…and it’s very reasonable to question whether the university has leadership sufficient to making a prudent one.
What’s bringing this observation on might seem to be a frivolous set of circumstances; after all, LSU as an institution is rightfully defined by its academic pursuits and not necessarily success in athletics. But as its most successful chancellor Mark Emmert noted, a major university’s athletic department serves as a marketing arm of the institution, and if it can take pride in the successful exploits of its athletic teams it finds itself better poised to attract students, donors and even faculty who are drawn to the perception of positive momentum on its campus.
And at the moment LSU gives off very little in the way of a positive vibe. What LSU gives off is a discordant cacophony of excuse-making and failure. So far, it appears that cacophony of excuse-making and failure is LSU’s choice, and excellence is not.
This goes back at least to last spring, when LSU’s president F. King Alexander began howling about a financial exigency and academic bankruptcy that never came, as a legislative strategy for demanding higher taxes to fund the university out of the state’s general fund when that fund was in a shortfall. He did this at a time the university had an outstanding bond issue, and the fallout was such that Alexander had to cancel that bond issue because the Securities and Exchange Commission began poking around the question of whether a soon-to-be-bankrupt LSU was defrauding bond investors by attempting to borrow money it couldn’t pay off.
That alone would have given the university’s Board of Supervisors reason to fire Alexander. But they’re not particularly in a firing mood at LSU. Perhaps that’s true because of the university’s appalling spate of faculty departures largely across the board. Alexander has been blaming those departures on budget cuts, but LSU’s overall budget this year is actually larger than it was in 2008, the year commonly used as a benchmark for funding. Louisiana had a $29 billion budget in 2008 thanks to Katrina recovery dollars which it no longer has, so that year would be a terrible baseline for its budget, and yet LSU’s budget is still larger. Some of its fixed costs for things like pensions and insurance are greater, but LSU’s current enrollment is smaller than it was in 2004 – and LSU’s out-of-state enrollment is only 20 percent of its total. Half of the University of Alabama’s student body are from outside the state of Alabama, and LSU’s out of state tuition is $26,000 per year. If more budget is needed, then more out of state students are needed; it’s a pretty simple solution made more complicated when Alexander is quoted in national media discussing things like academic bankruptcy. You’ll struggle to grow your way out of budget problems when you spend your time using those problems as a reason to publicly disparage your product.
Later in the year when the wheels fell off Les Miles’ football program and the Tigers went from being No. 1 to out of the Top 25 with three straight losses in November, the school’s athletic director Joe Alleva attempted to orchestrate a coaching change which was to result in Miles moving out and Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher, a beloved former LSU assistant with a 2014 national championship ring, moving in. Alexander scuttled the move after its prospect had been public for two weeks, telling members of the board he wouldn’t support private dollars paying Miles a buyout (the figure was some $15 million, but there was little reason to believe it would amount to anything close to that number since Miles was surely marketable enough to land another lucrative job quickly) when the school was facing difficulties with general fund subsidies.
Whether firing Miles was a prudent move or not is a separate question; the aftermath of that kerfuffle has been strangely positive. Miles went from staving off a firing to earning a decisive victory in his bowl game, making a sensational hire to replace a substandard defensive coordinator, picking up a pair of very qualified offensive assistants to replace outgoing coaches and landing a legendary recruiting class. The shock to the system of his potential firing seems to have done him some good.
But that aside, Alexander was faced with what his athletic director believed was an opportunity to upgrade his product. And Alexander turned down that opportunity out of fear that taking it would send a less-than-pious political message.
Meanwhile, Alexander and LSU had been mired in the process of firing Teresa Buchanan, a well-regarded professor of early childhood development in the education department, for using off-color language and telling dirty jokes in class from time to time. She lacked the requisite political piety, and thus had to go despite being well-liked by her students over 20 years of service and had been decorated by the university. An initial faculty review of the case resulted in a recommendation of no grounds for dismissal but Alexander ruled otherwise, and now LSU is enmeshed in a wrongful termination suit against what by most accounts has been a successful and productive employee.
One could argue, defensibly, that Miles is successful and productive. He is, after all, the winningest coach (percentage-wise) in school history.
But one cannot make a similar argument about the two basketball coaches on campus, whose product this season has been nothing short of poor.
Nikki Fargas, the women’s basketball coach, just completed a 10-20 season – the worst at LSU since a 7-20 campaign in 1994-95. Followers of that program will tell you that Fargas has taken a program accustomed to NCAA Tournament appearances – 12 of them in 13 years preceding her hire – and trashed it utterly. Fargas’ first four seasons as LSU’s coach resulted in NCAA appearances, but with declining results: her win totals have melted from 23 her first year to 22, 21, 17 and now 10. She’s paid well over a million dollars a year, and yet her team this year has virtually no one who would start on any of LSU’s previous Final Four teams; not since star player Danielle Ballard was thrown off the team last summer.
