Michael Martin has been in charge of universities across the country, but he says he’s only worked in one state where the governor has called him to carry water for the football coach.

As LSU’s chancellor between 2008 and 2012, Martin was among the unlucky administrators who had to scramble as Gov. Bobby Jindal slashed state aid to Louisiana universities by more than half, the most drastic cuts seen anywhere in the nation. But even as Jindal was taking an ax to LSU’s budget, he occasionally picked up the phone to lobby Martin on behalf of football coach Les Miles, Martin said.

Martin recalled several such calls over the years, some from Jindal himself and some from his top aides.

Once, Jindal told Martin that LSU had to hold onto Miles amid a competing offer from Michigan in 2011 “no matter what it takes,” Martin said. And when another university was wooing athletic director Joe Alleva, Jindal called to say Miles wasn’t particularly enamored of his boss, and that LSU therefore shouldn’t bother making a counteroffer to Alleva. And in a third instance, after LSU self-imposed penalties in 2011 over NCAA recruiting violations, a Jindal aide was letting Martin know that Miles disagreed with the sanctions.

“I found it interesting that the governor’s office had time to track Les’ future, when at least I thought there were more important things happening in the state of Louisiana,” Martin said in an interview.

“When you’re in that big-time, Power Five-conference world, it’s a different culture,” he added. “It has many payoffs: Les put a lot of people in the stands; we generated sufficient money through the ESPN contract; all of that was good. But it also had a downside, that’s people who thought they were beyond university policy and university leadership.”

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MICHAEL DeMOCKER / THE TIMES-PICAYUNE Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal thanks supporters, including LSU football coach Les Miles, during his re-election victory party at the Renaissance Hotel in Baton Rouge on Saturday, October 22, 2011.

Jindal said in a statement that he “does not recall having any such conversation with any LSU chancellor,” while an attorney for Miles said that “no one with any credibility has suggested that Les perceived himself or acted as though he was bigger or better than anybody else.”

But the LSU president who succeeded Martin, F. King Alexander, also described Miles this week as “just not a good university citizen, because he believes he is bigger than life.” Alexander, who left LSU for Oregon State University last year, is fighting to hold on to his new job after an investigation of his tenure at LSU cast him in an unflattering light.

That investigation, commissioned by LSU and conducted by the law firm Husch Blackwell, was released earlier this month. It probed LSU’s handling of several cases of sexual harassment and dating violence stretching back to 2013, most of them during Alexander’s tenure. Many of the cases involved high-profile athletes, and the report included a section on Miles, who was ordered to stay away from female students on campus after a sexual harassment investigation.

Martin, who left his post in 2012, said he was never aware of sexual misconduct allegations against Miles when they worked together. Alexander has blamed the LSU Board of Supervisors for keeping Miles in his job, but apologized for not doing more to oust him in 2013. At the time, Alleva had recommended that Miles be fired.

Husch Blackwell found that LSU was prone to fumble cases even when they did not involve athletes. But the firm also reported that LSU’s athletic department went years without reporting incidents of sexual misconduct involving athletes through the proper channels, which were on the university side of campus.

Athletics, as Alexander explained it this week, “siloed” some Title IX cases, including those involving high-profile football players.

Amid the fallout from the report, many have called into question the power dynamic between LSU, the football giant, and LSU, the state’s flagship university.

“Right now, most presidents are powerless to control athletics departments, and certainly one like LSU that’s ‘too big to fail,’” said David Ridpath, a sports management professor at Ohio University and past president of the The Drake Group, an advocacy group that pushes for reform in college athletics. 

Ridpath said collegiate athletic programs would do well to remember that “the institution is giving them that name, that brand. It is a symbiotic relationship.”

The LSU athletic department is often hailed as that rare college sports program that generates its own money, and thus doesn’t need to rely on student fees or taxpayer subsidies. From June 2019 to July 2020 — a year when LSU reached the pinnacle of winning the national championship and then hit the low of the coronavirus pandemic — the athletic department turned an overall profit of nearly $5 million, with more than $50 million in profits coming from the football team and helping to pay for other sports.

The athletic department raked in $160 million in revenue thanks to ticket sales, media contracts and more. That’s more than the university side of campus received from the state’s general fund — $116 million, about a fifth of overall campus revenues — to help pay for academics.

Famed Democratic political consultant James Carville, an LSU alumnus and passionate football fan, argues the problem is not that football is too powerful. It’s that LSU needs to throw the same resources at everything else.

