In “Kingfish U: Huey Long and LSU,” Bob Mann, a professor of mass communication at the university, separates fact from fiction on former Gov. Huey Long’s involvement at LSU. (Photo courtesy of Bob Mann)
Huey Long’s presence is palpable at LSU.
An average Saturday night during football season will tell you as much. A stroll across campus will take you past the fieldhouse named in his honor and to the Greek theater, where the marching band he led so often rehearses the songs he helped write on the stage he often shared. If you’re lucky, you may hear a parent tell the child on their shoulders the legend of how the football stadium came to be — by a little Huey Long trickery that involved building dorms into the stadium.
In his latest book, Bob Mann tells us the real story of Huey Long and Louisiana State University.
In “Kingfish U: Huey Long and LSU,” Mann, a professor of mass communication at the university, separates fact from fiction. Contrary to popular belief, the legend that Long was responsible for the university’s beloved stadium is untrue.
What is fact is that Long, for better or for worse, played an outsized role in building LSU into the university we know today.
At various points in his career, Long was an outspoken LSU critic, its de facto president, chair of its governing board, unofficial band director, unwanted football coach and, above all else, its number one fan.
Mann started his career in politics as a staffer for Sen. Russell Long, son to Huey, about whom he wrote his first book, an authorized biography. “Kingfish U” is Mann’s 13th book, and third about Louisiana politics. He began work on the book shortly after finishing his memoir, “Backrooms and Bayous: My Life in Louisiana Politics.”
His latest book, published by LSU Press, presents an explanation of why LSU is the way that it is. “Kingfish U” is available for pre-order and will be released in June.
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While Long’s affinity for LSU was well-documented and long-remembered – although perhaps not always with perfect recollection – Mann documents the way LSU became a political tool, one that certainly has not been yielded in the nearly 90 years since Long’s infamous assassination at the state capitol.
While no governor has taken quite the same interest in LSU as Long did, the university is fated to remain at least a political backdrop, if not a direct tool, Mann said in an interview.
“Governors have always been interested in it because it’s the largest state institution,” Mann said. “It’s the most famous, most well known institution in the state and nationally. It’s symbolic of the state.”
While Gov. John Bel Edwards hasn’t been anywhere near the university dictator as Long was, he has kept the intertwining of politics and LSU alive and well.
“Kingfish U” is prefaced with one such anecdote: “In late 2019, Louisiana governor John Bel Edwards was in a tough runoff against his Republican challenger (Eddie Rispone). Edwards was a conservative Democrat who some believed won his first race because a sex scandal had weakened his opponent (David Vitter). Now, as the incumbent, he was in a stronger position. But Louisiana was a Republican state, and he needed help. So, he turned to the popular LSU football coach, Ed Orgeron.”
That episode in Louisiana politics caused an outrage among conservative LSU fans, who took to social media and football message boards to rage against the politicization of the Tigers.
But Edwards was just taking part of a long and storied tradition. At least he didn’t try to fire Coach O when the winning stopped, as Long did with one of his reluctant co-coaches.
Perhaps coming closer to Long’s methods is Attorney General Jeff Landry, the Republican party-endorsed candidate for governor.
In 2021, Landry pulled a page out of Long’s playbook, attempting to have an LSU professor who criticized him fired.
That professor was none other than Mann, a long-time outspoken critic of Louisiana Republicans.
Mann drew Landry’s ire after Assistant Attorney General Lauryn Sudduth made an appearance at an LSU Faculty Senate meeting to read a letter Landry had written about a resolution Mann and other senators were slated to vote on. The letter contained misinformation related to the COVID-19 vaccine, leading Mann call Sudduth a “flunkie” on Twitter.
The next day, Landry issued a statement calling for Mann to be punished.
Mann was protected as a tenured professor, but Long’s target, English professor John Earle Uhler, was not so secure.
Uhler and Long crossed swords after Uhler spoke out against a Long protege who was expelled from LSU’s law school for defaming Uhler in a satirical newspaper. The professor was dismissed after a local priest drew attention to a novel Uhler wrote that he felt painted LSU in a bad light.
Just as Landry’s spat with Mann drew national attention, so did Uhler’s firing. Perhaps because of the public relations scandal or because of a potential lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union, Uhler was ultimately restored to the faculty.
“I really do identify with John,” Mann said. “Even though I wasn’t fired, I have been attacked by someone who may be our governor this time next year and who very clearly thinks that I shouldn’t be here.”
Long’s influence on the university was often negative, such as when he expelled seven journalism students, now known as the “Reveille Seven,” who wanted to publish a letter to the editor critical of the governor. But Mann also documents the good Long did.
Long’s patronage and interest helped grow LSU, in terms of student body size, acreage and new buildings. Much of it happened during the Great Depression, when Long took advantage of the economic downturn to lure legendary faculty to Baton Rouge.
“It’s hard for me to imagine other governors having the imagination to find the funding to do what he did,” Mann said.
And yes, Long did help build the university into an athletic powerhouse.
“He was willing to do whatever it took to make that happen because he saw football, like I think a lot of people around here still do, as a vehicle to raise the profile of university, to enhance its reputation,” Mann said.
Mann said whoever the next governor may be, he or she will want to make their mark at the university.
“I think it’s just as natural as the sun rising in the east, that a governor is going to have a lot to do with LSU,” Mann said.
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