LSU's band, football team and academic prestige rose under Huey Long's autocratic control of Louisiana during the dark years of the Depression.
After Long's assassination in 1935, the "Ole War Skule's" golden era crashed in scandal, leading to the imprisonment of LSU President James Monroe Smith and other university officials for a range of fraudulent schemes.
The wide-ranging federal and state investigations also led to the conviction of Gov. Richard Leche, for whom the university's law school had been named. His name was abruptly removed from the school's monumental building.
Long as governor and U.S. senator who still controlled the state embraced LSU like a smothering sugar daddy. He lavished money on school buildings, launched a medical school, and outrageously championed the school's band and football team.
LSU professor and noted historian Robert Mann entertainingly tells the story of Long and his proudest achievement in "Kingfish U: Huey Long and LSU," published by LSU Press.
An outlandish political showman, Long took trainloads of LSU students to football games in Nashville and Houston, leading the band on parades through the cities' downtowns. He also enjoyed giving pep talks to the football team, although Coach Biff Jones banned "the Kingfish" from the locker room before Long fired the former Army officer.
Rapidly increasing its student body and constructing new buildings after a move from downtown Baton Rouge to a bucolic new campus that had once been a plantation on the Mississippi River, LSU attracted nationally recognized professors, most prominently Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks, editors of the university's prestigious and ground=breaking Southern Review.
As Mann relates, Long generally kept his hands off academic matters. But he brought his beloved university national comdemnation for attempting to censor the Daily Reveille, the school's student newspaper, after it published a letter criticizing his iron-fisted control of the LSU Board of Supervisors.
Smith's expulsion of seven Reveille journalists brought an investigation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools. The organization placed LSU on probation, then dropped its investigation when the school affirmed its commitment to academic independence following Long's death.
But Long's meddling with the LSU Law School led to censure by the Association of American Law Schools, a minor part of a ballooning scandal that engulfed the university and Long's machine following his assassination in a hallway of his soaring state Capitol in downtown Baton Rouge.
Mann gives a complete account of the scandals, especially the involvement of Leche, Smith and a number of LSU officials who used LSU material and state funds for personal projects.
Smith, who led the university's flourishing during the Depression and originated the Southern Review, ended up serving six years in the state penitentiary at Angola.
Long, one of the most divisive leaders in American history, gave his poverty-stricken state modern roads, schools and hospitals and propelled a small state university to national prominence.
Mocked by national writers for his clownish behavior and accumulation of power, Long before his death gained a national following for his "share our wealth" programs, which still appear radical.
Mann gives a balanced picture of a politician beloved by Louisiana's long-exploited poor. As Mann details, blacks gained little from his programs.
The book contains wonderful vintage photographs of Long, decked out in three-piece suits and fedoras, acting as chief cheerleader. He's shown with the band and students, or huddling with cronies. One picture shows Smith with several cows; rural students during the Depression could pay for their tuition with livestock or crops.
While Mann praises Long's accomplishments, he presents a disturbing picture of Long's schemes to acquire more power.
Long's flamboyant career was in the end tragic, as Robert Penn Warren mined in his classic novel"All the King's Men."
Warren found in Baton Rouge "a world of a sick yearning for elegance."
Louisiana's dreams of greatness come mixed with corruption and buffoonery.