LOVE: Different and same
Examining the relationship between Collis Temple Jr. and Trent Johnson
By BEN LOVE
Tiger Rag Editor
There are certain secrets that just aren’t well-kept.
That LSU men’s basketball boss Trent Johnson and iconic Tiger Collis Temple Jr. don’t always see eye-to-eye isn’t exactly top-shelf scoop in the world of purple-and-gold athletics.
Not that either would openly admit that’s true.
“It’s very professional and it’s very open,” said Johnson of his relationship with Temple. “I’ve said on numerous occasions to him that I’m never going to disrespect any former player, but also I’m never going to disrespect him and his role with this program and the impact he’s had on this program and the impact he’s had as being the first African-American player.”
“I don’t think Coach Johnson and I have a feud at all,” Temple declared recently. “Contrary to popular belief, I think that Coach Johnson and I are on the same page because he wants LSU basketball to be successful and I want LSU basketball be to successful.”
Both fiercely competitive and proud men, Johnson and Temple may share a wavelength on the end goal, seeing LSU basketball through to a brighter day, but the devil’s in the philosophical details of how each would prefer to approach the program overhaul.
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Temple, 59, blazed the trail for the future of Bayou Bengal basketball when former coach Press Maravich made the 6-8 kid from Kentwood LSU’s first African-American player in 1971.
He went on to become an All-SEC selection in 1973-74, and Temple’s last two teams in TigerTown, both under Dale Brown, saw LSU go a collective 26-24, 15-21 in league play. (It wasn’t until 1977-78, Brown’s sixth year on campus, that he guided the Tigers to a winning record in the conference.)
Johnson, 55, hails from the Northwest and now finds himself toiling in the larger-than-life shadow cast over the Pete Maravich Assembly Center - and the Louisiana basketball-playing populace in general - by the gregarious Brown, who compiled a 448-301 overall record and led the Tigers to two Final Fours during a decorated 25-year run.
In the process of bringing LSU back, no easy chore given the program’s declining status and a brewing Academic Progress Rate disaster left behind by John Brady, Brown’s successor, Johnson has had his struggles.
Following a 2008-09 SEC regular-season title, one spearheaded by Brady’s players, Johnson’s Tigers have gone 2-14, 3-13 and 7-9, respectively, in the conference.
At least in the estimation of Temple, whose LSU teams took similar lumps in the early Brown days, things are moving too slowly.
“It pains me when we don’t win and when we’re not successful,” said Temple, whose two sons, Collis III and Garrett, also played for LSU. “I am not excited about it. I’m not happy about it. I’m not going to pretend to be happy about LSU basketball just because we have an African-American coach there. I want us to win.
“The reality of it is when you’re coaching at the level of school that LSU is, you have to pay coaches top dollar and you expect to get top productivity. Les Miles, even though some people don’t like some of his comments, his personality in some sort, but he’s a winner and he’s being paid to win and he’s earning his money. He’s filling the seats up. So if you’re not filling the seats up and you’re getting high salary, there’s a lot to look at there.”
Johnson, who is under contract through next season and makes about $1.3 million a year without incentives, is seeking the kind of year-in, year-out consistency that has eluded the LSU program of late.
“There was an interesting stat that was brought to my attention about three weeks ago,” Johnson told reporters last week. “In 20 years of SEC play, LSU’s been over .500 five times. Five times. And here, we were on the verge of that (in 2011-12). I don’t pay much attention to that, but I thought that was really interesting. So, when you start looking at our program, I don’t anticipate that being a problem here in the near future. I really don’t.”
It’s been Johnson’s unwavering expectation since he landed on the Bayou in 2008 that change would come, even when he knew there’d be more famine than feast for a brief spell.
The recent history of LSU basketball has a way of supporting that slow-growth theory.
Apart from Brown’s uphill climb in his first five years, consider that Brady’s first two bunches went 2-14 and 4-12, respectively, before getting over the hill and into the Sweet Sixteen in the 1999-2000 season.
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Which begs the question: Does Temple take more issue with the program’s development speed or the fact that Johnson simply isn’t Dale Brown?
“To sum it up, Dale Brown was a motivator, a leader of men, a developer of athletes and he was a developer of a program,” Temple explained of his mentor and longtime friend. “He was all over high schools. He was all over the community. He was speaking, he was engaging. People wanted to follow him. Some people didn’t agree with his methods, but they still wanted to follow him because he was such a tremendously outgoing guy. He promoted the game. When you do that, you’re able to attract really good players. And that’s the key to winning - a coach is only as good as his players.”
