Confidence needs to find its way to bottom of depth chart

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.comSeptember 25, 2013 

Washington State coach Mike Leach had words for his Idaho counterpart Paul Petrino after the “Battle of the Palouse” Saturday night in Pullman.

Two of them.

Petrino apparently said something to Leach during their postgame handshake at midfield, whereupon Leach responded with what might be described as the street-term antonym of “good luck.”

Neither coach has elaborated on the incident, but it’s reasonable to presume Petrino took issue with Leach’s decision to call several defensive starters off the bench once Idaho – trailing 42-0 late in the fourth quarter – looked like it might score.

I can understand why Leach wanted to preserve the shutout, an achievement the Cougars last accomplished in 2003. But rousing his starters for a goal-line stand, after they figured they were done for the evening, was both an absurd injury risk and an example of lousy sportsmanship.

Leach doesn’t care what the rest of the world thinks about him – it’s among his charms, maybe the only one – so I won’t bother admonishing him. To the contrary, I’ve got some advice.

Yo, Mike? You should study the life and times of Paul Dietzel, the former college coach and administrator who died Tuesday at 89. Dietzel is best known for leading LSU to its first national championship, in 1958, by taking advantage of NCAA rules that regulated substitution until 1964.

Some background: Free substitution was prohibited through 1941, and then

prohibited again in 1953 because many of the smaller college programs couldn’t afford expanded rosters with offensive and defensive platoons. By 1958, the substitution rule was relaxed: once a quarter, a player could leave the field and return.

Teams still relied on starters to play both offense and defense, as did LSU. But instead of individually substituting here and there, Dietzel assembled a second string for offense (the “Go Team,” it was called) and a third string for defense, which became known as “the Chinese Bandits.”

Seems Dietzel was a devoted reader of “Terry and the Pirates,” an adventure comic strip placed in the Orient before and during World War II. Dietzel considered those bandits, as portrayed in the comic strip, to be the ultimate foe: fearless, ruthless and destructive.

Dietzel referred to “Chinese Bandits” while complimenting the effort of the Tigers’ defensive reserves after a game, and the nickname stuck.

The Bandits carved their niche as LSU legends against Alabama in 1958, Bear Bryant’s inaugural season as the Crimson Tide coach. Facing a first-and-goal challenge at the 5-yard line, Dietzel replaced the first stringers with the Bandits. His reasoning? It was late in the first quarter, so the reserves could open the second quarter before giving way to the starters.

The Bandits made three goal-line stops, holding ’Bama to its lone score – a field goal – in what would be recalled as a turning-point victory.

When LSU, unranked in 1958 preseason polls, vaulted to No. 1 in November, a Life Magazine story on the Tigers didn’t profile star halfback (and future Heisman Trophy winner) Billy Cannon. The story explored the phenomenon of the third-string players who embodied the team’s gritty spirit.

Opponents averaged 0.9 yards a play against the six sophomores and five juniors on the Bandits. They scored a touchdown against Duke – after recovering a fumble 2 yards from the Blue Devils’ goal line, Dietzel let them stay on the field to play offense – which was one more TD than they allowed.

At LSU in 1958, designation as a third-string defensive reserve achieved a sort of cult status. When nose guard Tommy Lott was promoted to the “Go Team” – the second-string offense – he posed a question as remarkable 45 years ago as it is today:

Can’t I just stay where I am on the depth chart?

A history buff fascinated by pirates, Leach needs to know he’s not the first college football coach with an offbeat pulse – or an interest in pirates.

On fall Saturdays, Dietzel ate lunch with the players before secluding himself in the coach’s office, where he’d read a book until it was time to get ready for kickoff.

“I never listened to or watched football games,” Dietzel once explained of his peculiar ritual. “And everybody knew I wanted to be alone.”

Somewhere in that solitary zone, Dietzel came to the conclusion that football players who aren’t talented enough to start can be molded into invaluable contributors with a fiercely proud identity.

When push came to shove near the goal line last Saturday, with Washington State’s milestone defensive statement at stake, the Cougars’ second-string defense was replaced by the first string.

Paul Dietzel, whose intellect liberated him from conventional wisdom, would’ve looked at the situation from another angle.

A bunch of scrubs trying to prevent the other team from spoiling a shutout?

He’d have thought: This is not a problem. This is an opportunity.

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.com

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