Editor’s note: Pulitzer Prize winner Jeffrey Marx, author of five books, including “Season of Life,” is celebrating his 50th birthday by cataloging 50 things he loves about LSU. He is currently working on a collection of LSU sports stories. You can follow him on Twitter (@JeffreyMarx25).
As a Northerner by both nature and nurture — born and raised in New York, schooled in Chicago, happily settled on Capitol Hill in D.C. for most of my adult years — I never could have guessed that I would celebrate my 50th birthday as a resident of Louisiana. Yet here I am. I moved to Baton Rouge because my wife is from Thibodaux and already lived here when we married in 2006. And I’m enjoying it.
This is not to say that the transition to “Yankee on the Bayou” has been entirely seamless. But I love being married. People here have been quite welcoming. And I’ve been able to lean on an old friend — the world of sports — for the comfort of familiarity.
Of course, in Baton Rouge, the world of sports means LSU sports. My first writing project here was a book, “The Long Snapper,” about former LSU football player Brian Kinchen. But I’m not referring only to my work. I’m talking about life as a whole. The entire culture of LSU sports — my enjoyment of both the games and the people around them — has played an integral role in making me feel at home here.
With that in mind, I do not want any gifts on this day I turn 50. I instead want to give something. It is a list of 50 things I love about LSU sports. They are not ranked … just listed in no particular order.
I’m calling it my 50 for 50. And I’m sharing it as a “thank you” for all that the games and people of this town have already gifted to me. I hope you enjoy it.
1 Football tailgating. RVs and grills galore. Jambalaya and so much more. Did I mention adult beverages? These are the best ballgame bashes in America.
2 All things Shaquille O’Neal. I love the ESPN commercial in which he rescues Mike the Tiger from a tree. I love that even though Shaq left school early to enter the 1992 NBA draft, he now has three degrees, including a doctorate in education. I love that he has an annual golf tournament to support a Life Skills Program for LSU athletes. I love the Shaq statue outside the basketball practice facility. LSU has never known a more entertaining and far-reaching ambassador for the purple and gold.
3 Marucci baseball bats. All Jack Marucci initially wanted to do was make a wooden bat for his son to swing in Little League games. Ten years later, Marucci bats are used by hundreds of Major Leaguers, including Albert Pujols and Bryce Harper. Not bad for a guy whose day job is head athletic trainer for LSU.
4 The book “It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium.” Author John Ed Bradley first made a name for himself as an offensive lineman for LSU. He was a captain of the 1979 Tigers. But John Ed writes football way better than he ever played it.
5 Bert Jones. When I first met the former LSU All-American — in 1974 — he was a quarterback for the Baltimore Colts, and I was an 11-year-old ball boy for the team. We “worked together” for years with the Colts and ended up friends for life. Bert and his family are very special to me.
6 The whole “Geaux” thing. “Geaux Tigers!” is a battle cry for all. Geaux Givers is a program for LSU athletes to do community service. And so on. Anyone unwilling to embrace local spelling rules should probably geaux elsewhere.
7 The tuba dude. How many basketball teams have a 7-foot-2 center who began college in the marching band and then put away his tuba so he could try dribbling to a different beat? Walk-on Andrew Del Piero hardly got any playing time last season, but one would be hard-pressed to find a more enchanting story.
8 The Intimidator at Alex Box Stadium. A giant tiger roars on one side of the billboard overlooking the right-field bleachers. But the most intimidating feature on the board is the list of years LSU has won national championships: six times from 1991 through 2009.
9 Dale Brown. Without the former LSU basketball coach — a close friend for many years — I never would have met my wife. In 1993, Dale invited me to Baton Rouge to work with him on a big game to promote organ donation (a cause to which I was deeply committed because my sister had undergone a life-saving liver transplant). The game was a great success, but meeting Leslie while here would end up being far more important to the rest of my life. Years later, we again crossed paths and began a long-distance relationship that eventually led to marriage. Thank you, Dale!
10 Purple and gold. In addition to all that they represent, they just look good together.
1 1 Mo Isom. The former LSU soccer goalie became widely known when she tried out for the football team as a kicker. But that storyline is nothing compared to her life journey: battling bulimia as a teen, later losing her dad to suicide, surviving a horrific car crash that only strengthened her faith. She is one of the most inspirational public speakers I’ve ever heard. LSU is lucky to have Mo. The world is lucky to have Mo.
