When Washington faces No. 3 LSU on Saturday in Baton Rouge, La., a mascot named Mike is just the beginning of an intimidating college football atmosphere.
Let’s start with the elephant in the room — or in this case the tiger at Washington’s football practice.
And not some guy dressed in a furry feline costume, but a real Bengal tiger that paced back and forth in a cage about 30 feet from the field where the Huskies prepared Tuesday afternoon for their trip to Louisiana State.
Her name is Sheena, and to help his players understand the football-crazy environment Washington enters this Saturday, coach Steve Sarkisian enlisted the 18-month-old animal to replicate LSU’s real tiger mascot, Mike VI.
Part of the mystique and fear factor that comes with playing at Tiger Stadium — nicknamed Death Valley — involves Mike’s menacing presence. Add more than 90,000 rabid LSU fans deep in the heart of SEC country, and you have one of college football’s most intimidating venues.
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Mike is the school’s sixth tiger dating to 1936. He is as much of a celebrity in Baton Rouge, La., as LSU coach Les Miles.
On football Saturdays, Mike is placed at the southeast end of Tiger Stadium, where his cage is on the sideline near the visiting team’s entrance.
On his radio show this week, Sarkisian joked that Mike is so close to the field it feels as if “you have to give him a high-five before walking on the field.”
Mike is just one of many intimidating distractions opposing teams must overcome.
The 89-year-old stadium underwent an $80 million renovation that expanded seating capacity to 92,542 and makes it the seventh-largest college football stadium in the country.
“That’s what happens when you win the national championship (in 2007) and finish second last year,” said former Washington basketball star Eldridge Recasner, a New Orleans native. “You get a whole bunch of money, and you can pretty much do what you want.
“It goes straight up. It’s pretty intimidating just from a fan’s perspective to walk in there, so I think the Dawgs definitely got their hands full.”
Seahawks rookie defensive tackle Jaye Howard, a former Florida standout who played two games at LSU, remembers the “sea of noise” that rolled down from the stands and crashed on the field in waves.
“It’s loud all the time,” he said. “That’s all I can say. The fans are crazy and nuts. They’re going to be yelling all game long.
“They’re not on top of you like some places, but the stadium is so steep it looks like there’s more people than there actually is. They’re loud the whole game. You might get a few beers thrown on you.”
Decked out in purple and gold, LSU fans taunt opposing teams with “Tiger Bait” chants.
Tailgating for LSU home games — even for night games — begins at breakfast, said Andy McKay, the manager at Walk-On’s Bistreaux & Bar.
“It’s an all-day affair at the restaurant,” he said. “We’re right outside the stadium. … We sit about 380 or so, but during the day we’ll get close to 20,000 coming through here.
“We have parties before and after the games. Win or lose, we always celebrate.”
Lately, LSU fans have had plenty to cheer about. With two BCS championships and a runner-up finish the past nine years, the Tigers are one of the best teams in college football.
This season, LSU (1-0) is No. 3 in The Associated Press poll and had no problems beating North Texas 41-14 at home last week.
The Huskies (1-0) make their first trip into SEC territory since they lost 40-14 at LSU in 1983. Washington has played five of the 14 current SEC teams and posted a 2-9 record.
“There’s a proud history and tradition here at the University of Washington of going and playing in games like this, and we’ll embrace this one just like we have all the other ones for decades,” Sarkisian said. “It should be a fun week for us and a fun ballgame on Saturday.”
Washington lost 31-23 to LSU in the 2009 season opener, Sarkisian’s first game as UW coach.
The Tigers finished that season with a 19-17 loss to Penn State in the Capital One Bowl, their last defeat to a non-SEC team. Since then, they are 25-3.
“They’re just a good team,” UW senior cornerback Desmond Trufant said. “In addition to all of the distractions that come with a big game like this, you sometimes forget you have to play a really good team that knows how to win games.”
The success of the LSU football program is woven into the fabric of Baton Rouge. Louisiana’s second-largest city, which sits on the banks of the Mississippi River, is also home to a vibrant shipping industry.
Balancing both football and shipping interests is a difficult balancing act, said Washington athletic director Scott Woodward, a Baton Rouge native and LSU graduate.
“Everyone lives, breathes and is consumed by LSU football,” said Woodward, who was director of external affairs at LSU from 2000 to 2004.
“It’s just part of the culture. I grew up in it. I understand it and respect it and know what it’s about. It’s a special place and a special part of the world.”
Despite his deep roots there — Woodward grew up an LSU fan and sold peanuts at Tiger Stadium when he was 10 — Washington’s AD has no conflicting emotions over Saturday’s game.
“Not even an inkling,” he said. “In fact, I want to beat them worse.”
Recasner echoes the sentiment.
“I’m from the state of Louisiana, but in situations like this I’m with U-Dub all the way,” he said. “I hope like heck they beat LSU, so then all of my friends back home can shut up because they’ve been killing me.”
The stadium, the fans and Mike make the trip a daunting one for the Huskies. Seahawks offensive lineman James Carpenter, who starred at Alabama, hasn’t forgotten seeing LSU’s mascot pacing nearby as he warmed up for a game.
“We all were nervous,” he said. “It’s distracting. We had to look at that because that’s a huge (tiger) right in front of us. It got us for a second.”
That’s the idea, of course. Husky faithful can only hope the intimidation doesn’t last long.
Percy Allen: 206-464-2278 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @percyallen