The Story of the Atlanta Flames as Told by Owner Thomas G. Cousins ©, 2018, Jim Weathersby, All Rights Reserved

Photo Courtesy of Rick Dikeman

Atlanta icon Tom Cousins owned the National Hockey League’s Atlanta Flames from 1971 to 1980, brought the National Basketball Association’s Hawks from St. Louis in 1968, and purchased the North American Soccer League’s Atlanta Chiefs from the Atlanta Braves in 1973. He also purchased and restored the East Lake Golf Club in 1995.  However, Mr. Cousins will always be remembered for his work in Atlanta outside of sports.

Through his company, Cousins Properties Incorporated, Mr. Cousins spent over four decades developing such Atlanta landmarks as the CNN Center, the 191 Peachtree Tower, the Bank of America Plaza, and the Wildwood Office Park in Cobb County.  His company also built the now-defunct Omni Coliseum for the Hawks and Flames.

Numerous philanthropic projects in Atlanta over the years received funds from Mr. Cousins, including those associated with the arts, education and religious organizations.  The Association of Fundraising Professionals, Greater Atlanta Chapter, named him 2015 Philanthropist of the Year.

Mr. Cousins graciously agreed to speak with me on the topic of his time as owner of the Flames.  Following is the transcription of that interview. Questions and answers have been edited or paraphrased for brevity and clarity.

 

Q:        How did the idea first surface to obtain a National Hockey League team?

A:        Well, my partners, at the time and I had a coliseum (the Omni) and the Decks (a 1,000 car, two-level deck near the Omni).  I bought the Hawks from the St. Louis owners in 1968, moved them to Atlanta and they played at Georgia Tech.  When the Omni was completed in 1972, I moved the Hawks into it.

Q:        How did the hockey team materialize?

A:        At the time (early 1970s), there were 14 hockey teams in the National Hockey League (NHL) and the League wanted to expand to two more.  We got an expansion team along with New York (the Islanders).  I think the League was worried about the World Hockey Association (WHA) and we took advantage of that.  The reason I wanted a team was because of the coliseum.  There were other cities that wanted a franchise but the NHL chose us.  I think they saw the opportunity to increase revenue and interest in the sport by adding a team in the Southeast.  I believe we paid $6.5 million for the team.

Q.        Did you think Atlanta was ready to support an ice hockey team?

A:        We thought that Atlanta was ready to support an NHL team, and it would have if the players’ salaries had stayed where they were.  It never occurred to us that that would be a problem.  We were profitable the first year or two but that was before the WHA came into being and player contracts went through the roof.

Q.     How did the name “Flames” come about?

A.      We had a contest to name the team.  It was a public contest. The name “Flames” was picked.

Q.      How did you choose the people to run the team?

A.       Cliff Fletcher was recommended by a consultant (Bill Putnam) for the General Manager position.  Cliff recommended Boom Boom (Bernie Geoffrion) to be the coach.  (Geoffrion) had been a great player for Montreal and New York.

Q.      How involved were you with the team as an owner?

A.    I didn’t plan to be involved with the Flames.  I wanted an arena.  Ivan Allen Jr. was the Atlanta mayor at the time and I wanted the city to build the arena.  However, I wound up having to build it and pay for it.  Allen and his people indicated they would build the arena if I got a basketball team to come to town, and the arena would be built where I wanted it (the site where the Omni stood).  So I started pursuing a team and Allen agreed to build an arena only after a team was in town.

Georgia Tech, at the time, had this little field house that had 5,400 seats.  St. Louis Hawks owner Ben Kerner, one of the original owners in the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the NHL, had many chips to call on and he got the other NBA owners to approve the sale of the Hawks to me and to approve the move to Atlanta and Georgia Tech based on a letter from the city stating that if the Hawks moved to Atlanta the city would immediately build an arena.

However, Allen then decided to build the arena next to the Civic Center, which was not where I wanted it.  I wanted it over there at the air rights (In 1966, attorney Bob Troutman owned the air rights over the Western and Atlantic Railroad yard.  He approached Cousins about an inexpensive lease of the air rights for a commercial development.  In order for Cousins to receive a low cost 80-year lease on the air rights he would have to commit to a $5 million commercial property by the end of the year.  Cousins agreed to build the parking garage (the Decks) with future plans for a 40-story office building on top.  Because few people would park in the Decks, Cousins built the Omni–broke ground in 1971 and completed in 1972–in hopes of increasing traffic to the area.  The Hawks and Flames were part of that plan.).

When Allen told me his plans for the arena, I became angry and told him that I would move the Hawks back to St. Louis or somewhere else before I would allow the team to play in an arena next to the Civic Center.  He got mad at me. We had a handshake agreement (to build the arena over the air rights) and he welshed (Cousins built the Omni and the infrastructure around it with the help of city bonds from Mayor Sam Massell’s administration, which succeeded Allen’s in 1970).

Q.        Thinking back on the operations of the team under your ownership, how did you feel about the revenue generated from the Omni, your marketing efforts, ticket sales, parking, television and radio?

A.        Well, we had a great advertising agency, McDonald & Little, and big billboards.  The “Ice Age” campaign was great.  We sold a lot of tickets in those early years.  As for the Omni, the Flames were a great tenant and we made profits in the early years.  We started losing money because of that competing league (WHA). Unfortunately, we only had three luxury suites in the Omni.  That was inadequate.  I would certainly have liked to have had more, but that was the way it (the Omni) was built.

We made money on parking, concessions and ticket sales those early years.  Everything fell off in the later years.  We tried to raise ticket prices when player salaries went up, but sales fell off and we went back to the original ticket prices.  Those prices weren’t adequate to cover the cost of the operations.

We had an okay radio deal with WSB but our television revenue was inadequate.  We didn’t have near what other (NHL) cities had because ice and skating in the Southeast…that did not make for a good television show.  We had a deal with Ted Turner’s station, but I don’t remember getting anything (revenue) from television for the Flames.

Q.         Attendance was good for the first three years of operation then it declined.  Why?

A.          The team really wasn’t that good.  People were disappointed in the performance and the economy was off a little bit.  That impacted it.

Q.         The team made the playoffs six out of its eight years in Atlanta but never won a playoff series.  

A.          We needed more outstanding players.  Being an expansion team, we didn’t get very good players from the other teams.  We just needed more time.

Q.          Let’s talk about what forced you to sell the Flames.  In the mid to late 1970s the economy was down.  You mentioned the poor economy, falling attendance and operations losses as problems during this period.  Are these the reasons that led to your thoughts of selling the team?

