No, Johnny Jones Shouldn’t Be Fired Tonight
I recognize that the headline above will seem unusual coming from this quarter, because after all I wrote a little before this point last season that Jones should have been canned before the SEC part of the schedule …
So this is a disaster, and Alleva is rightly going to get fired for it. And when he goes, what does his resume look like? He’s the AD who sold out the lacrosse program at Duke, he’s now got the reputation as the idiot who put Les Miles through the ringer for no reason, and he’s the bum who hired Trent Johnson and Johnny Jones to make the Pete Maravich Assembly Center a factory of sadness. John Brady might have been a walking migraine, but Brady went to the Final Four. LSU has won a grand total of one NCAA Tournament game since Alleva got the AD job, and that was in Johnson’s first year with a roster solely comprised of Brady’s players.
If you’re Alleva, you might need to undertake desperate measures to save your resume and avoid a forced retirement.
Namely, get rid of Jones. Right now. Hiring a new guy for next year is a no-brainer, because Jones isn’t going to a postseason tournament. But the bad news is the next guy will inherit a roster with no Hornsby, no Josh Gray, no Quarterman and no Simmons – and maybe even no Blakeney, because while he’s been terrible this season and that’s all but eliminated the possibility of his turning pro next year, what usually happens in cases like that is he’d transfer. And instead of those guys, you’ll have the program players and scrubs Jones has recruited, plus the role players on this team (Brian Bridgewater, Aaron Epps, Elbert Robinson, Sampson) who have stunk the place up. At that point it’s a substantial rebuilding job and 2-3 years before you can expect much.
But next year is next year. And while Alleva shouldn’t get to hire a third coach after the failure of his first two, an interim coach for this team can’t be worse than what LSU has now.
The circumstances were different a year ago. Last year after LSU stunk up the pre-conference schedule to the tune of a 4-4 start that included losses to Houston and Charleston, it was clear Jones was going to squander a preseason Top 25 team that included the top pick in the NBA Draft. Which he most certainly did, as that team failed to make a postseason tournament. And no, “turning down” an NIT bid does not provide an exemption from that failure – when you have so poorly managed your program that your team gets to the end of the season and doesn’t want to play anymore, you have failed to make a postseason tournament.
What I suggested in that post a year ago was that LSU take up a collection from the boosters and pay someone to come into the program as an interim coach. I mentioned Scott Brooks, Tom Thibodeau, Mark D’Antoni – three highly successful NBA coaches out of work at the time – or Herb Sendek or Steve Lavin, who were high-profile college coaches also out of work, as candidates to come in for a salvage operation. The NBA coaches made the most sense, because bringing in a coach after a midseason firing in the NBA isn’t unusual at all and the primary reason it’s not done in college has to do with recruiting. As Jones had already signed all of the five recruits LSU had coming in for this year, recruiting wasn’t an issue.
But my advice wasn’t taken, just like it wasn’t taken when I suggested five years ago that hiring Jones was an indefensible decision no athletic director worth his salary would make and Alleva surely wouldn’t allow political animals among its basketball alumni to force him into hiring a middle-of-the-road coach from the Sun Belt Conference.
And that has given us the current malaise, in which LSU is 9-6 on the way to 13-17 or worse (probably worse), and an SEC finish near the bottom. They’ve given up 90 or more points in four of their last five games, all of which were losses, and they’ve clearly checked out.
So why wouldn’t I advise a midseason firing now after advising one last year?
Here’s why. Last year there was something to actually be gained by changing Jones out for someone with a strong reputation as a floor coach and team manager. There was reason to believe that bringing in a fixer could create lemonade out of the lemons Jones had made of that season, and because that team had some actual talent on it with Ben Simmons headlining the lineup there was some reason to believe a D’Antoni or Brooks might find the opportunity attractive enough to leave the golf course to take it on for three or four months.
But nobody like that is coming to coach the team LSU has now, and even if there was such a candidate it’s fairly clear that athletic director Joe Alleva lacks the horsepower to attract him.
And it’s worse than that. Because after the unprofessional and, frankly, lazy way Alleva handled the football coaching search, people who care about the future of LSU basketball have zero reason to doubt that a midseason firing won’t simply lead to the interim coach getting the job on a permanent basis.
That isn’t a shot at Ed Orgeron, the football interim coach who parlayed a 5-2 record taking over for Les Miles into a permanent position running the program. So far most of Orgeron’s moves have been good ones and the performance his team put forth in the Citrus Bowl, trashing Louisville and Heisman winner Lamar Jackson to the tune of 29-9 was great. But there is no denying that the process which produced Orgeron was unworthy of a $140 million athletic department; two conversations with big-name coaches and an immediate jump to the interim coach as the hire is not how a good AD operates.
And as bad as LSU’s basketball team is right now – they’re not particularly talented and there is no real chance of any coach making them a postseason tournament participant this year – it’s still entirely possible that an interim coach with a fresh approach can make them look better. This team is worse than the sum of the talent on it; their performance is due more to a lack of effort than it is a lack of ability. What that means is if you fire Jones now and give one of the assistants the job on an interim basis, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that he manages to win 5-6 more games.
And if that happens, you will have a political campaign just like you had when Jones got the job in the first place and when Orgeron was trying to get the football job, with whoever the interim coach might be romancing the good-old-boy network in an effort to land it. Alleva has shown himself perfectly susceptible to political hires; they’re easier to make than the high-profile, superstar kind. Political hires don’t engage him in the dreaded “bidding war.”
This ought to go without saying, but there is nobody on LSU’s basketball staff who is qualified to be hired as the permanent head coach. An internal hire cannot fix what’s wrong with this program. That no experienced, reasonable observer of recent history can be assured a semi-successful interim coach wouldn’t end up with the job should make the prospect of an interim coach a non-starter no matter how painful things get.
Honestly, Alleva should go before anything is done about Jones. If he’s still the athletic director when Jones is changed out that means he’s to be entrusted with a third men’s basketball hire; no high-profile athletic department would tolerate such a record of failure. And honestly, if you want somebody to lose his job this week over the dumpster fire that is LSU basketball it ought to be Alleva – among his sizable record of foul-ups he’s responsible for two abjectly failed hires and eight years of irrelevance in the second-highest profile sport in college athletics.
If I was to make a recommendation on how to proceed, it would be for Alleva to get his walking papers immediately and for LSU to make one call to replace him. The hire that satisfies the local yokels and has the added benefit of producing somebody who’s actually highly capable is to bring in Herb Vincent, LSU’s former sports information director and current Associate Commissioner at the SEC office. Vincent has wanted the job as LSU’s athletic director for a long time, but probably didn’t have enough outside qualifications to land it when he applied for it eight years ago when Alleva was hired. Now Vincent does.
And Vincent simply needs to take a walk down the hall before he would leave Birmingham for Baton Rouge to talk to Mike Tranghese, the former Big East commissioner who works as the SEC’s basketball guru, and get a list of the best up-and-coming coaches in the country he needs to keep tabs on, who their agents are and how to land them.
And when this atrocious basketball season is over, Vincent – or someone else LSU could hire immediately to replace Alleva – would then make the necessary change to dump Jones. That would give LSU a reasonable shot to conduct a professional and orderly search process to find a legitimately qualified, talented coach who puts an end to the mediocrity – or worse – which has infected LSU’s basketball program for far too long.