2003 National Champions Blazed Path to Glory
As Tiger fans across the world watched the clock tick down on the night of January 4, 2004, it marked the end of a long journey that had seen many ups and downs. It had been 45 years between LSU football national championships, and many never knew if they’d ever see the day that the Tigers would be at the top of college football.
While the football program saw many successful seasons, there was still the want for so much more. Fans knew there was something special in Baton Rouge, but it would take the right team to create a consistent winner. The 2003 team changed a culture and their national championship is a significant factor in the string of success the Tigers have had in the last 10 years.
Since 2003, LSU has become one of the nation’s most successful programs. The Tigers rank second in total wins with 110. During that time, LSU has won three Southeastern Conference Championships, appeared in three national championship games and won another national championship. The Tigers have also had 61 players drafted into the NFL, which ranks in the Top 5 among college football programs in the last decade.
When quarterback Matt Mauck began his career at LSU, he never imagined it would lead to a national championship. The success of the 2003 team shows that LSU has what it takes to be successful year-in and year-out.
“I’m most proud that we set things up and that LSU has been able to sustain success,” Mauck said recently. “I’m really proud to see LSU continue to do well. We should be in the national spotlight and title hunt every year.”
The change was not something made overnight. In offensive lineman Rodney Reed’s 1999 redshirt freshman season, the Tigers went 3-8. Over the next four years, a change in the attitude of the program was a contributor to the success on the field.
“In my first year we went 3-8, and then my senior year, we won the national championship,” Reed said. “I think it’s an example of the transformation of this program. In that last year, we didn’t make tangible goals. We tried to achieve things that would make us better teammates and people. Through a lot of hard work and good chemistry, we were able to win a national championship.”
Prior to the 2003 season, LSU saw success but never consistently reached the top. A turning point came against No. 7 Georgia in the fourth game of the ’03 season at Tiger Stadium; a game where many analysts didn’t believe the Tigers would have a fighting chance. After the thrilling 17-10 victory, Reed knew there was something special about the team. It would take a whole season, though, to convince the nation that LSU was here to stay.
“We go on that last drive with a rollout pass and Matt (Mauck) throws the ball and Skyler (Green) catches it for a touchdown,” Reed said. “It was the point in time that we all realized we were pretty good. No one really believed in us up to that point, and I think that is when we started turning heads.”
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The Tigers went on to the SEC Championship Game where they would face Georgia for a second time. Again, writers and analysts never thought LSU would leave the Georgia Dome with a win. Running back Justin Vincent, the game’s MVP, was ready to prove everyone wrong.
“No one really believed in us at the time,” Vincent said. “We had a great resumé up to that point, but we knew we had to dominate Georgia to get any recognition.”
In the second meeting with the Bulldogs, LSU ran off to a 34-13 win. The Tigers punched their ticket to the BCS title game in their own state and their home away from home, the Louisiana Superdome. It was the final test for LSU to see if they were true contenders against No. 1 Oklahoma. Fans flooded the city of New Orleans days before and let the players know how grateful they were for the success of the Tigers.
“It was neat to hear stories about how ‘I was nine years old the last time this happened,’” Reed said. “Now these men and women have gray hair. That always felt good that we put in the hard work to reward the fans. It was an amazing experience to bring pride and accomplishment to the university. We hoped to start a legacy there.”
The 45 years of anticipation and hope were finally met with a 21-14 win over the Sooners. The long wait was finally over, and the appreciation for the team was unmatched.
Ten years later, the 2003 national championship team is being remembered for their accomplishments on the field and the way they turned around a football program to its rightful spot in the national spotlight.
“People always say thank you for what you did, and I want to say thank you to LSU and especially the fans that had to endure some rough years,” Mauck said. “It was amazing to play in Baton Rouge. My decision to come to LSU is probably one of the greatest things I’ve ever done. While I may have done so much for them, they did even more for me.”
The 2003 team brought back LSU football from its darkest of days. It re-energized a program that has continued on a successful path. On that January 4th night, fans young and old were finally able to witness something that was such a long time coming. Fans always dreamed of this day, but as cheers of “L-S-U, L-S-U, L-S-U” rained from the Louisiana Superdome, it was clear that the Tigers were here to stay.
“I was never so moved as I was on Sunday night, watching what we saw” former LSU center John Ed Bradley wrote in the edition of Sports Illustrated that was published following the BCS title game. “After it was over and I’d gone to bed, I couldn’t stop thinking about all those that loved the Tigers but who were no longer here to celebrate their victory. I whispered their names into the dark, ticking them off one by one. You must forgive me for feeling so much. It was such a long time coming, I can’t stop wishing everyone was here.”