A.          Yes.  We were losing money.  I liked the team.  I liked the players.  They were raised in Canada and were fine gentlemen.  I would have continued to own the team after the move to Calgary but Canada had a law at the time called FIRA (Foreign Investment Review Act) that said that any business doing business in Canada had to be majority owned by Canadians—had to be at least 51 percent.  Well, I wasn’t going to have a bunch of partners—majority partners—in such a thing.  That’s why I decided to sell it.

Q.         Ted Turner bought the Hawks in 1977.  Did he ask you about buying the Flames as well?

A.          I offered to give them to him.  I also offered them to Delta (Airlines) and Coca-Cola, who were advertisers for me.  They wouldn’t have them (the Flames).  Nobody wanted them.  The reason was that the Flames were losing money.  They (Turner, Delta and Coca-Cola) didn’t think they could make any money off the Flames.  Turner wouldn’t take the gift because it wasn’t a good television sport.

Q.         Turner was instrumental in securing the Thrashers, Atlanta’s second NHL expansion team.

A.         Right.  I needled him at the time because he paid, I think, $78 million for the Thrashers.  I said, “I tried to give you the Flames.” Turner said, ‘Oh gosh. I forgot that.’   I said, “Well, don’t feel too bad.  You probably would have lost millions by now if you had owned the Flames.”  He felt kind of relieved after I said that.

Q.         A story came out in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on June 18, 2015 about Dan Bouchard, the former goalie with the Flames.  In that story, Bouchard states that some of the other NHL owners were skimming from the players’ pension fund and those owners were putting pressure on you to sell the Flames because they feared you would report their activity to the authorities.  Is this true?

A.         I don’t know about that.  Certainly, I wouldn’t have participated in that.  I don’t remember that.  I think that’s all imagination.

Q.        You sold the team in 1980.  Was there an opportunity to sell the team sooner?  

A.        We were making money at first, but then the arena, the Hawks and Flames all began to lose money.  My partners wanted to shut it down and were thinking about defaulting on the city bonds that we used for construction, which I was always concerned about protecting because by reputation I was involved in it.  I didn’t want to be a part of any kind of failure.  So, I let the other partners out of the ownership deal and took over everything myself, losses at that point.  The league (NHL) had already taken over a team or two that were going to declare bankruptcy.  I made a deal with the league.

Q.        So your partners wanted to default on the bonds and you did not because you didn’t want to damage your reputation.

A.        Right. I took over their interest.  They were going to bankrupt the team, give it up. So, I took it over and made a commitment to the league.  It took a unanimous vote (from NHL officials) to not only approve a new expansion but to approve a transfer.  And you would never get a unanimous vote on whether it was Saturday or not.  But I made a deal with them (in 1978) that I would try to operate for two more years and if we couldn’t make it (the franchise) break even then I was free to move it to some other city.  So after two years of four or five million dollars more in losses, I was ready to move the team out.  That’s the only reason I would sell it.  As I said, I loved it.  I would have moved it and owned it in Calgary if I could have.

Q.         Once it was clear that you were going to sell the team, did anyone or any group, like the city, step forward and offer to help you financially in order to keep the team in Atlanta?

A.           No.  Nobody would.  I didn’t ask them (the city) for help.  As I said, I offered to give it to Turner, Delta Airlines and Coca-Cola to keep it in Atlanta.  No one thought the Flames could be profitable.  No way to turn it around, to keep it from losing money.  Player salaries kept rising because of the competition from the other league (WHA).

Q.         I read where actor Glenn Ford made an offer for the team.

A.         That was a sham.  He never made an offer.  The press announced it and made something of it, but it never was.  The joke was played on him by some of his friends.

Q.         You struck a deal with Canadian businessman Nelson Skalbania to relocate the team to Calgary.  Was the deal for just the Flames or was the Omni or any of your other real estate holdings involved?

A.          He bought the Flames only. He offered to pay 16 million in Canadian dollars, but I told him I wanted 16 million in US dollars because I knew Skalbania would pay that and more. He agreed to $16 million US.

Q.        What kind of feedback were you receiving when you were going through the process of selling the team?  

A.         I think we had some negative press.  Nobody wants to lose a sports team, whether they were supporting it or not.

Q.        Any kind of feedback after the sale was final?

A.         Not really.  I guess there wasn’t much anyone could say.  I offered to give it away if they would agree to keep it in Atlanta.  My oldest daughter married one of the players, a great guy named Brad Marsh.  As much for that than any other reason I wanted to keep the Flames in Atlanta.  I respected the players.  Several of them moved to or kept their homes in Atlanta–Tom Lysiak and Willi Plett. Of course, Dan Bouchard. Tim Ecclestone.

Q.        Do you have any regrets associated with the Flames?

A.        I would say none really.  Like I said, I liked the players and I liked the game and I would have been happy to have owned them in Canada. But they wouldn’t let me do it because of that law (FIRA).

Q.        Would you have done anything differently?

A.        You know, the circumstances at the time…that was the best thing that I could do.

Q.        What do you think about the Thrashers’ situation?  

A.         The group (Atlanta Spirit Group) that he (Ted Turner) sold them to was a bunch of sports nuts, but they were lousy managers.

Q.        Both the Flames and Thrashers left for Canada. Were the factors that led to the moves similar or different in your opinion?  

A.        Completely different.

Q.        Atlanta grew dramatically between the early 1970s and 2000.  It became much more of an international city in the 1990s.  Do you think that if the Thrashers had better owners the franchise would have survived in Atlanta?

A.         Yes. I think they could have.

Q.        Will Atlanta ever get another NHL team?

A.         That’s a good question.  Your guess is as good as mine.  We have a lot of people who have moved here from traditional hockey areas and more and more are coming.  So maybe somewhere in the distant future the city will get another team.

 

 

 

The Iron Bowl

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This rivalry goes by the title of “The Iron Bowl.” The name conjures images of gritty blue-collar men working in blazing hot steel foundries. In fact, the name comes from the iron and steel industry located in Birmingham, the home of the rivalry for 44 straight games, and the intensity and heat associated with the rivalry make the name even more appropriate. The University of Alabama Crimson Tide and the Auburn University Tigers battle one another to the death each season in the Iron Bowl game. Auburn College Football Hall of Fame coach Ralph “Shug” Jordan came up with the moniker before the 1980 contest. The venom and disdain that the fans from one side have for the other do not just commence during the days leading up to the game, as in most rivalries, but rage on every day of the year. Alabama fans refer to Auburn people as “Barners,” in reference to Auburn’s early years as an agricultural school, while Auburn fans claim that Alabama’s most famous graduate is Forest Gump.

Justin Hokanson, in a 2008 article for “bleacherreport.com,” breaks down the rivalry within families.

Brothers and sisters watch the game in separate rooms, maybe even separate houses,

because they don’t want to kill each other in the process. Parents and children don’t

talk to each other. There are even parents that don’t allow their children to go to one

school or the other simply because they graduated from the rival school.

