Political Horizons: Football and politics: Our favorite time of year

Louisiana is entering the seasons of its two favorite contact sports: football and politics.

Usually the two cross paths only before the games when politicians visit tailgates to sample grilled sausages and toss a few footballs in a signature tradition that is every bit as expected as candidates eating hot dogs and kissing babies when visiting New York City neighborhoods.

This season, however, the two also intersected when some of the old men of LSU sports donated close to $30,000 to help jump-start the campaign of the youngest candidate for the 6th Congressional District.

Republican Paul Dietzel II, of Baton Rouge, is the grandson of Paul Dietzel, the football coach who in 1958 brought LSU its first national championship.

These days, a dozen of the old Tigers gather periodically for breakfast. On Saturday, it was at Frank’s Restaurant on Airline Highway in Baton Rouge.

It’s a comradeship built up over two-a-day workouts in August decades ago when they were younger and coach Dietzel looked like his 20-something grandson.

“We tell old war stories. It keeps us in touch and everything,” says the 74-year-old Jimmy Field, an LSU quarterback in the early 1960s.

Before he died last September, coach Dietzel showed up at the breakfasts, too, even mentioned his grandson was running for Congress. But he didn’t politick, just mentioned it, Field said.

And then, a while back, Field can’t remember exactly when, Dietzel II phoned.

“I told Paul, ‘Look, I would have given you consideration because you are coach’s grandson,’ ” Field recalled. But going out on a political limb required a little more.

The former member of the Public Service Commission said the younger man’s energy, combined with having run a small business and holding basic conservative political principles, persuaded him and some of his former LSU teammates. He organized a small function at his house, brought in some old teammates and introduced Dietzel II to some folks from around town.

“Some people think we’re supporting him because he’s the coach’s grandson, but that’s not all of it,” Field said.

It’s not just members of Dietzel’s football teams in the late 1950s and early 1960s but others from the broader LSU sports community.

Former LSU basketball coach Dale Brown gave the campaign $1,000 in August 2013, back when Dietzel was just an earnest businessman at various political functions. Coach Dietzel was athletic director in the late 1970s when some LSU fans were clamoring for Brown to be replaced. Brown survived and went on to lead LSU basketball into two final four appearances.

Dietzel II dismisses observations linking his grandfather’s iconic status and his congressional bid. It’s a subject the usually ebullient candidate responds to with clipped answers and a bit of a scowl.

“You’re only talking about 15 donations out of 800,” Dietzel said, clicking off his fingers his efforts to engage younger voters with his conservative positions, including closing the border to illegal immigration, revoking the Affordable Care Act and supporting the ban on gay marriage. He’s gathered 100 or so volunteers at LSU and other universities to help spread his message.

“I’ve known many of these men since I was a little boy,” Dietzel said.

State Sen. Dan Claitor, one of the dozen or so Republicans running for the same post as Dietzel, said he also started out looking for campaign seed money from the people he knows. It’s what all the candidates do.

Success, however, is measured in how far off the political base a candidate can move, he said. Claitor is heading to Thibodaux next week.

Candidate Garret Graves, another Baton Rouge Republican in the race, has raised about the same amount of money as Dietzel and Claitor put together. His base is the elected local officials he dealt with daily as coastal czar for Gov. Bobby Jindal.

At qualifying last week, Graves was talking about the transformational moment when a candidate officially puts his or her name on the ballot. Up until that point, each of the contestants is tending his or her particular base.

From here on out, the candidates are going to have to separate themselves based on their policy positions and their ability to accomplish.

“We’re moving into a phase where we should be getting into substance,” Graves said.

Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address mballard@theadvocate.com.