By Jim Smilie
Former Louisiana Governor Huey Long was never a student at LSU, but he fell in love with the university and became its biggest supporter from 1931 until he was assassinated in 1935. Long’s devotion to LSU, and the unorthodox approaches he took to accomplish his goals, provide the material for the book Kingfish U: Huey Long and LSU by author Robert Mann.
“Long saw himself as the assistant coach, band leader and head cheerleader,” Mann, a longtime journalist, press secretary, author and current Manship Chair at the Manship School of Mass Communication at LSU, told members of the Rotary Club of Alexandria Tuesday afternoon at Alexandria Convention Hall.
Mann explained that in the late 1920’s, LSU was a small, undistinguished school. Few imagined the university being anything more than an agricultural college with around 3,000 students. “He (Long) really saw the university’s potential in a way very few people did,” Mann said. At the time, other schools in the South, most notably Alabama, Georgia and Georgia Tech, were gaining regional and national prominence based on the success of their football programs.
“Long saw the glory Alabama brought to the South when it won the Rose Bowl,” Mann said of Alabama’s 20-19 upset win over Washington in 1926 and follow-up 24-0 shutout of Washington State in 1931. “Huey saw the shortcut to getting LSU on the map was not just hiring good faculty — which he did — but building a football team and a band.” With that in mind, in 1931 Long took over control of the university, firing the football coach, band director and the university president in his first week and replacing them with his choices. And his quick-action approach worked. One example Mann cited was the band, which went from 37 members in old uniforms and worn instruments to more than 200 members with new uniforms and instruments.
Building the program took large amounts of money, which was a challenge as the nation was struggling with the Great Depression. Undeterred, Long used what Mann termed “questionable approaches” to finding the funds needed to achieve his vision for the university. For example, Mann noted the school owned land and buildings in the downtown Baton Rouge area. Long sold the property to raise funds for improvements. The “questionable” part, as Mann explained it, is that Long sold the land and the buildings to the state.
Opponents questioned the legality of such actions at the time. “Huey’s plan was to move so fast that the work would be done before the lawsuits were settled and they could take the money away,” Mann said. As an example, Mann said the project to renovate the Field House was let for bids in May of 1931. Bids were opened the next month and the project was completed in June of the following year. “It was very well built, but it was done very quickly before they could take the money away,” Mann said. He added Long drew up the plans for the project while playing golf one afternoon.
Long’s support of the athletic and band program lead to rapid growth, but there were strings attached as Long enjoyed being present and hands-on. “He would sit on the sidelines and would give pep talks to the team before the game and at halftime,” Mann said. He would also draw up plays and give them to the coaches, despite the fact he knew very little about the game of football. Mann shared one story claiming Long commented before an LSU game with Arkansas that he expected Arkansas would kickoff since LSU kicked off the previous year. “He didn’t even understand the coin toss,” Mann said. But, that didn’t stop him from consulting magazines for sample plays and then copying and enhancing them before sending them to the coaches.
In another incident, Long had some injured Tiger football players stay at the Governor’s Mansion to recover. It turned out to be a very enjoyable time for the players. “When they went back to the team, they had gained so much weight they could barely play,” Mann said. Long also reportedly summoned students to the football stadium for cheer training after he felt they didn’t properly support the team during a game.
With a successful football team and band as a draw, Long expected there would be an influx of students and set to work to create on-campus housing. This included building dorm rooms as part of the football stadium. “At one time, 40 percent of the students lived under Tiger Stadium,” Mann said.
Knowing money was tight, Long also ensured students had access to the university. Mann said that any Louisiana resident student who could show a high school diploma or could pass an entrance exam could attend the school without tuition. Tuition for out-of-state students was only $60. “Long regarded education as a public good, not a private benefit,” Mann said.
Long’s plan was ultimately a success. Mann noted that within four years — during the depths of the Great Depression — LSU’s enrollment increased 330 percent while the national average was only a 27 percent increase. And the football team and band quickly gained notoriety. “Everywhere they went, people knew about LSU. And they knew about Huey, so it helped with his popularity too,” Mann said.
While admitting Long’s tactics were not always above board — Mann said of Long, “he did some of the best things in the worst possible way,” — he believes there are parts of Long’s approach that could benefit higher education today.
“We talk a lot about what to do to improve higher education. We talk about it like it’s brain surgery or rocket science and that we need a 10-year plan,” Mann said. “Huey showed that it’s not that hard. His plan was in his coat pocket.” Mann said Long’s fundamentals — providing strong support from the state and making college affordable to everyone as a public good rather than a private benefit — are still viable approaches.
“Huey Long transformed LSU in 3-4 years,” Mann said. “If he could do that, in the depths of the Great Depression, what excuse do we have?”