LSU’s Good Ole Boy Politics Returning With A Vengeance In Basketball Coach Search

This isn’t exactly a subject of earth-shattering importance, but given that we’re coming out of the Easter weekend and things are slow, it’s caught our attention.

Today, Trent Johnson is LSU’s former head basketball coach. Johnson resigned yesterday, leaving a smoking hole where the Tiger hoops program at one point used to be, and he’ll be officially installed as the new head coach at TCU this afternoon. Johnson’s tenure in Baton Rouge opened in impressive fashion, riding four players left over from John Brady’s tenure who eventually went on to play professionally to a 27-8 record and an SEC Coach of the Year award. But after that, Johnson went down the tubes; in the last three years he was 39-56, and 12-36 in conference play. That’s the worst three-year performance for LSU since 1996-99, when in the final year of Dale Brown and the first two years of John Brady, amid a massive NCAA probation the program was 31-54 and 9-39 in conference.

LSU might as well be on probation now, because now that center Justin Hamilton has announced he’s turning pro LSU is in position to have only eight scholarship players for next year. The Tigers only had 11 players on scholarship last year, and they’re graduating three seniors. Johnson signed only one player, River Ridge John Curtis guard Malik Morgan (who’s rated the No. 75 player in the country by Rivals.com), in the fall and had no recruits committed for the spring signing period which starts on Wednesday.

Which is why it seems a bit ironic that ever since the Trent Johnson-to-TCU rumors went into full-bloom mode over the weekend the name which is continuously being thrown around is Johnny Jones.

Jones, our readers might remember, was a player for LSU in the early to mid 1980’s and an assistant to Dale Brown for the last 12 years the latter was the head coach. He’s currently the head coach at the University of North Texas, where he’s had middling success – in 11 seasons Jones is 190-146, including a 91-88 record in Sun Belt Conference play, and two NCAA Tournament appearances.

Jones is also the assistant coach accused of being the “bag man” for Brown in the Lester Earl recruiting violations debacle in 1996, which ultimately led to the school being hit with one of the cruelest sets of NCAA sanctions ever handed down.

It’s hard to imagine an assistant coach who puts a program on probation ultimately riding a .565 winning percentage at a Sun Belt university would be sold as a savior at a prominent place like LSU, but that’s precisely what we’re getting now.

It’s been reported that Brady is touting Jones for the LSU job. Collis Temple, the school’s first black basketball player in the 1970’s and a prominent figure in local AAU basketball circles, is pushing Jones for the job. And Johnson was quoted as saying “There’s only one person who can come in and get it done and that’s Johnny Jones.”

Brown is also reportedly pushing Jones behind the scenes, and Jones’ name has appeared in just about every writeup about LSU’s coaching search thus far.

It looks for all the world like a PR blitz designed to create the appearance of a groundswell of support for Jones, who hasn’t been prominent in any coaching searches at other schools over the 11 years he’s been at UNT. Not for open jobs at SMU or TCU, not for open jobs at UTEP or Houston, and not for open jobs at Texas Tech or Texas A&M. And yet LSU, who was paying its coach more than four times Jones’s $273,000 salary at North Texas, is somehow duty-bound to hire him on the recommendation of three forced-out ex-coaches and an AAU promoter?

It’s reminiscent of old-time politics, the kind of thing you used to hear when LSU football had a coaching search. There was always some guy who’d gone to LSU or was an assistant coach at some point whose name came up, and the good ole boy network would push him for the job.

And coaching searches weren’t just divisive, blood-on-the-floor affairs, they usually ended in four years of losing and – surprise – another coaching search at which the same names would come up.

LSU broke that cycle where football was concerned in 2000, when then-Chancellor Mark Emmert took a chance and paid big money to get Nick Saban to Baton Rouge. At the time, there were people naysaying the LSU program – not excluding Saban’s predecessor Gerry DiNardo – who said that the LSU job was poisonous due to the politics, that LSU football couldn’t recruit in New Orleans, that Louisiana’s poor public education system prevented a quorum of players who could qualify academically to play in the SEC, that the facilities were lacking compared to what other programs had and a host of other supposed obstacles to ever winning big at LSU.

