A Faulty Legend
Even among legends, The Earthquake Game between LUS and Auburn stands out. But, did the Earth really move 25 years ago in Tiger Stadium?
by Nick Pittman
In the South, there are really only two seasons: football season and not-football season.
Football defines us as a people. How many times have you heard someone cast off another or explain their bizarre behavior because they were a fan of the rival team? It sets our schedule. If the team is playing late, we won’t be out on the town until after. If they win, that is. If church runs late when the team is playing early, we may consider switching congregations. Our allegiances split families faster than a dispute over an inheritance.
Football rules our lives so profoundly that we make National Signing Day and the NFL Draft dramatic near-holidays. Our greatest heroes wear helmets. Or gingham hats. Or at least moisture wicking coaches’ shirts.
So, it should come as no surprise we take our tales of victory seriously. It doesn’t hurt that we, as a culture, love succinct, punchy titles and sayings. And football provides. Classic moments and games are memorialized forever, unforgettable and often referenced with only a handful of words that instantly transport us back to touchstones and touchdowns. The Drive. If it ain’t swayin,’ then we ain’t playin.’ The Iron Bowl. The Mule Game. Battle for the Barrel. The Third Saturday in October. The 12th Man.
But there is one legendary event has a special claim to fame beyond a normal Saturday night SEC showdown. Escaping the bounds of the gridiron and Southern culture, Ripley’s Believe It or Not! passed it as fact right into the accepted science of pop culture. All at once, it’s an unnatural non-disaster that borderlines the supernatural, a come-from-behind win and a crushing, championship-dashing defeat. Tigers vs. Tigers. Bayou Bengals vs War Eagle. It was The Earthquake Game and it happened 25 years ago on Oct. 8.
For those who don’t know the punchy titles of LSU victories by heart – Last Ditch in Tiger Stadium, the Bluegrass Miracle – 25 years ago, crowd noise from a Death Valley clash between Auburn and LSU registered on a seismograph across campus. The tale landed on various sportscasts, lists of classic football moments and is among the university’s self-proclaimed greatest football moments. To Tiger fans, it is the gospel. The Earth moved Oct. 8, 1988. It didn’t happen before and it hasn’t happened since. It was The Earthquake Game.
However, after a quarter century unsettled questions still linger. Yes, football is of mythic portions in the South, but could Tiger fans have actually defied Poseidon and reached down to shake the firmament itself? Or is this a Tiger tale taller than the stadium’s new seating additions?
The Solid Truth
The normal rival between the two SEC giants would be increased four-fold as Auburn sat at No. 4 on the national rankings and was four games into what could turn out to be a perfect season. If the Fighting Tigers failed that night, Auburn could be on their way to topping the national rankings and definitely besting the SEC. LSU, on the other hand, had seen better days. Entering the contest, they were underdogs, desperately needing a win. After dropping two straight to Ohio and Florida (after besting A&M and Tennessee) they fell from number 14 to the no-man’s land beyond the top 25.
The game would be a defensive struggle, with LSU holding Auburn’s red hot offense out of the end zone, only trailing 6-0 after two field goals. It was a far cry from Auburn’s previous games, where they averaged 40 points. With the clock fading away, LSU fans held tight that an upset would occur while Auburn fans chomped at adding a purple and gold feather to their championship bid. With 1:47 left on the clock, the LSU’s scoreless offense faced fourth and ten. Led by QB Tommy Hodson, who set school and SEC yardage and touchdown records, they went for it. The future New England Patriot and New Orleans Saint found tailback Eddie Fuller, who would later play for the Buffalo Bills, in the end zone.
What happens next is where the game exceeds normal come-from-behind-victory classic and propels itself into rarified as unnatural occurrence. The fans in Tiger stadium erupted as the call went up – touchdown. They kept the celebration roaring as the Tigers held onto for the win for the next 1:41 of playtime. The celebration spilled into the parking lot and into nearby taverns. Stories abound of strangers hugging in the crowd, light fixtures brought down in a dormitory and other post game mischief. Left at that, it’s any given Saturday in Tiger Town or any town an SEC team calls home.
