How LSU, Arizona State pulled off a game in the wake of Hurricane Katrina

TEMPE, Ariz. — A private plane took off from Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport on the morning of Sunday, Sept. 4, 2005, six days before the Arizona State Sun Devils were supposed to play at the fifth-ranked Louisiana State Tigers, and six days after Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans. […]

TEMPE, Ariz. — A private plane took off from Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport on the morning of Sunday, Sept. 4, 2005, six days before the Arizona State Sun Devils were supposed to play at the fifth-ranked Louisiana State Tigers, and six days after Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans.

The flight’s destination was Baton Rouge, and it included ASU senior associate athletic director Tom Collins, associate athletic director for football Tom Kleinlein, ASU police chief John Pickens and a booster, Guy Inzalaco.

The contingent was embarking on a scouting trip to decide whether that game — Les Miles’ first game at LSU after the initial season opener against Appalachian State was moved to a date in November in response to Katrina — could be played in Baton Rouge. And if not, what were the options — if there were any.

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Fifteen years later, moving the ASU-LSU game across the country for the Tigers’ first nonconference game west of the Mississippi River, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation, is still considered a seminal moment in college football. It took a village, as the saying goes, to pull it off in a few days, but it happened. And the game, which LSU won 35-31 on a touchdown from Jamarcus Russell to Early Doucet with 1:13 left in the fourth quarter, was as good as it could have been.

Landing in Louisiana amid a tragedy

By time that plane landed in Baton Rouge, the history of Hurricane Katrina was already written. Levees had been breached throughout New Orleans, drowning a city and forcing thousands of evacuees up I-10 and either into Baton Rouge or past it. Baton Rouge was in a state of “mayhem” at that point, said former LSU chancellor Sean O’Keefe. The city’s population had increased by 35-40% in about three days. LSU’s enrollment grew by 5,000 because it accepted any student from the New Orleans area who was displaced, free of charge.

Awaiting the contingent from Arizona State was a scene they were neither prepared for nor had ever seen before. And it started from the moment they landed at a private airport in Baton Rouge.

Kleinlein remembers being approached by people offering cash to be flown out of the city because there weren’t any commercial flights available. Then the pilots were told they had to leave by sunset because the runway lights were out and a curfew was in effect. Waiting for them at the airport was Dan Radakovich, the current Clemson athletic director who, at the time, was a senior associate athletic director at LSU. He drove his ASU counterparts around in a van, showing them the team hotel, the stadium and campus.

At what was supposed to be ASU’s hotel, only a portion of the rooms ASU needed were available and the meeting space didn’t have electricity. The late former Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco had signed an executive order on Sept. 1, 2005, stating that hotels could not evict evacuees who were paying in favor of non-evacuees. Kleinlein vividly remembers the hotel’s parking lot full of power trucks from states throughout the Southeast. Then the tour got to campus.

The Pete Maravich Assembly Center, where LSU plays basketball and is next door to Tiger Stadium, was turned into a 1,000-bed hospital and became the medical hub for the region as evacuees filled Baton Rouge and hospitals were out of service.

And sitting outside the Maravich Center was a mobile morgue.

As the ASU group asked more and more questions — What would a police escort look like? What happens if an athlete has a catastrophic injury and needs immediate and serious medical attention? — and LSU couldn’t give concrete answers because it just didn’t have any. It became evident to Collins, who was responsible for ASU’s 148-person traveling party, that a game wasn’t going to be possible.

The ASU contingent returned to Arizona that Sunday night doubtful they would return to Louisiana in less than a week.

“It was just kind of one thing after another that led to, ‘This would be a real problem trying to come here,'” said Kleinlein, now a deputy athletic director at Ole Miss.

What ultimately forced the decision to move the game was a hypothetical scenario but one that, had the game been played at Tiger Stadium, would have been devastating for LSU, the state and the game.

With the Maravich Center so close to Tiger Stadium and in the heart of campus, if the game went on as usual and drew the typical 95,000 people inside the stadium with another 35,000 or so outside, the traffic, as was the norm on game days, would have caused gridlock. That brought up a major issue for O’Keefe: What would happen if one emergency vehicle couldn’t get through to the Maravich Center and something happened to that patient?

