The year was 1998.
LSU’s football team and coach Gerry Dinardo had brought back the magic or so it seemed. The 1997 season had seen a resurgent LSU football program finish 9-3 and 6-2 in the SEC culminating with a dominating (remember those white helmets) Independence Bowl win over national power Notre Dame, avenging an earlier thrashing by that same Irish ball club.
Kevin Faulk surprised Tiger fans by coming back for his senior season while Alan Faneca became the second Tiger in a row to be drafted in the first round. In fact, three Tigers had gone in the first three rounds of the NFL draft.
But for the football team there were dark clouds approaching.
The rain began with the apparent suicide of junior center Naeshall Menard. It continued with the death of starting quarterback Herb Tyler’s father in that same ill fated April. The spring game offered little relief as three starters were carted off the field with significant injuries: Cecil Collins, Rondell Mealey and starting offensive tackle Brandon Winey.
In fact, a sampling of The Advocate headlines from April and May of 1998 reveals the mood of the program and a foreshadowing of things to come: “LSU's high hopes tinged by despair”, “Death darkens strong LSU spring”,” No spring fling”, “Big plays overshadowed by injuries”.
Over on the baseball diamond LSU was following back-to-back national titles with a strong showing replacing stars like Brandon Larson with youngsters like Brad Creese and Blair Barbier, and getting strong pitching from future Tiger legend Doug Thompson. The Tigers in June would bow out to USC and finish #5 in the country.
Across Nicholson Drive, the Tiger basketball program and second year coach John Brady received the commitment of Prep All-American Stromile Swift. This would be a rare but welcomed oasis of good news for the beleaguered program that later that year would become burdened by harsh NCAA probation.
Back on the gridiron, new defensive co-coordinator Lou Tepper attempted to teach his 3-4 scheme and an in-famous “drop linebacker” would soon become another part of LSU football lore.
Morris Watts was working with returning starting signal caller Herb Tyler while youngsters Rohan Davey and Craig Nall were learning the trade. Josh Reed was a running back and the fans still loved Abram Booty.
Interestingly enough, Jerry Baldwin, Dinardo’s assistant head coach, was quoted by Sam King and The Advocate with the following… "As a coach, I feel it is our responsibility to coach the game of life," said Baldwin, who helped institute a Life Skills Program at LSU two years earlier. "Our jobs as coaches are greater than just teaching a guy how to block, tackle, run, catch a pass, score a touchdown and win the game. Our whole motive is to prepare him to win the game of life." He further added, "When we recruit a guy to come to LSU, regardless of what he turns out to be, he's ours ... he's ours," reiterated Baldwin. "It's our responsibility to help them become a productive person in society. That's the whole intent of the program."
The stage was set for the show-down with No. 12 Georgia at Tiger Stadium. The number No. 6 ranking was the highest ranking for the Tigers in many years and the Tiger faithful packed the house for the ESPN showdown.
This, however, would be the apex of both the season as well as the Dinardo era.
Georgia freshman quarterback Quincy Carter would hit 15 straight passes, riddle the Tiger defense and the tigers would fall 28-27 to the Bulldogs. The Tigers would lose seven of their last eight games, often in heart-breaking fashion, finishing the season 4-7 completing a free-fall from national prominence.
Fast-forward a dizzying decade.
On the football field the Tigers have become the first team to win two BCS national championships.
Nick Saban put his stamp on the program, won a national title and cashed out for the NFL and eventually became public enemy number one when he became the head man at the Cap Stone.
Off the field, the football program, once widely criticized for horrible graduation rates has been transformed into a nationally recognized beacon for student athlete academic progress thanks to the Cox Communications Academic Center for Student Athletes.
This state of the art center is usually mentioned by perspective student athletes as one of the reasons they are considering LSU. The seeds of this commitment actually may have started with assistant coach Jerry Baldwin who pushed LSU toward academic programs for LSU athletes. This same commitment away from the grind was masterfully strong-armed by Nick Saban and furthered by current head coach Les Miles.
The fruits of these endeavors have been expertly harvested by Miles who has taken Saban’s success and carried the ball in his own right extremely well as evidenced by a national championship of his own coupled with top-ranked recruiting efforts.
Not only will LSU enter next season in the Top 10 and defending a national championship, but is enjoying commitments that far exceed Louisiana’s borders. The ironic part is that a date with Georgia that promises to be huge awaits the Tigers again in Tiger Stadium.
Will the Tigers fall like 1998 or will it be the catalyst for another huge season like 2003?
Baseball is still attempting to find its late 90’s glory and Paul Mainieri has the Tigers nationally ranked for the first time since March 27, 2006.
This week, LSU finds itself sitting in first place in the SEC Western Division and talk has now shifted from hoping for a spot in the SEC Tournament to attaining much loftier goals.
Who will be this program's next Doug Thompson, Brad Cresse or Blair Barbier?
Hopefully the Tiger baseball team will embrace its proud tradition as they say good bye to that old lady on Nicholson drive. It would be poetic justice for the Box to close out her last season with a Tiger regional victory.
LSU is preparing to celebrate its 100th year of basketball.
It remains to be seen if Trent Johnson is the man to restore the pride of LSU basketball. He is the most experience basketball coach the program has ever hired. He has tasted success at every stop in his coaching career and has held on to nearly all of LSU’s prized recruits but the biggest test of all is will he be able to keep J’mison Morgan in the fold.
Early reports indicate that Coach Johnson has a bright future at LSU as a final four appearance only two seasons ago and a host of experience players return, he certainly has a better foundation to build on than his predecessor.
No one knows how the 2008 season will finish for the baseball program, how the fall camp and subsequent season will play out for either the football or basketball program but one thing is for sure and that is the standards of success and the reasons for optimism can change completely in just a decade.