It’s Time For Major Changes Within LSU Athletics

If you watched Johnny Jones’ basketball team give a 40-minute middle finger to its coach, fellow students and the few fans in attendance last night in a half-assed, disinterested 106-71 loss at home against Florida on TV, you might have seen a camera shot of Athletic Director Joe Alleva in the second half that was relatively telling.

Alleva was sitting nearer the scorer’s box courtside, with what can only be described as a scowl on his face. Near him was Derek Ponamsky, the special assistant to LSU’s football head coach Ed Orgeron, and Alleva was seen growling at Ponamsky out of the side of his mouth. It was clear the athletic director was highly upset at what was going on. We’re also told from people who were at the game that Alleva had assistant athletic directors Eddie Nunez, who has a supervisory role with respect to basketball, and Verge Ausberry, plus sports information director Michael Bonnette, milling around.

One wonders a bit whether any of the assemblage paid attention to the optics of a “firing squad” assembled courtside during a game; there are no suites in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center like there are in Tiger Stadium, so confabs such as that one are wide open for public view and they have the effect of magnifying the appearance of disaster.

The PMAC was almost completely empty. LSU announced a crowd of 7,009, which is by no means the smallest announced attendance for the season (that number is 6,415 for the North Carolina Central game in December), but that’s a paid crowd – actual attendance was a small fraction of that number. That puny throng, for a game against a ranked Florida team, is scandalous. It’s a middle finger from the fans to the basketball program, and so perhaps the disdainful effort on the floor was fitting in a sense.

One gets the impression that wheels are beginning to turn with respect to Jones’ tenure, which if correct would signify a change from what we understand to be the official desire – namely, that a firing is certainly in the works but not until the end of the season. As we’ve written previously there is no particular benefit to a midseason firing, and such a change is even a threat of sorts since Alleva’s history offers some reason for concern that an interim coach who produces some positive results might get hired permanently when a higher-profile coach and a total change in culture is warranted.

But those assumptions may be less operative than thought. The Florida loss was the sixth in a row, and the average margin of defeat during the current skein is an ugly 19 points. More, in six of the last nine games LSU has given up 90 points or more, which is a level of defensive futility almost unheard of for a major-conference team. The performances are getting progressively worse – it’s not that LSU’s talent level is hopeless, but the effort level is increasingly so. And against Florida the feel was one of hitting rock bottom – you get that feel when you suffer the worst home loss in program history. LSU gave up an incredible 58 points by halftime in the game, for Pete’s sake.

And Jones’ postgame press conference was nearly as humiliating as the game. Read the transcript and it’s clear from that press conference that Jones doesn’t have any answers. Anybody could tell you his team plays no defense at all, but Jones can’t tell you how it could get better – nor can he diagnose why his team’s effort and competitiveness is so lacking.

From that you can see why his team so clearly lacks belief in the program. They know he doesn’t have any answers, and because they know this they fall apart and quit at the first sign of adversity. That’s why LSU continually gets blown out in the first half of their games and only sometimes makes a run in the second half when the opponent thinks it’s garbage time and loses their intensity.

The question is, does allowing this to continue for 12 more games do lasting damage to the program? Put a different way, if this team gets blown out by 19 points per game the rest of the season, does it decrease the desirability of the head coaching job such that no one worthy of it will take it?

That’s hard to answer, and even if your answer is that yes, lasting damage would be done should LSU lose out (which is quite possible – the only truly conceivable victory left is a Feb. 21 home game against Auburn, and that’s only conceivable since LSU only lost by four points to Bruce Pearl’s team on the road a week ago) there is no guarantee an interim coach would make things any better.

What’s necessary is to start the coaching search. The problem is LSU doesn’t have anybody who inspires confidence to run that search.

We’ve posted before that Alleva’s record of hiring coaches, both at LSU and in his previous job as the AD at Duke, is abysmal. Even in hires that turned out OK, like the one which produced Beth Torina in softball and Ed Orgeron in football (and we’re betting on the come in saying Orgeron’s hire will turn out OK; he could very easily become the bad hire the national media has panned him as), the processes producing them were goat rodeos.

