I recently did some research to answer this question:
Which LSU team sent the most players to the pro ranks?
To answer, I set up an Excel spreadsheet and entered two sets of data, both of which I obtained primarily from the LSU Football Media Guide:
- The list of Tigers who played pro football and the years they played;
- The list of LSU lettermen
During the course of completing the project, I determined that the list of Tigers in the Pros in the Media Guide is missing quite a few names. I sent my completed spreadsheet to the LSU Sports Information Office. It was too late to affect the 2010 Guide (a copy of which I requested as "payment" for my efforts) but may have an impact in the future.
Update: I rec'd this e-mail:
Great stuff Neal. Thanks for your emails, very helpful. When we get the media guides in, I will mail you one. Bill Martin Associate Sports Information Director LSU Athletics [Follow up: He actually sent me two guides. Thanks, Bill!]
With that preliminary out of the way, I will start revealing what I learned. First, I'm not going to give you the answer to my question above for awhile. I want to keep you coming back for more. So I'll build up week-by-week by going through the top LSU teams in supplying pro players decade-by-decade, then start revealing the top five teams culminating with #1. I will say that you won't be surprised by the squad that "won" the competition, although it was closer than you might think. And one of the top five teams played over 20 years ago.
Who was the first LSU player to participate in pro football?
Amazingly, the answer takes us back to 1920 and a player named Tom Henry, who, according to pro-football-reference.com, played one game at WB for the Rhode Island (IL) Independents of the American Professional Football Association. Mind you, this was one year before the NFL started! Tom had lettered at LSU in 1916. (Sidebar: I decided to list only lettermen in my spreadsheet, my reasoning being that, if someone was on a Tiger team but didn't play enough to letter, I didn't want him contaminating my compilation of players that team sent to the pros. Plus, it would be almost impossible to find out who were the squadmen on each team in the bygone era in order to include them in the count.)
The very next year, 1921, a second LSU-ex joined the pro ranks. He was Joe Bernstein, who lettered in 1915-16-19. (He may have missed 1917-18 because of World War I.) A huge FB for that era – 190 – Joe played for the New York Giants in 1921 and in 1923-24 for those same Rhode Island Independents, who had now joined the fledgling NFL.
Henry and Bernstein were the only Tigers in the pros in the 1920s. We have to jump to the late 30s before we find Tiger teams with multiple players who turned pro. So we'll pick up our Best of the Decade list with the top team from the 1930s.
Best of the 1930s in Supplying Pro Players:
Bernie Moore, LSU coach 1935-47
The '36 Bengals were a close second to their predecessors with 7 future pros, most of whom were carryovers from '35. With the NFL comprising only 10 teams in those years with rosters typically numbering 20-25, 7 or 8 pros from one team was quite remarkable.
How did these two pro-laden Tiger teams do on the gridiron? Quite well, as you'd expect.
1935: 9-1 regular season, then lost the Sugar Bowl to TCU 3-2.
1936: 8-1-1 regular season, then lost to Santa Clara in the Sugar Bowl, 21-14.
To put this is perspective, the 8 future pros of the '35 team were two more than the 1958 National Championship team and tied with the 1959 squad.
Which LSU team of the 1940s sent the most players to pro football?
The 1946 LSU Tigers of Bernie Moore sent 12 lettermen to pro football.
- The term "pro football" is used rather than "the NFL" because a rival league existed from 1946-1949: the All-American Football Conference (AAFC). So the number of pro roster spots for college grads nearly doubled during those four seasons.
- In part because the Cleveland Browns dominated the league, winning all four championships, the AAFC folded after the '49 season. Cleveland, the San Francisco 49ers, and the Baltimore Colts were admitted into the NFL. (That Colts franchise, as you tell from the green color, was not the later club of Johnny Unitas. After the 1950 season, the franchise was returned to the NFL, which turned it into the New York Yankees.)
Here is the list of '46 Tigers who played at the next level.
Best of the 1940s in Supplying Pro Players:
How did these two pro-laden Tiger teams do on the gridiron? One did very well, the other not so hot.
1946: 9-1 regular season, then tied Arkansas in the 1947 Cotton Bowl played after a sleet storm in Dallas.