“There are any number of big-time football programs that produce a lot of revenue,” Carville said. “The answer is not to give up on football. The answer is to get the whole thing right. You can do both. You can have a good physics department and a good basketball team at the same time, it’s actually possible.”

Politicizing LSU football a long tradition, legislators question ‘dark underbelly’

Throughout Louisiana’s history, governors have meddled in LSU football.

When Huey P. Long was governor, from 1928 to 1932, he built up nearly every part of LSU’s campus, but especially the football team and the band. He recruited players to LSU, bestowed state government jobs upon them and co-wrote the song “Touchdown for LSU,” which the Tiger Band still plays before football games.

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Louisiana governor Huey Long talks with football officials before the start of the LSU vs. Arkansas game in either 1928 or 1929. 

“Long politicized it and emphasized it, made the football team his own personal possession,” said Bob Mann, a political communication professor at LSU who is writing a book about the relationship between Long and LSU. “He saw it as a benefit to him politically in Louisiana, and nationally.”

When Edwin Edwards was governor and the LSU football team was losing, Mann remembered Edwards being grilled about how he was going to address the team’s losing streak.

Jindal, a Republican, and Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, have both carried on the tradition. The head LSU football coach of their era has campaigned for each of them: Miles for Jindal, Ed Orgeron for Edwards.

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Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards, left, listens as LSU head coach Ed Orgeron speaks at a press conference regarding updates to coronavirus in the state, Wednesday, March 18, 2020, in Baton Rouge, La.

Edwards, who was a high school quarterback, has boasted about texting and duck hunting with Orgeron. Most recently, Edwards dangled the prospect of a packed Tiger Stadium this fall as an incentive for people to get their coronavirus vaccines.

Governors are also known to reward their most loyal donors and friends with prized positions on the 16-member LSU Board of Supervisors, where football tickets are among the top perks. While the terms are staggered, Edwards has by now appointed every member of the board except the lone student member. Not a single member of the body that oversees LSU — including grants, academic research and medical schools — is an academic.

Alexander spoke frankly this week about the LSU board’s priorities, saying “there is a great deal of board intervention into athletics.” He drew a sharp contrast between the LSU board and the one that now oversees him at Oregon State.

If Edwards was keen to capitalize on the political power of LSU football and to use it as a way to energize his voter base, he has not yet lent much political capital to help clean up the problems that Husch Blackwell highlighted. Edwards said he was horrified by the report, but added he would not interfere in the decision-making from LSU’s leadership about it and called their responses “reasonable.”

Jindal this week said the first he heard of the sexual harassment allegations against Miles was when the news about them broke a few weeks ago. Every board member during the 2013 investigation into Miles had been appointed by Jindal, and at least three of them were briefed at the time. Jindal said this week: “I appointed great Louisianians to the LSU Board and trust their judgment.”

Jindal did not voice any disapproval over the handling of the Miles situation or the broader Title IX problems laid out in the report. Husch Blackwell said those problems are campuswide.

USA Today reported this week that LSU doled out comparatively lenient punishments for students deemed responsible for rape, sexual assault and dating violence. LSU expelled just one student for such an infraction from 2016 through 2020, despite finding 46 students responsible for those offenses.

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USA Today did not draw any comparisons to Southeastern Conference peers, but found that some other schools with major sports programs were much tougher. Ohio State, for instance, expelled 28 students who committed similar offenses within the same time frame, Michigan State expelled 16 and the University of Central Florida expelled 12.

So far, most of the political blowback over LSU’s failures has come from a group of bipartisan female legislators who have vowed to force the university to clean up its act.  The Senate Select Committee on Women and Children held an all-day hearing March 10 to hear from the sexual assault survivors whose cases are highlighted in the Husch Blackwell report, among others.

They’re planning another for March 26.

“There’s no reason we can turn our eyes and start focusing on football this year when we know there’s this dark underbelly going on that’s being tolerated,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Beth Mizell, a Republican from Franklinton.

Mizell said and state Rep. Aimee Freeman, a New Orleans Democrat, said while they want more action from those overseeing LSU, they aren’t surprised that female lawmakers have stepped up to the plate first.

“If you’ve knitted the sweater, you’re not going to pull the yarn out,” Mizell said. “I don’t feel so protective of a flawed system.”

State Sen. Sharon Hewitt, a Slidell Republican, said while athletic departments often enjoy some autonomy, they need to follow the same laws and university policies on sexual harassment issues.