“People who’ve been around me, they know how I am. I don’t need to be in the picture or always out in the front,” Johnson said. “I don’t need all that. All I need is to make sure that everybody has a great understanding of what’s going on with our program and that we’re making strides and that the guy that’s leading this program is a hard-working guy and humble.
“He doesn’t need to have everybody know what he does in the community. He doesn’t need people to know that he’s giving money to this foundation in Seattle or this foundation in Nevada or taking trips to Africa. I don’t need that. I’m a firm believer, and it’s how I was raised, is that when people want to help you or help a cause, they don’t tell you they’re going to do it. They just do it.”
But, as LSU’s fourth-year coach is quick to point out, no coach - regardless of his personality - can do it the way Daddy Dale did in this day and age.
“I would love to be in a situation with this basketball program, if there weren’t so many rules and restrictions, that I could do a lot of the things that Coach Brown did in terms of being gone and so on and so forth,” said Johnson. “But the last five, the last six years things have changed just with the evolution of rules like the APR and the evolution of the short-recruiting period.
“You’ve got to go back and understand the rules, just like Coach Brady had to understand the rules with following Coach Brown. Number one, you could be gone all the time then. You could have more alumni, more former player involvement. I always like it when Coach Brown talks about being able to have Ricky Blanton with Shaquille O’Neal. I’m like, ‘Really?’ It’s just those kinds of things, plus the ability to go door-to-door to sell yourself and sell the program … A lot of the rule changes are reflective of what went on in the seventies and the early eighties, and I think what’s happened in college basketball now is we’ve out-legislated ourselves with rules.”
As Johnson continues his rebuilding project, he maintains that staying clean is of the highest priority.
“A lot of it’s the rules and time restraints. I don’t have the ability to have an AAU coach come over to my house,” Johnson explained. “I don’t have the ability to have a high school coach come over to my house when he wants. I don’t have the ability to have a kid come over to my house. And I don’t think people understand that. I think what’s going on in sports, when you look at what went on at USC, when you look at what’s going on at Ohio State, the LSU basketball team, under my leadership and my staff, we’re not going to be put in situations like that where there’s something that’s going to be a black eye for this program for years to come.”
Perhaps no one can appreciate that as much as Temple, a great ambassador for the program and the university as well as an omnipresent supporter of all LSU athletics. Although Temple did speculate on the origins of the love the two men have for the program.
“We love LSU basketball probably for different reasons,” Temple said. “I love LSU basketball because I am a part of the fabric of LSU basketball. It’s my origination out of high school into the world of basketball, and so I am a real Tiger guy. Trent’s getting paid to be a coach. That puts him in a different category than me. However, it also means that he, in the worst way, wants to win so that he can continue to have a good professional career.”
Johnson doesn’t see it that way.
“I disagree with that,” he responded. “My whole commitment to LSU is that I want to be here as long as they want me here, but, for me, it’s the sport and the opportunity to educate young kids through athletics and through basketball. My profession and whatever money figures into that, it’s never been about that. I’m involved in this game for the love of the game, always have been.
“I’m all about the process. I’m all about continuing to do my job, not worry about the next job and not worry about losing my job.”
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Perhaps the biggest sticking point for Temple, in addition to Johnson being a less public figure than Brown and an outsider in terms of native Louisianans, is that Johnson does it his way in the world of recruiting, a stark contrast from the Brady Era in which Temple had a hand in delivering local players Glenn Davis, Tasmin Mitchell and Tyrus Thomas - the nucleus of the 2006 Final Four team.
“From my understanding, he was hands-on with the basketball program, as he should’ve been,” Johnson noted when asked of Temple’s role prior to his arrival. “He had two kids that played here. (He was) like a lot of other donors, boosters, former alums were. I mean there was a lot of access to the program.”
If LSU will ever live to see that kind of phenomenal local recruiting crop again, under any coach, is another question entirely.
“I wish I could answer that. All I know is it goes in cycles,” Johnson said on the subject. “I know the 2013 and 2014 classes (in Baton Rouge), there are some pretty good players, some pretty talented players. I know that when I was at Stanford, I want to say my second year there, there was a string of like 12 guys - Spencer Hawes, Mitch Johnson, Marvin Williams, Brandon Roy - all from a 10-mile radius. And now you look at what’s going on up there, there’s a reason why the Pac-12 is down because the talent in Southern California and Washington is not very good.
“I just think what was unique about that group,” Johnson continued on the mid-2000s LSU gang, “was how physical and how loyal they were to the school and to the state because they had options that they could’ve gone a lot of places.”
In his own way, Johnson feels that the inclusion of former players is paramount. It may not be exactly the Brady Way, but the invitation appears to be perpetually open.