“We would have all just absolutely been despondent as all hell that we all should blame ourselves for the fact that anybody was not being treated,” O’Keefe said.

The LSU Police Department, whose presence usually expanded by two or three times on game days thanks to help from the state police and other departments, was already thin and couldn’t promise enough coverage for the game without taking it away from other parts of town. That meant if something happened elsewhere, the police at the game would have to leave the stadium. O’Keefe didn’t want to be responsible for that.

O’Keefe remembered the reaction from the LSUPD during their meetings about the game.

“Their attitude was: ‘You got to be kidding me,'” O’Keefe said.

On top of all that, LSU’s game-day locker room was being used as a bathing area for little kids who couldn’t find their parents.

“They were pretty much orphans,” said Verge Ausberry, who was an associate athletic director at LSU at the time and is now an executive deputy athletic director. “They didn’t know where their parents were. They didn’t [know] if they had died, if they were missing, families were separated from each other. So, it was mass chaos.”

If the game did take place, it would’ve had to start early in the day, in part because of a curfew. And it would’ve been hard to find the 3,500 people necessary to put on a game, O’Keefe said.

“You start looking [around] like, ‘How the hell can you have a game?” Ausberry said.

Once O’Keefe decided there wouldn’t be a game in Baton Rouge, he broke the news to former LSU athletic director Skip Bertman, who was steadfast about the game taking place. O’Keefe was open to making other arrangements for the game. Bertman’s response, O’Keefe recalled, was that the only other arrangement was a forfeit.

Then O’Keefe contacted Miles directly to explain the situation.

“I said, ‘Les, strap in, buddy,'” O’Keefe said.

Retelling the story, O’Keefe said Miles, now the Kansas Jayhawks’ head coach, was cool and collected — he understood the severity of it all. Then, Miles brought up the idea of moving the game to Tempe.

O’Keefe loved the idea.

The game must go on

O’Keefe called ASU president Michael Crow, whom he had known for years — the two both went to the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse, albeit at different times — and asked about moving the game to Arizona. It was going to be a slow sports weekend at ASU since the Sun Devils were supposed to be at LSU and the Arizona Cardinals, who shared Sun Devil Stadium with ASU, were also on the road.

Crow was on board.

It was just a matter of pulling it off. And, at first, that seemed easier said than done.

“There was several times when I thought the game might not happen,” Kleinlein said. “That whole point in a 48-hour period, from the time we got on a plane to go to Baton Rouge to the time we came back, you’re initially saying, ‘Clearly we can’t play this game in Baton Rouge, but man, it’s such a daunting task to flip this around in four days to play in our stadium.’ Those initial thoughts were in everybody’s head.”

Once the decision to move the game that Sunday, Arizona State’s athletic department went into overdrive.

In less than a week, ASU had to go from an off week at home to staging one of the biggest games of the season that would have the eyes of the country on it.

“People were very intensely focused on Katrina and what had happened and all of that, and I think people sort of got it, and understood it right away,” Crow said. “But then, it’s like, ‘Well, how are we gonna do this?’ and ‘How are we gonna pay for this?’ and ‘Who’s gonna contribute?’ And, so, then it became a thing. We turned it into a part of our response.”

In a matter of days, with the help of the Fiesta Bowl, ASU secured a hotel — a resort south of Tempe — and planes to bring LSU to Arizona.

“It was really, kind of early in the week we had everything buttoned up,” Radakovich said from LSU’s perspective. “It’s amazing. People plan and plan and plan for these types of road events, and the high-level things came together very, very quickly.”

Whatever ASU could do to make LSU’s life a little easier that week, it did. Mark Zimmer, ASU’s long-time equipment manager, worked with his counterpart at LSU, Greg Stringfellow, in an unusual circumstance. Usually, equipment managers scout the opposing stadiums and facilities during the spring before they play to get a sense of the space. LSU was coming to ASU blind, so Zimmer sent Stringfellow detailed notes of how big the locker rooms were and what kind of space they would have. LSU even shipped packages from Nike directly to Tempe instead of to Baton Rouge.