“The conversation about sexual harassment would be different if there were more female leaders involved,” Hewitt added.

Affording massive locker room upgrades but meager Title IX staffing

LSU’s interim President Tom Galligan has vowed to adopt 18 changes recommended by Husch Blackwell to restore trust. He has vowed to fully staff the Title IX office, improve the flow of information between police and the university, add training, develop restorative justice and more. He said he expects LSU will spend $1 million to make up for its past failures.

LSU isn’t the first university to grapple with such a crisis. “Ultimately, what we’re dealing with at LSU and what we saw at Penn State and Baylor was cultural issues, and the idea that winning and generating revenue could be placed over the top of athlete safety and student safety,” said Elizabeth Taylor, a Temple University professor whose research includes sexual assault in college athletic programs.

Alexander argued this week, though, that LSU would not have been able to afford even the meager resources it allocated to Title IX without infusions of cash from the athletic department. Alexander said the only new money that LSU could find for Title IX, pay raises and more came from donors or the athletic department.

That’s partly a function of LSU’s alumni and what drives giving. LSU spent years as the only university in the football juggernaut Southeastern Conference reporting more contributions to its athletic foundation than to its academic foundation. The LSU foundation, which supports academics on campus, has only recently reversed that trend. 

Since 2012, the LSU athletic department has sent $66 million in subsidies to the academic side of campus. But shortly after arriving at LSU in 2019, LSU athletic director Scott Woodward ended that policy, arguing it was a “poor way to run a university” and that the athletic department needed all of its earnings to be competitive.

“LSU Athletics is one part of a larger institution, and we will always prioritize working in lockstep with campus leadership to continually improve this place we call home,” Woodward said in a statement for this story. “Whether it’s football or physics, we should aspire to be the best in the country, and that is only possible when we all work together and pull in the same direction.”

The athletic department itself might soon find itself in need of a helping financial hand for a change: It is expected to take an $80 million financial hit because of the pandemic.

The same year Woodward announced that he was no longer subsidizing academics, LSU unveiled a $28 million renovation to its football operations building, paid for with donations to the Tiger Athletic Foundation.  The locker room includes the type of sleeping pods commonly seen in the first-class sections of international flights. And there’s a new “nutrition center” for student-athletes — something Martin said he used to fight about with Miles.

“I just thought student-athletes ought to eat with other students,” Martin said of his repeated denials of requests from Miles for such a dining hall.

Alexander also said Miles disagreed with his decision to build a foundation building near athletic facilities, even demanding to know: ‘How can you dare build this on my side of campus?”

Peter Ginsberg, Miles’ New York-based attorney, denied such conversations ever happened.

“It is a shame for Mr. Alexander to demean himself by trying to create such a false dialogue,” Ginsberg said. 

That Miles kept his job at LSU in 2013 — and kept his sexual harassment investigation out of public view — showed that “he gets the culture of protectionism because he was winning,” said Ridpath.

But Miles hung on for three years — and it could well have been longer.

“If Les Miles was still winning, he’d be at LSU today,” Ridpath said. “If Jeremy Pruitt was winning, he’d still be at Tennessee. And that’s the reality.”

Ginsberg insisted, however, that the 2013 sexual harassment investigation led to no punishments for Miles because Miles did nothing wrong. Barring Miles from being alone with female students was meant to protect Miles from “baseless allegations,” he said.

Martin said it always disappointed him that LSU football obscured the work of those on the academic side of campus. Ridpath noted that much of the best coronavirus research has been happening on college campuses, which should prompt people to wake up to the importance of places like chemistry labs.

Scientists at LSU helped to set up a much-needed testing lab in the early days of the pandemic, when tests were scarce and hospitals needed quick results. LSU Health Shreveport professor emeritus Robert Rhoads has done groundbreaking research on mRNA, which plays a key role in the new vaccines. Other state universities have played important parts as well in the pandemic fight: UL Lafayette’s New Iberia Research Center, for instance, held early trials for the Pfizer vaccine on primates.

”I wish we could have given them the same kind of glow that seemed to go with the athletic programs,” Martin said.

Carville said that LSU will make “one of the most important statements in its history” by choosing its next president. A search is underway.

“LSU is more important to the state of Louisiana than any other university in this country is to its state,” Carville said. “And if this state doesn’t feel good about LSU, it’s not gonna feel good about itself.”

Staff Writer Brooks Kubena contributed to this report.

Editor's note: This story was updated after its original publication to note that academic giving at LSU has recently outpaced athletic giving. 

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