Alabama leads the series 45-35-1. Auburn won the first two games in 1893 in Birmingham, then Montgomery. Alabama picked up its first win in 1894 in Montgomery while Auburn took the next two in Tuscaloosa and Montgomery. The series took a brief hiatus from 1896 through 1899 before resuming in 1900. The schools then met every year through the 1907 game, after which the series ended for almost 40 years. At that time, Auburn led the series 7-4-1 and the games had been played in Birmingham the last four years. The University of Alabama is much closer to Birmingham than Auburn and Auburn officials demanded more per diem for the players. Auburn also wanted to allow more players to travel for the game and a different process for choosing the officials for the game. Alabama officials would not agree to any of Auburn’s demands and the series ended.

After pressure from the state legislature, the two school presidents agreed to re-start the series in 1948 in Birmingham because 44,000-seat Legion Field was the largest stadium in the state. Before the game, the presidents of the respective student government associations buried a hatchet in Woodrow Wilson Park to represent the end of the argument. Alabama proceeded to win the game 55-0, the most lopsided victory in the series.

The game remained in Birmingham through the 1988 contest, after which Auburn moved its home games to Auburn. Alabama continued to hold its home game in the series at Legion Field through 1998 but began hosting Auburn in Tuscaloosa in 2000 after the expansion of Bryant-Denny stadium to over 80,000 seats. The games have rotated between the two campuses since then. Alabama owns a 34-18-1 record in games played at Legion Field, while Auburn is 7-4 in Tuscaloosa and 8-5 in Auburn.

The winner of each game receives the Foy-ODK Sportsmanship trophy, named after James E. Foy, a former dean at both schools and the Faculty Secretary of  Omicron Delta Kappa Honor Society at both schools. The trophy is presented at halftime of the winner’s home basketball game against the loser. After the presentation, the Student Government Association president from the losing school sings the winning school’s fight song. Granted, the singing sessions may have had many memorable moments over the years but probably will not top any of the memories from the gridiron battles.

The 1967 game at Legion Field became known as the “Run in the Mud.” With Auburn leading Alabama 3-0 in a torrential downpour in the fourth quarter, Tide quarterback Ken Stabler broke loose for a 53-yard touchdown that gave the Tide the lead and an eventual 7-3 victory.

The 1981 game, also at Legion Field, became the 315th career victory for Alabama Hall of Fame coach Paul “Bear” Bryant.  Alabama won 28-17.  Bryant passed Amos Alonzo Stagg for career wins for a Division IA coach.

Freshman Bo Jackson broke Auburn’s nine-game losing streak in the series in 1982. With the Tigers trailing 22-17 late in the fourth quarter, Jackson, on fourth-and-goal, took a handoff from quarterback Randy Campbell, then leaped on top of the Tide defense before stretching the ball over the goal line. Auburn broke the streak with a 23-22 victory.

For Auburn fans, the second most memorable game in the series may have occurred in 1989. With the addition of the west upper deck in 1980 and the east upper deck in 1987, Jordan-Hare Stadium reached a capacity of over 85,000 seats, the largest stadium in Alabama at that time. Auburn fans always felt Legion Field was a home-field advantage for the Tide. Now that the school had a stadium bigger than Legion Field, the time was right to move their home games in the series to Auburn. After the 1987 game, Auburn athletics director and coach Pat Dye requested that all future Auburn home games in the series be moved to Jordan-Hare. The first game in Auburn took place on December 2, 1989. With over 85,000 rabid Tiger fans in attendance, Auburn beat Alabama, 30-20. After the game, a member of the media asked Dye what it felt like leading the team on to the field. Dye responded, “I’m sure that (the scene) must have resembled what went on the night the wall came down in Berlin. I mean, it was like (Auburn fans) had been freed, and let out of bondage, just having this game at Auburn.”

The 2009 game in Auburn was a different story. Undefeated Alabama trailed a 7-4 Auburn team into the fourth quarter, but the Tide went on a seven minute, 15-play, 80-yard drive to take the lead, 26-21. Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy hit receiver Julio Jones four times during the drive and finished it with a four yard pass to running back Roy Upchurch for the go ahead touchdown with 1:24 on the clock. The Tide defense turned away a last minute Auburn drive to secure the victory. Alabama then beat Florida in the Southeastern Conference Championship (SEC) game before besting Texas for the national title.

Finally, the most memorable game for Auburn fans and arguably the most memorable game in series history is the game known as the “Kick Six.” With the 2013 contest tied 28 all at Jordan-Hare, Alabama lined up for a 57-yard field goal with one second on the clock. A Tide victory would send Alabama to the SEC Championship game and a possible chance for a fourth national title in five years. Alabama kicker Adam Griffith’s attempt fell short and Auburn corner back Chris Davis caught it. As Davis began to run up the field, Alabama’s defenders seemed to be caught off guard, unsure if the play was still live. Indeed it was. Davis outran the few defenders trying to stop him for a 109-yard touchdown with no time on the clock. Auburn won the game 34-28, shocking the Tide and the rest of the college football world.

Intensity, heat, bitterness, and pride are some of the words that describe the emotions of the Iron Bowl. This rivalry is more than just a game. It is a way of life for people in the state of Alabama. For the victors, a certain satisfaction and euphoria permeate their souls for the next 365 days. For the vanquished–bitterness, rancor, and a sense of doom live with them until the possibility of redemption associated with the next game. Of all the great Deep South rivalries, the Iron Bowl may be the greatest of all.

 

 

Third Saturday in October: Alabama-Tennessee Rivalry

 

 

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The Third Saturday in October can only mean one thing: the University of Alabama Crimson Tide (Tide) and the University of Tennessee Volunteers (Vols) are about to strap on the helmets extra tight in anticipation of another physical, blood-letting battle on the football field. One of the fiercest rivalries in the Deep South used to take place on the third Saturday in October but when the Southeastern Conference split the league into two divisions in 1992, the game began to gravitate among dates somewhere between the middle to late October. For decades Alabama and Tennessee fans have had a saying: Don’t get married on the third Saturday in October. Sports journalist Beano Cook added, “Don’t die on the third Saturday in October, since the preacher may not show up.”

Alabama officially leads the series 53-38-7. The National Collegiate Athletic Association NCAA) forced Alabama to forfeit the 1993 game, a 17-17 tie, and vacate the 2005 game, a 6-3 Alabama win, because of rules violations. The series has been marked by winning streaks on both sides, and generally, those were directly correlated to the side that had the College Football Hall of Fame coach at the time.  The first game in 1901 between the two schools ended in a 6-6 tie in Birmingham. From 1903 through 1913, Alabama forged an 8-1 record against Tennessee while holding the Vols scoreless. The series took a hiatus until 1928.

