Where does LSU's Diversion in the Desert rank?
Wednesday, 09/12, 6:10 p.m.
By William Kalec
BATON ROUGE - Three men. Three different perspectives. One shared opinion - it’s a game, like all the great tilts, destined for exaggeration.
Political strategist James Carville watched every play on TV, hypnotized until triple zeros snapped him out of his trance.
Former LSU athletic director Joe Dean succumbed to ESPN’s late kickoff, dozing off midway through a slumber-inducing third quarter only to have his inner-fan disrupt the REM cycle seconds before Early Doucet’s game-winning touchdown, a blurry halo framing reality just this once.
And Sam Nader, a sideline staple for more than 30 years, was tall enough to glance over the barricade of photographers when Doucet stole a page from Peggy Fleming’s routine, by planting a toe with three feet separating the green grass from the white. On the long trip home, Nader developed all the mental snapshots he’ll share for years through interviews and random retellings.
“Somebody once said, ‘There’s no great victories without adversity,’” said Nader, LSU’s associate athletic director of football operations. “Taken just as a football game, this has to be one of the best. But when you add the significance of all the other events, it really makes it special.”
Sure, it was “special” but was it 1959 Ole Miss special, or Bluegrass Miracle special or even BCS national title game special? Definitely a great game, but does it compare with 2003’s Georgia thriller or the 2001 SEC title upset? Well, there are days to dissect this thing. With another off-week fans can catch their breath again one game into this slow-motion crawl of a season and still have plenty of downtime to debate what rung on the LSU football hierarchy the Diversion in the Desert belongs.
“I think it’s clearly - in terms of interest and emotion – got to be in the top five,” Carville said. “From not knowing where the game would be played, to everything on campus, to having a new coach…considering the emotional obstacles, from a player’s perspective, it might be one of the greatest wins in college football.
“It was a big intersectional game, and there are a lot of those. But what happened made it a national headline.”
Evacuees were dying across the street from the Tigers’ practice facility. Baton Rouge was the largest map-dot west of Hurricane Katrina’s path. The city swelled to a soundtrack of sirens and rumbling bus caravans. Fire codes were obsolete as players opened their tiny rented spaces, and fit as many loved-ones as possible, sacrificing beds for the floor, making supply runs well after 2 a.m.
Shyrone Carey couldn’t find his brother. Many of the stores Skyler Green frequented growing up in Avondale were stripped to their structural skeleton from looting.
And then, a week later, they played football.
“I was there the night Cannon made his run,” Dean said. “I was there the night Doug Moreau caught that pass against Ole Miss. And I was there the night Eddie Fuller caught the touchdown pass to beat Auburn 7-6. I’ve seen a lot of wonderful experiences. But I thought this has to go down in history for us because of emotional involvement.”
Carville received such a massive influx of adrenaline from the win, he couldn’t sleep, choosing to yap on the phone with friends back home, unaware that Les Miles was delivering a relatively hidden speech that when finally heard has the powerful, vivid characteristics to heighten the lore of this game.
“Our team has had the longest camp in the history of camps,” Miles said. “And it’s been surrounded by a real-life problem. Not a made-for-TV. A real-life trauma where friends and family have to stay in the dorms and the town swelled to take those people who evacuated from New Orleans. And we’re treating people that are injured and disadvantaged 200 yards from our stadium. We have a scrimmage and Blackhawk helicopters are flying people in from New Orleans into the PMAC so that they can be triaged and move on to other areas.
“It’s a terrible distraction. This team stepped across the white lines for two hours everyday and they played football. They played hard. And they wanted this game for the people back home.”
Earlier that morning, Carville told ESPN that only those from the region, who have an understanding of the Louisiana culture, could truly understand the significance of a perceived trivial event.
“Here, there’s not a second sport to football,” Carville said. “It’s football, football, football. It’s just the nature of it. And throughout the state, Tulane just doesn’t register. We don’t have a North Carolina-North Carolina State or a Michigan-Michigan State. So you got one school and one sport where people place all there emotions.”
Nader said if the game were theoretically played in a vacuum, with no subplots or sidebars, Tiger fans still would remember it. Think about it, you had a 28-point fourth quarter highlighted by two special teams touchdowns and a 39-yard prayer into a wave of hands. That sequence of events, alone, is too corny for most studio execs.
Now, set these theatrics behind a foreign backdrop passed off as a home game, with 18- to 22-year-olds handed the unfair burden to uplift a tattered region.
“Let me say this: We needed it,” Dean said. “We all needed something positive to happen. I felt, even watching it, what a wonderful experience for us, because we’ve had so many bad experiences. It meant a lot to me. It almost brought me to tears.”