Paul Dietzel

Coach Paul Dietzel, back row left, with his 1958 National Champtionship team. Credit: The Daily Reveille
Coach Paul Dietzel, back row left, with his 1958 National Champtionship team. Credit: The Daily Reveille

By Rob Landry | LSU Student

There is no greater feat for a football coach than leading a team to an undefeated, championship season. Few reach this sports pinnacle, but for those that do their legacy is forever cemented.

With LSU coach Les Miles and his Tiger football team on the verge of joining that elite club, the only person in Baton Rouge qualified to give perspective to what this means is former LSU coach Paul Dietzel.

Dietzel led the Tigers to their last unblemished season when they won the 1958 National Championship, and is able to empathize with what Miles & Co. are going through, week-by-week, this season.

"Anytime that you're ranked high, as LSU is now and has been for about 10 weeks, you've got a big bulls-eye on your chest. And whoever you play is going to give you its best game and (it will) do its best to try and beat you."

Even more than the bulls-eye, the thing Dietzel found most problematic aspect of getting his team prepared was how to fire up his troops in games they should win.

"Even though the player says they're really focused on the game, deep down that's not what his brain is telling him. That kind of an attitude can get you beat. The most difficult game to prepare for is a game against someone you should beat."

And, with the exception of Alabama, LSU was predicted to win every game this season. But the composite strength of the SEC helps fight apathy. Rarely is there a team that lacks the ability to upset a heavy favorite.

"One of the great things about the Southeastern Conference and one of the unfortunate things is that everyone in the conference can beat you on a given day," notes Dietzel. "And when you play someone that isn't doing well, they can redeem their season by beating the No. 1 team."

That wasn't always the case.

"At one time there were certain teams in the conference you knew were an automatic win. Some time back, you knew you were going to beat Vanderbilt because it wasn't in same caliber. But lately, Vanderbilt has gotten ugly. In fact, it knocked off Wake Forest which was having a pretty good year."

National pundits and Bowl Championship Series experts have all but etched LSU's name into the Championship Game. They claim even if LSU loses to Georgia in the SEC Championship Game Saturday, it is so far ahead of the competition it still will end up in the title game.

This train of thought frustrates Dietzel.

"That is really bad. That is very bad language because you can't go into a game thinking it doesn't matter if you win or not. It does matter if you win and you better win because it would be a disaster if they didn't get ready to play hard in this game."

Dietzel is also strongly opposed to the idea of LSU and Alabama having a rematch in the title game. The idea of another meeting between conference rivals is eerily reminiscent, says Dietzel, of an incident between LSU and Mississippi in 1959.

LSU beat Ole Miss 7-3 in the regular season in a game that would go down in LSU lore for running back Billy Cannon's 89-yard punt return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter. The return and a goal-line stand by the LSU defense in the final seconds to seal the victory forever etched the match in the minds of Tiger fans.

Following the conclusion of the regular season, the Sugar Bowl invited Ole Miss and LSU to meet again in New Orleans.

Dietzel originally balked at the idea. "Our players played in old Tulane Stadium every other year. For them to get on a bus and ride down to New Orleans to play is not really much incentive for the team because they wanted to go on a trip."

At that time, the only bowls teams could go to were the Sugar, Orange, Cotton or Rose bowls.

It was not uncommon in that time to see a team turn down a bowl invitation. The monetary aspect was not there like it is today, nor was the exposure. Plus, the national champion was crowned at the conclusion of the regular season, so there was truly nothing to be gained by playing outside of a vacation.

After a team vote, not to mention the proddings of the Sugar Bowl committee and LSU higher-ups, the Tigers decided to play in the game.

LSU struggled, generating just 74 yards of offense and -15 yards rushing, in a 21-0 loss to the Rebels.

"They beat us bad. The stupidest thing I've ever done was to allow myself to be talked into going to that Sugar Bowl on a dare from the Sugar Bowl committee. It was very, very bad and I'm sorry we did it. Playing the same team again is difficult."

Dietzel doesn't necessarily foresee the same fate if the Tigers and Alabama play again this season, but it does makes the road a little tougher for the team that won the first matchup.

The 2011 LSU team has become fodder among fans and news media where it falls when compared to the greatest teams in LSU history. One team that is always at or near the top of the list is Dietzel's 1958 squad, the last team to have made a run through the regular season without a hiccup.

Dietzel, though, wants no part in those discussions.

"I wouldn't even venture to compare them. We played against some of the best coaches and the best teams and we won all our games. This team has done the same thing in this era. It's a different situation. It's a different game and a different time."

If LSU is playing for the national title in New Orleans, Dietzel said he is unsure if he will be present. He was there in 2003, when LSU won its first title since 1958, and might consider going to the game if it were not for the traffic and hustle and bustle it takes to get there.

One thing is for certain: Dietzel has followed this team with the same passion and fervor as the rest of the fan base and is impressed with its achievement.

"I've been very interested in it because it's LSU and I'm LSU. They've done a great job keeping their nose to the grindstone after a lot of setbacks. They've done very well.."