By J. Henderson
The Auburn Tigers have an interesting relationship with the LSU Tigers, a relationship marked by unique commonalities beyond their virtually identical official nicknames and adjacent complementary school colors schemes. For instance, the team that succeeded the 1957 Auburn team as national champions (our first time) was LSU (their first time), a scenario that was all but reversed in 2004 when Auburn went 13-0 (should have been our second time) following LSU’s (12-1) National Championship run in 2003 (their second time) under Nick Saban, who now coaches Auburn’s arch-rival Alabama. Current Auburn tight-ends coach Steve Ensminger was born in Baton Rouge and played quarterback at LSU in the mid-70s and of course the fantastic Will Muschamp was LSU’s defensive coordinator under Saban. Also, brilliant, former Auburn coach Mike Donahue would in 1923 leave the Plains to finish out his coaching career in Baton Rouge (although with much less success then he enjoyed with the good guys).
Auburn’s ever-growing rivalry with LSU has a (not too) recent history of annual significance in the SEC, and even national, rankings, with the two teams often playing spoiler to one another’s chances at championships. Auburn won the first meeting in 1901, which was played in Baton Rouge, by the score of 28-0 but split victories nearly evenly with the Bayou Bengals up until the series was suspended in the middle of WWII. The series was not renewed until 1969 and that year was the beginning of a five game string of Auburn defeats, the good Tigers not winning again until 1981, Pat Dye’s first year on the Plains. Though there was no game in the prodigious ’71 season of Sullivan-Beasley, the 70s were, when the two met, all LSU, and for every tale of ecstasy involving two blocked punts in the Birmingham December of 1972, there is an almost equal number of almost equally visceral recounts of sopping wet October misery in Baton Rouge mud, as LSU was the only team to take down Auburn’s Amazin’s and they numbed us, 35-7. It does rain in Tiger Stadium.
But over the past two decades the rivalry has become even more compelling thanks to peculiar game-day circumstances and occurrences so clockwork they are now almost expected (a former co-worker of mine attributed this phenomenon to the Satanic element he presumed prevalent in LSU fan ritual – the fact of the roaring blaze that America watched destroy the Old Field House next to the stadium during the 1996 game in Auburn was a principle tenet of his theory).
While the series itself has no established nickname (I suggest the T.O.T. Violence Bowl – Tiger on Tiger), many of the individual games have been retrospectively christened with splashy titles such as “The Cigar Game” (owing to a stogie-fied victory celebration at mid-field by visiting Auburn in 1999 – the game was played on Tommy Tuberville’s birthday, as was the so-called “Extra Point(s)” game in 2004, which Auburn also won) and “The Whistle Game” (in which Auburn quarterback Patrick Nix was sacked for a safety when he stopped play after hearing a whistle, which was blown not by the officials but by someone in the stands, almost certainly an LSU fan), which was played the year following “The Interception Game / Pass, Bengals, Pass” which is one of the two most famous games in the series, and easily gets Auburn fan’s vote for the best.
The Weather Channel’s forecast for Hurricane Ivan as seen on the old Jordan-Hare jumbotron the week of the 2004 LSU game…
I started too late on my plan for this week, which was to write a feature on each of the two currently-most celebrated games of the Auburn-LSU series, finishing on Friday with a memoir of “The Interception Game”, which is certainly one of the wildest comebacks in the history of college football, one that inspired my Dad to tear his shirt off, run outside, and beat his chest like Tarzan while screaming “War Eagle.” But I doubt I will have the time and will instead simply insert a replay of the Miracle itself (pardon the music):
And so this “installment” will for now stand alone as an investigation into the game with the most bombastic nickname of them all, the game that first rises to the top in contemporary discussions on the topic of Auburn vs. LSU voodoo, the game most malleable for ESPN pre-game featurettes (by which, as we shall learn, the myth surrounding it was actually created): “The Earthquake Game.”
The so-called “Earthquake Game” was the first time I cried over football. It was October 8, 1988. I was 9. The game was on ESPN. My Dad, my uncle and I sat there stunned, an empty Pizza Hut box in front of us cracked open as if it was laughing. I hopped out of the recliner and ran up-stairs to gag spit and tears into the toilet in the dark. My Dad knocked on the bathroom door and tried telling me it was just a game – but Auburn was awesome, we weren’t supposed to lose, we hardly ever did, but now we had. I think I blacked out until the Iron Bowl.
Beyond my first true taste of mortality, the ’88 game is most notable for the retroactive apotheosis of the peculiar incident to which it owes its nickname.
HERE’S THE STORY…
The 5th season of “The Cosby Show” premiered on October 6th, just two days before the game, which was in Baton Rouge, and Cosby – Cosby – had actually slipped in the ratings, down 19% from the previous year, though it of course still controlled 40% of the audience share. So weird things were happening and Theo’s voice-change was about to rock America.
