(Originally ran on latechsports.com December 23, 2019)
By TEDDY ALLEN
SHREVEPORT — Louisiana Tech has played in four Independence Bowls, each much different from the others.
The Bulldogs have beaten a favorite with relative ease, got pummeled, earned a tie with a walk-off score, and won a close, edge-of-your-seat, low-scoring game. That’s a 2-1-1 record; Tech’s been the underdog each time, and they are again this post-season, by 6 points, against Miami.
The only “type” of game the Bulldogs have not played in here is a close loss, something Tech fans hope the Bulldogs can avoid Thursday when the Walk-On’s Independence Bowl kicks off at 3 in Independence Stadium.
For a quick look back — with special consideration to the place in history the program was at the time, a key element in most any story — let’s go to the tape:
Louisiana Tech 24, Louisville 14, December 17, 1977
Clear and chilly, 1:42 kickoff
This was the second I-Bowl and the first of two consecutive I-Bowls the Bulldogs would play in as champions of the Southland Conference. The Independence Bowl was born on America’s bicentennial in 1976, and for its first five years, the SLC champ played an at-large opponent.
Louisville was an independent with a 7-3-1 record; the SLC champs came into the game 8-1-2.
This year the Bulldogs are staying in the Hilton Convention Center; Miami is next door in Sam’s Town. In the pre-casino and Convention Center era, Tech stayed in what was then the Holiday Inn in Bossier City, now the two-story Bossier Inn & Suites.
“Not a whole lot to do back then; a lot of guys came to my house to eat,” said Shreveport CPA Joel Thomas, quarterback of the Captain Shreve state champs in 1973 and one of Tech’s starting safeties against the Cardinals. “That was our only time to be on TV, a lot different than today.
“It was a nice experience, going to different functions, the hospitality, hanging out together with your friends three or four days in town,” Thomas said. “And we didn’t have curfew. Coach (Maxie) Lambright had curfew the night before the game and that was it.”
Louisville returned a punt 60 yards for a score two minutes into the game but got its only other score in the third quarter as the Bulldog defense smothered the Cardinals and allowed just 161 total yards on a clear and sunny afternoon.
“I remember a bright, beautiful afternoon game,” said Frank Spruiell, a Shreveport attorney and then a junior “lowly wide receiver. My goal was to do everything I could to avoid running into Otis Wilson.”
Wilson was the Cardinals star linebacker, a future two-time Pro Bowler and Super Bowl champion with Chicago in 1985. He had seven tackles on the day but he and his friends had no answer for Tech quarterback Keith Thibodeaux — 287 yards passing and two touchdowns — and a Bulldog offense that racked up 335 yards, a hefty number for the time.
Tech led 24-7 at the half and cruised from there.
“We had a big barbecue out at the Louisiana Hayride, the welcome party for both teams,” said Larry McCartney, Tech’s all-conference tight end. “I couldn’t get over the size of their team, especially their offensive and defensive lines. But it never fazed us a bit; we never backed down from anybody. We had great day. Thibodeaux had a fantastic day and our defense just shut down their offense.”
McCartney caught five balls for 71 yards and a touchdown, his final points scored as a Bulldog; it came at the end of the first quarter on an 8-yard pass play to give Tech a 21-7 lead.
“P 23 Dive,” McCartney said. “Combo fake to the fullback and then Thib pulled it and I hit the defensive end lightly and released into the end zone and Keith just popped it over there. Fabulous day for us. It was the highlight of my career, being able to end my time at Louisiana Tech with a great victory over a great team.”
“I think we played with a little chip on our shoulder that day,” Spruiell said, who had a catch for 15 yards. “I was kind of surprised that we played that well against a team that good and that big. Great day.”
At the barbecue when the two teams met, Thomas went to the Cardinals center, a guy about 6-5, 270, and raised his voice a bit. “My name is Danny Majors and I play noseguard and linebacker for Tech and come game time I’m gonna kick your butt!,” Thomas said. “Danny Majors. You remember that name!”