12 Michael Bonnette on Twitter. As sports information director, Bonnette (@LSUBonnette) shares plenty of good Tigers nuggets. Most entertaining, though, is a regular sampling of gems related to his son Max, who recently started first grade. Example: “Max is convinced that I have Santa Claus’ phone number. He said, ‘Dad, just give me his cell b/c I need to talk with him.’ ”
1 3 Ricky Blanton doing radio for LSU basketball. His knowledge and love of the game are boundless. His experience as a player and his passion for LSU elevate his commentary. Plus, he’s a longtime friend.
1 4 Jacques Doucet’s charity softball game. The WAFB-TV sportscaster’s annual “Celebrity/Sorta Celebrity” game is not exclusive to LSU athletes and coaches, but it is highly dependent on them. Among those who have played are Ben McDonald, Warren Morris, Glenn Dorsey, Joseph Addai, Devery Henderson, Kevin Faulk, Josh Reed, Rudy Macklin, Brandon Bass and Marcus Thornton. It’s a good time for a good cause: supporting military families.
1 5 The Golden Band from Tigerland. Number of members: 325. Number of notes to let us know who they are: four. Daaa Daa Daaa Da!
1 6 Visiting with Paul Dietzel. At 88, the head coach of the 1958 national champion Tigers remains one of the best storytellers in town. We first met five years ago over beignets at Coffee Call, and I’ve enjoyed staying in touch with him.
1 7 Walk-On’s Bistreaux & Bar. Although not officially part of LSU, it is a popular piece of the LSU sports landscape, and its founders are former Tigers. Jack Warner and Brandon Landry were basketball walk-ons who shared a vision and turned it into a landmark on Burbank Drive.
1 8 Raph Rhymes. After failing to make the baseball team as a freshman walk-on, he went to junior college and hit so well that Paul Mainieri recruited him back to play for LSU. Last season, he led all of college baseball with a .431 batting average. He also might have led the nation in visiting with fans and signing autographs. Raph is one of the most humble, likable athletes I’ve ever been around.
1 9 The Jeff Boss Locker Room. With all the legendary players and coaches who have passed through Tiger Stadium, the LSU locker room is named for a longtime equipment manager who died in 2003. As a former equipment guy — all those childhood years with the Baltimore Colts — I love that Jeff Boss will always be remembered for the time and care he put into his job.
20 Ben McDonald broadcasting baseball games. The most decorated player in LSU baseball history combines country comfort with interesting insights. Ben is also one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet at a ballpark.
2 1 The speed factory known as women’s track and field. Going back to 1987, the Lady Tigers have claimed exactly half of all national championships available to them: 26 of 52 when counting both indoor and outdoor NCAA titles. It is one of the greatest runs — pun intended — in the history of any college sport.
22 The grounds crew at Alex Box. Show me another grounds crew that performs choreographed dance routines between innings of a baseball game. Show me another that cares enough about its work to post a sign saying “Rake like a champion today” on the side of the dugout where it runs onto the field.
23 The Etta James Memorial Meet. When NFL linebacker Bradie James was a sophomore at LSU — in 2001 — he lost his mother to breast cancer. Now, the annual gymnastics meet carrying her name raises both attendance figures for the LSU program and money to fight cancer.
2 4 Barkevious Mingo. The All-Southeastern Conference defensive lineman will be huge for the Tigers this season. Freakishly athletic for a big man, he is one of the most enjoyable players to watch. He also has the best name in college sports — even getting bonus points for his nickname, KeKe, pronounced “Key-Key.”
2 5 The photo mural of the 2009 baseball dogpile. It fills an entire wall in the LSU players’ lounge at Alex Box. Outfielder Leon Landry is forever frozen in air while flying into a celebratory heap of Tigers after winning the College World Series. This wall of joy should always inspire LSU ballplayers toward greatness.
2 6 “Ole War Skule: The Story of Saturday Night.” Narrated by John Goodman and released last year, this feature-length documentary on LSU football is packed with wonderful interviews and footage.
27 Coach Stud. The nickname alone might have landed him on my list. But I’ve known LSU offensive coordinator Greg Studrawa since his days at Bowling Green in Ohio, and he’s one of my favorite people in college football. As passionate as Coach Stud is about the X’s and O’s of a playbook, he also knows his greatest contribution is molding his “boys” into men of impact and integrity away from the fields of play.
2 8 Baseball players with kids after games. They’re certainly not the only LSU athletes who pose for pictures and sign autographs for kids. But they do it more consistently than anyone else — graciously working their way down the equivalent of a receiving line always waiting for them outside of Alex Box. It’s part of the Mainieri Way.
2 9 The 1958 plaque. Attached to an exterior wall of Tiger Stadium, the bronze plaque honoring the 1958 national football champions is tired and worn. But the story it tells never gets old. The famous Chinese Bandits are listed along with the White Team and the Go Team. For the season, LSU allowed fewer than five points per game, outscoring its opponents by a stunning margin of 282 to 53.
