There have been so many hard times for LSU basketball, it’s hard to remember the good.
But they did exist. Johnny Jones, LSU’s now former coach, was part of them. Playing on the Final Four team in 1981 that was LSU’s greatest team ever. Serving as an assistant coach to Dale Brown on the squad that was Cinderella defined, parlaying a No. 11 seed into another Final Four appearance in 1986.
There have been other great seasons and great players since then. The Final Four team of 2006. Southeastern Conference champions from 2000 and 2009. “Big Baby” Davis. Tasmin Mitchell. Tyrus Thomas. Stromile Swift. And Ben Simmons.
Those seasons, those players, have been but stars in the dark firmament of LSU basketball over the past quarter-century. Since Shaquille O’Neal took his mammoth talents to the NBA after the 1992 season, the Tigers have finished over .500 in the SEC just seven times in the past 25 seasons. Only twice in all that time has LSU advanced past the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.
Gradually, the stature and support for LSU basketball has eroded as its trophies tarnished and gathered dust. Its glories have faded from the actual memories of so many fans, relegated to old black-and-white photos and blurry video.
Basketball here was never bigger than football, but with time it has slipped behind baseball, gymnastics and arguably softball. The LSU gymnastics team competed in front of five times the fans that men’s basketball did at the end of this dismal slog of a campaign with its regular season-ending home meet Friday against New Hampshire.
In short, LSU basketball has become a punch line for what by and large is a proud, profitable and honorably run athletic program.
The time for half-measures and politically favorable hires is over. It is time for LSU to commit to restoring LSU basketball to its once-proud position as part of the top echelon of programs in the SEC. To a time when LSU challenged for championships on a regular basis. When the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, the Deaf Dome, was not an empty monument to college basketball’s greatest showman but a place to be feared.
It may be a herculean task, and it certainly won’t happen overnight. Athletic director Joe Alleva admitted as much Friday after a news conference to announce Jones’ firing.
“We’re looking for a guy who is energetic and has passion,” Alleva said on the SEC Network. “Someone who will work hard. It’s going to take a lot of hard work to get this program where we want it to be.”
To where it once was.
Across the broad sweep of athletic history, LSU basketball tradition ranks in the SEC behind only the conference’s national championship-winning programs: Kentucky, Florida and Arkansas. Aside from those three, LSU’s four Final Four appearances are twice that of the rest of the SEC combined (two; one for Mississippi State and one for Georgia).
And LSU is the program of Pistol Pete Maravich, O’Neal, Bob Pettit and Chris Jackson. Maravich, 47 years after his last game, remains college basketball’s all-time leading scorer. He also holds the NCAA scoring records for a senior, junior and sophomore. Jackson holds the NCAA scoring record for a freshman.
There is tradition at LSU, though realistically no one should expect LSU to be Kentucky in basketball, just as no one at Kentucky should expect its program to be LSU’s peer in football. But by firing Jones, LSU showed it wasn’t willing to settle for a .556 winning percentage and zero NCAA tournament victories (with just one appearance) with a school-record 15-game losing streak thrown in during the just-completed 10-21 season.
“We’re looking for a proven winner,” Alleva said. “Someone who will bring fans back to the PMAC and compete at the highest level.”
For LSU, that should mean making it to postseason play — the NCAA tournament or the NIT — every season. And once in a few years, challenging for another Final Four appearance.
To that end, what kind of coach should LSU seek to infuse the program with that kind of success again? Alleva says he wants a proven winner, but it’s going to take energy and ambition as well. As to the question of what he would be willing to pay, the athletic director was purposefully vague.
“It’s going to depend on who we hire,” he said. “My track record is that I’m going to pay people (commensurate) with their experience and what they bring to the table.”
If you know today how much that’s going to be, you should earn that coach’s yearly salary as a prize. It’s likely to be somewhere north of Jones’ $1.5 million per year salary and somewhere south of the $3.5 million LSU will pay football coach Ed Orgeron this season.
Whether that coach will end up being someone with a lot of experience, like Notre Dame’s Mike Brey or Middle Tennessee’s Kermit Davis, or a young up-and-comer, like VCU’s Will Wade or Minnesota’s Richard Pitino (Rick’s son), who can say at this point?
Alleva’s track record on hires is all over the place. He has brought in veterans like Jones from North Texas and Trent Johnson from Stanford, banked on the learning curve and natural fit of an Orgeron (though Alleva said Friday the right fit in a coach is a joke) and picked rising stars like softball coach Beth Torina, widely regarded as Alleva’s best hire to date.
“This is LSU. This is a great place,” Alleva said. “The potential here is phenomenal. I really feel confident we will get a very good coach here.”
He should. And LSU should. Though LSU fans have a wide range of opinions on Alleva as an athletic director and hirer of coaches, in this they should agree: LSU does possess phenomenal potential.
Alleva is confident he will get a very good coach. That coach should be required to do a very good job.
LSU should expect nothing less.