‘Success’ relative in world of LSU athletics
Many times with Tiger sports, it’s football and then the rest.
By SCOTT RABALAIS
Tiger Rag Featured Columnist
Editor’s Note: The following will run in the July 20 “Year in Review” issue of Tiger Rag magazine. To read this and much more, subscribe to Tiger Rag by clicking here.
A football season that ended in frustration. A baseball season that flamed out after great promise, despite an exciting blip near the end. A basketball season that was worth forgetting almost as soon as it begun.
Ask most LSU fans about the 2009-10 athletic year for the Tigers, and these would be their general impressions. Overall, aside from the baseball team’s surprising run to the SEC Tournament championship as a No. 8 seed, the year for LSU’s big three sports seemed like one big dud.
That was certainly true for the men’s basketball team, which followed up a refreshingly surprising run to the SEC regular season title in Trent Johnson’s first season as coach with a dismal 11-20 tally sheet that really was worse than it should have been.
Was the same true for football? The Tigers went a respectable if not overwhelming 9-4, wrapping up their season against Penn State in the Capital One Bowl - the most prestigious non-BCS bowl berth possible for a Southeastern Conference team. LSU could have finished with a 10-win season and a top-10 ranking had the Tigers toppled the Nittany Lions, but those hopes sank into the bog that was the Citrus Bowl field in a frustrating 19-17 loss to Penn State. Hey, it could have been worse - Trindon Holliday nearly disappeared for good beneath a gigantic, muddy rift in the turf on one particular kickoff return.
In reality, when you take the total athletic program into account, LSU’s 2009-10 wasn’t a bad season at all. LSU finished a respectable 19th in the Directors Cup standings, which ranks the overall performance of each NCAA athletic program, LSU’s fifth straight top-20 finish. Among SEC schools, LSU finished third behind Florida (No. 2 nationally) and Tennessee (No. 16).
Alabama, by comparison, finished 23rd in the Directors Cup. In reality, not as good. By most outward appearances, though, much better. Why? Because Alabama won the BCS national championship in football and got hot at the end of the baseball season and made a run all the way to an NCAA baseball super regional.
Perception is reality. