LSU's Tiger Stadium: Where legends are born and the unthinkable is common

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Jake Gibbs played catcher for the New York Yankees for 10 years (1962-71) and was a part of a world championship team. A decade in the bigs provides a lot of great memories.

But in an interview several years ago, when I asked Gibbs about his most vivid memory as an athlete he didn't hesitate:

"Halloween Night, 1959, Baton Rouge, Louisiana."

On that eerie, fog-shrouded evening at LSU's Tiger Stadium, a legend was born. And Jake Gibbs, who turns 74 on Nov. 7, would be involved in a historic play that haunts him to this day.

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"Not a day goes by that I don't think of it," he said.

LSU, the defending national champion under Paul Dietzel, was 6-0 and ranked No. 1. Ole Miss, coached by John Vaught, was 6-0 and ranked No. 3. The winner of the game would have the inside track to the SEC championship and very likely the national championship.

Ole Miss was ahead 3-0 and so confident in its defense that the Rebels started punting on third down. Gibbs, the starting quarterback, was also the punter. With about 10 minutes left Gibbs lined up to punt. LSU's Billy Cannon was back to receive.

"The ground was really mushy and I thought when the ball hit it would just slide away from him," said Gibbs. "The last thing I wanted to do was kick it to Cannon."

Despite the muddy conditions, the ball took a big hop and Cannon fielded it on the run at the 11-yard line. By most accounts eight different Ole Miss players touched Billy Cannon during that punt return. And with each one who missed, the roar of Tiger Stadium grew louder and louder.

Gibbs was the last Ole Miss defender between Cannon and the goal line.

"I got a hand on him," said Gibbs. "But he shook me off like a puppy."

Cannon completed an 89-yard run into immortality as LSU won 7-3 and added another chapter to the legend of Tiger Stadium, aka Death Valley, on Saturday night.

"Dracula and LSU Football are at their best when the sun goes down," the late Beano Cook said.

The next chapter in that legend could be written this Saturday night when No. 1 Alabama (8-0, 5-0 SEC) goes to No. 5 LSU (7-1, 3-1). As was the case in last year's "Game of the Century" in Tuscaloosa, first place in the SEC West, and perhaps a chance to play for the national championship, will be at stake. It promises to be another magical night in Baton Rouge and Verne Lundquist of CBS can't wait to get there.

Lundquist has seen and done just about everything in a broadcasting career that spans 45 years. But the 2007 Florida-LSU game was his first ever Saturday night in Tiger Stadium. He will never, ever forget it.

"I have never heard a louder stadium in 45 years of going to college football games," said Lundquist, who will make the call with Gary Danielson and Tracy Wolfson. "What I most remember is that we were on a commercial break and the PA announcer told the crowd that Stanford had just upset USC. That was going to open the door for LSU to get a shot at the national championship. I had never heard a sound like that. It was just an incredible atmosphere."

On that night a record crowd of 92,910 turned out at Tiger Stadium. A Louisiana state trooper told me that between 40,000 and 50,000 additional fans without tickets were partying in the parking lots because they just wanted to be there.

"That was also the game that [LSU coach] Les Miles went for it on fourth down five different times and made it," Lundquist said. "There are games where I sometimes need to refresh my memory. But not that one. That game and that night will stay with me forever."

Here are a few more moments where the Saturday night mystique of Tiger Stadium came into play:

 Oct. 11, 1997: Florida, the defending national champion, was undefeated and ranked No. 1. LSU was No. 14 after losing earlier to Auburn (31-28). Steve Spurrier's team had embarrassed LSU 56-13 the year before in The Swamp. LSU sealed the upset win (28-21) with an interception by Raion Hill. The LSU crowd stormed the field and tore down the goal posts.

 Nov. 4, 2000: LSU had not beaten Alabama in Baton Rouge since 1969. The game was tied at 14 after three quarters and then LSU scored three times in a seven-minute span to win 30-28. For the second time that season the goal posts at Tiger Stadium came down.

 Oct. 8, 1988: LSU's Tommy Hodson threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to Eddie Fuller with 1:41 left to beat Auburn 7-6. The explosion of noise was so loud that it registered as a small earthquake on the seismograph at the LSU Geology Department.

 Oct. 20, 2007: Only two weeks after the memorable win over Florida, LSU trailed Auburn 24-23 in the final seconds. LSU was within field goal range. But LSU shocked Auburn as Matt Flynn threw a 22-yard touchdown pass to Demetrius Byrd with only one second left to give LSU a 30-24 win. Had Byrd not made the catch, time would have run out.

This list could be longer, but when LSU plays at Death Valley on Saturday night with a lot on the line, magical things tend to happen. These two impressions best sum it up:

Ed Hinton, my former colleague at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: "When LSU plays on Saturday night and the band takes the field plays the first four notes of 'Hold That Tiger' it will make the hair stand up on a dead man's chest."

LSU coach Les Miles on Oct. 13, only moments after his team beat South Carolina 23-21 in a game the Tigers had to have: "That was Death Valley. That was the place where opponent's dreams come to die -- and it was spectacular."

It should be fun.

Watch The Tony Barnhart Show Tuesday at 9 p.m. on The CBS Sports Network.


Tony Barnhart is in his fifth season as a contributor to CBSSports.com. He is a college football analyst for CBS Sports and The CBS Sports Network. Prior to joining CBS he was the national college football writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 24 years. He has written five books on college football.
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