You’ve probably seen those “A House Divided” license plates on the front of cars advertising the husband and wife as supporting rival schools like LSU-Alabama or Ole Miss-Mississippi State. You’ve likely never seen one for LSU-Iowa.
Today’s Outback Bowl clash between the Tigers and Hawkeyes may not split the rooting interests of many families, but Mitch and Joan Pratt, of Baton Rouge, are an exception.
Mitch, recently retired as an engineer with ExxonMobil, is the rare south Louisiana Hawkeye, class of 1977. Joan, who grew up in Baton Rouge, graduated from LSU in 1974. For the longest time, the schools had never met on a football field. Mitch checked with the University of Iowa Foundation, which reported it knows of only 38 such households nationwide.
“Never thought it would even be an issue,” Joan Pratt said. “Plus, with him being here so long, 10 plus years, he kind of became an LSU fan, so I never really thought about it.”
But today’s game is the second such meeting. Like the first, it is a New Year’s Day bowl game in Florida, the previous one being a two-fold bitter pill for Tiger fans.
In the 2005 Capital One Bowl, Iowa won 30-25 on a 56-yard touchdown pass on the game’s final play in Nick Saban’s final game as LSU’s head coach. He’d already announced plans to coach the National Football League’s Miami Dolphins, only to become LSU’s nemesis as head coach at Alabama two years later.
Whatever sour taste that game left in the mouth of Tiger fans, they haven’t taken it out on Mitch, who put an Iowa bumper sticker on one of his vehicles after the Outback Bowl matchup was announced.
“Nobody’s given us a hard time,” he said.
He took a job with Exxon a year after graduating from Iowa and met Joan in 1986 when she showed up on a night when the Exxon running club was at the LSU lakes. They married the next year. Mitch’s job moved them to Houston in 1989. They remained there until last year, and it was there that they watched the Capital One Bowl.
“If I watch football and I don’t care about the team, I can just sit there and enjoy the game,” he said. “If I choose a team, then I’m a fanatic. Of course, Joan says I’m the pessimist. If they make a mistake, I’m yelling at them, ‘You’re going to lose.’”
That seemed pretty likely on Jan. 2, 2005, after LSU took a 25-24 lead with 46 seconds left in the game. With only nine seconds left on the clock, Iowa was at its own 44 yard line. But Iowa’s quarterback found receiver Warren Holloway open at the LSU 16 yard line, and Holloway scored the winning touchdown with no time remaining.
“I was standing. I couldn’t sit,” Mitch Pratt recalled. “I was going, ‘They lost it.’ And then they win, and she goes, ‘I told you so. You’re always doubting them.’”
Pratt said she didn’t realize that every fan base was as enthusiastic as Tiger supporters until moving to Houston.
“I didn’t appreciate LSU until I left and went to Texas,” she said. “When we would come back to visit my family here, we were like tourists. I’d buy everything with LSU on it — shirts, whatever it was, I wanted to buy it and take LSU back to Texas with me. Being away from it is what really made me appreciate it and love it.”
Although Iowa will be competing it its 25th postseason bowl game since the 1981 season, Mitch saw his team post a losing record each year he was in school, and the Hawkeyes never won more games than they lost in every season from 1962 through 1980.
Although LSU has had its down periods, the Tigers have been more consistently competitive than the Hawkeyes, and Joan celebrated national championships in 2003 under Saban and 2007 under head coach Les Miles.
“I think the championships before, when Miles would pull something at the last minute … they were like they could do anything,” she said. “You would sit there and wait and see what miracle they were going to pull up. It spoiled you. It can get down to the last few seconds and I’m still sitting there going, ‘What are they going to do?’ It doesn’t always work out, but I’m always optimistic.”
In 2012, the Pratts returned to Baton Rouge and a house bordering the Santa Maria Golf Course. Mitch wanted to devote the large garage to his woodworking hobby and sought flooring that would be suitable both for cars and easy sawdust cleanup. The flooring tiles he chose came in all sorts of colors, including purple, gold and black. So, he created tributes to both schools on the floor.
Even if Iowa wins the Outback Bowl, Mitch Pratt doesn’t expect much blowback from the LSU faithful.
“It’s not as dangerous as being a Bama fan after Saban left.”