Forty-seven years haven’t dulled the pain much.
“We played our guts out,” says former Ole Miss All-American safety Harry Harrison, “and had the game jerked out from under us. We got hosed.”
“I think about it all the time,” says former All-Southeastern Conference linebacker Stump Russell. “I’m 66 years old and I guess I never will get over it.”
They are referring to the Ole Miss-LSU game played on Nov. 4, 1972 at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge. Undefeated and reportedly headed to the Orange Bowl, LSU somehow ran two plays in the final four seconds to beat the Rebels, 17-16.
The next-to-last play should have been the final one. Even the LSU radio announcer at the time, John Ferguson, said so: “Four seconds to go … Time for one play” he told his listening audience.
And it wasn’t a quick one. From the Ole Miss 10-yard line, quarterback Bert Jones faked a draw up the middle, shuffled his feet and turned to look toward the end zone. He hesitated before throwing a pass toward running back/receiver Jimmy Ledoux. Rebel strong safety Mickey Fratesi batted it away.
“A lot of Ole Miss fans were seated in that (south) end zone area and they started running onto the field,” Russell recalls.
“A bunch of our players were celebrating,” Harrison says. “Then I looked up at the clock and it had one second left. I was like, ‘No way.’ ”
Russell and I have talked about this game many times. Our families have been friends for 30-plus years. And every time the subject comes up, I can hear the pain in his voice. He speaks in a softer tone than usual, the way one does when recalling the loss of a friend or loved one.
I had always wanted to ask Harrison about the game because, as you will read, he was in the middle of the action on the final play. I decided to call him this week since the two schools will meet Saturday night in Oxford for the 107th time.
Ole Miss is 4-6 and rebuilding from NCAA probation. LSU is 9-0, ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll, and fresh off a 46-41 win over Alabama. The Tigers are favored by three touchdowns. Harrison will call the game, alongside David Kellum, in the Ole Miss radio booth.
“We’re playing good defense and we lead the SEC in rushing — I can’t even remember the last time that happened,” Harrison says. “Our guys will play hard and we’ll see how the chips fall.”
And this particular matchup offers a bit of irony: LSU is led by quarterback Joe Burrow, a transfer from Ohio State and the obvious choice at this point to win the Heisman Trophy. He’s talented, gritty and tough, which is no surprise to Harrison and Russell. They played with Burrow’s dad at Ole Miss. Jimmy Burrow was a walk-on cornerback from Amory.
“He wasn’t very big. Maybe 150 pounds. But he could run and he was really physical,” Russell recalls.
“All the players knew how good Jimmy was. We all felt like he should be starting,” Harrison says. “But a scholarship offer never came and Jimmy eventually transferred to Nebraska.”
He earned a scholarship and All-Big Eight honors with the Huskers.
“I was sorry to see him leave,” Harrison says.
In the early ‘70s, Harrison says he considered LSU the Rebels’ biggest rival.
“I can only speak for me, but that’s the way I viewed it,” he says. “In my three years (1971-73), we beat Mississippi State 48-0, 51-14 and 38-10. It’s not like that anymore, but LSU was definitely ‘the’ game for me when I played.”
And on that night in 1972, legendary Tiger Stadium was filled with a record crowd of 70,502.
“When we got there, we went into our dressing room, dropped off our bags and then walked out onto the field,” says Russell, a former standout with Murrah High School in Jackson. “The student section was already packed and they weren’t saying a word. But when we reached that end of the stadium, they all jumped up and started throwing oranges at us, to let us know they planned on going to the Orange Bowl.
“I picked up one of the oranges, took it back to the dressing room and put it in my locker. My mama still has that orange — a dried-up piece of nothing now.”
Harrison, who grew up in Bay Springs, had always wanted to play in Tiger Stadium.
“We’d played a freshman game in Baton Rouge, but they made us play on the track field,” he says. Ole Miss defeated LSU, 24-22, Harrison’s sophomore season in Jackson.
“Tiger Stadium was everything I’d imagined it to be and more,” he says. “I remember it was so loud that it seemed like the sound was coming back up through the ground. I felt like I was walking on a cloud. It just lifted you up. I loved it.”
The Rebels entered the game 4-3.
“We were disappointed with our record. We’d gone through a lot of injuries,” Harrison says. “But we were ready to play against LSU.”
Harrison intercepted Jones in the first half — one of 16 picks Harrison would nab during his junior and senior seasons. But he nearly wasn’t around for the game’s final quarter.