ASU faced a unique situation of its own. It had to create a game week from scratch. That meant finding enough people to work the game, setting up the press box, painting the field and selling tickets.

“There’s just a million things that go into a game that had to switch in a second,” said Doug Tammaro, an assistant athletic director for media relations. “And we had to pull it off. Like, we had no choice. We couldn’t be half-assed. We had to get this done in the right way.”

Tammaro said the school’s printer produced media credentials for free. He had media coming in from around the country to cover a game, which Tammaro called of “tremendous magnitude.” When it came to getting the field ready on short notice, ASU’s head groundskeeper, Brian Johnson, had plenty of experience. He’s been at ASU for 35 years and in 2005, had already been turning over Sun Devil Stadium’s field from ASU games to Cardinals games for 17 years. But a week to turn over a field? That was nothing.

In 2003, he learned at halftime of a Cardinals game on a Sunday that the Monday night game between the then-San Diego Chargers and the Miami Dolphins was moving to Sun Devil Stadium because of wildfires.

“I’m sure there’s other crews that could have pulled something like that off,” Johnson said. “I think we kind of had a hand up because of our situation and kind of dealing with things like that so I think we just all kind of took it on as a challenge — and a good challenge just because of the nature of what was happening down in that part of the country.”

Using leftover purple paint from bowl games — the Fiesta Bowl used to be played in Sun Devil Stadium — Johnson and his team got to work. They painted “Together We Stand” in the end zones with the state of Louisiana on one side and the state of Arizona on the other — a slogan which Johnson credits his team for coming up with. Even though the decision to move the game was made just six days in advance of the game, Johnson said there wasn’t much stress on his crew to get the field done.

“People in this industry understand the unique nature of how much people love college football, how important it is to the coaches and players and communities,” Radakovich said. “It was something that I think people just really rolled up their sleeves and said, ‘We can help in this way and it’ll be a positive for the city of Tempe, for Arizona State, for LSU.'”

Then there were the logistics.

LSU lost about $3 million by not playing the game in Baton Rouge. ASU spent about an additional $200,000 on “extraordinary expenses,” Collins said, which it recouped from the game revenue.

The 2005 game was supposed to be the first of a home-and-home between the two schools, but that contract was ripped up after the game was moved and replaced by a new series, initially scheduled for 2015 and 2016, then rescheduled for 2022 and 2023, and then rescheduled again for 2026 and 2030, and finally rescheduled for 2029 and 2030.

For the most part, though, no one thought about the finances of the decision to move the game until after the fact. Both sides just wanted to get the game off.

All hands on deck

No department worked harder that week than the Arizona State ticket office.

Like everyone else the week before, Jason Bunger, the former ticket operations manager at ASU, was in a wait-and-see mode. Before going home for that Labor Day weekend, Bunger walked into his supervisor’s office and was greeted with a daunting question: If the game was moved to Tempe, could the ticket office pull off selling a game’s worth of tickets in a few days?

“We could,” Bunger remembered responding. “But we’d be crazy to try.”

He didn’t have a choice a couple of days later.

“It went from the week of a road game to a week of basically a massive five-day on-sale that never stopped,” Bunger said.

From the moment that word got out about the game moving, the ticket office’s phones were ringing off the hook. Hours were extended so it was open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., and the phone system at the time could hold 10 calls at a time in the queue. Bunger doesn’t remember a single minute the phone queue wasn’t full.

“I would sit there at 8:59 in my office at night, and just wait for the light of the phone to turn off, because then I knew no one else could call,” Bunger said. “I just sat there and I was like, ‘Please just turn off.’ It was awful. It really was. It was crazy.”

Bunger got to the office at 7 a.m. every day that week and didn’t leave until close to 11 p.m. Until noon on Thursday before the game, the ticket office only handled season-ticket holders. While that was hectic enough, once the ticket office opened to the public midday Thursday, it was a next-level frenzy, according to Bunger.

Eight of the ticket office’s 16 windows were dedicated to buying tickets for the game and it felt like there were consistently 10 people in line, Bunger said. The other eight were for will call, and the ticket office got help from anyone in the athletic department who had time to spare, from people in human resources to others in the business office.

