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LSU’s beloved Tigers finally coming home

WashPost: After two hurricanes, team ready to provide area much-needed release
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Six miles from campus, an already shredded American flag flapped as the wind increased under a menacing sky. And just a quarter-mile from where a toppled "Show your Tiger Pride" billboard lay, Louisiana State's football team practiced indoors Friday, shielded from the approaching Hurricane Rita.

As much of this community showed signs of recovery after Hurricane Katrina, a second natural disaster this weekend threatened to disrupt lives again. But many, including the LSU football team, were determined to function as usual, even amid constant reminders of the storm that had occurred weeks ago and the one that arrived early Saturday. Herb Vincent, LSU's associate athletic director, said the community has been "begging for normalcy," some of which could be provided Monday night when LSU's football team, considered by many the lifeblood of the state, will finally play a home game. Two games already were rescheduled because of Katrina, and Monday's game against Tennessee was postponed from Saturday because of Rita.

"They need it," LSU Coach Les Miles said. "This state would be miserable without football."

As he walked around Free Speech Alley on campus last week, Miles saw students carrying books and heading to class — "It felt good," he said. Gone were the sights of the previous two weeks: Black Hawk helicopters routinely flying over the practice field, and the basketball arena, the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, serving as a temporary hospital for Katrina evacuees.

There were other indications of life returning to normal in this football-crazed state, even as the outer bands of Rita struck Baton Rouge with heavy rain and gusts of 50-mph winds Friday evening.

On Friday, dozens of students ignored torrential rain to play flag football in bathing suits. Inside a sports bar, 15 televisions simultaneously flashed a bright red screen indicating a tornado warning. No one flinched.

Less than an hour later, three reporters huddled near the door of LSU's practice facility to avoid the rain. A team manager opened the door only to say that the coaches did not want them to look through the windows at practice.

And during Miles's weekly radio show, one caller, Blake from hurricane-ravaged New Orleans, asked the coach about this pressing issue: how two injuries would affect the team's depth chart. Another caller, Kevin, ripped into the first-year coach for not wearing the team's colors on the sideline during practice. Miles's response: "Nice talking to you, Kevin."

It did not take long for typical contention between rival schools to reemerge.

"If they can practice, why can't they play Saturday?" said Sharon Glass, one of the few Tennessee fans near campus Friday evening. "Our boys would play."

The Southeastern Conference announced Thursday after a conference call with officials from both schools that the Tennessee game would be moved to Monday because of Rita, which was closing in on eastern Texas and western Louisiana.

Tennessee Athletic Director Mike Hamilton said the Volunteers were prepared to forfeit the game if they deemed it too dangerous to fly the team to Baton Rouge the day of the game. Visiting teams usually stay in an area hotel the night before road games, but none was available.

One prominent sign on eastbound I-10 west of Baton Rouge early Thursday morning instructed motorists to turn elsewhere because no hotels were available. However, Miles said Friday that LSU players planned to stay at the campus Lod Cook Conference Center, its usual practice the night before a home game.

Early in Thursday's conference call, Vincent said, the option of playing the game elsewhere was "taken off the table." LSU already postponed its season-opening home game against North Texas and was forced to move its Sept. 10 game against Arizona State to Tempe, Ariz.

"We want to let our fans feel a great sense of pride," LSU senior offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "It will be extreme. It will be extreme emotion for the fans and for us by playing at home."

Some players, like wideout Skyler Green and quarterback JaMarcus Russell, housed close to 20 family members and friends in their small apartments after Katrina. Wives of LSU coaches organized a fundraising drive for evacuees. Players visited shelters. Staff members helped unload trucks filled with supplies.

LSU's mantra: Play for Louisiana, a pledge players say helped them rally to beat Arizona State, 35-31, two weeks ago. "Some people may think that's a bunch of smoke," said Jim Hawthorne, the radio voice of LSU football since 1983. "But they honestly do believe that because of what the state, and particularly this area of the state, has been through. They have a great deal of empathy and many players had family or friends affected."

The logistics of staging tonight's game remain difficult. School officials do not know how many fans will attend.

To that end, traffic in Baton Rouge significantly worsened after it became the state's most populous city and LSU accepted some 3,000 displaced students. Locals said it now takes more than 35 minutes to drive six miles to campus on usually free-flowing roads.

A large parking lot near Tiger Stadium has been designated strictly for RVs. By Friday, four had arrived after evacuating from the west.

Even before the threat of Rita, there were no hotel rooms available within 150 miles of Baton Rouge. By Friday night, many gas stations as far away as Jackson, Miss., had signs on the doors saying, "No more gas."

Glass, the Tennessee fan, and friend Phillip Swanson, who was decked out in full Volunteers garb, sold their four tickets to the game Friday. They stayed as close as they could -- a Ramada Inn in Natchez, Miss. -- and the postponement made remaining in the area impossible.

Swanson held a handful of cash he accepted from a gleeful young man and said: "It's a win-win. They get these for face value. And we get rid of the tickets."

Other fans, like Jonathan Johnson, were ecstatic not only about the game but also because classes were canceled. Johnson, a third-year LSU law student, said he received an e-mail from his advocacy professor soon after the game was postponed. The message: Class will be moved to my tailgating area at 5:30 p.m. Monday.

"He'll be there all day," Johnson said. "It's like a religion here."

Tailgating is an integral part of many college football game-day atmospheres, but particularly today at LSU. Fans like Kevin Carbo, a 22-year season ticket holder displaced from his New Orleans home, said he will begin festivities at 7:30 a.m.. The day, he said, will do much to temporarily distract those affected by the hurricanes "whether we win or lose."

"They only have seven nights a year for this, to meet with what is like a little family," Vincent said. "I suspect there will be a lot of reunions for those who have not met or talked since the hurricane. LSU is a rallying point. We don't pretend to say it's bigger than a game. But people plan weddings around these games. It's like a mini-Mardi Gras."

Vincent has stories of people who said all they took from their homes before they evacuated were three pairs of shorts, four shirts and their LSU season tickets. "It's one of their most valued possessions," he said.

From a personal standpoint, dealing with two natural disasters during a season in which No. 4 LSU is expected to compete for the national championship has been trying for those within the program, but only relatively speaking.

"You almost feel guilty talking about it: 'Oh, 'we have to move another game,' " Vincent said. "Well, a levee broke in New Orleans again, flooding the Ninth Ward. So we are just trying to roll with the punches and do what we can."