ESPN was pressuring LSU to move the scheduled 6:15 pm kickoff to earlier in the afternoon; an afternoon game meant more money for everyone but the vaunted and cherished nocturnal punch to the Death Valley home field advantage, which LSU’s 1988 media guide called “the most dreaded in America”, would have been compromised.
LSU said no way.
They were coming into the game 2-2 and were eager to drown the pain of two consecutive on-the-road losses to Ohio State and Florida (their 1988 schedule, at least from I where I sit, seems herculean to say the least), drown it in Auburn’s blood, and wanted every inch of leverage they could get. The Louisianans had not won a home-game (0-4-2) under sunshine in 7 years. 2nd-year coach Mike Archer was quoted the day before as saying “They could’ve offered $5 million and I would not have moved this game. To play in [Tiger Stadium] at night is the most important thing to this football team.” According to their then starting guard, Ruffin Rodrigue, “LSU football is night,” and Birmingham News sports columnist Kevin Scarbinsky even referred to LSU as “Team Dracula.”
Still Auburn coach Pat Dye was nonchalant about the whole business.
“We’re not looking for any excuses,” Dye said. “We’re not going to let the fact we’re playing in Baton Rouge affect us. Noise is always a factor. I’ve been in that stadium where it was as loud as it could be. I’ve also been in that stadium where you could hear a whisper across the field. That stadium won’t make one tackle or complete one pass.”
As for that last bit, on that night, LSU fans, to this day, might beg to differ.
Down by six and with no timeouts and 1:47 left to go in the game, LSU quarterback Tommy Hodson, who was described in one recap as “looking like a high-schooler for 3 1/2 quarters,” zipped a do-or-die 4th down bullet, over the zone-playing heads and fingers of one of the most ferocious Auburn defenses ever, to tailback Eddie Fuller who was waiting in the back of the end zone for his third chance to catch the game winner, a chance he got. He got it and he caught the ball. The extra point, kicker David Browndyke’s 69th in a row, was good. It was the capper to a 74-yard game-winning drive, in which the till-then anemic LSU offense finally crossed the 50 yard line, something they’d failed to do all night.
The stadium erupted, I vomited.
Final score: LSU 7 – Auburn 6 and that was the end of it.
The two teams wound up sharing the SEC championship, LSU with a final record of 8-4, Auburn with a final record of 10-2, losing again only to Florida State in the Sugar Bowl, and, for a few years, the ’88 game was just another exciting game, just another memory – good for LSU fans, bad for Auburn. But somewhere along the way – likely at some point in the early 90s – the ’88 game was reborn in the minds of LSU fans, Auburn fans, football trivia fans, and sports marketing gurus as “The Earthquake Game.” Since that time, vibrantly fuzzy mental snapshots of the new child have engulfed the nostalgia of interested parties in a thick lore of near-Biblical proportion.
The gist of the legend is that on the night of October 8th, 1988, the noise and commotion of the celebrants in Tiger Stadium produced a minor earthquake. I was curious about what had actually happened, what had actually poisoned that night, and set out to perform an autopsy on the small piece of my soul 19 years deceased. I didn’t remember hearing about any earthquake, but I was young, and I just remember the pain.
However, when I decided to take a look back on the contemporary coverage of that exciting, if personally nauseating, game, I found no reference to an earthquake in any of the reporting that followed, no “Can You Believe This?” sidebars, nothing. Though 1988 was a pre-Internet reality, I knew that the old wire-services were still pretty fast and therefore thought it odd such a spectacular anomaly would have escaped the scoop, unless knowledge of it was not, in fact, widespread.
But there was nothing to be found in the pre-game newspaper build-up nor post game coverage of the ’89 game either, none at least in the papers I had time to peruse for details (The Auburn Plainsman and The Birmingham News).
But after searching the internet I did manage to find the name of the seismologist credited with the discovery of the quake. And I found his e-mail address. It was at that point that my focus for this eternal post shifted from what happened to what didn’t happen, because the structure of the modern earthquake meme at its most extreme lends itself to visions of delirious LSU fans actually immediately aware of the event, if not, in some way, actually channeling it. Not that anyone in the stands would revise their memory to include descriptions of a Hollywood-style earthquake (minus causalities), but much of the current net-buzz specific to “The Earthquake Game” seems easily rendered into a conception close to it.
For instance, the very name of the LSU blog “And The Valley Shook“, in addition to evidencing just how important the game has become in the LSU psyche, almost implies a game-changing phenomenon, invested with the supernatural, and immediately perceived as such by LSU fans, rather than an after-thought piece of trivia, and that is what it once was.
Still, for LSU fans and even Auburn fans (if for the mere fact of being apparently the only Earthquake worthy opponent LSU has ever faced), the sublime aspects of such a story are irresistible and they were irresistible to ESPN.
