So as I settled in Wednesday to cover LSU athletic director Scott Woodward’s appearance at the Baton Rouge Rotary Club luncheon, I texted our New Orleans-based sports columnist Rod Walker.
Rod covered Woodward’s appearance Tuesday before the Greater New Orleans Quarterback Club with Saints/Pelicans owner Gayle Benson. I wanted to know if Woodward had said anything newsworthy I should follow up on.
“Nothing at all,” was the reply.
Let’s just say Wednesday was a little different.
Woodward, who came decked out in a sharp-looking purple and gold pinstriped seersucker suit, got things warmed up with a compliment and a sharp jab aimed at former LSU and current Alabama coach Nick Saban.
“In the athletic world I always remind people that there have probably been three giants in the NCAA in this last half-century: Skip Bertman, Nick Saban and Mike Kryzyzewski,” Woodward said. “Two of those guys (Bertman and Saban) were on our campus in the early 2000s, and that’s because of LSU.”
Woodward then went on to say that the “guy in Alabama,” Saban, “has regrets about not being here. And shame on him.”
Then pointing at Bertman, sitting at a table in front of the podium, Woodward added, “The one with the higher IQ is here today.”
New LSU athletic director Scott Woodward certainly knows how to play to his audience.
The room erupted in laughter and applause at the last remark. A room you could comfortably say was brimming with LSU supporters who have grown weary of the Tigers losing eight straight football games to Saban’s Crimson Tide dating back to the BCS National Championship game in January 2012.
Whether or not Saban really does regret not still being at LSU (he has said he did enjoy his time here greatly) is a matter of debate. So is whether or not Woodward’s words have a fig to do with how well LSU’s athletic teams perform on the field in 2019-20 and the years to come. So is whether the local preoccupation with Saban qualifies as an obsession.
But there is no question Woodward is confident and demanding the entire athletic department (including himself) hold itself to a high standard.
And that standard includes winning. It darn sure includes finally beating Alabama again in football at some point — preferably while the soon-to-be 68-year old Saban is still coaching.
Woodward was asked by a member of the audience what he hopes the accomplishments of the first year of his LSU athletic administration would be if he was at the same podium a year from now.
“First, we’ve got to give the kids (student-athletes) a world-class education,” he said. “Make sure our graduation and retention rates are up. Second, it’s that we have great performances on the field of play. The third thing, and it’s like oxygen in how we take it for granted, is that we ask our coaches and kids to represent us in the right way.
“We’re human beings. We’re going to fail. But we’re at a special place with special resources and we can do incredible things. I demand that of them and of myself.”
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A former boss of mine once said playing catch up is expensive. While Woodward was clear to stress the athletic department he inherited from Joe Alleva, who was pushed out in April into an conjured-up fundraising role to make room for the current A.D., wasn’t broken, it could be more successful.
“It’s had great, great success,” Woodward said. “Coach Bertman left it in very good shape.” There was a noticeable absence of a word about Alleva, though that seemed more about the fact Bertman was there than anything else.
“Like everything it needs a little shining and oomph. We need to win championships and win more.”
That’s where the expensive part comes in. Woodward was pressed about his statement earlier this summer that the athletic department would be ending its annual money transfers to the academic side of the university. This fiscal year’s check, which he said would run to about $11 million, would be the last in a string of financial gifts/bailouts meted out under Bertman and Alleva.
“We will continue to support the academic side of the institution. This place was eviscerated. I watched it from afar. It was criminal what happened,” Woodward said pointedly. “The athletic department through Skip and Joe Alleva did the right things. It helped a place in panic.
“But you can’t choke the goose laying the golden egg on the athletic side. The department has given over $70 million to the university over the past decade and can’t compete like that with the folks in Tuscaloosa and Gainesville and Knoxville. It’s not a sustainable model. We’re going to strategically look at doing one-time funding.”
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And the extra money the athletic department isn’t giving to the academic side — remember LSU athletics is required to pay for itself and also pays for things like player scholarships and even band expenses — will go to improving the athletic department overall. Though Woodward said in general terms he would continue to look at physical improvements to LSU’s athletic plant, including work on the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, he continued to stress that the more pressing financial need involves investing in “human capital.
“It’s about how good your coaches and support staff are,” said Woodward, who said he plans to be on the field for Saturday night's season opener against Georgia Southern and not in his suite in the press box. “We’re in a very competitive world, especially in the Power 5 (conferences). People are always trying to steal your talent.”
Woodward's aim is clearly to meld talent with confidence. He unabashedly provided a jolt of the latter Wednesday. Now it's up to his people to take the proverbial ball and run with it.
Clyde Edwards-Helaire enters the season as LSU's feature running back for the first time in his career.