Alabama Hall of Fame coach Wallace Wade led the Tide to three national championships from 1925-1930 while Hall of Fame coach Robert Neyland, known as the General, began his tenure at Tennessee in 1926. The coaches became friends and agreed to re-start the series in 1928, a 15-13 University of Tennessee (UT) win. Neyland’s Vols won a tight 6-0 victory over Wade’s Tide in 1929 but Wade gained a measure of revenge with an 18-6 triumph on the way to the 1930 national championship. Wade left for Duke University after that memorable 1930 season and the series pendulum swung in Neyland’s and Tennessee’s favor. Neyland coached at Tennessee from 1926-1952, with the exceptions of 1935 and 1941-1945. His record against Alabama was 12-5-2.

Alabama won the 1935 game, 25-0. In that game, senior end Paul “Bear” Bryant played the entire contest with a broken leg. After the game, Bryant shrugged it off stating, “It was one little bone.”

Such toughness inspired the University of Kentucky to hire Bryant as its head coach in 1946. Kentucky played Neyland’s Volunteers seven times during Bryant’s period as coach, but the General outflanked the Bear winning five times, with no losses, and two ties. In his book Third Saturday in October, Al Browning stated that those losses to Neyland fueled Bryant’s intense desire to defeat Tennessee while serving as Alabama’s head coach.

Bryant took over the reins at Alabama in 1958 and coached there until his retirement after the 1982 season. The Hall of Fame coach swung the series pendulum back to Alabama. Bryant’s teams struggled against Tennessee from 1958-1960 as the Volunteers tallied a 2-0-1 record against the Bear. However, the Tide broke through in 1961 with a resounding 34-3 victory. After that game, Alabama trainer Jim Goostree, a UT graduate, started a tradition that continues today. Goostree dispensed cigars to the players and coaches to celebrate the victory. After every game since then, the winning team has broken out the cigars. The NCAA considers this practice a violation of its rules, so the winning team immediately reports itself afterwards.

Under Bryant, Alabama dominated the series with 16 wins, seven losses, and two ties and won 11 in a row from 1971 to 1981. The Bear used the games against Tennessee as a barometer for his teams. According to Browning, the Bear once declared, “You found out what kind of person you were when you played against Tennessee.”

From 1983 through 1991, Alabama won six of the nine games. Tennessee coach Johnny Majors beat the Bear in 1982 but proceeded to lose six out of the next eight, which directly led to his termination. The pendulum swung back to Tennessee when Hall of Famer Phillip Fulmer took over as coach in 1992.

Fulmer compiled an 11-5 record against the Tide, including the forfeited 1993 tie and the 2005 vacated Alabama win. During Fulmer’s tenure, the Vols won nine of 10 versus Alabama from 1995-2004. Arguably, his most memorable game facing the Tide came in 2003 when the Vols beat the Tide in five overtimes, 51-43. Fulmer had great respect for the rivalry, “It’s important for our players to realize that the guys on both sides that have worn the orange and white or the crimson and white forever look at this third Saturday of October as being special.”

When future Hall of Fame coach Nick Saban took over at Alabama in 2007, the pendulum swung hard back to the Tide. Saban has led the Tide to ten consecutive victories over the Volunteers by an average score of 35-12.

The games played on or close to the Third Saturday of October have seen Hall of Fame coaches strolling both sidelines, gutty performances on the field, and an intensity only a few rivalries in any sport can claim. This rivalry symbolizes everything that people love about college football. So whether you are a fan of Alabama or Tennessee or some other school, light up a victory cigar to celebrate all those people who have given their all or who will give their all on the Third Saturday of October!

 

 

Atlanta Professional Soccer: Who Knew?

Sports historians date a form of the game of soccer, or football as the rest of the world calls it, to China about 2,000 years ago.  The first recorded sighting of the game in Atlanta came in 1912 when amateur players gathered at Piedmont Park to play.  Leagues began to form in the 1920s and 1930s and Emory University started the first collegiate program in 1958. The game remained secondary to other sports until 1966.  During that year the World Cup in England sparked worldwide interest in soccer and professional sports finally came to Atlanta with the inaugural seasons of the Braves and Falcons.  In fact, Braves Vice President Dick Cecil led the charge to bring a team to Atlanta Stadium because of the hope of additional revenue that the game could produce.   Cecil, with the blessing of other Braves owners, purchased a team to begin play in 1967 during the initial season of the National Professional Soccer League (NPSL). The seeds of professional soccer in Atlanta were planted at this point.

One of Cecil’s first hires proved to be a home run when Phil Woosnam took over as general manager and coach.  Woosnam had played the game at the highest levels with English powers West Ham and Aston Villa.  With that pedigree, Woosnam knew the type of athlete he wanted in Atlanta and with the help and resources of Cecil, the two scoured Europe, Africa and the Caribbean to sign players for the new team, which took the name “Chiefs” because of its affiliation with the Braves.  After player tryouts at Emory, the Chiefs’ training facility, Woosnam settled on the final roster for the season.  The Chiefs finished with a 9-10-12 record and finished fourth in the East Division.  Attendance for the first year was almost 7,000 a game.  After the 1967 season the NPSL merged with the United Soccer Association to form the North American Soccer League (NASL).

Arguably, the pinnacle of professional soccer in Atlanta came in 1968.  The Chiefs began play in March and battled into September, finishing the regular season with an 18-6-7 record. The club then dispatched Cleveland and San Diego in the playoffs to claim the NASL championship. Yes, the Chiefs won the city’s first professional sports championship.

However, three brushes with international royalty may have been more exciting than the league championship.  First, the English Premier League champion Manchester City came to Atlanta Stadium in May.  Before more than 23,000 fans, the Chiefs shocked Manchester City and the world by winning 3-2.  Angry and embarrassed, Manchester players and management demanded a rematch.  A month later, the two teams met again before almost 26,000 patrons.  Proving the first outcome was no fluke, the Chiefs beat the lordly English team once again, 2-1.  All the English players could offer as an excuse after their second defeat was the Atlanta heat.

Emboldened by their European conquests, the Chiefs convinced the Santos Football Club of Brazil to play a match at the end of August.  Santos had a young star on the team by the name of Pele.  Before almost 27,000 delirious soccer nuts, Pele and Santos put on a show.  Behind the superstar’s three goals, Santos brought the Chiefs back to earth with a resounding 6-2 thrashing of the home team.  Still, the 1968 Chiefs finished 2 and 1 in international contests and won their league championship.  Unfortunately, the club could not sustain the momentum.

