Sitting in the middle of this circle with his back to the wall, his white hair matted down by his signature purple LSU hat with "Dandy Don" stitched on the side, is Don Long ' the man who brought them all together.
"The conversation is the same thing every week," says Larry Aycock, who sits on the edge of the group in paint-stained jeans and a grey LSU shirt. "Recruiting, how's the team going to do each week. And recruiting."
Long's wildly popular Web site, dandydon.com, is devoted solely to LSU sports ' primarily to football and the wealth of Louisiana high school athletes LSU scouts each year ' and now boasts almost 70,000 regular readers from all over the world. The fact that dandydon.com is exclusively an online publication makes the feat all the more amazing. According to Scott Long, Don's son and dandydon.com's webmaster, the site was once ' during the height of football season ' ranked by Google in the top 1 percent of the Internet's most frequented Web pages.
"That's the thing right there that everybody used to wait to get in the mail," says Aycock, pointing to a copy of Tiger Rag, an LSU sports magazine being passed around the table. "Now, when you wake up in the morning you've got to have coffee, toast and Dandy Don's Web page. That's the standard breakfast for all your LSU fans. It used to be just coffee and toast."
Long doesn't like to talk about his popularity, but the rest of the group revels in the fact that such an unassuming guy, through his Web site, has become such a public figure.
"He's a friggin' celebrity," Aycock says. "I haven't been to a game with Don in a while, but I hear now people come up and want to get their pictures taken with him and get his autograph."
Long, a retired meat cutter who turns 71 this December, isn't your typical celebrity. At this weekly meeting with some of his most devout readers, Long leans back with one hand in the pocket of his jeans and the other resting on the table, letting the people around him steer the conversation, occasionally offering up his opinion on whatever question happens to come up, at which point everyone leans in and listens carefully.
David Estilette attends these meetings whenever he has the day off from his job as a dispatcher with Vox Rental Tools. Estilette was first introduced to Dandy Don's Web site a few years ago by a former colleague in Larose and has been reading it religiously ever since. When Estilette finally met Long at one of the first coffee shop get-togethers, he was surprised.
"He was just so soft spoken and quiet," says Estilette. "He's not boisterous or loud or anything. He's just kind of laid back. I think that was the thing that was the most surprising to me. A lot of times when you have somebody that's that close to a program or has that much insight on a subject, they normally don't allow you to get a word in edge-wise. He's not like that at all. He wants to know what other people think. He's a good listener as well as a good speaker."
Because of his Web site, Long gets the same kind of access to LSU sports teams as the press. But while he resembles a journalist in many ways, giving scrupulous attention to accuracy and reporting, Long is still a fan first and foremost.
"He's the guy, just the normal Joe Schmo," says Estilette, "He doesn't have any type of an agenda. He just wants to go check it out and see what's happening, and he likes to report it back to everyone else. Because when you follow something that passionately, you want to share it."
Step into Dandy Don's home office just off Johnston Street and it's easy see where his allegiance lies. The walls are decorated with framed posters of the front page of The Advocate featuring LSU's historic four NCAA baseball championships in the 1990s. Other posters mark the LSU football team's 2002 SEC title and Sugar Bowl victory. There's a framed picture of a page on his Web site he dedicated to LSU's 2003 football championship. A plastic LSU bottle opener and a laminated ticket to the 2003 Sugar Bowl hang from thumbtacks.
There are also two political posters from the 1960s ' the only thing on the wall not explicitly affiliated with LSU ' advertising to "Carry on" the Earl and Huey Long election ticket, an homage to Don's ancestors. Long's dad was a second cousin to Earl and Huey, both big LSU football supporters in their own right. Huey Long, who launched a major publicly financed expansion of Tiger stadium soon after becoming governor, was such a fanatic he was notorious for elbowing his way into the locker room before games to give pep talks, recruiting high school football stars, and even living out his dream of leading the marching band into the stadium.
Don Long sits in a black leather chair in front of a corner desk. He sometimes spends upwards of 10 hours a day in this chair, glued to his computer, answering e-mails and preparing his daily updates for his Web page. During the heart of football and recruiting season, this can go on for up to 15 hours a day, with Don firing up his computer around 7 a.m. and sometimes working past midnight. He updates his site daily with news from the world of LSU sports, as well as his own notes on the regular practices that he attends, player interviews he conducts, and recruiting information he collects.
