When you look at the big picture of LSU’s football success this season, attention immediately turns to a couple of far-from-regular Joes: Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Joe Burrow and Broyles Award-winning passing game coordinator Joe Brady.
Rightly so. They are big reasons LSU is in the CFP National Championship Game against Clemson on Monday night in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, and big reasons the program has undergone a huge culture shift that will help it remain in the national conversation going forward.
But there is another Joe, now removed from the scene, who deserves recognition as well:
Former LSU athletic director Joe Alleva.
Alleva officially retired in April amid the fallout from the whole Will Wade recruiting wiretapping saga and suspension (more on Wade later). But plainly, he was pushed out — Alleva still remains under contract with LSU through June — to make room for new athletic director Scott Woodward.
Woodward is a lot of things Alleva was not, namely a Baton Rouge guy with a lot of strong and ready-made ties to the school. Alleva had a tough time endearing himself to the LSU fan base and had times when he did not help himself from a public relations standpoint.
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But his impact on where the LSU football program is now — namely, hiring Ed Orgeron; tripling the number of football analysts from five to 15 over the past three seasons; and overseeing the construction of LSU’s new football complex and nutrition facility — is undeniable.
“The whole reason I came to LSU in the first place was to win a national championship in football,” Alleva said Wednesday. “From the day I got there, I tried to build toward that. Improving Tiger Stadium, redoing the locker room, the weight room at football ops, the whole football ops building. The whole piece of the puzzle was to get to this moment to compete for championships.”
Under Alleva, who came to LSU from Duke in 2008, LSU came close to winning a national title in football (the Tigers, of course, lost to Alabama in the 2011 BCS championship game).
By the end of the 2015 season, however, then-coach Les Miles, who arrived in 2005, was on shaky ground. He appeared to be on his way out.
It looked like LSU was on course to hire then-Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher, LSU’s former offensive coordinator under Nick Saban and Miles. But after a 19-7 win over A&M — after which Miles was carried off the field by his players — Alleva announced Miles would remain.
Fisher, he says now, was never his option.
LSU coach Ed Orgeron expects starting wide receiver Terrace Marshall and right guard Damien Lewis to play in the national championship game.
“I still have a lot of friends in the ACC,” Alleva said. “I talked to them, and after that I didn’t want any part of Jimbo. I would never have hired Jimbo. He was never on my radar. Now, fans and some people in the department wanted him, but I never wanted him.
“I could have made a change (at the end of the 2015 season). I recommended not to. Because I would have been forced to hire Jimbo. I would rather have had Les. But if I didn’t hire him, the outcry would have been ridiculous. So we had that meeting during the (Texas A&M) game, and I made the recommendation to keep (Miles).”
Alleva said he didn’t want to deal with Fisher’s contract demands — demands that Woodward satisfied when he was athletic director at A&M and hired Fisher there in 2018 with a guaranteed 10-year, $75 million deal.
But four games into the 2016 season, Alleva fired Miles anyway and named Orgeron interim coach.
Fisher’s name continued to come up that season while Orgeron had what Alleva then described as “an audition” for the job. So did the name of then-Houston coach Tom Herman.
Clemson, if you can find the tiny South Carolina hamlet on a map, is where you want to be.
“He would have come,” Alleva said of Herman. “I didn’t want to pay him what it would have taken. But I think we could have gotten him.”
Alleva said he liked Orgeron from the start.
“I thought he had the best chance to recruit the state,” Alleva said. “He’s a great motivator and he’s very well-organized. I thought he had all the characteristics to be a head coach though he failed before (at Ole Miss).
"The fact he failed before was a real positive, actually, because some of the best coaches ever failed initially. The fact he was willing to change was a real positive. That’s the reason I hired him. He had the humility to realize why he failed. That pushed me over the edge when it came down to it.”
There is a popular perception that if Orgeron had lost to Texas A&M in the 2016 regular-season finale, it would not have been politically feasible for Alleva to hire Orgeron long-term. LSU won 54-39, but Alleva said it wouldn’t have mattered.
“I didn’t care about that,” he said. “I’d seen the changes he’d made in the program. The passion he put in.
“The program was stale. He re-energized the program. The kids adapted to him quickly. I asked some of the players about him and they loved him. I loved the way he changed the culture of the team. I was pretty much sold on him.”
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At the time, it was easy to think that LSU was settling for Orgeron — he was 10-25 at Ole Miss from 2005-07 but was 6-2 as interim coach in 2013 at Southern California after Lane Kiffin was fired — instead of landing a national championship-winning coach like Fisher, or the hot name in Herman.
“When Ed and I talked about the job,” Alleva said, “never once did we talk about salary. His agent would never talk salary. Other guys, all they wanted to talk about was their pay. Ed wanted the job so bad he would have taken it for nothing.”
Orgeron hardly took the job for nothing. His initial contract paid him $3.5 million annually (now $4 million and sure to rise soon). But O was a comparative bargain, and that allowed LSU to have a larger pool of money to pay assistants, such as $2.5 million annually to defensive coordinator Dave Aranda.
The results are astonishing. The alchemy of Orgeron, offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger, Brady, Burrow and the rest have a record-breaking LSU offense playing for a fourth national title and the program’s first since 2007.
“The sad thing is it should have been that way for a long time,” Alleva said. “Think of the players Les Miles squandered and didn’t utilize properly. Talking to Les was like talking to a wall. The key (in) getting to a championship level is utilizing talented players. It’s that simple.”
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Alleva is still under contract with LSU through June, but he and his wife Annie are living near Sarasota, Florida, now, near one of his sons and grandchildren. He said he and Orgeron still stay in regular contact.
Alleva spent 11 years as athletic director at LSU. He takes pride in many things, namely the improved facilities; a graduation rate that went from just below 60 percent to 90 percent by 2017; and many of the people he hired.
“Ed and (softball coach) Beth Torina and the golf and tennis coaches,” Alleva said. “I’m proud of what we were able to do for (gymnastics coach) D-D Breaux. We helped her go from being a good coach to a great coach because she never had the resources. Now she has a great program.”
Regrets? Alleva has a few as well. His biggest, he said candidly, was hiring Wade.
“I got some bad recommendations on that guy,” Alleva said, though he did not elaborate. “My perception on why I’m not the athletic director there is because some people used the situation with Wade.
“I loved my experience at LSU. The only negative about my time at LSU is the way it ended. My 11 years there were great. I enjoyed every minute of them.”
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And Alleva says he has enjoyed every minute of this football season. He will be watching Monday night, hoping to see Orgeron win a national championship he had a hand in.