Even LSU fans can’t explain magic of night games in Death Valley
Jacob Hester is an LSU legend, a team captain who played an integral role in the Tigers’ 2007 national championship run. However, despite being part of 43 wins, he’ll always be best known for one night above all others.
During that 2007 season, the Tigers faced the defending BCS champion Florida Gators at night in Baton Rouge. Against coach Urban Meyer, quarterback Tim Tebow and the No. 9 team in the country, Hester and his coach became part of Baton Rouge lore as the fullback converted two fourth downs on the game-winning drive before punching in the go-ahead score with less than two minutes to go. Les Miles called five fourth-down plays in the game, all of which succeeded.
That 28-24 Tigers win added to the decades-old lore that there is no venue in college football quite like Tiger Stadium at night.
“As far as electricity in the building, it will never be topped,” Hester said. “I’d put my house on it.”
Hester went on to play six seasons in the NFL and is now retired and working in Baton Rouge as an analyst for Cox TV. He’s one of the few people who have experienced Tiger Stadium as a player and spectator.
But it wasn’t until he recently received a text message from a friend that he fully appreciated what “Night game at Tiger Stadium" really means to fans.
“I’ll tell you a funny story,” Hester said. “I’m friends with Landon Donovan. For the last three years he’s been telling me, ‘I want to get to a game at LSU.’”
Hester says Donovan had one condition: “It better be a night game.”
He says Donovan still hasn’t made it to Death Valley but that his buddy is hoping to next season. Still, Donovan’s desire to experience a game in Baton Rouge after dark begs the question: What is it that makes Tiger Stadium so special at night? It’s a tough one to answer, even for LSU fans.
Decades before TV networks dictated game times, schools called the shots.
“College football was actually a daytime sport,” FOX Sports broadcaster Tim Brando said. “Schools in the South would coordinate with other schools, so game times would not conflict.”
Brando says the one exception was LSU. He spent seven years there covering the team in the late 1970s and early 1980s, by which time night games had long been ingrained into the program’s culture — for reasons he says had little to do with football.
“The heat and humidity (played a role in games being moved to night), because of the Gulf being so close,” Brando said. “Plus remember, that’s sugar cane farming country. People worked off-shore on the oil rigs. For them (the fans) to get to the games, they had to be played at night.”
Football after dark allowed the Tigers to put their mark on the college game.
“LSU kind of cornered the market on nighttime football,” Brando said.
The school hosted its first night matchup at Tiger Stadium against Spring Hill in 1931, sparking what’s become a cherished heirloom in Baton Rouge, a birthright for fans in their 20s and 30s and for their parents and grandparents.
“The entire culture is built around Saturday nights at Death Valley,” said Dan Borne’, the man who has served as the school’s public address announcer since 1986. “(It’s) not Saturday morning in Death Valley. Not Saturday afternoon in Death Valley. It’s Saturday night in Death Valley. There’s no place they (the fans) would rather be, and no time they’d rather be there.”
At LSU, it isn’t expected that home games be played at night. It’s understood.
The evolution of college football and TV coverage has put LSU’s administration in a tough spot. How do you appease both a rabid fan base and the TV networks that pay billions of dollars to broadcast NCAA games?
You don’t. And you better believe that the power brokers hear about it.
“There is not a fan base that resents moving a game from its time slot (more) than the LSU fan,” Brando said. “Television programmers have been hearing it for years.”
There is not a fan base that resents moving a game from its timeslot (more) than the LSU fan. Television programmers have been hearing it for years.
-- FOX Sports' play-by-play announcer Tim Brando
So have the decision-makers at LSU.
Gerry DiNardo was the Tigers head coach from 1995 to 1999. He says that when he and his athletic director would go on the booster club speaking tour every spring, the No. 1 concern was never about the offense or defense but how to ensure every home game was played in its rightful place under the lights.
“During those speaking tours the hands would go up,” DiNardo, who is now an analyst for the Big Ten Network, recently said. “They’d ask my athletic director, ‘Why can’t we turn down these 3:30 CBS games?’”
Not surprisingly, the answer was simple.
“He’d say, ‘Two reasons,’” DiNardo explained. “’One, we have a contract that we signed. And two, we need the money.’”
When a school’s been playing night games for 60 years, tradition may be one reason for resisting change. But at Tiger Stadium, it’d also be a shame to mess with the party.
“Visitors of the other teams absolutely love to come to LSU, because they love to tailgate with us,” Borne’ said. “We have crawfish, we have shrimp stew, we have alligator, we have venison. We have every kind of food you could possibly mix with rice, and we eat it.”
“If you’re going to eat, and eat enough, and drink, and drink enough, it’s a shame to cut that off at 11:30 or even 2:30,” Borne’ said. “You’ve got to run it up until 6, take it to the stadium and leave it on the field.”
“Leave it on the field” might be a perfect way to describe LSU’s fans inside Tiger Stadium.
It may not be possible to prove LSU fans are the loudest in college football, but no stadium has the perception of being loud quite like LSU does. Chalk that up at least in part to the “Earthquake Game” in 1988, when — you guessed it — the stadium was so loud it registered as an earthquake. Perhaps scarier for the opposition, 10,000 new seats were added in the latest renovation.
The Ole Miss game was like being strapped to the wing of a jet, with your ear right next to the engine. It was loud, all the time.
-- Dan Borne', LSU's PA announcer
“The Ole Miss game was like being strapped to the wing of a jet, with your ear right next to the engine,” Borne’ said. “It was loud, all the time.”
The noise is not only non-stop but it comes in a variety of unique ways.
“At other places you might get a fight song over and over," he said. "LSU fans have different chants, yells, and the band plays for the most unlikely reasons. Only they know why they’re doing, when they do it. It’s all very orchestrated and choreographed.”
Safe to say, it can all confuse a first-timer.
“As a player, I didn’t know any of that,” Hester said, discussing the first home game he ever attended as a fan earlier this fall. “I’m with my wife and she’s doing all this hand motions, and I said, ‘Gosh, what is this?’ and she says ‘Babe, you’ve got to catch up, everybody in the stadium does this.’ And I said, ‘Everybody?’ And she said, ‘Everybody from 2 years old knows how to do all these.’”
Add it all up, and it leaves opposing players and fans wondering what exactly they’ve gotten themselves into.
“They come out of there thinking, ‘There’s more than just a team in pads playing against our team,’” he said. “(They’re thinking) there are 100,000 people in there orchestrated to beat us.’”
There are plenty of other variables that make Tiger Stadium one of a kind, including, of course, a live tiger that awaits visitors in their tunnel to the field.
But Death Valley at night is one heck of a challenge to put into words.
“I don’t think you’ll ever put your finger on it,” said Borne’, who first started attending games at the stadium in the 1950s. “You have to be there to feel it, it’s visceral. It’s something that’s hard to describe. But you know it when you feel it.”
Brando, who has been to just about every big-time venue in college football, agrees. Night games at Tiger Stadium are an entity unto themselves.
“Everybody plays at night now, mostly to accommodate TV partners. But if you went, with your own eyes, anywhere else at night, it would not resemble an LSU game at night,” he said.
“The best way of summing it up is that it’s not a football experience. It’s just an experience. It’s a happening.
“It’s that unique. It’s, ‘Oh my gosh. What is this?’”