Majors, a senior from Longview, Texas and about to play his final game for the Bulldogs, didn’t know anything about this.
“Guys sort of separated us, no big deal,” Thomas said. “So their first play from scrimmage, the center charges out after Danny like a wild man; we get back to the huddle and Majors says, ‘What’s wrong with THAT guy?!’”
East Carolina 35, Louisiana Tech 13, December 16, 1978
Cool and overcast, 1:30 kickoff
General Omar N. Bradley, the only living five-star general in the United States at the time, was presented with the “Spirit of Independence Award” at the second I-Bowl in 1977 after the Sports Foundation decided it wanted to annually honor an American citizen or organization that symbolized the spirit of freedom and independence.
In 1978, when Tech met East Carolina, Bradley himself presented the award to actor and hero icon John Wayne, who would star in a patriotic war movie quicker than you could say “Back to Bataan” or “In Harm’s Way” or “I’ll take some popcorn.”
If you are of a certain age, you will appreciate that it was sort of a big deal seeing John Wayne at a Louisiana Tech ballgame. And a five-star general.
So there they were, Bradley and The Duke, enjoying the game from the stands. The problem was, Tech needed them both in uniform and on the field.
Country song hit-maker and former baseball minor leaguer Charley Pride drove over from Dallas to sing the national anthem; the Bulldogs could have used him too.
Instead, the SLC co-champs ended the season by losing their last two games to finish 6-5 after being pushed around pretty good by the Pirates on a slippery field. It was a disappointing end to an odd season, one in which Tech shared a title but stopped and started and hiccupped and coughed and never seemed to reach its potential.
ECU fullback Theodore Sutton set a then-bowl record with 143 yards on 17 carries and was named the game’s outstanding offensive player. End Zack Valentine, who led the ECU defense with seven tackles, earned the award for top defensive player.
“We didn’t play very physical football that day I don’t think,” said Spruiell, who led the Bulldogs with seven catches for 130 yards and a touchdown. “Don’t know why. We just didn’t play very well.”
Tech shot itself in the paw early and could not recover. Seven turnovers, six in the first half. Tech turned it over three times early and the Pirates scored touchdowns after each one to build a 21-0 lead.
True freshman Eric Barkley out of Fair Park High had played a good bit during the season and was thought to be Tech’s QB of the future. (Nobody knew on gameday that this would be the final game for Louisiana Sports Hall of Famer Lambright, who retired shortly after the season, an event which led to a coaching change and a messy 1979 season.) Barkley, playing in his home high school stadium, got the start instead of Thibodeaux, a senior and all-SLC the year before.
“They started me off with something simple, just a little out route,” said Barkley, who finished his career at Northwestern State and works with Centerpoint Energy in Shreveport today. He started laughing at the memory, unbelievably now more than 40 years old.
“I must have thrown it five feet over his head,” he said. “Adrenaline was pumping. Just about everything I threw that day was high.”
Thibodeaux came off the bench to direct three drives that ended in scores — a 32-yard touchdown pass to Spruiell and two 36-yard field goals by Keith Swilley — but then was taken to the hospital after ECU linebacker Jeffrey Warren tackled him just under his chin as Thibodeaux scrambled toward the Tech sideline.
Tech was completely shut down on the ground: 12 yards and that was it. The Bulldogs threw 52 times for 263 yards and Barkley, a future I-Bowl Chairman, was picked off three times, something that’s happened eight other times since. (On one of the picks Barkley threw an out route but his receiver mistakenly ran an out … and up. Oops.) Arkansas’ Wade Hill was picked off a bowl-record five times in a 24-15 loss to Georgia in the 1991 bowl.
The most memorable Tech moment in ’78 came on one of the Bulldogs five punts: Jeff Dozier got a good punt off and a great roll, a 70-yarder, still a bowl record. And current Tech assistant Ed Jackson had nine tackles that afternoon, all unassisted.
Louisiana Tech 34, Maryland 34, December 15, 1990
Cold and partly cloudy, 7:14 kickoff
Tech fell behind 14-0 early, tied it at 14-14 by halftime, took a lead, gave it up, then tied it at the buzzer.