The bulk of his time stems from Long's earnest dedication to answering every e-mail in a timely manner. "I usually get about 30 e-mails an hour," Long says scrolling through his inbox. He's received 160 e-mails so far today, beginning in the early hours of the morning. It's now about 4:30 p.m. His computer speakers ring with a bell tone every time a new one comes in.
"That bell will ring all night long," Don notes.
The bell goes off again and Don gets an e-mail from Tom in Houston, who wants to know about the NCAA's Clearing House division.
"What does it do?" Tom writes. "Why is it in place? What are they checking for? Ever since I mentioned to my wife Colleen that Al Woods has not yet been cleared, she has asked me every day, what is this NCAA clearing house?"
Don writes back a standard five-sentence answer, explaining that the NCAA's Clearing House monitors players who have struggled to meet a university's basic academic requirements and also checks certifications on special summer course teachers. "I hope I answered your question," Don writes before signing off. "Thanks for reading my page and please stay in touch."
"Sometimes I'll get an e-mail that's like two pages out of a book," Don says. "They'll ask you anything in the world. But mostly they want to know who the starting quarterback's going to be, who the starting running back's going to be. They just want to know recruiting, injury updates, depth in the offensive line and that kind of stuff. All kind of recruiting questions."
Like Long, many of his readers have followed LSU football since the team's first national championship in 1958. Some readers write in just to reminisce on any one of a long list of storied moments in LSU football: Billy Cannon's miraculous kick return on a foggy Halloween night in Tiger Stadium to score the only touchdown in a classic 1959 slugfest against Ole Miss; the 2002 "Bluegrass Miracle"; and the legendary 1988 "earthquake game" when quarterback Tommy Hodson completed a fourth-down pass to tailback Eddie Fuller in the end zone for a game-winning touchdown in the closing moments of the fourth quarter, setting off such celebration that a nearby university seismograph detected a small earthquake.
One of the features Long started on his Web page this year is a "Game Day Countdown," which lets Tiger fans know ' to the second ' how long they have left to wait for the first kickoff of the season. Long takes it a step further and matches the number of days left to kickoff with former LSU players who wore that jersey number, along with their hometown and the years they played. Because the old jersey numbers aren't listed in the LSU Media Guide Don uses, he scours through his stack of old LSU football programs dating back to the 1960s to get the player names to match up.
"That's been a very positive thing," Long says. "People enjoy that, but I tell you what, that's a lot of work. That really has taken a lot of my time. I had one person who sent me the program numbers from 1950 to 1970. And that really helped a lot."
At times, Don's also received a lot of anti-LSU "hate mail" ' a trend that peaked two years ago when LSU and the University of Texas were in fierce competition to recruit star quarterback Ryan Perrilloux out of East St. John High School in Reserve, La. Perrilloux famously backed out of a commitment to Texas to sign with LSU on National Signing Day. Longhorn fans were furious, and part of their frustration got vented in e-mails to Dandy Don.
"That was the most hate mail I'd ever received," Long says. "But you can't let it get to you and get your blood pressure up too much." On his desk, within easy reach, sits a bottle of Advil and a box of Pepcid AC.
The e-mails were more of a struggle when Long first started with his Web page a decade ago. Back then, he knew nothing about computers and was a very slow typist. "And," Don notes, "I'd been out of high school almost 40, 45 years, and my grammar was a little bit bad."
Long didn't know what to think when his son Scott, who runs the local Web page design company Longevity Design, first mentioned the idea of starting a Web page for his dad to use as his own daily forum dedicated to LSU sports and recruiting. "Ten years ago in December my son Scott came by the house and he said, 'Daddy, I'd like to set you up with a Web page.' And I said, 'A Web page? I don't even know what you're talking about.'"
The following Sunday, Dec. 17, was Long's 60th birthday. Scott brought his dad a Macintosh desktop and set it up in the home office. Scott immediately pulled up the Web site, dandydon.com, that he had built for his dad. Don was taken aback when he saw the site's gold headline banner with a photograph of him wearing a faded purple LSU hat alongside the headline, "Dandy Don's LSU Recruiting News."
"I told him, 'I don't like that,'" Don recalls. "I don't like my picture being there, and second, I don't like the name Dandy Don. It sounds a little bit cocky. He said, 'Well, that's going to be the selling point, you know.'"