By that season’s end, Auburn would fall to No. 12 before finishing their season without another regular season loss, climbing back to No. 7. Oddly enough, their only other blemish came in Louisiana – a Sugar Bowl drop to Florida State. Eventually, LSU climbed to 16, losing only one other regular season game to number 3 Miami in a 44-3 blowout at home. They too would lose in the bowls, with Syracuse knocking them off at the Hall of Fame Bowl.
The day after the game, Donald Stevenson – a geologist at the Howe-Russell Geoscience Complex on campus – noticed an increase in seismic activity at the exact time the referee’s hands went up to signal the touchdown. (There is a later version of the legend, put out by LSU itself, that states a worker named Riley Milner found the seismogram. However, Stevenson refutes this and says he did not know Milner at the time of the game. The classic version of the legend always attributes the discovery to Stevenson.) Stevenson posted the reading outside his office as it was, according to him, the first time a seismograph caught a football game. Before he left LSU in 1991, ESPN did a piece on it, calling it “The Earthquake Game.” A legend was born. In 2007, John Johnston, the complex’s deputy director at the time, called it “the first and only Earthquake Game.”
It is an incredible and compelling story about one of the most ferocious fan bases in football defying Poseidon himself, reaching down and shaking the firmament for a solid 15 to 20 minutes. But, it’s just that: incredible, beyond belief. However, in the scientific community, even outside of the university, it is fact. Sort of.
“I have always believed the story,” says geology professor Gary L. Kinsland of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Though UL plays in the Sun Belt Conference, a far cry from the SEC, the two schools aren’t exactly the best of friends. Even though constantly overshadowed by the in-state giant LSU, Kinsland is willing to validate the legend, explaining seismic readings can occur from crowd noise. “In principle the answer is a definite yes. One person jumping up and down right next to a seismograph that is buried only a few feet will register.” He later jokes, “… of course, Mike could have roared.”
His answer hints that the event, while completely within the realms of science, isn’t necessarily an earthshaking occurrence.
The key to the legend is proximity. The tale is the seismograph sat across campus. Stevenson puts the distance between the complex and the stadium at less than 500 yards. There, the Mark Products L–4 C Seismometer, about the size of a can of orange juice, sat on the complex floor. Both its closeness and it being on the floor and not buried increased the sensitivity of the seismograph. Notes Kinsland, “the perfect case to get ground vibrations.”
Kinsland demonstrates this with his students by striking the ground with a hammer, which generates a reading. Kinsland also notes that the soil under Death Valley – river-laid sediment – played a factor. “Tiger Stadium sits on material which is a bit like a bowl full of Jello.”
There is also speculation that a seating change aided the earthquake. According to theories, LSU installed metal bleachers over the concrete stands. The bleachers sat a few inches off the concrete stands, bowing and bouncing under the weight of joyous fans. Speculation is, because it nearly collapsed, the new stands were bolted down, securing them and eliminating their ability to bounce.
It sounds like a ridiculous coincidence, but the seats may have served as an amplifier for vibration. “No other crowd ever behaved that way during the time that Tiger Stadium’s seating was configured that particular way,” says Johnston. A history of the stadium on LSUsports.net confirms construction and bleacher changes around this time. Adds Johnston, “The stadium had an odd seat tier construction that particularly favored the transmission of energy from jumping to the ground.”
Stevenson does not finger the bleachers as a culprit and says it wasn’t solely the screams of Tiger fans that put them in Ripley’s. “I don’t think it had anything to do with the seats other than everyone leaped out of them and started jumping up and down yelling. At the time, I doubt there were many sitting down anyway,” he says. “The major contribution of vibrations in this case was probably offered through the jumping up and down of thousands of fans and not the sound of screaming fans.”
According to him, the legend of 15 minutes of ground shake is an exaggeration. Re-examining a digital copy of the reading, he puts it at 3 minutes, tops. People leaving after the game even showed up as background noise on the reading.
