|Welcome to Death Valley|
By Jim Caple
Page 2 columnist
BATON ROUGE, La. -- The LSU icon weighs approximately 400 pounds and devours 15 pounds of raw meat everyday. He lives in a private habitat worth millions of dollars, and his every care and need is tended to by a fulltime trainer. Although capable of occasional bursts of amazing quickness, he mostly sleeps; when he moves, he lumbers around in a confined space as throngs of fans gather to gawk on game days.
The other LSU icon, Mike the Tiger, only eats 10 pounds of meat per day, and his home is worth much less.
At least, his present home is worth less. The school is trying to build Mike a new "habitat-proper" cage worth at least $2 million.
When the mascot's home will qualify for an episode on MTV's Cribs, do you really need to ask why LSU is on our list of the most special places in college football?
If the tiger's future cage isn't a 'Sign of the Apocalypse,' you should be able to see one from the historic, 92,000-seat Tiger Stadium, otherwise known as Death Valley. I know this because there is a 25-yard-long sign that reads, "Welcome to Death Valley'' mounted below the pressbox. Those are the little touches at which LSU excels. Most schools wouldn't even put up such a name. Others would just say, "Death Valley" and leave it at that. But not LSU. Here, it's "Welcome to Death Valley." That's beautiful. It's like descending into Hell and finding a sign that reads, "Satan Invites You to Enjoy Eternal Damnation."
I have no connection to LSU, but last Saturday's game was the visit I most anticipated on my sports tour down the Mississippi River. These are the most sublime fan experiences in American team sports: An afternoon game in the middle of summer at Wrigley Field, a crisp fall Saturday morning at Notre Dame, a cold winter night inside Allen Fieldhouse.
And a balmy Saturday evening at Tiger Stadium, when the grills are firing outside, Mike the Tiger is roaring and the Golden Band of Tigerland is playing the slow, opening chords to "Hold That Tiger" with such passion that they produce goosebumps the size of Mardi Gars beads.
Naturally, the Georgia Bulldogs won't be quite so captivated by the experience when they play here Saturday. They'll run through a tunnel. They'll see a huge sign welcoming them to Death Valley. They'll hear 90,000-plus fans screaming at them. And they'll have a 400-pound Bengal Tiger roaring in their facemasks.
It's actually much worse than that.
"The costumed mascot comes up to the cage, and Mike can't stand him," Foley said. "I don't know what it is, but he doesn't like him. He gets all cranky, and roars. Talk about cruel and unusual punishment. If only the people with PETA had any idea how bad it really is."
Foley is from New Zealand, where they filmed "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy. "My friend lives on the farm where they filmed the Shire. The hobbit holes are still there. I visited him and it was pretty cool. I was inside Bilbo Baggins' hole."
Growing up, Foley had never heard of college football, gumbo or, for that matter, Louisiana. And yet, here he is at LSU, editing the school yearbook and completely caught up in LSU football. "I'm working on my second senior year," he said. "I wasn't going to graduate last year with the schedule we've got this season. I'll graduate next summer. We don't have anybody good on the schedule next year."
Delaying graduation because of the fall football schedule? Now, that's an impressive football program.
"I gained a lot of weight my first year. You hear about the Freshman 10. Well, I put on the Freshman 15. I went home and my mother looked at me and said, 'What the hell happened to you?' I said, 'I went to school in Louisiana. That's what they do there.'"
Yes, the only thing LSU fans take as seriously as their football games is the food served at the pre-game tailgate parties. Fans start arriving Wednesday afternoon; and by Friday night, there are more people camping out all across campus than at Yosemite during mid-summer. Tailgating is so big here that the school recognizes the "tailgater of the game," and some tailgaters have official sponsors. The Half-Assed Tiger Tailgaters, for example, are sponsored by a beer company, run their own website and host a charity golf tournament. Prime parking spots go for $300 to $500 for a season pass. That means it can cost more to park than to watch the game.
Consider the tailgate party that Thad Foreman and his crew regularly hold. They serve up such offerings as jambalaya, duck and oyster gumbo, stuffed quail, deer sauce picante, wild duck, cochon deli, Cajun sausage, crawfish etouffete, rabbit, alligator stew and marinated pork tenderloin. It was like reading the menu at Emeril's. Foreman and Co. not only go the whole hog each Saturday, they cook it, too. "We'll bake a 90-pound pig for the Arkansas game."
The group goes through up to 300 pounds of meat per game. And what they don't eat before the game, they put in a pot and eat after the game. Everybody is invited to stop by; but if you can't find them, there is always the Jambalaya by Shake stand on the other side of the stadium, where they go through 90 gallons of jambalaya a game.
With spreads like that, why even bother going to the game? "Sometimes, I don't," Kelly Simon said. "Sometimes, I just sit here and listen to the game on the radio."
"I've had the fortune to go to a lot of the SEC schools. The Swamp and Neyland Stadium are pretty loud, but I don't think it gets any louder than at Tiger Stadium," LSU quarterback Matt Mauck said. "You get a big play in a big game, and I don't know if it's the alcohol kicking in or what, but you can't even hear yourself talk."
Loud? When LSU upset Auburn in 1988, the fans cheered so loudly and stomped their feet with such force that the geology department seismograph registered earth movement ... for 20 minutes.
It was loud enough to wake Huey Long, the Depression-era populist governor whose true passion in life was LSU football. (Well, that and political cronyism.) Long gave locker-room pep talks, marched with the band, unabashedly recruited players -- he once tried naming a player to the state senate -- and once threatened tax hikes to a railroad if it didn't offer students reduced fares so they could attend a Tigers game in Tennessee.
Sure, he may have stepped across the line a couple times, but I'll say this: If he still was governor, Mike the Tiger would have such a crib that Shaq would want to move in, too.
So welcome to LSU, where the football is so good the earth moves, where the tailgate chow is so good the Food Network should own broadcast rights, and where the entire atmosphere is so special that people from the other side of the world would rather spend their days listening to a tiger's roar in Death Valley than go home to the peace and comfort of the Shire.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.