Saturday evening, Louisiana Tech and Northwestern State collide in football.
In a different time, and place, that sentence alone raised blood pressure for alumni, fans and students on both sides.
Not this century. After decades of being fierce rivals in everything, not just football and sports, Louisiana Tech chose a different course for its athletic program beginning in 1988, and that smothered the 318 area code’s most historic and long-term intense rivalry.
Yes, in that decade, Tech’s proximity to ULM (then Northeast) and the crossed bloodlines of Tech grad, former assistant and spurned head coaching hopeful Pat Collins being the head man in Monroe all brought the Bulldogs-Indians (nee’ Warhawks) contests to the boiling point, something unthinkable just a few years earlier.
Tech’s ’88 and-out-the-gate move eventually put the kibosh on that stadium-filling, argument-inducing annual I-20 showdown. The series survived for eight more meetings, all won by the upgraded Bulldogs, through 2000, but hasn’t been contested since. There was a 2020 try at Independence Stadium halted by the pandemic, but we can rejoice: the programs have contracted a home-and-home series — in 2030-31.
It’s likely that ULM and Tech will sooner-than-then land in the same conference. In the seismic shifting atop the college sports landscape, the trickle-down impact will shift some alliances, shatter others, bond left-outs and want-to-be’s, and probably blunt ambitions for some (McNeese, at least).
The core of the nearby Sun Belt membership (ULM, UL Lafayette, Southern Mississippi, Texas State, South Alabama and Troy) sure looks like a more appealing fit than having the Bulldogs continuing to line up against brand-new Conference USA colleagues of convenience Sam Houston, Kennesaw State (until recently, a Division II school), Jacksonville State and New Mexico State. Who’s gonna put more butts in seats?
That’s why scheduling NSU to come to Ruston makes sense, too. One of the biggest Joe Aillet crowds this century showed up Sept. 20, 2014 – a date that lives in infamy among Tech faithful, AKA “The Fireworks Game.”
Not for what happened during the game, but after. When the upstart visitors scored 20 fourth-quarter points, feeding off Tech turnovers, finishing when Chris Moore hammered a walk-off 47-yard field goal for a 30-27 Vic the Demon dance fest, there were fireworks. And music, including “Celebration.”
The pyrotechnics, it was said later, had to be shot, already primed to go off, never considering the unimaginable – an NSU win. The music? Some poor distracted marketing minion didn’t have the sense to not play it, to the delight of thousands of ecstatic Northwestern fans.
Didn’t ruin Tech’s season – the Bulldogs went on to a bowl appearance. Didn’t help propel the best Demons team since 2004 into the FCS playoffs, though, but it was and is an infinitely better reason to remember Sept. 20 than the approaching 50th anniversary of budding superstar Jim Croce’s six-fatality plane crash after a low-key, 42-minute concert across Chaplin’s Lake at NSU’s Prather Coliseum.
In 2017, young Tech AD Tommy McClelland (a former Demons deep snapper, tight end and javelin tosser) made his alma mater a Godfather offer – about $300k – to make the 89-mile drive through pine trees to Aillet Stadium. Until gutsy Demons QB J.D. Almond departed with severe cramps midway though the third period, that quite well-attended season opener was unresolved, but the Bulldogs pushed away and exorcised their Demons 52-24.
Saturday in Ruston, Northwestern and Louisiana Tech folks will tailgate (obeying state fire marshal restrictions), rekindle memories and make a few new ones. Trash will be talked, but more smiles and laughs exchanged.
Many players on both teams have faced each other, or played alongside each other, in high school. Demons’ coach and Ruston High hero Brad Laird will return to the community that treasures him for, among other reasons, quarterbacking the 1990 Bearcats not only to the state championship, but a No. 1 USA Today national ranking.
It will be more personal, in that regard, than any other game on either side’s 2023 schedule. But not like it once was, and never will be again.
It won’t carry the lasting impact of the week-long buildup with pranks and bonfires and pep rallies on campus and then in Shreveport, and the Rally in the Alley, for the State Fair Classic, the game both sides circled on the schedule every season for five decades.
But it will be a little whiff of Time in a Bottle. That makes it worth doing again, every once in a while.
Contact Doug at firstname.lastname@example.org