Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013
You don’t want to see how the sausage is made. It’s a letdown to see behind the curtain as the magician reveals his tricks. If you are an LSU fan who puts the kids to bed with the tale of The Earthquake Game, stop reading now.
For those who don’t know the punchy titles of LSU victories by heart — The Halloween Run, The Bluegrass Miracle — 25 years ago crowd noise from a Death Valley showdown between Auburn and LSU registered on a seismograph across campus. The tale landed on various sportscasts, lists of classic football moments, Ripley’s Believe it or Not! and is among the university’s self-proclaimed greatest moments. To Tiger fans, it is gospel. The earth moved Oct. 8, 1988. It didn’t happen before, and it hasn’t happened since. It was The Earthquake Game. However, the quake might not be unique or as impressive as the legend holds.
On that night, the Tigers were down 6-0, trailing dreaded rival Auburn. LSU just lost two straight games and was hungry for an upset; No. 4 Auburn wanted a purple and gold feather in its bid for a championship. With 1:47 left, LSU faced fourth and 10 at the Auburn 11 yard line. Quarterback Tommy Hodson hit Eddie Fuller in the end zone. The crowd erupted. Strangers hugged. Nearby residents fled their houses as a roar swept across town. Dormitory lights came crashing down in post-game mischief. A typical Saturday night in Death Valley.
The next day, Donald Stevenson, a geologist at LSU’s Howe-Russell Geoscience Complex, noticed an increase in seismic activity at the exact time the referee’s hands went up to signal the touchdown. (A later account by LSU claims Riley Milner found it Monday morning. Stevenson says he did not know him during his time at LSU.) Stevenson posted the reading outside his office, as it was 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 UL geology professor Gary L. Kinsland, 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 realm 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. “The perfect case to get ground vibrations,” notes Kinsland.
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. “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 three minutes tops. People leaving the game also created background noise on the reading. Stevenson does not see it as the only Earthquake Game, either. 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 it as an interesting tidbit, perhaps to engage them in the study of geology.
“It was not big enough to have Mercalli Intensity,” says Stevenson. “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.”
Nick Pittman is a local freelance writer. He cannot be reached for comment.