The Chiefs played before modest crowds of 3,000 to 5,000 fans from 1969 through 1972 and could not secure another championship.  At the end of the ’72season, Tom Cousins and the Hawks’ ownership bought the team. The Chiefs became the Atlanta Apollos and played at Bobby Dodd Stadium on the Georgia Tech campus for the 1973 season.  After one season, the franchise folded.  Yet, the Chiefs would re-emerge behind Ted Turner.

Turner purchased the Atlanta Braves in 1976 and Dick Cecil remained with the organization.  NASL began a comeback in the late 1970s when the New York Cosmos lured such international stars as Pele to compete for the team.  Turner and Cecil purchased NASL’s Colorado Caribous in August 1978 and the new team, renamed the Chiefs, began play in Atlanta Stadium during the 1979 season.  The team struggled on the field and with attendance through 1981, when the franchise folded.  The Chiefs also participated in NASL’s winter indoor league during the 1979-80 and 1980-81 seasons in the Omni.  Attendance for the indoor games was better than the league average but the combined revenue for the indoor and outdoor seasons could not save the team.

Professional soccer in Atlanta witnessed an array of teams dribble in and out of the city over the next 35 years.  The Georgia Generals played one season in 1982 before folding.  Seven years later, the Atlanta Attack played in an indoor league from 1989-1991 before moving to Kansas City.  From 1991-1996, the Atlanta Magic played indoors with the United States Indoor Soccer League and won three championships.  The team also participated three seasons in the league’s outdoor version. Keeping with Atlanta soccer tradition, the Magic folded after the 1995-96 indoor season.

The Atlanta Ruckus began play in the outdoor American Professional Soccer League (APSL) in 1995.  The APSL renamed itself the A-League in 1996 and the league took over operations of the Ruckus following that season.  In 1998, the team found new owners, who changed the team name to the Silverbacks in honor of Willie B., a silverback gorilla at the Atlanta Zoo.

The Silverbacks continued to play in the United Soccer League before moving to the new North American Soccer League for the 2010 season.  The team folded in 2016 but re-emerged as an entrant in the National Premier Soccer League for the 2017 season.

Women’s professional soccer waltzed into Atlanta in the form of the Atlanta Beat. They played in the Women’s United Soccer Association from 2001-03, before the league folded and again in the Women’s Professional Soccer league from 2009-11, before that league folded.

Even with professional teams coming and going, Atlanta has demonstrated a passion for soccer.  Atlanta boasts a diverse population of over 6.5 million people, many of whom are passionate about the game.  When soccer matches involving international teams came to the Georgia Dome in recent years, fans packed the building.

Falcons owner Arthur Blank realized the passion for soccer in Atlanta and purchased a Major League Soccer (MLS) franchise for the city in 2014.  In its inaugural season in 2017, Atlanta United FC leads North America’s highest ranked professional league in attendance.

Will the passion for Atlanta United continue as the seasons accumulate or will the franchise fade away into oblivion like so many of its Atlanta predecessors?  As Dick Cecil stated in 2013, “Atlanta is a big-event town.  They like the big event, they like to see winners…It (Atlanta United) will be successful at first. But you have to work it (to maintain the market share).”

From its auspicious start in 1968 with the Chiefs through the Dark Ages of the 1970s-2000s to the Renaissance with Atlanta United, professional soccer in Atlanta has survived.  The bet here is that professional soccer will thrive and flourish in this diverse city for years to come.  A-T-L!  A-T-L! A-T-L!

 

 

Willie Anderson

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Born in North Berwick, Scotland in 1879, Willie Anderson moved to the United States at the age of 16.  He was the first golfer to win four United States Opens—1901, 1903, 1904, and 1905.  He remains the only man to win three consecutive U. S. Open titles, and only Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus can equal his four U. S. Open championships.

Anderson began to develop his golf knowledge and skills at an early age, serving as a licensed caddie at 11 while in Scotland.  While in his teens, he also served as an apprentice club maker. Once in America, Anderson obtained a job as the golf professional at Misquamicut Golf Club in Rhode Island.   He worked at 10 different clubs in 14 years.

At 20 years of age, Anderson won his first professional tournament, the Southern California Open, but the U. S. Open became Anderson’s playground.  He played in the U. S. Open fourteen times from 1897-1910.  Besides winning four times, he finished in the Top 5 in 11 of the tournaments. He used the gutta percha ball to win the title in 1901 but won the other three with the newly invented Haskell rubber-cored ball. He still owns the honor of the only man to win U. S. Opens with the two different balls, one that he certainly will own in perpetuity.

Anderson also dominated the second-largest professional golf tournament in the United States at the time, the Western Open—winning in 1902, 1904, 1908, and 1909.  In the 1902 contest, Anderson became the first professional golfer in United States history to break a score of 300 in a 72-hole tournament.

His peers marveled at Anderson’s club accuracy and concentration under pressure.  These skills and his professional victories, particularly those in the United States Open, served as the basis for his election into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1975.

Anderson died from epilepsy at the age of 31. Cheers to one of golf’s early greats!

The U. S. Open: America’s National Golf Championship

Dustin Johnson Photo Courtesy of Keith Allison

Theodore Havemeyer returned to his summer home in Newport, Rhode Island in 1889, after playing golf in southern France, determined to play the game again somewhere closer to home.  Havemeyer, and others like him, had a limited number of options for a round of golf in the Newport area or in the United States at that time.  While the game of golf had sprung deep roots in Scotland and England, it had inspired limited interest in the United States.  Those who played generally came from wealthy backgrounds and belonged to the smattering of private golf clubs around the country.  The undeterred Havemeyer persuaded some of the area’s upper crust–John Jacob Astor IV, Perry Belmont, and Cornelius Vanderbilt II–to buy a 140-acre farm property in 1893 with the intent to establish a golf club.  That club would become the Newport Country Club.  Not satisfied with a venue for his golfing buddies, Havemeyer wanted to host national championships at his new course.  In 1894, he held a tournament for some of the best amateurs in the United States at the new club.  That tournament would be one of two National Amateur Championships that year, the other held at the Chicago Golf Club.

Hoping for a single amateur championship every year, Havemeyer prompted a meeting in December at New York City’s Calumet Club with representatives of four other golf clubs:  St. Andrews Golf Club in Yonkers, New York; Shinnecock Hills Golf Club on Long Island; The Country Club of Brookline, Massachusetts; and the Chicago Golf Club.  The representatives agreed that the Newport Country Club would host the first U. S. Amateur Championship, confined strictly to amateurs, and the first U. S. Open Championship, for professionals and amateurs, in 1895.  In addition, the representatives formed the Amateur Golf Association to administer the national amateur championship and the Rules of Golf for the United States.   Soon afterwards the name changed to the United States Golf Association (USGA) to order to include both amateurs and professionals, and Havemeyer became the USGA’s first president.  The U. S. Amateur trophy is named in his honor.

