Top 5 – Moments in the Southland Conference
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Tom Burnett, ’88
Tom Burnett, ’88-Journalism, is in his 18th year as Commissioner of the Southland Conference (SLC). He was sports editor of The Tech Talk in 1988, was a student assistant in sports information under Sports Information Director and Louisiana Sports Hall of Famer Keith Prince, and has been a part of the 10-member NCAA Basketball Selection Committee for the past three years. He and his wife Tracy are the parents of a son, Cole, and a daughter, Jesse, both students at the University of Oklahoma. Tech is proud of this one.
“The early 1970s Tech national championship football teams and the Mike Green-led Bulldog basketball teams were before my time, but here are a few of my favorite SLC-era moments while I was on campus as a regular student and later as a sports information assistant in the athletic department,” Burnett said. “I was sports editor of The Tech Talk when the University announced its departure from the Southland Conference, and I was proud of my story that headlined the summer edition of the newspaper. Coincidentally, I became the Southland Conference commissioner in late 2002. You just never know.”
- 1984 SLC Basketball Tournament in Beaumont. Long a graveyard for visiting Southland basketball teams, Lamar’s on-campus McDonald Gym and later the downtown Beaumont Civic Center were home to the Cardinals’ 80-game home winning streak from 1978 through 1984, one of the longest in NCAA history. They seemed to stuff about 10,000 people into that 4,500-seat Civic Center, making it one of the most intimidating college basketball environments (and Lamar responded with five NCAA Tournament wins during the streak). Tech had contributed a number of losses during that 80-game streak, including an 85-60 rout by the Cards a few weeks earlier. However, after beating North Texas State and Northeast Louisiana in the first two rounds of the SLC Tournament, the Bulldogs found themselves in a championship game rematch with the 25-win Cardinals at the Civic Center on March 10. I was in the crowd that night. Tech controlled most of the contest, led by seven at the half, but Lamar rallied and captured a 57-55 edge with seven minutes to play. Karl Malone then hit three jumpers down the stretch and LU couldn’t catch up as “The Streak” ended. Tech won, 68-65. It was a breakthrough moment for Tech basketball, and a week later, the Bulldogs knocked off Fresno State in the NCAA Tournament before a competitive loss to Final Four-bound Houston.
- 1987 Tech Baseball win over No. 1 LSU. The LSU program was just reaching the heights of college baseball under legendary Skip Bertman, and the Tigers arrived in Ruston atop the national rankings. However, Tech had long been successful in baseball under its own coaching legend, Pat Patterson, a Louisiana Tech Athletics Hall of Famer in his own right with over 700 career wins. The No. 1 Tigers arrived at J.C. Love Field on Thursday, April 16, 1987, greeted by 3,000 or so (we really didn’t count, just guess-timated), and you never could get a good total on the fans both on the dugouts and on the hill near the train tracks in right field. Tech stalwart Richie LeBlanc has on the hill for the Bulldogs and twirled a command performance against a terrific LSU lineup featuring future MLB all-star Joey (Albert) Belle. In fact, Belle struck out swinging twice and hit two tape-measure home runs that night, and all four at bats were spectacular to watch. In the end, it was Charlie Montoyo’s dinger in the 10th inning that decided it for the Bulldogs, 5-4, sending Love Field into a frenzy, including fans jumping off the dugouts onto the turf. Tech went on to win the Southland and returned to the NCAA Tournament that year, and had five players selected in the MLB Draft.
- 1985 Southland Basketball Tournament in Ruston. While the “Dunkin’ Dawgs” had accomplished so much already (nationally-ranked throughout the season after the Louisville win in the Wendy’s Classic in December) and would go on a historic postseason run to the Sweet 16, that weekend in Ruston was as special a basketball gathering as I can remember. The teams, Tech of course, Lamar, Northeast Louisiana and McNeese, were absolutely loaded with talent. Future Naismith Memorial Hall of Famers Karl Malone and SLC Player of the Year Joe Dumars (McNeese), a tough-as-nails Lamar team led by scoring dynamo Jerry Everett, and a developing Northeast squad that was just a year away from winning the league. A lot of people will remember that Tech blew out Pittsburgh and Ohio State in its first two NCAA Tournament games the following week in Tulsa, but it barely escaped the SLC Tournament on its own home court — beating NLU 72-70 in the semifinal and squeezing past Lamar 70-69 in the final. A magical, perhaps once-in-a-lifetime team and competitive experience for the Tech program.
- 1984 NCAA Playoff win over Mississippi Valley State. As the surprise Southland champions in 1984, Tech football faced the formidable task of facing one of college football’s best stories that season, the incredible offensive juggernaut at Mississippi Valley State and its record-setting passing and catching tandem of Willie “Satellite” Totten and Jerry “World” Rice. The teams combined for over 1,300 yards of offense and a dozen or so NCAA playoff records that day. However, as prolific as Valley was on offense, the Delta Devils turned the ball over eight times and could score only three touchdowns while Tech scored at will against an MVSU defense that was scarce at best. The 66-21 Tech romp was historic in many ways, but the memory that day beyond the win was our introduction to Jerry Rice, who took a crossing pattern catch 64 yards to the house with a speed rarely seen on the football field. Memory burn! We saw a lot more of that when he played in the NFL. Tech would go on to win two more playoff games, against Alcorn State in Jackson, Mississippi., and at Middle Tennessee State before falling to Montana State in the I-AA Championship Game, but that day against the Valley was very special!
- 1986 NIT Final Four run. Following the incredible 1985 basketball season, a disappointing letdown 1986 season had “ended” at the Southland Tournament in Monroe. But had it? The National Invitation Tournament invited four (FOUR!) Southland teams to its tradition-rich postseason event, and a 16-12 Tech team was surprisingly one of them. Instead of immediately focusing on building its 1987 team – which returned to the NCAA Tournament – the Tommy Joe Eagles-led Bulldogs kept on playing and winning – first at Northern Arizona, then against SLC-foe McNeese. This setup a NIT quarterfinal matchup for Tech against Providence, led by a young coach named Pitino and a younger sharpshooting guard named Billy Donovan, with the winning team advancing to Madison Square Garden for the semis. I traveled to the Providence Civic Center to cover the game for The Tech Talk, and noticed some pre-game rehearsal by the Providence dance team, interestingly enough a routine to the tune of New York, New York. A missed Donovan jumper at the buzzer canceled the post-game celebration and meant the Bulldogs would head for NYC. A semifinal loss to Ohio State was the end of a championship opportunity, but a consolation game (remember those?) win against Florida closed a surprisingly fun end to a challenging season.