After a year of sexual misconduct scandals at LSU, many implicating high-profile athletes and athletics officials, university officials are promising that their search for LSU’s next football coach — who will doubtless be the highest-paid public official in Louisiana — will include an examination of the candidate’s record of handling such allegations.

The pledge comes after students, legislators, attorneys and others have called on LSU to prioritize Title IX, the federal law that prohibits institutions from discriminating based on gender and requires them to investigate allegations of sexual misconduct and dating violence. The university is already facing three federal lawsuits that allege that LSU employees ranging from football coaches to French professors ignored reports that students or employees were raped, beaten or sexually harassed.

Athletic department spokesman Cody Worsham said a candidate’s history of handling Title IX cases will be one of many “important considerations” in the coaching search.

LSU officials had previously declined to directly answer questions about the role of Title IX, saying last month only that the next LSU football coach would “share our vision for excellence and our commitments on the football field, on campus and in the community.” And officials had previously underscored that the university’s parting of ways with current coach Ed Orgeron had nothing to do with the Title IX problems that erupted on his watch.

“We value excellence in LSU Athletics,” Worsham said Friday. “Excellence in character, excellence in recruiting, excellence in everything we do, from Title IX and comprehensive education to championship performances on the field and in the classroom.”

“We aim to set the standard in all of those areas,” he added. “Excellence is fundamental to every evaluation we conduct and every decision we make.”

Though stronger, the new statement did little to alleviate critics’ concerns.

“On the surface that statement sounds wonderful. However, it has no substance whatsoever,” said Karen Truszkowski, a Michigan-based attorney who is representing several women with Title IX claims against LSU. One of her clients alleges that Orgeron failed to appropriately respond to a 2016 rape complaint involving star running back Derrius Guice. Orgeron has denied knowing that Guice was accused of rape. Guice has denied wrongdoing from his time at LSU.

“It’s great to say all those things, but we have yet to see anything in action,” Truszkowski added.

Critics note that some of those believed to be leading candidates have played leading roles in Title IX controversies elsewhere. And they worry that LSU could allow a coach’s on-the-field success to outweigh other concerns. That would fit into a long pattern of LSU protecting coaches who cover for, or engage in, bad behavior — at least until they start losing.

There’s also the possibility that LSU could hire a coach whose indiscretions could simply be hard to discover. Before this year, anyone vetting LSU’s former football coach, Les Miles, was unlikely to find evidence of a 2013 sexual harassment investigation. LSU had refused to acknowledge its existence until a judge ordered it released in March.

Jimbo Fisher, Lincoln Riley defended players amid controversial rape, assault probes

One scenario that might test LSU’s commitment to Title IX: hiring Texas A&M football coach Jimbo Fisher, an oft-rumored contender who has denied any interest in the job. LSU athletic director Scott Woodward hired Fisher at Texas A&M in 2017.

Along with several others, Fisher was accused of mishandling a 2013 allegation that Florida State University’s prized quarterback, Jameis Winston, raped a fellow student. Winston, who now plays for the New Orleans Saints, was never criminally charged, though lawsuits and media reports afterward suggested police botched the rape investigation.

In a 2016 lawsuit against Florida State, the accuser said that FSU officials became aware Winston was identified as “a suspect in a violent sexual assault on Jan. 22, 2013,” and called meetings with football officials, including Fisher. None of them notified FSU’s Title IX office, according to the lawsuit.

Fisher later testified he was unaware of the school’s policy on sexual battery, and that he believed he was only required to report information to his superior, USA Today reported.

“For the next eleven months, FSU did nothing to investigate Plaintiff’s report of rape while the FSU Athletics Department continued to keep the incident a secret,” the lawsuit states. “Despite Plaintiff’s report to the FSU Police and the FSU Athletics Department’s knowledge of the suspect’s identity, no one at FSU conducted any investigation into the matter.”

Nine months after the woman reported the rape, Fisher named Winston FSU’s starting quarterback.

FSU settled the lawsuit in 2016 for $950,000 and agreed to beef up training. The university did not admit to liability. That same year, Winston and the woman also reached a confidential settlement in a separate lawsuit targeting him directly.

Another rumored top contender for the LSU job, Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley, defended star player Joe Mixon in 2016 after a video surfaced of Mixon punching a woman in the face. The incident had occurred in 2014, before the start of Mixon’s freshman season, and Mixon was arrested on misdemeanor charges at the time.

Riley was offensive coordinator at the time, working under then-coach Bob Stoops. Oklahoma suspended Mixon that season, and he entered an Alford plea to misdemeanor assault, in which a defendant accepts responsibility but maintains innocence. Mixon returned to the team afterward.

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In 2016, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ordered the public release of the video. It showed a violent assault; the woman needed surgery afterward to repair broken bones in her face. Mixon held a news conference afterward in which he apologized.

Riley defended Mixon amid the controversy, saying that the player was working through the negative publicity.

“It’s been a difficult situation and we’ve tried to handle it the best we can, and Joe’s done a great job of being who he is, being a great teammate, being more worried about all of the other people than he is himself, which is kind of the norm for him,” Riley told reporters.

The video stirred outrage among Oklahoma’s fan base. Stoops said that had the video been released at the time of the incident, he would have kicked Mixon off the team, saying “there's no recovering from these incidents really anymore." But Mixon played in the Sugar Bowl shortly afterward, and now plays for the NFL's Cincinnati Bengals.

Riley went on to become Oklahoma’s head coach.  Asked last week about his potential interest in the LSU job, Riley replied: “You guys know how I feel about this place and this program.” 

The Mixon story is the type of baggage that LSU’s critics are worried about.

“All of our public Louisiana universities have a problem of trust when it comes to survivors reporting sexual assault and harassment,” said Mimi Methvin, who is suing LSU over Title IX claims on behalf of six women, who variously allege that former graduate student Edouard d’Espalungue d’Arros raped or sexually harassed them.

“If LSU hires a coach with a history of protecting predators, it will be a clear signal that LSU’s rape culture will continue and women will continue to be second-class citizens,” she added. “It also calls into question President Tate’s commitment to build a culture of trust and accountability at LSU.”

When players are accused of misconduct, how do coaches react?

Some scandal-ridden universities have struggled to explain their hiring decisions when their new coach has been tied to controversies on other campuses.

When Penn State named James Franklin its football coach in 2014, for instance, the wounds were still fresh from the university’s child sexual abuse scandal. Months earlier, four of Franklin’s players at Vanderbilt had been arrested in a gang rape case. All four were later convicted.

Penn State’s athletic director called the screening process for Franklin “maybe the most thorough vetting process of any search, perhaps of any position at this university.” He said the university used multiple independent third parties to search his background.

David Joyner, the former athletic director, said Franklin was “presented with a terrible situation” at Vanderbilt, but that he handled it well, making clear he was “a man of extremely high character.”

Franklin, who told his players he had seen a video of the rape, was later called to testify about whether that was true. He said it wasn’t, but said he made his earlier comments “because I was angry and upset and didn't want to water down the message to them.”

Franklin has also been a rumored contender for the LSU job.

Nearly every college football coach has had players arrested or accused of misconduct. But there’s a distinction between coaches whose players have gotten into trouble, and those who have also been accused of helping to cover up those scandals.

LSU’s former defensive coordinator, Dave Aranda, became Baylor’s coach after the university was rocked by a sexual assault scandal involving the football team and cover-ups by past coaches. When the NCAA finished a yearslong probe this August, Aranda said: “The first thing I thought of was the survivors. I spent the evening thinking about all that and how they must feel knowing there’s going to be an end to all this and how long this has been going.”

Baylor received relatively minor consequences of probation and recruiting restrictions.

Aranda was at LSU during a time when students have accused university officials, particularly those in the athletic department, of mishandling complaints. But Aranda has yet to be implicated in any of those scandals, and he was not mentioned in the law firm Husch Blackwell’s probe into LSU’s failures, released in March.

Aranda has said he loves coaching at Baylor and it’s given him the “opportunity to grow and be better.”

This week, LSU officials tried to reassure students that the athletic department is investing more in Title IX than ever before. Jane Cassidy, LSU’s vice president of civil rights and Title IX, said in a recent panel with the Feminists in Action student group that athletics has spent more than $600,000 since March “on preventive care for their people,” and spoke of their increased training.

“They’ve hired three people who their sole job is to work with all of the teams and talk about sexual assault awareness, healthy relationships, those types of things,” Cassidy said. “It’s important that we let everybody know the work that athletics has done.”

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