If ever in program history there was a tie game that felt more like a win, considering all the circumstances, it had to be this one on a cold night in front of a then-record crowd of 48,325.
“It was so exciting,” said team co-captain Bobby Slaughter, “for us to have come so far.”
“So far” was the distance Slaughter and his fellow seniors on that 1990 bowl team traveled from Division I-AA to Division I-A. Since it’s been nearly 30 years ago, it deserves a quick explanation.
Nothing about that distance was easy. Those seniors signed onto a program that declared as a I-AA Independent in 1987, and in 1988, they played the toughest schedule in school history, the 11th toughest in the nation, with only 65 scholarship players, the amount allotted for Division I-AA teams.
They faced five I-A teams and lived through some humbling scores: 60-0; 38-6; 66-3; 56-17.
The Spirit of ’88, the bronze Bulldog each player touches in the Davison Athletics Center on his way to the Joe Aillet Stadium turf before home games, symbolizes the challenges that 1988 group faced.
But in 1990, against significant odds, the Bulldogs took an 8-3 record to Shreveport for the program’s first bowl game in 12 years.
“The butt whippins we took to earn big checks … Tough times,” Slaughter said. “After that, to see the culmination of that in the I-Bowl was such a proud moment in my life. We were proud of what we overcame as a school and as a program, together, to even be in position to be in the I-Bowl. To a man, we loved each other as a team.”
“There was hardly a week that went by that I didn’t remind them that we could not fail,” said Tech Athletics Hall of Famer Joe Raymond Peace, the coach who guided the Bulldogs through the toughest transition in program history. “The move to DI was not the most popular move. There were those who would have been satisfied to stay in I-AA. So there was pressure on myself to see those first five year years were not a failure. Good coaches and good players in the cause made it easier — if ‘easier’ was possible.”
Tech earned the bowl spot with an it-can’t-be-done win over Colorado State in Ruston. Trailing 30-14 late in the third quarter in Ruston, Tech rallied and won on a touchdown pass from Gene Johnson to Slaughter in the final minutes. It was a fans-tore-the-goal-posts-down moment.
“Slaughter’s catch got us there,” Peace said. “Made all the difference.”
It got Tech a bid to the Independence Bowl. It proved that, with a little time and a lot of grit, Tech could compete in Division I.
All that history made the 1990 Independence Bowl all that more remarkable for the Bulldogs.
On that chilly night, in front of the record crowd and with a three-point lead after scoring two fourth-quarter touchdowns in a see-saw game, Maryland kicked a low liner to Tech with about 40 seconds left on the clock, away from dangerous return man Eddie Brown. Lorenzo Baker, a linebacker, fielded it on the hop at the 19 and did his best Eddie Brown impersonation, returning it 41 yards to the Maryland 40.
Thirty-two seconds left.
Johnson found Brown on a post to the 19, another play got it to the 12, Johnson killed the clock with a throw out of bounds. Two seconds were left.
“I was not going to let us lose that game,” said Peace. “We’d come too far. I was not going to take a chance on another throw. There was nothing left to do but get Chris Boniol.”
Boniol, on his way to a six-year NFL career, hit the 29-yard field goal to tie it at 34-34 as time expired.
A tie, but a different kind of a tie.
“There was no celebration in the locker room,” Peace said. “We felt like we should have won. Jerome Anderson (a senior offensive tackle) looked at me and shook his head and I said, ‘We have nothing to hang our heads about. We’ve accomplished a lot in a short amount of time.’
“Jerome was one of the ones who went through the true grind to get there,” Peace said. “No first round picks. Just guts.”
Slaughter. Anderson. Eddie Brown. Trey Heusel. Nate Davis. Mike Richardson. Stan Polk. Scott Collis.
“Great men who paid the price to get us where we are today,” Peace said.
“It was a great reward for all of us who’d been through those first years,” said Slaughter, who had five catches for 68 yards and a touchdown, Tech’s final one of the season. “Again, the culmination of everything in that experience and that time with our team and with a staff we respected beyond words is such a proud moment for me. As a senior too, it ended a difficult but wonderful career.”