1947: 5-3-1, no bowl game in Moore's last season in Baton Rouge before becoming SEC Commissioner.
The 12 future pros on the '46 and '47 teams were twice as many as the 1958 National Championship team. It also equaled the dozen on the '61 team. It wasn't until the 1979 team, with 15 future NFLers, that the record of 12 on one team was broken.
Which LSU team of the 1950s sent the most players to pro football?
You probably guessed the 1958 National Champions. You're wrong, but only by one year.
- The 1959 Tigers of Paul Dietzel contributed eight players to the pros. That was four less than the 1946 Tiger team.
- The undefeated '58 team counted six future NFL or AFL players in its ranks.
Best of the 1950s in Supplying Pro Players:
The '59 Tigers extended the school winning streak to 19 games before losing a heartbreaker at Tennessee, 14-13. They also lost the Sugar Bowl in a rematch with Ole Miss, 21-0, to finish 9-2.
The '58 Tigers were, of course, 11-0 including a Sugar Bowl win over Clemson 7-0. They finished #1 in the AP poll.
Which LSU team of the 1960s sent the most players to pro football?
After Paul Dietzel left for West Point following the 1961 season, LSU's number of future pros declined, staying in the single digits for each team until 1975.
- The 1961 Tigers of Paul Dietzel contributed 12 players to the pros. This tied them with the 1946 squad for the most to that point in history (and beyond).
- The previous season saw 10 future play-for-pay LSU gridders.
Best of the 1960s in Supplying Pro Players:
The 1961 Tigers are considered one of LSU's best teams. After being upset by Rice in the opener, they ripped off 11 straight wins, including an Orange Bowl romp over Colorado.
Which LSU team of the 1970s sent the most players to pro football?
LSU started the 1970s in single digits for number of players who became pros. The number picked up near the end, culminatign with 15 in 1979, the last year of Charlie McClendon's tenure in Tigertown. In second place for the decade was the previous year's team, with 12 guys who would play on Sundays.
Best of the 1970s in Supplying Pro Players:
- The 1979 Tigers finished only 6-5 but defeated Wake Forest in the Tangerine Bowl in Charlie Mac's last game.
- The '78 team did better, 8-4 with a loss to Missouri in the Liberty Bowl.
Which LSU team of the 1980s sent the most players to pro football?
It took only one year for the 1979 record of 15 pro players on the LSU team to be broken when the '80 squad produced 18. But that was broken again two years later thanks to the great recruiting of Jerry Stovall (head coach 1980-83). 22 future play-for-pay gridders patrolled Tiger Stadium in 1982. But the '84 squad surpassed that and won the Tops in the Decade award with 24 incipient pros. This makes that team fifth all-time on the list of Tiger teams producing the most pros.
Best of the 1980s in Supplying Pro Players
Both 1984 and 1985 - 23 Future NFLers on each squad
- The 1984 Tigers, Bill Arnsparger's first LSU team, finished 8-3-1, losing to Nebraska in the Sugar Bowl.
- The second highest team of the decade in terms of pro players was the next year, 1985, with 23. That group went 9-2-1 but also lost its bowl game to Baylor. (Arnsparger was 0-3 in bowl games.)
Which LSU team of the 1990s sent the most players to pro football?
LSU pro football production fell off by half or so during the 1990s as compared to the peak years of 1984-5. It regained some momentum when Gerry DiNardo took over from Curly Hallmann in 1995. The result was a tie for top team of the decade between the 1997 and 1998 teams with 20 future pros each.
Best of the 1990s in Supplying Pro Players:
Both 1997 and 1998 Tigers - 20 Future NFLers on each squad
Members of Both Teams
- The 1997 finished 9-3 with a rematch victory over Notre Dame in the Independence Bowl.
- The '98 squad proved to be one of the most disappointing teams in LSU history. After being ranked in the Top 5 to start the season, the Bengals reverted to the losing ways of the 1989-94 era, winning only 4 against 7 defeats. One year later, DiNardo was finished after a 2-8 start.
Which LSU team of the 2000s sent the most players to pro football?