If one raucous night at Tiger Stadium registers on a seismograph, why has it not happened again? Surely in the last 25 years – or the previous decades – there have been occasions rivaling the noise level of the Earthquake game. Wouldn’t games that sent the Tigers to nationally championships read at the same level or even higher than a game that did not punch any BCS tickets? Keep in mind the crowd at the game numbered just below 80,000. Today, Tiger Stadium routinely fills its new capacity of 92,000.
Jeremy Henderson, a former writer for Auburn’s War Eagle Reader, floated a dissection of the event and noted this should happen more often. He alleges that the game owes its legend to being “more pimped by ESPN.” He blames it on “public dissemination to an ESPN hype-umentary.” According to him, people such as ESPN’s Ron Franklin continue to fuel the legend. Giving his introduction to the 2005 Auburn-LSU game, Franklin noted, “In college football there are rivalries and then there are rivalries, but there are also match ups where for some reason strange things seem to happen when the two teams get together and such is the case with the game we do here tonight in Baton Rouge between Auburn and LSU. The series began back in 1901 but none of the games is more famous than the 1988 ‘Earthquake Game’ in Baton Rouge, when a touchdown was scored late in the 4th quarter. At a seismology lab on campus, it registered the touchdown the same way an earthquake would affect the machine. Yes, the Earth moved that night.”
Though on opposite sidelines, Stevenson and Henderson agree. The geologist does not see The Earthquake Game as the only Earthquake Game. He points out seismologists recorded similar things near other games. For example, when LSU demolished Fresno State 38-6 in 2006, a seismograph even caught pre-game music.
After all these years, the seismogram Stevenson posted outside his office shouldn’t seem like a big deal. It has grown into a beloved – and factual, yet exaggerated – myth. He didn’t submit it to ESPN, Ripley’s or pin it as a testament of Death Valley’s volume. He simply wanted students to see as an interesting tidbit, perhaps to engage them in the study of geology.
“It was not big enough to have Mercalli intensity,” says Stevenson. (For context, the scale runs I to XII. One is the lowest rating, a quake that humans are not capable of feeling. A quake one step higher causes unsecured items to swing. So, the LSU quake was two ratings below making a hanging pot swing on a nearby porch.) “It was only recorded by that one instrument because the origin of the vibrations was located close by. If you look at a seismic record from any given day, depending on where the sensor is located, you may see signals produced by passing cars, trucks and trains. If the sensor is in the woods – far from such cultural interference – a falling tree branch can be recorded. They are very sensitive.”
Looking back, the legend is just that … a legend. True, but distorted. Metaphorically, it is not an earthshaking experience when a football game literally causes the Earth to move. Maybe move is a strong word. Perhaps vibrated undetected is better.
Yet, it doesn’t take away from what the game was. The tectonic plates did not realign, but the national rankings did. The irony is that the game didn’t need the hype. It was incredible, just as many of the Tigers vs. Tigers clashes before and since. A turning point for both teams. A rallying point for one. A victory that wasn’t supposed to happen. A contender dropped by a freshly unranked team. A typical Rocky story with an atypical ending. The Earth moved for both.
The irony of The Earthquake Game is lost on LSU fans like Auburn’s championship bid. Unbeknownst to them, the noise from football games creates seismic disturbances on a regular basis – especially here in the South where it’s not just our team we are cheering for but our identity. Before Oct. 8, 1988, no one noticed or put the two together or perhaps no game was close enough to a running seismograph. Since then, it has happened again to far less – if any – fan fare.
Did the Earth move, literally, when UNC tackle Kiaro Holts clipped Jadeveon Clowney from behind in the season opener? Did the 12th Man shake it up when Johnny Manziel and the Aggies nearly ruined Alabama’s perfect season two years in a row? When Florida meets Georgia in the World’s Largest Cocktail party Nov. 2, will a tremor shake, not stir, any nearby seismograph? Did it happen in 2005 when Vanderbilt knocked off Tennessee after a long 22 year dry spell? Perhaps. It’s highly likely. Maybe. Probably.
After all, it’s game day in the South.
Photo Credits: Make It Quake t-shirt design by Tiger District and Mike the Tiger courtesy of Visit Baton Rouge.
Nick Pittman is a writer and teacher living in South Louisiana.