THIS IS WHAT HAPPENED
Don Stevenson, a seismologist working for the Louisiana Geological Survey but technically employed by LSU, was not at the game that night. He was at home, less than a mile from the LSU campus, but did not watch the game on television, nor did he listen to it on the radio. He did hear a “tremendous roar” come from the direction of the stadium at one point in the evening and later discovered that LSU had won their football game with a last-minute touchdown.
The following Sunday morning, Stevenson woke up like the rest of the world. I went to church to petition the Lord for understanding; he headed to LSU’s Howe-Russell Geoscience Complex to change the recording charts in the seismic laboratory, which were changed daily.
“While changing the chart on a demonstration instrument that I had installed on the floor of the laboratory I noticed a relatively large signal from Saturday evening. Upon closer inspection I realized it coincided with the roar I had heard and the winning touchdown from the game the night before,” Stevenson said.
He labeled the blip and posted the seismogram in his office window where it stayed “for some time” until “I decided to have the LGS Cartography Department dress it up in a frame and add a formal caption so it could be displayed on a more permanent basis.”
Anyone who has read about the legendary aspect of the game is likely well-aware that the “quake” was discovered after the fact, but they are also likely considerably more ignorant than they realize as to just how much time passed between the event itself and their introduction to the story.
According to Stevenson, it was “at least a year or two, maybe more.”
Although he acknowledges that the seismic activity attributed to the football game was, because of his display, quasi-common knowledge around his particular ward of the geology department, Stevenson attributes its public dissemination to an ESPN hype-umentary filmed sometime prior to his leaving LSU in the summer of ’91.
“The way that it was told to me, and I can’t verify this, is that some time later, as I said maybe a year or two, ESPN was in town to cover another football game,” Stevenson said. “I don’t even know if it was another Auburn / LSU game or not. There was apparently some time to kill and somebody, I was told it was a student who was kind of escorting them around brought them to the geology building to see the touchdown earthquake record. The ESPN folks were most impressed and decided to do a little piece on it,” he said.
“Since then it seems to have taken on a life of its own.”
A LIFE OF ITS OWN
The game once lived tranquilly in the LSU win column. But at some as-yet-undetermined point in the early 90s it was forced from its quiet home and now roams the cyberstreets of football folklore, cartooned with embellishments and hunted by sound bite snipers whenever a big game comes to Death Valley.
This is what Ron Franklin said during ESPN’s introduction to the 2005 game:
“In college football there are rivalries and then there are rivalries but there are also matchups where for some reason, strange things seem to happen when the two teams get together and such is the case with the game we do here tonight in Baton Rouge between Auburn and LSU. The series began back in 1901 but none of the games is more famous than the 1988 ‘Earthquake Game’ in Baton Rouge, when a TD was scored late in the 4th quarter. At a seismology lab on campus, it registered the TD the same way an earthquake would affect the machine. Yes, the earth moved that night.”
None of the games are more famous because ESPN itself crowned it king. But if we look at its original context, the actual on-the-field narratives of the two games following the 1988 game are just as compelling, if not more so.
The 1989 game in Auburn had a similar 4th quarter comeback finish, only with Auburn scoring the go-ahead touchdown and winning 10-6. LSU had a chance to come back, just like Auburn had a chance to come back in ’88. Said Coach Mike Archer after the ’89 game, “This is just like last year…”
The next game was at Auburn in 1992. LSU trailed by 20 points going into the 4th quarter but, led by freshman quarterback Jamie Howard, mounted an amazing comeback to take the lead with 1:48 left in the game – just a few seconds more than Auburn had for its comeback attempt in 1988. This time it worked. Auburn’s “150 pounds when wet” Scott Etheridge kicked his 5th field goal of the day with 8 seconds left to win the game for the good Tigers, 30-28.
And so, again, in their original context, these three, thrilling games were for a short while referenced in similar terms and tone, until ’94 came along and kicked them all to the curb (but the ’88 aftershocks were rumbling harder and louder by the year).
First reference to “Earthquake Game” I found – from ’93.
When I combine these facts with my failure to find any instance of “Earthquake Game” trivia, which is today blared at full, column-filling, feature-length volume, until a short piece on Auburn center and Baton Rouge native Shannon Roubique (who was at the ’88 game and would go on to play in the ’94 game), written the week of the ’93 game in Baton Rouge in The Opelika-Auburn News, the modern and somewhat metaphorical legend surrounding “The Earthquake Game” of October 8, 1988 quickly analogizes not as the magical night you met your wife, nor even the crazy night you technically met your wife but were too drunk to remember her, but something more along the lines of the decently awesome concert which you discover after a few years of marriage you both attended as kids.