3 0 Glen “Big Baby” Davis reading to children. The former LSU basketball star — now in the NBA with the Orlando Magic — is doing important work with his literacy program. Plus, there’s just a certain charm to such a large man (6-foot-9, 290 pounds) sharing a story with a group of tiny tots — especially when he’s as playful and engaging as Big Baby.
3 1 The memorabilia at TJ Ribs. The only Heisman Trophy in LSU history. A rim Shaq tore down while dunking in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center. A collection of vintage Pete Maravich photos. Way more signed and framed items than anyone should try to count.
3 2 The return of Johnny Jones. How many people ever experience the joy of landing their dream job — no matter what their occupation? Johnny has an ideal combination of personality and background to rebuild both the men’s basketball roster and the overall stature of the program. I’m pulling for him.
3 3 The Jack and Priscilla Andonie Museum. Most people don’t even know about this small but splendid sports museum next to the Lod Cook Alumni Center. It is one of the most impressive on-campus sports shrines in the nation.
3 4 Video of the Warren Morris home run. With two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning and LSU trailing Miami 8-7 in the final game of the 1996 College World Series, Morris unloaded the most dramatic hit in school history: a two-run, walk-off homer to win the national championship. No matter how old the video gets — no matter how many times it is shown — the excitement never fades.
3 5 Mike the Tiger. He is the most majestic of mascots. Mike VI is a very cool cat with some serious quarters: 15,000 square feet of habitat in which to relax while waiting for his next trip across the street to Death Valley.
3 6 The “WIN!” bar in Tiger Stadium. A piece of old crossbar — from a goal post first used in 1955 — is mounted above the double doors through which the LSU players enter the field. Tradition dictates that they reach up and touch the bar as a sign of commitment to victory.
3 7 Three generations of Mainieri men. Paul is the only one with a job on campus. But generation up (his dad Demie) and generation down (sons Nick and Tommy) also spend a lot of time around the baseball program. As kind and enjoyable as they all are, they make it easy to understand my law of Mainieris: The more of them I see, the better my day.
38 Charles Alexander and his C’Mon Man Cajun Seasoning. One of the best running backs in LSU history — a 2012 inductee into the College Football Hall of Fame — is still adding spice to life in Louisiana.
3 9 Annie Alleva. The wife of athletic director Joe Alleva is a tireless supporter of local charities. She has the heart of a champion.
4 0 Eating grass at Tiger Stadium. I’ve never sampled the turf myself, but anyone who follows LSU football knows what I mean. A few blades of grass sure have gotten a lot of attention.
4 1 Skip Bertman as a public speaker. He’s long retired from coaching baseball and serving as athletic director. But the stories — filled with both inspiration and humor — just keep on coming.
42 LSUsports.net. The school’s athletics home page is always one of my first early-morning clicks.
43 LSU vs. Alabama football. The history is long and rich. And the rivalry only grows with time.
4 4 The Football Operations Center. Athletes win championships. But it sure helps to have a spectacular $15 million facility — built in 2006 — as your home base.
4 5 Crowds at Alex Box Stadium. For 17 straight years, LSU has led the nation in total attendance for home baseball games. Last season’s figure of 472,391 (in 44 games) is the highest in the history of college baseball.
4 6 The giant Eye of the Tiger. Staring from midfield throughout football season, it is the handiwork of LSU sports turf manager Eric Fasbender. He uses strings and a tape measure for the general outline but then goes freehand with his paint sprayers, creating a dramatic display of purple, gold, and white.
47 The Bengal Belles. Established in 1996, this high-energy, fun-loving group of female fans is best known for its festive luncheons during football season. Think of them as giant pep rallies with lots of lipstick. But leader Aimee Simon and a dedicated membership of close to a thousand also have a serious mission: They have raised almost $1 million for LSU’s Cox Communications Academic Center for Student-Athletes.
4 8 Football jersey no. 18. It goes to the player who best represents what it means to be a Tiger in terms of leadership and character. The tradition began with Matt Mauck, quarterback of the 2003 national championship team, who bequeathed his number 18 to fullback Jacob Hester. Now, it is worn by defensive tackle Bennie Logan.
4 9 James Carville cheerleading for the Tigers. Whenever the football team is hot, national media folks know exactly where to turn for some good local color. The political consultant — a loud and proud LSU alum — never disappoints.
5 0 The ever-growing legend of Billy Cannon’s Halloween run. If you’re still reading, I can’t imagine you need any explanation on this one.
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