“When you talk about the Spirit of ’88, it goes back to that group of guys,” Peace said. “They had a special closeness, and I couldn’t be prouder of the way they played.”
Louisiana Tech 17, Northern Illinois 10, December 28, 2008
Cloudy, 7:17 kickoff
During the walk-through the day before the game, coach Derek Dooley had had enough.
“He got mad pretty quickly and got our attention,” said Thomas Graham, the team’s deep snapper and a team captain the next season. “We were sort of going through the motions I guess. We had a lot of guys from Shreveport on the team, a lot of family around, a lot of people who’d made this event a part of their Christmas. But we didn’t know how to manage any of that; we’d never been to a bowl. We were just sort of rockin’ and rollin’.
“What he told us was that we had an opportunity for something special,” Graham said. “He said, ‘Y’all better figure it out or you’ll get blown out.’ It didn’t take us long to rally around each other after that.”
Back at the team hotel that night, a lot of the players got in one of the hallways.
“If anyone was staying there and not part of the team,” Graham said, “they got to hear some fiery speeches. A lot of those guys were our defensive leaders, and I think that’s got a lot to do with how we played defense the next night.”
Defense and special teams won it, a one-possession nail-biter from start until finish before 41,567 on a cloudy, humid night.
Northern Illinois scored first with a touchdown late in the first quarter, but Tech answered in a familiar way. Phillip “Saturday Night” Livas, voted the game’s offensive MVP, returned a punt 97 yards to tie it.
“People were kicking away from me after we’d had a lot of good returns on punts and kicks, so I was surprised to even get that one,” said Livas, then a sophomore receiver from Houma and now an IT guy in Thibodaux. “We always had good schemes on special teams. After I got through that first wave, my eyes got big. Fifty or 60 yards downfield this one guy had an angle on me; I hit him with the stop and go.”
“It was that infamous high step he’d do to mess up their timing and cause defenders to miss,” Graham said. “That one juke, and he was gone down the sideline.”
“I meant to drop the ball on the ground and I felt so good I fired it into the stands,” Livas said.
“I’ve never seen a ball thrown that hard,” Graham said, “by such a little person.”
The Bulldogs got another touchdown in the second quarter and a field goal in the third for a 17-7 lead. Tech’s defense held inside the five and Northern Illinois had to settle for a 20-yard field goal in the third to make it 17-10.
And that’s how it would end, although no one knew that during the final 20 tense minutes of play.
Senior defensive back Weldon Brown, who’d played at Bossier High, earned the defensive MVP award; he had a career-high 14 tackles, a fumble recovery, an interception, and a key pass breakup on an NIU fourth-down play early in the game.
Things were tight from start to finish.
“I had to snap the final punt twice because of a flag,” Graham said. “They were heads down, noses flaring; you know they’re coming hard for the block and we barely get it off and now there’s a flag and they’re coming again. I was holding my breath. But we got it off and it worked out good.”
The Huskies final two plays were an incomplete Hail Mary and then a pass in the flat around midfield. Quin Harris made the tackle in front of the Tech bench and … it was over.
“They had to come get us out of the locker room to come back on the field for the trophy presentation,” Graham said. “We didn’t even know what to do; we’d ever done that before.”
“It was an exciting week,” Livas said. “Shreveport was like a home game for us; we wanted to play good in front of our fans and families.”
Back at the hotel and the casino next door, fans and players and families mixed until past midnight because “everyone just wanted to enjoy it together,” Graham said.
Second in the Western Athletic Conference, Tech finished 8-5. NIU of the Mid-American Conference ended 6-7.
“I remember thinking ‘By God, we did it,’” Graham said. “We got back on the map. Great staff, some great young players, just a solid group with special chemistry. It turned out to be a wonderful trip for everybody. What a fun team to be a part of.”
Thursday afternoon in Independence Stadium, the 2019 Bulldogs will write a new chapter, the fifth one in an old story.