The 1990s were a period of transition for the LSU football team.
But after years of rebuilding and losing seasons, the Tigers “brought the magic back” in 1997.
The night was Saturday, October 11. The Tigers were 4-1 on the young season – a promising start for a team which had lofty expectations, including the No. 10 ranking to start the season.
The opponent coming into Tiger Stadium that night was the mighty Florida Gators – the No. 1 team in the country at the time.
The Gators were coached by legendary coach Steve Spurrier.
He absolutely owned LSU – an old grudge he held since 1986 when he interviewed to be the Tigers’ coach, but was passed over. Spurrier eventually ended up at Duke. He won – enough to get the job with the Gators before the 1990 season. He was far more successful than the coaches hired by LSU.
In 1994, Florida beat LSU 42-18. The year after, the Gators scored a decisive 28-10 victory over the Tigers in Tiger Stadium.
In 1996, LSU was the No. 12 team in the country and many fans had high hopes that the Tigers could challenge the Gators. But the trend continued and the game didn’t go well for the boys in purple and gold. The Gators won 56-13.
So for all of those reasons, fans had low expectations when the Tigers clashed with the Gators for a mid-season clash of Top 25 powers.
But coach Gerry Dinardo wasn’t among them.
Before the game at his mid-week press conference, Dinardo proclaimed that the Tigers would “Bring Back the Magic” against the Gators. His words were mocked by analysts around the country.
But he was right. This night belonged to the Tigers.
Unlike Florida matchups of the past, LSU jumped out of the gates strong in this matchup, scoring on the first drive of the game on a long run from quarterback Herb Tyler, which made the score 7-0.
After an interception by Cedric Donaldson, LSU struck again just a minute later on a one-play drive capped by a 7-yard run from Tommy Banks, which upped the lead to 14-0 midway through the first quarter.
Florida steadied itself in the middle stages of the game, using two-straight touchdown runs from Fred Taylor to flip the momentum and tie the score at 14 heading to the fourth quarter.
But in crunch time, the Tigers did not wilt.
Perhaps the most memorably play of the game was Donaldson’s second interception, which he returned 31 yards for a touchdown to put the Tigers on top 21-14 early in the fourth quarter.
After Florida fumbled the ensuing kickoff, LSU grabbed control for good four plays later when Tyler scampered into the end zone from 11 yards out to put LSU up 28-14.
Fans were in a frenzy. The final minutes of the game were a bundle of nerves.
Florida scored midway through the fourth quarter to make the score 28-21.
They got the ball back with 4 minutes left with a chance to tie, but quarterback Doug Johnson was picked off by Raion Hill, which turned over possession to the Tigers and effectively ended the game.
Fans rushed onto the field following LSU’s win. Tiger Stadium’s goalposts were torn down in the celebration.
After the game Dinardo downplayed his mid-week comments, while calling the win a great one for the Tigers.
“I am so proud of those guys,” Dinardo said. “They played their hearts out.”
LSU finished the 1997 season with an 8-3 record. The team won the Independence Bowl over Notre Dame later that year.
The victory marked the highest peak of Dinardo’s tenure.
The following season, LSU went 4-7, losing six games by 12 points or loss. And in 1999, the coach was fired before the final game of the season, paving the way for Nick Saban to enter the fold.
But many consider that night in 1997 to be the night that the Tigers’ modern-day success was born.