THE THING ABOUT LSU IS, IF THE UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN DIDN'T EXIST TOMORROW, IT WOULDN'T HAVE A DRAMATIC EFFECT ON THE STATE OF MICHIGAN. NOW MICHIGAN IS A TERRIFIC UNIVERSITY, BUT 80% OF THE DOCTORS, THE LAWYERS, THE ENGINEERS, the business people and the intellectual infrastructure of Louisiana is by and large produced by LSU. Football affects the psychology of the state in a fundamental way. Most states have divided loyalties: Auburn-Alabama, Virginia- Virginia Tech. Michigan-Michigan State. LSU is a unifying force in the state, and Hurricane Katrina made it even more so.
I live in Alexandria, Va., and a typical Saturday for me is a lot of phone calls in the morning to family and friends in Louisiana. "What do you hear?" I ask. "Somebody saw Bo Pelini out at a restaurant Thursday night! What did he say!" [ Carville laughs.] The team is always on television. Sometimes I just can't take watching, though. I'll leave it at halftime for a bit or stand up and throw things. I very seldom watch a game from beginning to end sitting down and enjoy it. Enjoy is the wrong word. I enjoy going to a Washington Nationals game. I don't really enjoy watching LSU because it is just too tense for me. It's like enjoying an election night. You don't enjoy it.
My earliest LSU memory? I remember my parents leaving me off at a friend's house when they were going to see an LSU game during the '49 Cinderella season. Our family's seats have always been in the southeast end zone of Tiger Stadium, so I was not very far from where Billy Cannon fielded the punt against Ole Miss in '59. Every time he had a touch, you knew there was a possibility for a touchdown. I also remember the great goal line stand against Ole Miss in the '58 game [a 14-0 LSU win]. The seats from which I saw Cannon make his famous punt return are the same seats my sisters sat in and watched Jacob Hester get first downs against Florida this year. The exact same seats. My family has never moved.
I was at that Florida game, and I went into the locker room the day before the game and met a couple of players. I really think people like this team. They are fun to watch. I've got to say Hester might be one of my three favorite LSU football players ever. But for me I think the best moment in LSU history is when JaMarcus Russell went to get Fats Domino after Katrina. The best quarterback in LSU history getting the best vocalist in Louisiana history to live in his apartment. [Domino is a grandfather of Russell's girlfriend, Chantel Brimmer, and was displaced by Katrina.] You don't beat that.
There was an outpouring of people feeling good about winning the '03 national title, but I think it's amplified this year. People identify with this team more than they did the '03 squad because of the kind of games they had and because of Katrina. I heard from former President Clinton after Arkansas beat LSU this season. He gave me some s—-. Damn right, he did. I didn't think the national title run was over after the loss to Kentucky, but I thought it was over after Arkansas. It's been an amazing year. SPORTS ILLUSTRATED listed the top 25 games of 2007, and three of the top 12 were LSU games—Florida, Kentucky and Arkansas. There is no other team in sports that produced the drama we did this year.
Political consultant and commentator James Carville, 63, holds both undergraduate and law degrees from LSU, and the tiny town of Carville, La.—an area of Iberville Parish about 16 miles south of Baton Rouge—was named after his grandfather, the town's postmaster. Where does Tigers football rate among his priorities? "I would say you got your family," he says, "then LSU football is tied for second with work."