NEW ORLEANS – BCS national championship games often spawn offbeat promotional events.
So it was no surprise the other day here at the Marriott Convention Center, the official hotel for media covering Monday’s showdown – a.k.a. The SEC Invitational – between No. 1 LSU and No. 2 Alabama that I stumbled on two of the best quarterbacks in SEC history helping cut a 30-foot long New Orleans peacemaker po-boy constructed by New Orleans’ best chefs.
Alabama’s Kenny “Snake” Stabler and LSU’s Bert Jones, proflic quarterbacks of the mid’s 60s and early 70s respectively, teamed together as part of the Gulf Coast Seafood & Tourism Bash presented by BP.
In between bites of the diet-wrecking po-boy, I began thinking about the greatest SEC quarterbacks who never won a national championship or a Super Bowl or a Heisman Trophy.
Though there are probably some names I missed, my conclusion was just three QBs – Georgia’s Fran Tarkenton, Ole Miss’ Archie Manning and the man standing in front of me, Bert Jones.
If you look for Bert’s name in the SEC record book, you won’t find it. And he barely scratches the LSU’s record book, his name only appearing in pass yards gained per play in a game (10.9 per pass vs. Auburn in 1972 when he completed 22 passes for 240 yards).
But then you see that he was drafted No. 2 overall by the NFL’s Baltimore Colts, played 11 years, was the NFL’s MVP in his fifth season, threw for 18,190 yards and 124 touchdowns. His career ended at age 32 with a broken neck, and thankfully he wasn’t paralyzed.
So when you compare Bert’s college and pro careers, and the jump in performance, the numbers don’t add up. It makes me look stupid thinking Bert’s is one of the greatest SEC quarterbacks ever who never took home the big prizes.
Yet when you start examining Bert’s unique situation during his LSU playing days – a gifted passing quarterback stuck in a predominately running offense and late LSU coach Charlie McClendon’s two-QB system basically until his senior season – his talent can’t be overlooked.
In fact, just a few years ago before a Super Bowl game, New England Patrioits coach Bill Belichick was asked who the best quarterback he ever saw. Belichick rattled off several names, such as Johnny Unitas and his own Tom Brady before settling on Jones.
“As a pure passer I don't think I could put anybody ahead of Bert Jones,” Belichick said. “I know he had a short career and the shoulder injury (midway through his career), but when I was there and he was just starting his career, the success that he had and his ability to throw the ball as a pure passer and as an athlete, it would be hard to put anybody ahead of Bert Jones at that point in time."
Growing up the son of former Tulane star Dub Jones, Bert was always more in tune with the pro game than college. Dub was a record-setting wide receiver for the Cleveland Browns from 1948 to '55 and was an assistant coach with the team from 1963 to '67, when Bert was a Browns ball boy when future Hall of Famers such as legendary running back Jim Brown got used to seeing every summer at training camp.
“I would hide in Jim Brown’s locker room during training camp almost every other day,” says Bert, now 60. “Because I was around the pros so much, I never thought adjusting to the NFL would be that hard. As naive as it probably was, I felt college ball was merely my conduit to professional football.”
When Bert was in the first grade, his teacher asked her students what they wanted to be when they grew up. While some classmates debated – policeman and fireman were popular choices – Bert didn’t hesitate. “I’m going to be a professional football player, like my daddy,” he said.
At Ruston (La.) High, Bert, a 6-3 flinger, demonstrated the throwing arm that earned him the nickname “The Ruston Rifle.” And when it came time to choose a college, he wanted the biggest and closest stage possible, which happened to be LSU.
But because of McClendon’s fondness for using two quarterbacks, Bert alternated with Paul Lyons, an option-style quarterback, for most of his first two varsity seasons.
It drove Bert crazy then. And even all these years later, he still irks him a bit.
“I don’t want to sound like I’m dragging up bad things, because everything I did at LSU was a lot of fun and great,” Bert said. “And if I had to make the same college choice, I’d be doing it again exactly the same way as last time.
“But it’s almost impossible for a quarterback to keep a rhythm when a coach is playing two quarterbacks all the time. When you have a quarterback who’s hot and moving the team well, you need to stay with him. It’s difficult to run quarterbacks in and out. It makes a player feel like he’s looking over his shoulder all the time.”
Bert admits it was tough hiding his displeasure about McClendon’s quarterback shuffle. And McClendon once said that “Bert wasn’t the most coachable player I’ve ever had.”
Still, Bert was part of three Tigers’ team from 1970-72 that went 27-8-1 overall and won the ’70 SEC title, losing to No.1 and national Nebraska, 17-12, in the Orange Bowl.
And he helped deliver two of the most memorable wins in LSU history, a 28-8 victory over No. 8 Notre Dame in Baton Rouge when Bert was a junior, and a 17-16 victory over arch-rival Ole Miss as a senior when he threw a game-tying touchdown pass to Brad Davis.
The way that Bert handled the two-minute, no-huddle offense against the Rebels that November 1972 night in Tiger Stadium is why he’s a bit envious of how football has evolved. He turns on TV and watches wide-open offenses that use no-huddle almost entire games, with rules favoring quarterbacks and receivers.
“The speed of play is what I really like,” Bert says. “I always loved the two-minute offense. Now, with the two-minute offense being used almost entire games, you get so many more opportunities as a player. It has to be fun to play in.
“The rules that protect the quarterback are good. What I really like are the rules about not hitting receivers downfield, letting them run wild and throwing a lot.”
Needless to say, Bert is extremely proud of the current unbeaten Tigers, and the fact that his old jersey number, No. 7, is worn by cornerback/punt returner Tyrann “Honey Badger” Mathieu, who emerged this season as a sophomore as one of college football’s impact playmakers.
Last season, No. 7 was worn by cornerback/returner Patrick Peterson, winner of the Bednarik and Thorpe Awards as the nation’s best defensive player and best defensive back respectively.
“I think years ago LSU consciously made the decision to have an extremely talented player to wear No. 7,” Bert says with a chuckle.
Bert’s legacy at LSU is probably not found in the record books, but rather in style of play.
“The game of football evolves all the time, and I think I helped LSU evolve a bit toward throwing the ball,” he says. “People always recognized we had phenomenal running backs and running systems.
“But when I came along they realized, `Hey, maybe we can throw the ball a little bit.’ I think we changed the game a bit at LSU, even though it’s minimal compared to now.
“It’s like I was telling Kenny (Stabler). When we were in college, nobody threw the ball a lot. His coach Bear Bryant coached my coach, Coach McClendon, in college, so both of them had the same philosophy about passing. They both said, `When you throw the ball, three things can happen and two of them are bad.’ ”