Back then, online ticket portals weren’t as popular or as efficient as they are now. The preferred way for fans to get their tickets was either on the phone or in person. ASU ended up selling 63,210 tickets, not quite a sellout. At the time, Sun Devil Stadium sat about 71,000 people.

The morning of the game, Bunger still had about 8,000 tickets left. At 10 a.m., when the ticket office opened, he announced that will call had moved next door to what was then Wells Fargo Arena. Almost the entire crowd of about 100 people headed that way. Barely any of the remaining tickets were sold.

“It was crazy, like you could have shot a cannon through there and you wouldn’t have hit anybody,” Bunger said. “It was weird. Of all the things, that was the weirdest thing that happened.”

It was hot the day of the game, and by kickoff at 6:15 p.m. in Arizona, it was still 95 degrees.

O’Keefe flew in that day and joined Crow at a news conference that had a special guest: U.S. Sen. John McCain. He was the emcee of the news conference, O’Keefe said, and encouraged community support as well as donations. O’Keefe added that McCain’s presence alone brought more attention to the cause and the game.

About 45 minutes before the game, Crow and O’Keefe walked into Sun Devil Stadium. O’Keefe, used to tailgates that start Thursday and end at kickoff, was taken aback by what he saw. Nobody was in the stands. It was just the two men and the cheerleaders.

“I walked in and said, ‘Well, Mike, OK, well at least we’re not going to forfeit the game. We’ll be able to pull this off,'” O’Keefe said. “He said, ‘What are you talking about?’ I said, ‘Mike, this is only a question where we want to sit? Is there any part of the stadium you prefer?’ And he said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘Mike there’s nobody here. I mean, that’s the way it goes. So, yeah, it’s a bridge too far. You guys only had a few days to whistle up a crowd, I mean come on. It’s not gonna happen.'”

Crow then filled O’Keefe in on a little-known secret about football in the West: Fans don’t show up until kickoff — or later, especially when it’s that hot out. By the middle of the first quarter, the stadium was packed.

Around the stadium, volunteers were holding buckets for donations. As Crow walked through the stadium, he remembered seeing them overflowing with money, which went to the Bush-Clinton Relief Fund. In all, more than $1.5 million was raised, Crow said.

Then there was the game on Sept. 10, 2005, which LSU won.

All the buildup … then kickoff

Reached by text message, former ASU coach Dirk Koetter, who’s currently the Atlanta Falcons’ offensive coordinator, said he didn’t remember much about the lead-up to the game, just that ASU “played pretty well” but lost it in the fourth quarter on a couple bad plays.

When LSU boarded the plane back to their lives in Baton Rouge, their brief respite from the devastation that awaited them back home was over. They had won. And those who they left back in Arizona, weirdly, were OK with that.

For most, they thought they were the only ones who felt that way for the last 15 years, only to find out that others shared their feelings.

“Normally, I would have been really disappointed after the outcome,” Johnson said, “but, you know, part of me was also feeling kind of sorry for them and what they had gone through and it’s not like I wasn’t disappointed. I just wasn’t disappointed as I normally would be at the outcome of that game.”

A decade and a half later, some involved in the game can’t believe that so much time, attention and effort was afforded to moving a football game amid one of this country’s worst catastrophes.

Ausberry thinks the game was a “guinea pig” of sorts, that when a storm starts tracking on a radar, schools are quicker to cancel games because of what happened in 2005. There are others who thought playing was a way to be a good distraction in a bad time, a way to start the healing process in Louisiana. And LSU took it from there — starting with its next game on Sept. 26, which was also moved because of a hurricane, this time Rita. The Tigers played 11 weeks in a row, including a berth in the SEC Championship Game, and finished the season 11-2.

That run, however, wouldn’t have started without the decision to move the game.

“We live in a very complicated society,” Crow said. “We live in a very complicated world, and when we have issues and disasters, and when things happen that are bad, people, they want to hear music. They want to hear a concert. They want to feel something positive and emotional and so what we were trying to do was to create a situation where this fabulous connecting thing called football could be played.

“And obviously it couldn’t be played there, but it could be played here and I think if you ask people over there, if they remember, they would say that it was great to find a way to rally around that, while we’re in the midst of rebuilding after Katrina.”

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