The U. S. Open started as almost an afterthought.  It took place the day after the U. S. Amateur at the Newport Golf Club in 1895.  Both tournaments were originally scheduled for September but were pushed back to October so as not to interfere with the America’s Cup yacht races, a more established Newport competition.  The first U. S. Open unfolded over a nine-hole course at the Club in a single day. Ten professionals and one amateur competed in the 36-hole competition for an overall purse of $335 and a $50 gold medal.  Englishman Horace Rawlins won the first tournament and the grand sum of $150, plus the gold medal.  By contrast, 2016 winner Dustin Johnson took home $1.8 million.

Because Rawlins was an assistant golf pro at the Newport Golf Club, the Club received the USGA-sponsored Open Championship Cup trophy.   Winners of the U. S. Open today take possession of the trophy until the next Open when it must be returned to USGA officials.

For a decade and a half British professionals won the U. S. Open Championship, but in 1911 John J. McDermott became the first American winner.  McDermott accomplished the feat again the next year before American amateur Francis Ouimet pulled off one of the greatest upsets in sports history.  At the Country Club of Brookline in 1913, Ouimet defeated in a playoff arguably the world’s best professional golfers of the day–Britain’s Harry Vardon and Ted Ray.  Considered one of the great upsets in sports history, Ouimet’s victory spurred an interest in golf in the United States that eventually would lead to the obsession that it is today.  After Ouimet’s triumph, the sport moved from that of the ultra-rich to a game shared by people from many different socio-economic levels.  According to USGA historian Michael Trostel, Ouimet’s conquest prompted the addition of about two million Americans to the list of golf participants over the next decade.  Also, more golf courses, both public and private, emerged in the United States to meet the demand.

The prestige of the U. S. Open grew rapidly and players from around the world competed for one of its coveted spots.   The USGA began sectional qualifying in 1924 to meet the demand.    The tournament ‘s and the sport’s popularity skyrocketed again in the 1920s as amateur Bobby Jones won three U. S. Open titles and then a fourth in 1930 on his way to winning the Grand Slam–U. S. Open, British Open, U. S. Amateur and British Amateur.  Only five amateurs have ever won the U. S. Open:  Jones, Ouimet, Jerome D. Travers (1915), Charles Evans, Jr. ( 1916), and John Goodman (1933).

The design of the U. S. Open courses over time has allowed only the best to win the tournament, and amateurs now have very little chance.  The courses today generally are very long with  narrow fairways and high primary rough around those fairways.  They also generally include undulating greens.  An example of such greens can be found at Pinehurst No. 2, of which NBC analyst Johnny Miller compares trying to land a shot on the greens to “trying to hit a ball on top of a VW Beetle.”  The vast majority of U. S. Open courses play at par 70.  All of these elements normally lead to a winning score somewhere close to par.  Because of this the U. S. Open has the reputation as the most difficult of the four majors–U. S. Open, British Open, the Masters, and PGA Championship–to play.

The U. S. Open format has changed several times since the inaugural tournament in 1895.  In 1896, the championship became a 72-hole contest with 36 holes played each day for two successive days.  The format changed again in 1926 with participants playing 18 holes for two successive days, then 36 holes the next day.  The current format took hold in 1965 as the contestants began to play 18 holes over four successive days.

Ties after 72 holes are decided by the players involved playing an additional 18 holes the next day.  If after 18 holes a champion has not been crowned then sudden death ensues. The first player to win a hole outright is declared the winner.  The U. S. Open is the only major that uses this playoff format.

While the U. S. Open’s four-day format provided more exposure for the tournament, television helped launch it to new levels of popularity beginning with ABC’s live coverage of the final two rounds in 1977, then ESPN’s live coverage of the first two rounds in 1982.  NBC became the first network to provide live television coverage of all four rounds.  Currently, Fox Sports televises the four-day spectacle.

Four men who have won the U. S. Open four times:  Willie Anderson (1901, 1903, 1904, and 1905), Bobby Jones (1923, 1926, 1929, and 1930), Ben Hogan (1948, 1950, 1951, and 1953), and Jack Nicklaus (1962, 1967, 1972, and 1980).  The United States has produced 82 U. S. Open champions with the rest of the 34 winners divided among England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, and Argentina.

Fifty-one private and public courses have hosted the 116 U. S. Opens—Oakmont Country Club in Oakmont, Pennsylvania has hosted 9; Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, New Jersey boasts 7; Oakland Hills Country Club in Bloomfield Township, Michigan can claim 6; while Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, New York; Merion Golf Club in Haverford Township, Pennsylvania; The Olympic Club in San Francisco, California; and Pebble Beach Golf Links in Pebble Beach, California have all hosted 5 U. S. Opens.  The 117th edition will be played at Erin Hills, in Erin, Wisconsin, a public course.

Today, more than 9,000 golfers participate in sectional qualifiers across the world hoping to claim one of the available spots in the 156 player field.  Qualifiers are open to men and women, both professional and amateurs.  However, an amateur must have a USGA Handicap Index no higher than 1.4 to participate in one of the sectionals.

After its meager beginnings in Newport in 1895 as a secondary sporting event, the U. S. Open now plays on some of the most majestic courses in America and holds the attention of the sporting world for four days in June every year.  Theodore Havemeyer would certainly be amazed at how the acorn he planted over 100 years ago has grown into the mighty oak that it is today.

 

Old Tom Morris and Young Tom Morris

 

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Old Tom Morris on the left and Young Tom on the right

Two of the early pioneers of golf made their mark in Great Britain in the nineteenth century.  They just happened to be father and son—Old Tom Morris and Young Tom Morris.

Old Tom was born in St. Andrews, Scotland in 1821 and later became an apprentice to Allan Robertson in the city. Robertson is considered by golf historians to be the first professional golfer. He made balls stuffed with feathers and taught the skill to Morris. Legend has it that when the two played together against other golfers, they never lost. However, when the gutta percha ball came into being, this caused a permanent rift between the two men. Robertson steadfastly adhered to the feathery ball and wanted Morris to do the same, but Morris realized that the new ball would change the game for the better and moved to Prestwick Golf Links in 1849.

At Prestwick, Morris became the “greenskeeper.” Prestwick hosted the first British Open in 1860 and Morris finished second. However, Morris won four Opens in the decade—1861, 1862, 1864, and 1867.

Morris returned to St. Andrews in 1865 as the club’s greenskeeper, a position he held until 1904.  He also established a shop for making clubs near the 18th green. Today, the 18th green at St. Andrews is named in his honor.

Besides being known as a skillful keeper of the grounds, Morris designed or remodeled about 75 golf courses, including Pestwick, Royal Dornoch, Muirfield, Carnoustie, Royal County Down, Nairn, and Cruden Bay. In 1899, Morris had an apprentice groundskeeper by the name of Donald Ross, widely known as one of the best golf course designers in the history of golf.

