The game that would prove to be LSU’s first Sugar Bowl win in five tries — its 7-0 victory over Clemson in the 1959 classic — was merely the coronation for an already crowned champion.
LSU’s most meaningful win in New Orleans that season came Nov. 22, when the Tigers crushed Tulane 62-0 to complete the regular season 10-0, locking up the No. 1 spots in The Associated Press Top 20 and the United Press International coaches’ poll.
Back then, both organizations awarded their national championship trophies before the bowls were played, a practice that didn’t change until the 1965 season. That year, the AP withheld its championship trophy until after the bowls. Alabama finished No. 1 with a win over Nebraska in the Orange Bowl after LSU upset 10-0 Arkansas in the Cotton and UCLA beat 10-0 Michigan State in the Rose.
Even with its first national championship trophies in hand, finishing with a win was still important for LSU. Three unbeaten teams were sitting behind the Tigers in the final top 10 — No. 3 Army at 8-0-1, No. 4 Auburn at 9-0-1 and No. 6 Air Force at 9-0-1.
Standing in the Tigers way were ... the Tigers. No. 12 Clemson was the ACC champion and 8-2 overall, though according to Sugar Bowl historian Marty Mulé, most fans in New Orleans wanted to see LSU square off against SMU and its exciting quarterback, Don Meredith. Air Force and North Carolina were also in contention.
Their desires apparently weren’t as important as those of LSU coach Paul Dietzel. According to Mulé, Dietzel politicked for Clemson behind the scenes, believing his speedy though smaller team could handle the Tigers from the East.
LSU was a 17-point favorite playing in its backyard at old Tulane Stadium, but defiant Clemson coach Frank Howard was baiting No. 1 LSU rather than backing down.
Playing off the nickname for LSU’s third-string defensive specialists, the by then-famous Chinese Bandits, Howard cracked: “The fans can think what they want. My boys play like a bunch of one-armed bandits.
“They keep telling us we’re not worth a darn. Maybe we’re not. But you keep telling a fella that long enough and it begins to get under his hide.”
The game marked LSU’s first appearance on network television. LSU wore its traditional white jerseys, but according to Clemson senior associate sports information director Sam Blackman, NBC asked Clemson to come up with a jersey other than its traditional orange.
It was thought the Clemson orange and LSU white wouldn’t create enough of a contrast on black-and-white TV. Clemson produced a navy blue jersey that Blackman said came to be known at Clemson as the “Sugar Bowl blues.”
Played before 80,331 fans, the game turned out to be a tight, tense affair, but in the end Clemson was singing the blues.
True to the style of play back then in which defense was dominant, there was only one score in the contest. It came on a 9-yard halfback pass from Billy Cannon to Mickey Mangham.
LSU’s Warren Rabb, quarterback for the first-string unit known as the White Team, left the game in the second quarter with a broken hand. LSU’s offense sputtered until the third when Clemson tried to punt deep in its end.
On the snap, the ball slipped out of center Paul Snyder’s grasp, bouncing off the leg of upback Doug Cline. LSU’s Duane Leopard pounced on the ball at the Clemson 11.
Enter Cannon, who took a handoff, rolled right and looked toward the end zone.
“I didn’t throw it, the Lord did,” said Cannon, who went on to win the Heisman Trophy after the 1959 regular season. “I looked for Johnny Robinson and they had him covered. ... Then I spied Mickey and let go.
“It went off with a prayer.”
Clemson had one late scoring chance, driving from its 17 deep into LSU territory. But Dietzel’s Chinese Bandits finally held at the LSU 28, validating the Tigers’ national championship season.
“God bless the Bandits,” Dietzel said. “They were outweighed some 15 pounds per man but they never played more courageously than they did on the final drive.”
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