Rabalais: Sizing up LSU’s Mount Rushmore

By scott rabalais

Advocate sportswriter

Former LSU baseball coach Skip Bertman
Former LSU baseball coach Skip Bertman

Fourth of July weekend is a good time to think about things patriotic and presidential — anything to kill time for another eight weeks until college football season begins.

When it comes to presidents, nothing is bigger or more reverential than Mount Rushmore, which got us thinking: If you built a Mount Rushmore of LSU sports legends, which four faces would you choose to carve out of the granite — or the side of a levee, since we tend to be a little short on exposed rock mountains in South Louisiana?

Here’s four for sure who belong (we think):

Billy Cannon, football, 1957-59

Maybe it’s a function of time. Maybe his legend is so great because it’s been around so long. But everything and everyone who plays football at LSU is compared to Cannon and what he accomplished.

It’s not enough that he was the best player on LSU’s first national championship team in 1958. (At a powerful and quick 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds, he could still play today.) It’s not enough that he is LSU’s only Heisman Trophy winner. (And the only LSU football player to have his number retired.) But he authored the most iconic moment in LSU sports history with his epic 89-yard Halloween night punt return against Ole Miss in 1959.

How great a moment was it? When Odell Beckham Jr. returned a punt 89 yards for a touchdown against Ole Miss last season, virtually everyone with a sense of history watching remembered it was the same opponent, length and direction (south to north in Tiger Stadium) as Cannon’s return.

There have been many great players to come through LSU’s football program since, and it can certainly be argued that the Tigers’ 2003 and 2007 BCS championship teams were both better than the 1958 team.

But a better player than Cannon? Forget about it. He ran, he threw, he returned kicks and he played defense, teaming with Warren Rabb for the game-saving tackle on Ole Miss quarterback Doug Elmore after the punt return.

For more than 50 years, every time a great player has come along, LSU fans have asked, “Is he as good as Billy Cannon?” If that isn’t the measure of the man, then nothing is.

Pete Maravich, basketball, 1967-70

A scoring machine and a consummate showman, nobody dazzled like Pete Maravich. The best basketball player in LSU history also had the best nickname, the Pistol, bestowed on him by late Advocate and State-Times sportswriter Bernell Ballard.

Records, as they say, are made to be broken, but unless there is a fundamental change in the structure of college basketball, this one will last forever: 3,667 career points. No player as good as Maravich would stay in school long enough to break his record. It would take someone averaging 26.2 points per season for four years (at 35 games per season) to eclipse Maravich’s mark.

Given the current one-and-done nature of college basketball’s elite, it’ll never happen.

Maravich couldn’t even play as a freshman. They weren’t eligible then. It’s said he would pack fans into the old Parker Coliseum, where LSU played its home games during his 1966-67 freshman season, and all but a few hundred diehards would file out before the hapless varsity team played. He did all his scoring in three seasons, averaging less than 28 games per season, and without a 3-point line or shot clock. It’s been said if Maravich had a 3-point line, he might have scored 5,000 points.

Pistol Pete averaged 43.8 points as a sophomore, 44.2 as a junior and 44.5 as a senior, all NCAA records. What’s also remarkable for LSU’s feast or famine basketball history is that another Tiger, Chris Jackson, set the NCAA freshman scoring record with 30.2 points per game in 1988-89.

Skip Bertman, baseball, 1984-2001; athletic director, 2001-08

You have to have a coach on LSU’s Mount Rushmore. No better choice than Bertman, arguably the best coach LSU has ever had.

As great as Cannon was, LSU football had great tradition before he was a Tiger. As prolific as Maravich was, he never took one of his teams to the NCAA tournament — much less a Final Four, as Bob Pettit did in 1953.

Bertman came to LSU and built a monolith of a sport where no tradition had ever existed. Zilch. LSU had been to one NCAA tournament before he arrived in Baton Rouge, and the only thing people here knew of Omaha was the Mutual of Omaha-sponsored “Wild Kingdom” TV show.

Five national championships in five tries over a span of one brilliant decade, from 1991-2000, was testament to Bertman’s genius as a coach. The thousands who continue to pack the new Alex Box Stadium-Skip Bertman Field each season are testament to his talent as a promoter, one able to build baseball into the No. 2 sport at LSU.

Bertman’s tenure as athletic director only further cements his place on LSU’s Rushmore. As AD, he hired a BCS title-winning coach in Les Miles and had the willingness — some would say gall — to create the school’s Tradition Fund, requiring fans to pay for the right to buy season tickets and creating a huge new revenue stream for LSU athletics.

Seimone Augustus, women’s basketball, 2002-06

Male athletes and coaches didn’t write all of LSU’s athletic history. Women have played a significant role in the past 30-plus years, and Augustus would represent them all.

A homegrown talent who earned national attention (and two state titles) at Capitol High School, Augustus was a three-time All-American and two-time national player of the year. She led the Lady Tigers to the first three of five straight Final Four appearances and drew previously unseen throngs to the PMAC to watch her fill up the basket with her flat, mid-range jump shots.

That she has gone on to win two Olympic gold medals and a WNBA title makes Augustus the rarest of athletes: a champion at every level she has competed. There are plenty of women who could be on LSU’s Rushmore, but none stands taller than Augustus.

Four faces left on the design studio floor: Shaquille O’Neal, Les Miles, Pat Henry, Warren Morris.