And worse, with Alleva having tried and failed to fire Les Miles at the end of the 2015 season – and that fiasco coming after Alleva agreed to play hatchet man in firing Duke lacrosse coach Mike Pressler and shutting down his program over what turned out to be a trumped-up false accusation of rape by three of two dozen players – there is a good question of the desirability of working for Alleva. Can he actually hire anyone with another option at a major school?

LSU is paying this man $750,000 per year and his primary job is hiring and firing coaches. By any objective measure he’s not good at it.

You could make the argument that the Johnny Jones hire isn’t Alleva’s fault, because he was buffaloed into the hire by former head coach Dale Brown, local AAU warlord Collis Temple, who was the first black basketball player at LSU in the early 1970’s, and a number of other alumni from LSU’s Good Old Days. But once again, Joe Alleva is paid $750,000 per year. For $750,000 per year LSU shouldn’t have a weak athletic director who gets bullied by former coaches and former players into making a hire anybody could tell you isn’t qualified for the job. Jones had a 91-88 conference record in the Sun Belt at North Texas in 11 years on the job and had never won a game in the NCAA Tournament; there was never any reason to believe he would succeed at LSU, and Joe Alleva had to know that if he possesses the acumen an athletic director making three quarters of a million dollars per year damn sure ought to have. No, Johnny Jones is absolutely Alleva’s fault.

So the problem is either that Alleva is clueless, or he lacks the strength of character to tell Brown and Temple no when necessary. Either way, there should be no reason for confidence in Alleva to replace Jones.

Last week we had a post on Matt McCall, the head coach at Tennessee-Chattanooga, as a potential replacement for Jones since McCall has a connection to Nunez. McCall is still worth a look, but after getting bombed 80-64 by lowly VMI in his last game what’s clear is he’s a risk. McCall’s work as an assistant to Billy Donovan at Florida is a major feather in his cap, and the VMI loss isn’t particularly disqualifying – Kentucky lost to Tennessee on Tuesday, and Kentucky has no more business losing to Tennessee than Chattanooga has losing to VMI – but the last Donovan assistant to win his way to an SEC head coaching job was Anthony Grant at Alabama, and Grant did very poorly. McCall could be a superstar, or he could be a bust. There is no way of knowing and given Alleva’s record of picking coaches there isn’t any reason to believe he has any real insight on who is good and who isn’t.

And because of the questions about whether anyone with options will work for Alleva, higher-profile coaches like Will Wade at VCU, Archie Miller at Dayton or Randy Bennett at St. Mary’s have to be seen as less likely to come. If nothing else, he would likely have to overpay for them – and with Jones making $1.5 million, one wonders whether LSU president F. King Alexander, he of the constant “we’re broke” mantra directed at the Louisiana legislature in hopes of manna from the general fund, would allow Alleva to step up with a $2.5 million or $3 million per year offer to a basketball coach. And Alleva’s entire work history is a litany of examples proving that he won’t risk his own position to do what’s right, so bucking Alexander if necessary to make an investment in a winning program the university’s students, fans and donors can be proud of is not likely with this man.

In short, the problems are a lot bigger than Johnny Jones at LSU. He’s a symptom of bad leadership more than he is an example of it, though he’s both. The problem isn’t going to be solved until Alleva is replaced with a stronger, more capable athletic director.

And the time is running out for that change to be made. If the team and the fans have to endure six more weeks of Jones’ denouement as LSU’s basketball coach that’s the cost of doing business, but Alleva can’t be allowed to make the hire for his replacement if there is to be much reason for optimism. And while traditionally athletic directors aren’t hired until the end of the academic year in May or June, Alabama just hired Bill Byrne away from Arizona a week or two ago.

With $140 million per year coming through the door, LSU might not quite be Alabama but it’s certainly an elite AD job.

A good candidate can be found at another school. Texas A&M’s Scott Woodward is from Baton Rouge and Clemson’s Dan Radakovich cut his teeth as Skip Bertman’s assistant AD at LSU; perhaps one of them would take the job. Or perhaps Herb Vincent, the former LSU sports information director who is the number-two man at the SEC office right now, would accept a big raise to take the job he’s always wanted. Or perhaps there’s a very successful and charismatic AD at a mid-major school with a record of finding great coaches that LSU could poach.

Either way, it’s time to get the university’s athletic house in order. If this is not done, decline is inevitable and the damage won’t be easy to repair.

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