Morris still holds two British Open records—oldest champion (age 46 in 1867) and largest victory margin (13 in 1862). He also participated in every Open through 1895. Old Tom Morris passed away in 1908, but he outlived his son by about 30 years.

Young Tom Morris was also born in St. Andrews, in 1851.  Many golf historians consider Young Morris the best golfer of his time. He trained under his father at Prestwick and beat his dad for the first time at the age of 13.  At 14 Young Morris played in the British Open for the first time and at 16 he won a professional tournament at Carnoustie.

Young Morris won his first British Open in 1868 at the age of 17.  He still holds the record for the youngest to win one of the four major championships –British Open, United States Open, the Masters, and the PGA Championship. Old Morris finished second, which marked the only time that a father and son finished first and second in any major event.

Young Morris captured the Open title again in 1869 and 1870. The winner of the Open during this period received a belt entitled the Challenge Belt. However, the rules stipulated that if anyone won the belt in three successive years then that person would permanently own the belt. Morris took the belt after his 1870 title, which left the Open with no prize to give out the next year. In fact, the Open did not take place in 1871 largely because officials could not decide on what to give the winner. For the 1872 Open, the officials came up with the Claret Jug, which is awarded to the Open champion to this day. Fittingly, Young Morris won the first Claret Jug in 1872.

Morris died on Christmas day in 1875 of an unknown ailment. Several months earlier his wife and baby died while she was giving birth. Many people at the time surmised that he died of a broken heart.

Both Old Tom Morris and Young Tom Morris are members of the World Golf Hall of Fame. They both played an integral role in the development of the game during the last half of the 19th century and laid the foundation for the game as it moved into the 20th century. So raise a pint in honor of two golf pioneers!

The Beginnings and the Traditions of the Kentucky Derby

Photo Courtesy of Velo Steve

Photo Courtesy of Velo Steve

It is known as “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports.”  Thousands gather at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky on the first Saturday in May every year to watch “The Run for the Roses.”  Women wear their finest clothes, accessories, and hats. Spectators sip on Mint Juleps and eat burgoo.  A band plays “My Old Kentucky Home” before the event. This can only be the Kentucky Derby, a horse race that has run on Kentucky soil since 1875.  The race has the distinction of the longest running sporting event in America and has not missed a year, even during World Wars I & II.  Let’s take a look at how this race came to be and some of the traditions of one of the greatest international sporting events.

Meriwether Lewis Clark, grandson of William Clark of the famous Lewis and Clark expedition, traveled to Europe in 1872.  While in England, Clark witnessed the Epsom Derby, a one mile and a half horse race.  Afterwards, Clark made his way to Paris where he met a group of horse racing fans called the French Jockey Club.  This club organized and ran the Grand Prix de Paris, the most famous horse race in France at the time.  Clark’s experiences in England and France fueled a desire for a similar race in his home state of Kentucky.

Soon after his return to the Bluegrass state, Clark met with John and Henry Churchill, two of his uncles.  The uncles gave Clark land near Louisville to build a racing facility.  In order to raise funds for the construction of the facility, Clark organized the Louisville Jockey Club (LJC), a group of local race fans.  Clark and the LJC raised the funds to build a race track and the first Kentucky Derby, named after the Epsom race, took place on May 17, 1875.  About 10,000 spectators saw Aristides finish first out of 15, three-year-old thoroughbred horses racing for one and a half miles.  Clark limited the race to three-year-old horses because this was the tradition of the great European races such as the Epsom Derby and the Grand Prix de Paris.  European horse enthusiasts believed the three-year-old horses comprised the best group of racers because they were physically mature enough for high speed around a track and still raw enough to offer the element of surprise so essential to wagering.  Horses develop full physical maturity at age four and at that time it would be clear which horses were dominant and which were not.  So horses four years and older lacked the element of surprise necessary for wagering.

The race track became known as “Churchill Downs” in 1883, and the legendary Twin Spires became a Derby fixture in 1895.  Beginning in 1896 the race became the mile and a quarter competition that it is today.  Racing officials believed a mile and a half distance too long for three-year-old thoroughbreds to run in May.  Also that year, Derby winner Ben Brush became the first victor to receive a floral arrangement of roses, white and pink.  The red rose became the official flower of the Derby in 1904, but the first horse to receive the now-famous garland of 554 red roses was Burgoo King in 1932.

Regret became the first filly to win the Derby in 1915, while Sir Barton, in 1919, won the Derby then became the first horse to win the Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing—the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes.  Bill Corum, a sports columnist for the New York Evening Journal and the New York Journal-American, used the phrase “Run for the Roses” for the first time in 1925.  The first Saturday in May became the permanent date for the Derby in 1931, and in 1940, New Orleans Times-Picayune writer Bill Keefe described the Derby for the first time as, “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports.”

Diane Crump took the reins as the first female jockey in 1970, finishing 15th out of 18 horses in the field.  Finally, Secretariat recorded the fastest time in Derby history in 1973 with a 1:59:40 finish on the way to the Triple Crown.

Certainly spectators watching Secretariat’s historical run enjoyed many of the Derby traditions, including Mint Juleps.  The official drink of the Derby consists of bourbon, mint and sugar.  Fans may have also been eating a bowl of burgoo, a thick stew of beef, chicken, pork and vegetables.  While sipping Mint Juleps and eating burgoo, many of the ladies in the audience undoubtedly wore lavish outfits with large hats.  Of course, while Secretariat paraded before the grandstands before the race, fans heard the University of Louisville band’s rendition of Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home.”

The 143nd version of “The Run for the Roses” or “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports” takes place on May 6.  If you can’t be at Churchill Downs, celebrate William Clark’s brainchild somewhere with at least a Mint Julep and a bowl of burgoo.  Big hats, red roses, and a CD of “My Old Kentucky Home” are optional.

Peach Bowl History

Courtesy UserB

Courtesy UserB

Atlanta’s Peach Bowl showcased its first game in 1968 and is the fifth oldest college bowl game behind the Rose Bowl (1902), the Orange Bowl (1935), the Sugar Bowl (1935), and the Cotton Bowl (1937).  The Peach Bowl joined the College Football Playoff (CFP) system in 2014 and is one of only six Bowl games that are eligible to host a national semi-final game or the national championship game.  The Peach Bowl is hosting this year the semi-final game between Alabama and Washington. When it’s not hosting the semi-finals or the championship, the Peach Bowl will host two of the highest ranked teams not in one of the four semi-final slots.  The bowl has come a long way since its meager beginnings.