The name Dandy Don came from a name Long used to go under in the 1970s when he made college and high school football game predictions for his brother Bill's Pineville newspaper, The Red River Journal. Long's special insight into LSU sports and recruiting was largely honed through watching countless games and working as a high school football official through the 1980s and early 1990s. Russel Ardoin, a friend of Don's who has been officiating local high school games for the past four decades, fondly remembers the days he used to officiate games with Long.
"I tell you, when I was refereeing and I had Don across from me, I didn't have to worry about nothing," he says. "He took care of his and picked up some of the slack on the sidelines when they got problems, and that's what he was supposed to do. He was steady Freddy."
As a member of the state high school football's Lafayette Officials Association, Long officiated games for 42 schools across Acadiana. Says Ardoin, "We go from Franklin to Opelousas to Iota to Cecilia and everything in between. See a lot of players. And once the regular season ends then we travel and we work playoffs."
Long had a keen eye for high school football talent, especially ones he hoped to see go on to play for LSU.
"That was his fortÃ©," Ardoin recalls, "You see kids out there, and you can tell what kind of athlete they're gonna be. He'd always say, 'Man, I'd like to see this kid go to Baton Rouge.'"
Ardoin rarely saw Long without a old faded LSU hat on his head. When a friend once gave him a new hat, he put it in the back of his closet. "He never wore it," Ardoin says. "He'd say, 'They're going to think I just joined the team, you know.' He always wore that old beat up cap so people could tell that he was a Tiger rooter from way back."
Long has religiously attended LSU football games since his early 20s, usually accompanied by his wife or one of the couple's five children. Last year, he missed his first LSU home game in 44 years to stay home with his wife, Joy, who has been ill over the past couple of years. A shy, petite woman who hails from a family of Ardoins in Ville Platte, Joy doesn't go to many games any more and doesn't let her husband's Web page obsession bother her. "It used to," she says, "but then I started finding my own things to do." Joy's favorite pastimes include cooking and reading. After walking in Don's office to bring him the phone ' a call asking Don to do a guest spot on a weekly sports radio program in Monroe ' she goes back to the kitchen where she's browning sausage in one of three pots she has working on the stove. (In addition to regularly volunteering his time to several north Louisiana sports talk shows, Don occasionally appears on the local "Mr. Bitter Show" on the ESPN 1420 AM radio station.)
As his son Scott sits behind him talking about the finer points of how many hits Dandydon.com receives and how many people it reaches, Long props his bright purple and gold LSU bowling shoes up on his desk. "The Internet's a big thing, man," he says, leaning back in his chair. "It's a big thing."
Both Don Long and his son are still baffled by the popularity of dandydon.com.
"I knew that sports and the Web were a good match," says Scott Long, "because sporting news is such a dynamic thing. But I had no idea [dandydon.com] would get this big." Don hears from readers in all 50 states and 17 foreign countries.
At the time their site launched in December 1996, there were few similar Web pages out there, and the word "blog" wasn't yet being used. Now Dandy Don is hardly alone when it comes to online LSU sports sites and blogs, of which there are dozens. However, Dandy Don remains the site for LSU sports news. He has always kept his site free, unlike other paid subscription-based magazine and Web services that boast the same type of inside LSU sports news.
"Several times I talked to Scott about making this a paid subscription each year," Don says. But then Long remembers the e-mails he gets from fixed-income high school coaches, and military servicemen who send in pictures of themselves from Iraq in front of a tank with an LSU flag.
"I just don't want to give that up," Don says. "I don't want to make it where they can't have access to my Web page."
In addition, dandydon.com is almost completely ad-free. To pay the expenses, dandydon.com follows the public radio model, asking for donations from his readers once a year. The donations go to paying costs for the Web server and maintenance, and travel expenses for all his reporting. There's even a little left over to supplement his modest retirement income. Still, the pay is a mere pittance compared to the time Don dedicates to the job.
Last year, dandydon.com registered almost 200,000 readers and about half a million hits on National Recruiting Day. Dandydon.com is also first to break a lot of recruiting news throughout the year. Recently, his site was the first to post news that New Iberia Catholic High Senior Josh Dworaczyk had committed and signed a scholarship to play for LSU. Dworaczyk says he met Long last spring when he came by practice to interview one of his teammates, Mitch Joseph, who was being recruited by LSU. While Long was there, the Catholic High coach began talking up Dworaczyk. Long interviewed Dworaczyk and wrote about him on his site. While many people viewed Dworaczyk as a longshot for an LSU scholarship, Dandy Don saw a bright future for the young offensive lineman.