I am by no means questioning the established assertion that the various actions occurring inside Tiger Stadium that night were recorded by a seismograph machine located approximately 1,000 ft away in a manner consistent with recordings of small earthquakes. However, embedded in the myth created around that night is the idea that such an event had not only never happened before at Death Valley or anywhere else, but that it also hasn’t since and never will. For of course the “Earthquake Game” would then become simply “The Game”, or perhaps “The Original Earthquake Game.” And so for LSU fans, the notion that it was an incident isolated by the football gods to the point of permanent exclusion of any repetition is a belief essential to the legend, and it is an easy belief to hold when it is backed up by the for-the-cameras bravado of actual LSU geologists.
In a recent CBS produced featurette, the Assistant Director of the Louisiana Geological Survey, John Johnston, stands holding a copy of the revered seismogram (permanently on display at Tiger Stadium, thinks Stevenson) and ends his description of the event it represents with “so this is the first and only Earthquake Game.”
But is it? Was it? What with increased seating capacity and, if not rowdier, than at least likely heavier fans, could the same thing not happen again, if it hasn’t multiple times already – at Tiger Stadium or anywhere else with seismologic ears to hear?
“I don’t see why not,” Stevenson said.
And in fact, a colleague of both Johnston and Stevenson currently oversees a program dedicated in part to recording the seismic activity generated from the football fervor inside Tiger Stadium! Recordings corresponding to most of LSU’s 2006 home games, recordings similar to the one produced the night of the “one and only Earthquake Game,” can be accessed on the project’s website – the project is of course called Seismeauxgraph.
Perhaps, as an Auburn fan, I cannot in this investigation see the forest for the trees. Perhaps I’m just looking for my facts in the wrong places – and Lord knows I’ve only scratched the surface of the literature pertaining to that game. But everything I have learned over the past few days leads me to believe that the belated publicity about that peripheral geological occurrence has, over the past several years – in a sort of asterisk devouring the essay sort of way – artificially inflated the significance of the actual game in the minds of LSU and Auburn fans alike, myself included.
And even the players.
Just listen to Tommy Hodson and Eddie Fuller themselves talk about the game in a story titled “After 15 Years, LSU-Auburn Game Still An Earthshaking Experience” (note the implications that they “experienced” the earth shaking that night) written for the LSU Highlights website in 2003:
It is the stuff of legend…
Today, Hodson and Fuller say that after 15 years, the 1988 LSU-Auburn game is still an earthshaking experience. In fact, both say the famous play is even bigger now than it was then, since it has taken on a life of its own as part of LSU folklore.
“Initially, I didn’t believe it,” Fuller recalled of first hearing that the crowd noise registered on the seismograph. “I think it took a couple of years for it to sink in. It never dawned on me how big that play was here until years later, when I came back to LSU.”
Fuller said he first began to realize how amazing the “earthquake” game was when he saw it featured in a Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum in the early 1990s. “I was going through this Ripley’s museum in Niagara Falls, and I looked up and there it was!” he laughed.
Hodson said he remembers opening LSU’s student newspaper, The Reveille, and seeing a photo of the seismograph reading, or seismogram. “The story is even bigger now than when it happened,” Hodson said. “To have my name tied in with that play is an honor. It’s great to be a part of LSU history.”
Apocryphal? A question of semantics? Whatever the true origins and chronology behind the news circulation of the event, the idea of the “Earthquake Game” still makes for a great story, and sure, one to brag on, not only to continually amp up the Tigers vs. Tigers rivalry but as a trophy of fandom, an antenna for college football myth entire.
Though for me, the throwing up and the crying is more than enough to remember it by… and I only wish the same for some little bayou boy this Saturday night.
Onward Blue Jerseys… and God speed. If history is any indicator, you might literally dine in hell….
Take a nap. War Damn Eagle.
 According to a recent fan poll, Hodson’s touchdown pass ranks as the 2nd biggest play in LSU history! And I mean it’s cool and all, but can you imagine an Auburn blog, attempting to capture in its title a single-phrase summation of “Hell Yeah” Auburn Spirit, named “And the Cigars Were Smoked”?,
 It wasn’t – the teams did not play in Baton Rouge again until 1993 – a 34-10 Auburn route.
 As far as X’s and Oh my God’s go, ’94 sits on a mountain so very high.
 In The Auburn Plainsman and The Opelika-Auburn News.
 In this story, the reference to the earthquake has the definite whiff of first-time-in-print, did-you-know revelation; the reporter seems to indicate that he was made aware of it from the 1993 LSU Media Guide, which could suggest that ’93 was when LSU first began to “claim the quake”. Note that Roubique himself does not make mention of the earthquake – it is simply “I was there when LSU beat Auburn 7-6.”
 Despite Hodson’s recollection, Anderson feels “pretty certain that [news of the seismogram] did not become widely known until the ESPN piece came out.” Hodson graduated from LSU in 1990. Anyone on The Reveille staff want to find out if he’s right?