NEW ORLEANS — When Judy Larrance headed east out of Lake Charles, Louisiana, to start the roughly 200-mile drive to New Orleans on Sunday, she wasn’t sure how she was going to fit it all into her purple Toyota Corolla.
“But by gawd, we did it!” she exclaimed, showing off a picture of her stuffed purple compact automobile, in a parking lot somewhere near where she was now, standing in the massive concrete courtyard outside the main entrance to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The in-car inventory: two sisters, one dog, three suitcases, one giant box of purple-and-gold beads, and the three pillows on which they had slept in that same car the night before.
Here, as the 2020 CFP National Championship game was kicking off and a roar went up from inside the big silver building towering in the foggy distance, Larrance stood with her sisters and poked out her lower lip.
“All that crap we got into my car, but we’re still missing one thing,” she said. “Actually, three things. You don’t have any tickets to the game, do you?”
The entire population of Louisiana did not move into New Orleans for the national title game between their beloved LSU Tigers and Clemson, but it sure felt like it did. For four days, Friday through Monday, every hour that ticked off the clock and set off the chimes at St. Louis Cathedral seemed to beckon another bus of people draped in beads and “Joe Burreaux” jerseys, a big ol’ dinner bell bringing in a state full of title-hungry LSU fans, from Baton Rouge and Bohemia, to Opelousas and Delacroix.
Ryan McGee describes how Ed Orgeron and Joe Burrow took advantage of their second chances, with LSU winning a national title after things hadn’t worked out previously.
Kids and grandparents, preachers and drinkers, those with tickets and without, were drawn to the French Quarter like moths out of the Bayou. Purple-and-gold-painted, powdered-sugar-covered moths.
Out in Old Metairie, Steve Schillace and his wife, Lisa, painted their entire front yard in a 30-by-15-foot copy of the tiger’s eye that adorns LSU’s home stadium. There was a crime spree of fast-food restaurant thefts throughout the state, with LSU fans swiping so many cardboard stand-up likenesses of head coach Ed Orgeron that the CEO of one chicken finger chain started posting security camera clips of the criminal acts … because he thought it was awesome.
At a “dance wear” store one block over from Bourbon Street, the window mannequins were lovingly dressed in purple-and-gold lingerie. And on Bourbon Street, a gentleman, known only as the Chicken Man, strolled the streets in broad daylight in an outfit that very well might have come from that store, purple tassels on his chest and a long tiger tail hanging from his purple thong.
“What’s the big deal?” he responded when asked about his scantily clad self. “I saw a woman in a Clemson bathing suit. This is the same.”
It was not the same.
LSU fans showed up to New Orleans in hordes to support their Tigers. Annie Flanagan for ESPN
With all due respect to the devoted Clemson fans who made the trip to New Orleans, nothing they did was the same. They didn’t run like a herd down Canal Street and assemble by the hundreds outside of their team hotel (like LSU fans did), blocking the door “A Hard Day’s Night”-style and standing there for hours, merely hoping to catch a glimpse of any player or coach. When word got out of the room number where Orgeron’s mother, Coco, was sleeping, a conga line of Cajuns started knocking on the door to wish her luck.
“I was here in 2003 and 2011, but this is so different,” said Shannon Gibson, a native of Rayne, Louisiana, down west by Lafayette, speaking of two of the previous times LSU had played for the national title in their home state, an upset win versus Oklahoma the former and an upsetting loss against Alabama the latter. “Now everyone has social media. We were all doing our thing and then someone tweeted that the team was going to come out at 4 p.m. to go eat or something. So everyone ran down here.”
That included Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, an Amite City, Louisiana, native who earned his law degree at LSU. On Monday morning, less than eight hours before kickoff, he was sworn into office on the steps of the State Capitol. He started the ceremonies by promising to get everyone out of there in time to get down Interstate 10 for the game. He closed his inaugural address by exclaiming “Geaux Tigers!” This came one day after he described LSU’s backyard shot at a championship as “one of the biggest events in the history of this state.”