"One thing I really respected is that the guy had some faith in me," Dworaczyk says, "and all through the process of LSU recruiting me, he always wrote good things about me and thought that LSU was going to offer me a scholarship, and a lot of people really didn't think that was going to happen." When it did, Long was the first person Dworaczyk called, and the news appeared on dandydon.com that day. "I think it helped me out," Dworaczyk says. "A lot of people really do follow his Web site."
Long has extensive contacts with high school football coaches and other recruiting gurus from across the state, thanks to the nearly 20 years he spent officiating. On his desk next to his computer, he keeps a directory with contact information for every high school football coach in the country. "The high school coaches, they all know him," says Long's former colleague Ardoin. "And they respect him because they know he's got the ear of these recruiters and people who can get their kids a scholarship."
"Ever since I've known Don, he's got something in his back pocket about recruiting," adds longtime friend Aycock, "a piece of paper with some names on it. And not just juniors and seniors. He's got sophomores and freshmen on there. If there's an eighth grader making noise somewhere, Don knows about him."
Long says a lot of his enjoyment in watching college and high school football (he goes to two high school games a week) comes from getting to know the players and promoting home-grown talent over out-of-state recruits. He proudly notes how Louisiana, per capita, produces the most NFL football players in the country. "The talent in Louisiana is just unbelievable," he explains. "I don't see the point in [LSU] going out of state and signing a prospect unless they are really super national recruits, if you have someone in state who is equally as good and who bleeds purple and gold."
Scott Long says what separates his dad's site from other sporting news publications is the personal connection that readers feel with his father. Not only does he answer every e-mail and make himself accessible every week at CC's, but he also occasionally posts personal stories on the site. Every Thanksgiving, Long posts a Thanksgiving message where he writes poignant memoirs of growing up poor with seven brothers on a dirt farm in Winnfield, La. In one year's Thanksgiving post, Long wrote of the loss of two of his brothers. He also occasionally posts pictures of him and his sons (he also has two daughters) and grandchildren holding up stringers of Appaloosa catfish from annual fishing trips they take to the same river he fished as a boy. When he was in high school, Dandy Don's nickname was "Catfish," because he set up poles at the river and checked the lines before he went to class in the morning.
"He's really built a relationship with his readers," Scott says.
Around the tables at CC's, Long is surrounded by some of these newfound friends, who all hold a kind of reverence for Dandy Don.
"To do what he does, and not get paid, you've got to have a lot of respect for that," says Stephen Comeaux, one of the group regulars. Comeaux, like Don, never attended a class at LSU but has been a lifelong supporter of the school's high-powered athletic program.
Among this circle of sports-fanatic friends, Long's telephone conversations with former LSU head football coach Nick Saban are the stuff of legend. Long will only say Saban called him a few times ' "some good, some bad" ' but won't discuss any private conversations he's had with LSU coaches. The story goes that Saban was upset with Dandy Don because Long had broke news about a coach he was getting ready to hire that still hadn't accepted the job. Don's friends say that after the initial admonishment, Saban called Dandy Don a couple more times in later years to get his opinion on some high school recruits.
Today, Long tells the group about his recent meeting with Paul Mainieri, LSU's new baseball coach. Long stopped by the coach's office earlier in the week to introduce himself and show Mainieri his Web site. Maineiri gave Long his card with his cell phone number written on the back.
"Coach Mainieri is wise in doing that," notes Bill Summers, a former LSU track athlete who meets with the weekly group. "That's a good way of helping control information." Not surprisingly, Don predicts a bright future for LSU's baseball program under Mainieri. "Don's the eternal optimist," Aycock notes. "He's always got a positive spin on things, and that's why people like to read it. They don't want to read all that negativity you see on a lot of the other [LSU sports] sites."
"There's always a little rumor or something on his Web page," he continues. "Whether it turns out to be true or not, it gives you something to talk about."
Aycock says it's easy to see what keeps people coming back each week.
"You know what this is like?" he asks, looking around at the group of friends laughing and talking sports. "Sitting in an old time barber shop. When you leave here, sometimes you feel like you just had a shave and a haircut."
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