed for the 1936 squad, which was retroactively declared national champion by Jeff Sagarin as well as the Williamson poll, which also picked LSU in 1935.
LSU’s 9-1-1 team from 1962 was also declared a national champ by something called the Berryman poll. Those facts are listed in LSU’s media guide along with 1908, but the school only truly celebrates its 1958, 2003 and 2007 national titles as legitimate, according to sports information director Michael Bonnette.
But were it not for one too many fumbles on a scorching, mistake-filled Depression era afternoon in Austin, LSU probably would have a fourth title to celebrate.