But it turned out that those obstacles were things that bad coaches like DiNardo and his two predecessors Mike Archer and Curley Hallman couldn’t overcome. And subsequent events showed that Archer, who bounced around as a career assistant both in the college and pro ranks (he’s still bouncing around), and Hallman, whose career path post-LSU descended from college assistant to fired high school coach, and DiNardo, whose Birmingham team in the defunct XFL was the worst in the league and who was later fired as head coach at Indiana, found lots of insurmountable obstacles at other stops as well.

As for Saban, he commanded enough respect upon his arrival that the supposed political problems preventing success disappeared almost immediately. Within two years of Saban coming to LSU, not only were the problems surrounding landing players from New Orleans solved but LSU began locking out its competitors from the city. Saban also had no trouble getting his signees to campus in sufficient numbers to compete on a high level, and Saban also helped lead a campaign to quickly remedy whatever deficit LSU had where facilities were concerned, including at $20 million Academic Center for Athletes that LSU is still reaping major benefits from.

In other words, once a good coach was hired, all those excuses why his predecessors couldn’t succeed went out the door.

And we’re hearing all the same stuff about basketball now.

We’re told that Louisiana doesn’t put out enough basketball talent and that LSU’s fan apathy has killed the program. We’re told that the Pete Maravich Assembly Center isn’t up to speed with some of the nicer arenas in the SEC (which isn’t true anymore since it’s been renovated; it’s not a particularly big arena but it seats more than the O’Connell Center at Florida does, and nobody’s complaining about Florida’s basketball facilities). And we’re told that the politics of the program make it impossible to win.

That last bit is the real issue, and it has to do with the aforementioned Collis Temple. Johnson and Temple never got along, because supposedly Johnson wouldn’t let Temple have the kind of influence over the program that he had when Brady was the coach. And supposedly that’s the reason why Johnson is touting Jones for the job – he and Jones are friends, but Johnson is saying only Jones can deal with the program’s circumstances because only Jones can handle Temple.

Which is completely ridiculous. It’s a perfect example of a problem a bad coach will have but a good coach wouldn’t even regard it as a speed bump.

Our readers can certainly agree that Kentucky puts out better basketball talent than Louisiana does. But check out the roster of the University of Kentucky’s national champion basketball team, and you’ll find something interesting – namely, that of the 14 players on the team, just four of them came from Kentucky. None of those four are starters (Darius Miller is the sixth man, and he’s quite good) – the starters came from Queens, Chicago, Indianapolis, Portland and Somerdale, New Jersey. What’s more, Kentucky’s three signees for next year are from Olathe, KS; Little Rock and Clarksville, TN.

Think John Calipari is beholden to whatever local honcho runs the AAU scene in Kentucky? Think again.

It’s little different at Louisville, Kentucky’s in-state rival who also made an appearance in the Final Four this year. Louisville actually had 17 players listed on their roster this year, and only three of them are from Kentucky. Louisville’s starters are from Seattle; Millstone, NJ; Evansville, IN, Cincinnati and Senegal.

Kansas also made the Final Four, and the local talent in Kansas is also better than it is in Louisiana by most accounts. And yet only two players on KU’s 15-man roster are from Kansas, with another from just across the border in Kansas City, Missouri. The five starters are from KC, Hoboken, NJ; Las Vegas, San Diego and Washington, DC.

And the fourth Final Four team was Ohio State, which has better local talent than Louisiana, Kentucky and Kansas perhaps combined. But even Ohio State’s 14-man roster isn’t made up of a majority of in-state players, with only six Ohioans of 14 on the roster. Ohio State’s starting lineup is more local than the other three, though, as three of the five are from Ohio (Toledo, Findlay and Columbus) along with Zion, IL and Fort Wayne, IN.

So of 20 starters on Final Four teams, only three – 15 percent! – were in-state recruits. Nobody dictates to Calipari, Rick Pitino, Bill Self or even Thad Matta how to run their programs, least of all some local alum involved in AAU ball.

The way a good coach handles somebody like Collis Temple and whatever demands he might make in terms of influencing the program is to recruit players from all over the place, sell himself as a coach capable of putting them in the NBA, be aggressive and relentless in doing so and show Temple that the coach doesn’t need him to be successful. At that point whatever favors or influence or access the coach grants to Temple can be offered on the coach’s terms and under the coach’s control, and they’ll be gladly accepted because for Temple it’s better than nothing.

