The 1958 Louisiana State Tigers under head coach Paul Dietzel went 11-0 and won the school’s first national championship.
Due to the unusual substitution rules in college football at that time, Dietzel created a three-platoon squad that consisted of the White Unit that played both offense and defense, the Gold Unit that played only offense and the “Chinese Bandits” that played only defense.
While everyone still remembers the Chinese Bandits, it was halfback Billy Cannon who was the true star of the team.
At 6-foot-1, 208 pounds, he had an uncommon combination of brute strength (he was a 54-foot shot putter) and sprinter’s speed (he ran 9.7 in the 100-yard dash). As a 1958 junior, he rushed for 686 yards, caught nine passes for 162 yards and had three interceptions on defense to key the Tigers’ undefeated season. He finished a strong third in the Heisman vote to Army’s Pete Dawkins, winning two regions along the way.
Cannon entered the 1959 season as the Heisman favorite and LSU was picked by The Associated Press as its preseason No. 1 team. The Tigers rattled off six straight wins to start the fall campaign, outscoring opponents 103-6. This set up a huge showdown with SEC rival Mississippi, also undefeated at 6-0 and ranked third.
The two teams met on Halloween night in LSU’s sold-out Tiger Stadium, 55 years ago this week. According to reports at the time, tickets were in such high demand that one man offered a Cadillac in return for tickets.
What the fans who made it to the game saw was a defensive slugfest, not unlike what we see on a weekly basis in the current SEC. Cannon wasn’t on top of his game at the start as he fumbled away the opening kickoff, a miscue that led to an early Ole Miss field goal. The Tigers coughed the ball up three more times, but the Rebels couldn’t capitalize due to LSU’s stingy defense.
LSU’s mistake-laden offense did manage a field goal attempt in the third quarter, but the Rebels blocked it. Sensing that the Tigers were prone to sloppiness, Ole Miss played very conservatively while trying to protect its slim lead, actually punting on first down at times. With about 10 minutes left in the game, the strategy appeared to be working.
That’s when Ole Miss quarterback Jake Gibbs punted again from his own 42 yard line. Cannon fielded the punt at his own 11 yard line, broke several tackles and then raced to daylight and an 89-yard touchdown. The amazing return highlights this short video presentation of the game:
Cannon’s heroics gave his team a 7-3 lead and created bedlam in Tiger Stadium. The Rebels managed one last drive, but third-string quarterback Doug Elmore was stopped by Cannon and Warren Rabb at the 1-yard line with 48 seconds left to play to seal the victory. LSU moved to 7-0, while Ole Miss dropped to 6-1. It was one of the legendary games in college football history.
LSU went on to lose two games that season, including a rematch with the Rebels in the Sugar Bowl, but Cannon’s performance that Halloween night led to his winning his school’s only Heisman Trophy. On the year, he rushed for 598 yards, caught 11 passes for 161 yards, intercepted four passes (with 145 yards in returns), averaged almost 15 yards per punt return and scored seven touchdowns. But it was his punt return that everyone remembered most.
He captured all six Heisman regions and totaled 1,929 points, well ahead of second place Richie Lucas of Penn State and third place Don Meredith of Southern Methodist. He later played for the Houston Oilers and the Oakland Raiders in the AFL before settling down as an orthodontist.
Cannon is still an iconic figure in SEC and Heisman annals, not least because of what he did on that Halloween night against Ole Miss.