That’s right. The Louisiana Purchase. The Battle of New Orleans. The creation of jazz. And Monday night’s national championship game.
“This was always about a homecoming for the whole state, here in this city where we have all been through so much,” Grant Delpit said. Annie Flanagan for ESPNAn LSU fan shows off his Tigers leg. Annie Flanagan for ESPN
All weekend long, there were numbers thrown around to try to pin value to the event. There was talk of a quarter-million visitors and an economic impact that would dwarf the $270 million generated by the BCS Championship Game there in 2012. But one stroll around the city Monday, or one conversation with one of the 60-plus Louisiana players on the LSU roster, was all it took to realize no number could ever be enough to measure the impact of it all. A 15-0 team that hammered its way through a brutal schedule led to a national title by a historically prolific quarterback and a coach born at nearly the farthest possible edge of the Bayou.
“This whole experience has never been about just this team,” LSU safety Grant Delpit explained after his team beat Clemson 42-25. “This was always about a homecoming for the whole state, here in this city where we have all been through so much.”
“You ever been here for New Year’s Eve or after a Saints win? Because someone might tell you that those nights are like this one. But they ain’t. This is a completely different animal.”
A New Orleans police officer
Delpit was born in New Orleans in 1998, but his family was among the thousands who fled to Houston when Hurricane Katrina flooded the city just shy of his seventh birthday. That little boy knew so many of the people who spent those unfathomable days huddled inside the Superdome seeking shelter. So the man he has become knows the impact of filling that building, and the city it serves, with joy.
“Everyone was already so excited, I can’t even imagine what’s going down in the French Quarter right now,” Delpit said as the team was bused back to the chaos of its hotel. “I’m a little scared to see, to be honest with you.”
LSU rewarded its many fans in attendance with its big win over Clemson. Annie Flanagan for ESPN
He should have been. For every one of the 76,885 fans who were in the Superdome watching the game, it seemed as if there were three times that many who were like Judy Larrance, in the Crescent City without a ticket and forced to watch the game on whatever television they could find, soaking up the energy emanating from inside the dome from a distance.
Back on Bourbon Street, every corner saloon was standing-room only, with rows of fans in the street craning their necks to catch a glimpse of the television screens inside. As the final seconds ticked away, an “L-S-U!” chant spilled out of windows, doors and cracks in the plaster walls. Patrons followed, tripping over purple-and-gold beads and plastic beer bongs that filled gutters and covered curbs.
At Prohibition (“Home of the Big Ass Beers”), the house band broke from its usual playlist of funk and soul to blast Garth Brooks’ “Callin’ Baton Rouge.” At the Caribou Cowboy, bouncers hugged frat boys in Odell Beckham Jr. jerseys, and a man in a too-worn purple tiger costume smoked a joint next to an inconsolable Clemson couple, embracing as they wept and verbally shouted down “Those f—ing Pac-12 referees!” Another couple, this one in LSU gear, attempted to recreate the famous WWII V-J Day Times Square kiss but slipped on a discarded slice of pizza.
LSU put on a show Monday night and brought the title back home. Now it’s time for Tigers fans to gear up and eBay has it covered with 24k items to choose from.
Along the balcony railing atop the Absinthe House, a woman in gold sequin leggings shouted to her friend, “This is once in lifetime!” The friend, in purple sequin leggings, shouted, “Oh hell, I hope not!”
A horse-mounted police officer asked, “You ever been here for New Year’s Eve or after a Saints win? Because someone might tell you that those nights are like this one. But they ain’t. This is a completely different animal.”
He pointed down Bienville Avenue, where a purple wave of humanity was marching in, led by a jazz musician playing the four notes of “Hold that Ti-ger!” over and over again on his trumpet. It was 11:40 p.m.
“Hey, man,” the officer continued, “the people from the stadium are just now getting here. It’s gonna be a long night, so you might want to get out of here. But before you do, one thing …”
Yeah, what’s that?
Joe Burrow celebrates after the Tigers’ big win. Deanne Fitzmaurice for ESPN
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