Sure, LSU’s program is absolutely not on the same planet as Kentucky, Kansas, Louisville or Ohio State. Is LSU capable of more than Butler is? Butler was in the Final Four twice in recent years. Is LSU capable of more than Virginia Commonwealth? George Mason? College basketball is littered with examples of programs which have risen above LSU because of nothing more than the efforts of a top-quality head coach. If anything, what’s been missing all along is quality leadership at the top of the program – something which became a problem in the last five years Brown was the coach (he essentially became an absentee landlord and it showed on the floor) and was never fixed with either of his successors.

But for whatever faults LSU athletic director Joe Alleva may have, thinking small and hiring cheap haven’t been among them. Alleva last year hired Nikki Caldwell as the women’s basketball coach, and though Caldwell’s getting pregnant without having a wedding ring shortly after her hiring ruffled a lot of feathers she did manage to show signs of justifying her near-million dollar salary after going 23-11 this year despite a rash of injuries. At the time Caldwell was hired that salary figure seemed insane, particularly since Caldwell was only making about $300,000 a year at UCLA. Even Johnson’s hiring wasn’t a cheap transaction; he was brought in at $1.2 million a year, more than double what was was making at Stanford.

And given that Johnson was around $1.5 million when he left on Friday, and despite horrendous attendance the last three years (on average the PMAC has been just over half full) the program is still making money, LSU absolutely has $2 million a year to spend on Johnson’s replacement. In fact, given the right coach that increase more than pays for itself – on average season tickets cost around $400 a year, meaning a coach the fans are interested in having only needs to generate 1,250 extra season tickets to justify costing LSU $500,000 more a year. That doesn’t count things like Cokes and M&M’s and Tiger Water and whatever else the concession stands sell to people who show up for games, and it also doesn’t count the TV revenue a coach who gets his team to the NCAA Tournament consistently will earn for the school.

Given all that, it’s nearly impossible to imagine Alleva will agree to making a small-time hire like Jones even if the good ole boy politickers are pushing every button they can. After all, Alleva is in an interesting situation. Consider that there will be as many as seven new members on LSU’s Board of Supervisors by June, when that many of the current group’s terms expire, and also consider the likelihood that the positions of LSU’s chancellor and system president will be merged in a reorganization being considered by the governor’s office. That means Alleva’s current bosses Michael Martin (the chancellor) and John Lombardi (the system president) might not even be around in a year and there will be a new guy, who might very well be a high-profile individual with his own agenda and set of personnel preferences, ensconced as Alleva’s new boss.

And this could happen as early as this summer or as late as next summer.

In either event, whoever Alleva hires won’t likely have LSU’s basketball program turned around. At best, a year from now, the new coach might have managed to scramble together a salvage operation on this year’s recruiting class and put together a strong signing class for the November period, then went out and averted disaster with this coming year’s team; if that’s the case men’s basketball is still underperforming compared to the rest of the major programs in the athletic department. Given that, and given that Alleva still has something of a black eye perception-wise from the Duke lacrosse case (which the new boss will no doubt have heard of and known about his role in it being as though he or she is currently in collegiate administration), and given that Alleva has his detractors in and around LSU, and given that this hire is likely going to be the last one Alleva will have made before that meeting…given all that, does anybody really think Alleva would be comfortable hiring some no-name from North Texas who’d had a hand in putting the program on probation the last time he was at LSU?

And when asked why he made the hire, Alleva would say what, exactly? Would he tout Johnny Jones’ sartorial splendor or the fact that Collis Temple told him to do it?

Not likely. Better to hire the biggest name LSU’s money could buy, so that when he meets with the new boss he can say “Well, we had a hire that didn’t work out with Trent Johnson and that’s my fault, but we’ve remedied that with [insert big-name impressive coach name here] and he’s already made a huge splash on the recruiting trail. We think we’re going to be getting better, and fast, and the fans are buying tickets in rapid fashion now.”

So at the end of the day there is reason for optimism. The Old Guard, such as it is, is pushing as hard as it can to get one of their own in the job, but a perusal of message boards and other LSU fan outlets indicates very few want to see that happen. The bet here is that after an unfortunately suitable period of time is wasted weathering this current PR assault, a more prominent name will be selected – two names thrown around on Charles Hanagriff’s sports talk show on 104.5 FM in Baton Rouge today were Jamie Dixon of Pittsburgh and Josh Pastner of Memphis, with the latter being the host’s most favored option – and the program may finally find its version of Nick Saban.

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