“Because it’s their program,” Johnson said frankly when asked about his philosophy. “This is LSU’s basketball program. I’ve always been one to stay away from the head coach being bigger than the program, his name being bigger than the players. That’s just my nature. It’s who I am. Whether it’s been at Nevada or at Stanford, to move forward you’ve got to embrace the past. You also have to educate the past that in this situation, where we’re at, the things that were done years ago can’t be done now because of certain rules in terms of your alumni involvement and your former player involvement.
“One of the things that I’ve done, and we’re always going to continue do it, is make sure everybody that’s been a former player, a former manager, a former assistant coach, we’re going to reach out to them. Now, can you do it every day? No. And that is something I lose sleep over because I want everybody to be a part of it. Because when this thing has reached the elite level on a consistent basis I want everybody to feel that they had a part in it. Whether it’s right or wrong, my ego is caught up in that and it is personal to me. It is personal to me that every former player understands that and feels like he’s going to be a part of it.
“All that being said, I have to do what I think is right for the program under my leadership with assistant coaches and all that. I think sometimes a lot of people in general won’t be receptive to change, but they’ve got to understand that change is good and times are different.”
As for anybody who’s worn the purple and gold that has a gripe?
“I always say if there’s some grumblings or guys don’t like what’s going on, former players are always invited to practice, former players can always call or stop by the office,” said Johnson. “And that’s everybody.”
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Now four seasons into his tenure in Baton Rouge, Johnson has led the Tigers to an NCAA Tournament appearance and a berth in the NIT.
During the 2011-12 season, the reshuffled, balanced team featured three freshmen, three sophomores, three juniors and three seniors. The APR dilemma has faded more and more into the rearview, and the team’s arrow, as wins and losses go, is beginning to point upward.
But attendance has lagged behind. The team was less-than-impressive on the road in SEC play, and the Tigers limped to the finish line, losing five of their last six games.
Despite numerous tallies on both sides of the ledger, Temple believes a team transformation is needed - whether it’s with the current staff or another.
“Oh, there needs to be a change. There needs to be a change,” Temple stated. “Trent either needs to win or we need to let him get another job. He needs to win. It’s not personal. He’s a nice enough guy, I think, but he needs to win. And you got to win. You got to recruit. You’ve got to engage the community. You have to engage the high school coaches. You have to engage the AAU coaches. You have to engage the ministers. You have to engage the media. You have to engage your baseline because these are the people that are going to follow you and support you.”
Temple also provided advice on the matter for the LSU athletic administration.
“They should look very closely at all of the elements that make up LSU basketball as it relates to being a success,” continued Temple. “Whatever it takes to get the seats filled. Whatever it takes to get the wins going. Whatever it takes to get the program moving in a healthy direction.”
Johnson, who indicated he’s received and turned down several lucrative head-coaching offers during the past four years, insists LSU is moving in the right direction.
“For me, the reason I’m still here is because we have work to still do and we’re on the right track,” asserted Johnson. “If I didn’t think it was doable on the elite level, then I wouldn’t be here.”
Johnson also gave his outlook on recruiting, an area which will determine LSU’s ability to win consistently in an improving SEC.
“That’s all I like to do. What I like to do is to be in a gym, to talk basketball. All that being said, there are certain things that go on in our sport - because of ego, because of control, because of all those things - where guys always want to have control over a kid and say this kid’s going to be able to go here because of me,” Johnson said, talking about the recruiting climate collectively.
“I understand that, but I’ve always been a guy that says, ‘Hey, look, this is how we’re going to run our program, this is who I am and this is what I’m about.’ But never have I been in a situation where I disrespected a high school coach or an AAU coach or any coach as it relates to a student-athlete. Now some guys don’t like our approach, and I don’t know why they wouldn’t because it’s one based off of honesty and trying to do things the right way.
“As far as I’m concerned I could keel over tomorrow and on my grave people are going to say he didn’t cheat the sport, he didn’t cheat his profession and he didn’t do this for money.”
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With a very important offseason and even more pivotal 2012-13 campaign on the horizon, Johnson reflected on his time in Louisiana.
“When I first got here, one of the things my wife and I talked about was just the down-to-earth people in the South, the blue-collar nature,” he recalled. “That fits. That fits for me. This is where I want my home to be.”
Temple, for his part, would almost certainly play gracious host for the Johnsons if winning, and a lot of it, is in the cards.
And that’s why one thing, above all others, is for sure: If Johnson can deliver on the elite-level consistent winning he’s promised and continue the rising arc of the program, there will be enough room in this town for both men.
Editor’s Note: All Collis Temple Jr. quotes in this report were collected by Tiger Rag President Jim Engster.
Editor Ben Love is Tiger Rag’s lead reporter on LSU men’s basketball. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.