“I’d made a tackle in the first half and I was bad to lead with my head,” he says. “I got a really bad stinger down my right side. I finally got some feeling back in my right arm. They took my shoulder pads off and attached one of those white yokes to keep my head from bending backward when I hit someone.”
LSU led 10-6 at halftime, but the Rebels took a 16-10 lead with a 1-yard scoring run by quarterback Norris Weese in the third quarter and a 40-yard field goal by freshman Steve Lavinghouze in the final period — his third of the game.
He missed on his fourth attempt from 27 yards. “The shortest one he’s tried all night,” Ferguson pointed out.
Ole Miss had kept Jones in check most of the night. But Jones was confident — some might say cocky — and he played his best when the Tigers got the ball with 3:02 left on their 20-yard line.
He steadily moved them down the field, converting two fourth-down plays. A pass interference call put LSU at the Rebels’ 10-yard line with 4 seconds left — time enough to take a deep breath but not much else.
“It took us a minute to realize the game wasn’t over, that there was a second left” Russell says.
When LSU broke huddle, two receivers went wide left. Running back Brad Davis, who was in the game only because a teammate had snapped a shoulder pad strap the play before — lined up as a wingback to the left.
“Back then, offenses didn’t run a lot of trips or three receivers to the same side,” Harrison says.
“We sorta looked at each other like, ‘What do we do?’ ” Russell says. “But we figured out real quick.”
The corner covered the widest receiver. Harrison lined up over the slot receiver. Linebacker Bob Bailess was responsible for Davis. Russell had the fullback.
It turned out to be a pick play, where wide receivers run inside routes and the wingback runs an out route beneath them.
“The slot guy came inside and grabbed me,” Harrison says. “The outside receiver did the same thing to the guy covering him.”
Bailess got caught in traffic as he tried to keep up with Davis.
“Bobby was a good linebacker,” Russell says. “He would’ve covered him if the receivers hadn’t picked him off.”
Jones threw toward Davis, who was close to the pylon at the goal line.
“I got off my guy and sprinted toward him,” Harrison says.
In a 2012 interview with Seth Landry, then an LSU sports information assistant, Davis said: “I lost the ball in the lower lights and just threw my hands up.”
The ball hit his right hand, bounced around and was finally corralled by Davis just as Harrison hit him.
“I still don’t think he caught the ball,” Harrison says. “If we’d had instant replay back then, I’m almost certain the catch would’ve been overturned.”
As the official raised his hands and signaled touchdown, Harrison dropped to his knees. I always wondered what was going through his mind at that moment.
“Utter dejection,” he says.
But the touchdown had only tied the game. Rusty Jackson won it with an extra-point kick.
“I think I walked around the end zone for five or 10 minutes after the game,” Harrison says.
“Harry wouldn’t take his uniform off in the dressing room,” Russell says. “He refused to believe it was over.”
“The whole dressing room was a mess,” Harrison says. “People were angry. People were crying. They brought in Gov. Bill Waller to speak to us and try to console us, but that didn’t work for me.”
As he dressed, Russell began blaming himself.
“I should’ve blitzed,” he says. “I had the fullback and he stayed in to block. I thought about it in that split second while the play was happening. But then I thought, ‘What if he slips out and they throw a touchdown to him?’
“If I had it to do over again? I’d blitz. And I would’ve sacked Bert Jones’ tail.”
LSU, ranked 6th nationally, lost the next weekend to No. 2 Alabama in Birmingham, then tied Florida on the road two weeks later.
All those oranges went to waste. The Tigers played in the Bluebonnet Bowl, instead, and lost to Tennessee, 24-17.
Ole Miss closed with a loss to Tennessee and an Egg Bowl victory to finish 5-5 and without a bowl invitation.
Harrison won’t watch a replay of the touchdown. He can only discuss details of the game now “because I’ve been asked about it 2,000 times,” he says with a chuckle.
He recalls getting out of his car at an Ole Miss basketball game in the late 1980s, and a man in the car next to him was playing an audio tape of the final two plays.
“It’s like that game followed me around,” he says. “I finally realized it would haunt me the rest of my life.
“I thought at some point I would meet the man who ran the clock that night. He was from Tupelo and lived in Memphis. He’s deceased now, so I’ll never get that opportunity.
“I just wanted, in a very civil manner, to ask him what happened. I think it would’ve done me a lot of good.”