Fargas isn’t going anywhere. Apparently she hasn’t dropped any F-bombs or told dirty jokes. Those get you in more trouble at LSU than draining attendance to your performances down to friends and family.
And today, Johnny Jones closed out the most disappointing season in men’s basketball history with a sinfully incompetent showing, a 71-38 loss to Texas A&M in an SEC Tournament game the team had to win in order to have any shot at an NCAA Tournament bid. Jones’ team had to give its best effort against an Aggie team with whom it had split a pair of regular-season games; instead, it shot a laughable 20.6 percent from the floor in scoring fewer points than any team in Division 1 has all season.
Jones’ team is 19-14 after beginning the season ranked in the Top 25. Going into the Texas A&M game its RPI ranking was No. 90, which offers zero guarantee of even an NIT bid. The ESPN announcers during and after the game expressed actual anger at LSU’s performance, called it “embarrassing and humiliating,” denied LSU belonged in a postseason tournament and suggested its players didn’t even want to play in one.
It was a low point in the school’s basketball history, and it was delivered by a team supposedly capable of high points. Even now, its supposed star player Ben Simmons is regarded as the top pick in the NBA Draft, though a lot of LSU basketball fans would question whether despite his considerable skills he’s truly worth that pick. Simmons’ attitude can be be described as “disinterested,” something which was exemplified when he was disqualified from a potential Wooden Award for “academic” reasons and held out of the starting lineup in a mortifying late-season loss at Tennessee (which LSU avenged in its 1st-round SEC tournament game Friday) under the same ambit.
Simmons is gone after this season, and so is Keith Hornsby, whose career ended early thanks to a relapse of an early-season sports hernia, as well as underperforming guard Josh Gray – who went from scoring 33 points a game in junior college two years ago to five points a game this year. It’s likely that Tim Quarterman, who was reportedly going to play himself into an NBA first-round pick as a junior this year but turned out to be more like a cancer on the team and finished the season looking like he wanted LSU to lose, will also be gone – and rumor has it freshman guard Antonio Blakeney, a McDonald’s All-American like Simmons who started the season very poorly but ended the season as the only player actually making improvement, will also head for the exits. That would leave talented but foul-prone forward Craig Victor as the only legitimate SEC-quality player returning for next year.
Jones’ recruiting class is nondescript, at best, meaning that this 19-14 fizzle is the maximum anyone could expect out of the program in the foreseeable future. By any objective standard he should be out of a job tonight.
But our sources tell us that while things could perhaps change, as of today there is no buzz to the effect Jones’ job is in jeopardy – and the main reason why is that Alexander frowns on buyouts when it comes to athletic coaches at a time he might be facing budget cuts.
Which sounds an awful lot like excuse-making and failure, and definitely not like excellence in high-profile endeavors is a standard at LSU.
LSU has egg on its face as a university. The athletic department bought billboards last summer advertising the presence of Leonard Fournette and Ben Simmons on campus as signifiers of championships to come, and by the end of football and basketball season there was a lot more talk of coaching changes than championships. But if substandard performance is accepted and excuses are made for it on the basis that without “full” funding from the state legislature nothing can be done, then one major casualty is bound to be the goodwill of the state’s taxpayers.
As a taxpayer who is going to be asked to pay more to maintain LSU, and other state institutions (of higher learning and otherwise), shouldn’t I have the right to ask what F. King Alexander is doing to make my contribution count? Shouldn’t he be willing to accept private dollars pledged toward creating excellence in high-profile endeavors like men’s basketball?
And if his response is that I have to accept mediocrity, or worse, because higher standards for his product which would actually result in more revenue and therefore more financial contribution to the university’s coffers from the athletic department are not politically correct while he’s attempting to squeeze blood from the general-fund turnip, then why should I continue to care? At that point isn’t LSU just one more poorly-run and inefficient government program that stifles excellence rather than producing it?
We’ve never seen LSU that way in Louisiana. LSU has always been an emblem of the best Louisiana’s tax dollars could produce. The university isn’t Harvard or Cal Tech, but it’s known as a great place to go to college nonetheless and has programs – internal auditing, petroleum engineering – which are world-class. If Alexander isn’t willing to impose high standards on the parts of his product that he has the resources to deliver, meaning that if his athletic director wants to upgrade a program with better personnel he’s at least standing aside and allowing it to happen, then LSU has become a place where excuses, not excellence, are manufactured.
We as Louisianans should have none of it. It’s time for some leadership and fighting spirit at the Ole War Skule. If Alexander isn’t willing to provide it, then he needs to be the biggest name amid a badly-needed housecleaning.