By Ron Brocato, Clarion Herald Sports
There are four events that helped mold the evolution of high school football in New Orleans and Louisiana over the decades.
The first occurred in 1929 when the Louisiana High School Athletic Association opened membership to private and parochial schools. It was “no big deal” at the time because the state’s public schools outnumbered the non-publics 30-fold.
The second and third came three years apart and were brought about by expansion of the city’s secondary schools.
A federal court order mandated that all public schools in Orleans Parish become co-ed by 1952. That included formerly all-male Warren Easton. John McDonogh, one of two former schools for girls, also became co-ed, and, to compensate for mixed classes, S.J. Peters and Sophie Wright (its uptown counterpart) became junior highs.
Three years later, the proliferation of “baby boomers” who moved west created two large schools in Jefferson Parish. By 1955, Catholic high schools also had increased in number. Public and Catholic schools were able to form their own local “leagues,” ending the common New Orleans Prep League.
But, the most significant year, the one that changed the face of high school sports, both locally and statewide, was 1970 when the LHSAA’s African-American equivalent, poetically named the Louisiana Interscholastic Literary and Athletic Association (LIALO), folded and its schools joined the LHSAA.
Segregation was on its own deathbed in 1958 when the city abolished the separation of its citizens on city buses. In 1960, the Orleans Parish School Board yielded to pressure from a federal judge to allow integration of first-grade classes. By 1970, integration became prevalent in public high schools throughout Louisiana.
The first federal court decision that triggered the new era came in 1966 when St. Augustine won a suit to join the LHSAA and be part of the Catholic League.
The addition of former LIALO schools to the LHSAA made it necessary to create a third local Class 3A district. Two were blends of schools from both groups.
District 5-AAA included East and West Jefferson, John F. Kennedy, O. Perry Walker and ex-LIALO members Booker T. Washington, Carver and Clark.
new era for N.O. PrepWarren Easton, Fortier, Nicholls, McDonogh and Abramson joined Landry and Cohen of the former LIALO in District 8-AAA.
Labeled District 7-AAA, the Catholic League remained intact with two additions. The old guard of Jesuit, Holy Cross, St. Aloysius, De La Salle, Redemptorist and St. Aug were joined by archbishops Rummel and Shaw of Jefferson Parish, and Chalmette, which the league adopted and jokingly referred to as “Archbishop Chalmette.”
Each of the three districts had a unique story to tell that year.
Jefferson’s ‘Dream Game’
For health reasons, Harold “Hoss” Memtsas was removed as the head football coach after leading Warren Easton to the AAA title game in 1958. He soon resurfaced in the Jefferson Parish school system and took over at West Jeff in 1968. His 1970 team had skilled players.
Ironically, the Easton principal who removed Memtsas, Harry Garland, was now the principal of his new school’s nemesis, East Jefferson.
Tragedy struck almost immediately after West Jefferson defeated South Lafourche in the season opener when Memtsas died of a massive heart attack while chasing a group of vandals from the locker room two days after the game. His top assistant, Ray Latoof, inherited the job and led the Buccaneers to eight wins entering the final game against East Jeff.
The Warriors were equally talented and had the best quarterback in the league in junior Mike Miley, who spearheaded an 8-0 record.
Although West Jeff would be without its injured star quarterback “Poochie” Fonseca, more than 8,500 spectators filled the stands for the clash. And the numbers told the story of how evenly matched the two were: West Jeff led in total yardage, 214-211, and East Jeff in first downs, 12-11.
Ray Guilbeau scored both touchdowns on short plunges in a 12-10 Warriors win; the final one coming with 1:14 left in the game. Miley was slightly injured in the clash, but led two drives inside the last seven minutes to erase a 10-0 deficit.
After the Bucs stopped a 2-point conversion try that would have put EJ ahead by four points, Fonseca’s understudy, Jimmy Dore, led one final rally. He engineered a drive to the East Jeff 40-yard line with just 18 seconds left to play and no time-outs remaining. But his top pass receiver, Ron Singleton, failed to get out of bounds at the Warriors’ 17 yard line and time expired before he could run another play.
“Hoss” would have been proud of his team. The school from Harvey did not lose again. The Bucs won their four playoff games and capped the bitter-sweet season with a 17-0 win over Bogalusa for the AAA title, two weeks after Bogalusa eliminated East Jefferson, 31-14.
The curious eyes of statewide prep fans were on the new LHSAA schools to see how they would blend or co-exist with the long-established members. Just how good were they against District 8-AAA competition? It didn’t take long for an answer as Landry and Cohen began to flex their muscles.
Landry, coached by LIALO veteran Turner Thomas, had talent at every position. The Blue Buccaneers, led by the backfield of Nelson Laneheart (later U. of Colorado), Philip Barkins, Ralph Davis and Lawless Mitchell would have given West Jefferson perhaps its most stringent test. Landry swept its 10-game schedule.
Just behind Turner’s team was Cohen, whose only district loss was to Landry, 28-12. They were going to the playoffs for the first time … or so everyone thought.
But, as the playoff pairings were being drawn, Abramson principal and district chairman Henry Helm called a meeting of LHSAA execs at the Fontainebleau Motel to report that he found that Cohen had violated the transfer rule by using an ineligible (and all-state) tackle the entire season, and that Landry had multiple eligibility infractions.
“The situation came about early Monday because of an outcropping of an investigation of another player, we discovered that three other boys, two from Landry and one from Cohen, were ineligible transfer students,” Helm said in a Times-Picayune article by John Joly.
Neither principal protested. Instead of the district being represented by the two best teams, Abramson (4-6) and Warren Easton (2-7-1) took their places with predictable outcomes. Playing on the road, Abramson lost to South Terrebonne, 45-8, and Bogalusa showed little mercy toward Easton, 53-6.
Odd team out
The Catholic League was bursting at the seams with nine members from 1968-73. Under Otis Washington, St. Augustine quickly established itself as a Catholic school power that would win three state championships in the 1970s.
Washington thought the ’70 team would be its first. His teams were blessed with power and speed, unlike his counterparts, which had just begun to integrate young black talent that abounded in the city.
The league was highly competitive, and at the top of the group were Holy Cross, Jesuit and St. Augustine. In just its second year, Brother Martin was also on the rise, posting a 7-4 record, but not yet as solid as the “big three.”
Over the course of district play, Holy Cross beat St. Augustine, 20-9, but lost to Jesuit, 13-7. And St. Aug edged Jesuit, 9-8, but lost to Holy Cross, forcing a three-way tie at the top with playoff spots available for just two, which had to be decided by a coin toss.
After the coaching staffs of the three schools, along with about 7,000 spectators watched the Purple Knights run up 593 yards and gain 25 first downs in a 40-13 win over Archbishop Shaw, they joined district chairman Christian Brother John Burke of De La Salle for the coin toss.
With the coins in the air, coaches John Kalbacher (Holy Cross) and Ray Coates (Jesuit) called, “heads!” Washington called “tails.” Heads it was.
Jesuit, which drew the district’s top spot, was no match for West Jefferson and had its seven-game win streak snapped, 34-13. Holy Cross, the district’s No. 2 entry, fell to East Jefferson, 28-18. And, perhaps the best of the three, St. Augustine played in a meaningless “Red Carpet Bowl” game against Temple of Vicksburg, Mississippi.
Ron Brocato can be reached at email@example.com.