The Peach Bowl originated as a fund-raiser for the Lions Clubs of Georgia but in its early years struggled with attendance, revenue, and bad weather.  The first three games (1968-1970) took place at Georgia Tech’s Grant Field and moved to Fulton County Stadium for the 1971-1992 games.  Since 1993 the Georgia Dome has been home to the Peach Bowl.  The game will move into the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium after the 2017 college football season when the Peach Bowl will host the CFP national championship game.

In a December 14, 2015 article by Corey Clark in the Tallahassee Democrat, Clark spoke with Peach Bowl President and CEO Gary Stokan.  Stokan stated that the bowl game’s Executive Director Dick Bestwick approached the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce after the 1985 game.  Bestwick told officials there that if Atlanta’s business leaders did not support the game through ticket purchases and sponsorships, the bowl would not survive.

With only 18 bowl games in existence at that time, the loss of the Peach Bowl would be a loss to the economic viability and reputation of the city, according to Stokan.  Ron Allen, head of the chamber and CEO of Delta Airlines agreed to support the Peach Bowl and gave a check to Bestwick for $100,000 to put the game on a sound financial foundation.  However, the weather still caused problems for the game until it moved into the Georgia Dome.

After the move to the Georgia Dome, Stokan and Peach Bowl officials brokered an agreement between the Southeastern Conference (SEC) and the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) to play one another in the game and attendance improved.  Beginning with the 1997 game, Chick-fil-A, Inc. became the major sponsor and the bowl game became known as the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.  With the help of Chick-fil-A’s marketing expertise, the game became a sell out every year from 1997-2013.  From 2006-2013, the game shortened its name to the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

However, as part of the agreement with the CFP system, the game reverted back to its original Peach Bowl moniker.  CFP Executive Director Bill Hancock noted that the other bowls in the system—Rose, Cotton, Sugar, Orange, and Fiesta—all carried singular names without a corporate sponsor in the title and therefore, wanted all bowl names to be parallel.  In order to be compliant with the CFP mandate, the Atlanta game changed its name.

From a fund raiser for the Lions Clubs of Georgia to the College Football Playoff system, the Peach Bowl has indeed come a very long way.  Much credit must go to Gary Stokan and his staff and to Chick-fil-A, Inc.

Below are the Peach Bowl records for the current SEC and ACC schools:

SEC                                                                             ACC

Alabama                      0-0                                           Boston College             0-0

Arkansas                     0-0                                           Clemson                         3-5

Auburn                        4-1                                            Duke                               0-1

Florida                         0-2                                           Florida State                 2-2

Georgia                       3-2                                            Georgia Tech                 0-4

Kentucky                    1-1                                             Miami                             2-1

LSU                             5-1                                             North Carolina             2-3

Mississippi                 1-1                                            NC State                        4-3

Miss. State                  1-2                                            Pittsburgh                     0-0

Missouri                      0-0                                           Syracuse                        1-0

South Carolina            0-2                                          Virginia                         2-2

Tennessee                    1-4                                           Virginia Tech                2-2

Texas A&M                  1-0                                           Wake Forest                 0-0

Vanderbilt                   0-0-1

 

The Story of LSU’s Mike I

               Courtesy of Mark Pellegrini

The Louisiana State University (LSU) Tigers have had a live tiger as a mascot since 1936. However, LSU was not the first school to own a large feline as a mascot. Columbia University acquired a real lion in the 1920s to serve as its mascot and Princeton University followed suit with a tiger in the early 1930s. Interestingly, the Columbia lion appears as the roaring lion on the beginning of MGM films. LSU and the University of Memphis are the only schools currently with a live tiger as a mascot. Mike I, the first LSU tiger, came about because of a suggestion from one of the school’s athletic trainers, Mike Chambers.

Chambers made the suggestion publicly and the student body united in its efforts to obtain a real tiger. Chambers found that three tiger cubs had been born in 1935 at the Little Rock Zoo in Arkansas. Once this news reached campus, first-year law student Eddie Laborde led the charge to bring one of the young tigers to the school.

Laborde organized a fundraiser and asked each student to contribute a quarter towards the costs necessary to acquire the tiger. Within an hour, the students had raised about $750. Laborde with the help of football player Ken Kavanaugh made the arrangements for the purchase of the young tiger and its transportation to the LSU campus.

In October, 1936, the student body declared the day of the tiger’s arrival to Baton Rouge a holiday (the actual day could not be verified, but it was October 21 or 23), and the cadet corps turned away professors and students with books trying to enter the campus gates early that morning. The six-foot tiger arrived by train to throngs of adoring students and Chambers immediately placed him in a wheeled cage. Chambers had actual experience handling animals with Ringling Brothers circus and knew how to handle the tiger. Because of Chamber’s circus experience and his popularity with the students, the tiger became evermore known as “Mike.”

With Mike I in his cage, handlers led him in front of a parade down Third Street the wrong way–celebrating up this street the wrong way is how joyous events at the school are commemorated. While Mike rested in his cage at some undocumented place on campus, the students celebrated into the night with dances and bonfires. Several days later, Laborde and others took Mike to Shreveport for the annual game with the University of Arkansas. Along the way, they stopped at various schools to show off Mike and to collect donations for the 19 pounds of meat he ate every day. Mike proved to be a lucky charm as the football Tigers beat Arkansas, 19-7.

One the way back to Baton Rouge, Mike and his handlers took a ferry boat across the Mississippi River and ran into Louisiana Governor Richard W. Leche. Leche asked the handlers where they were going to put the big cat and who was going to care for him. Laborde and an unofficial human mascot named Eddie (a.k.a., Porter Bryant) stated they would care for the cat and were hoping to board him at the zoo in Baton Rouge. Leche decided that while the tiger would be in good hands, he needed an appropriate cage. With the help of President Franklin Roosevelt and a Works Progress Administration grant, a cage worthy of a tiger was built. The cage was officially dedicated on April 13, 1937, and was adjoined to a 12-by-15 foot stone building. In all, Mike had about 600 square feet of living quarters. The stone portion of the cage is part of the current tiger home. As one would imagine, Mike’s abode is a major attraction for campus visitors.

While Mike I became an LSU icon, Laborde’s law school days came to an abrupt end. After a two-week absence from school because of his involvement with Mike I, Laborde was called into the law dean’s office. The dean told Laborde that he had missed too many classes, would be unable to make up the work, and was thereby expelled from the law school. Apparently, school spirit did not carry much weight at the law school!

Mike I passed away on June 28, 1956 of an acute kidney infection. The LSU faithful had him stuffed, and he is now on exhibit on campus in Foster Hall. Within months, Mike II took the helm as the school’s live mascot.  The tradition lives on today.  However, Mike VI passed away in October, 2016 and the university is currently searching for his replacement, Mike VII.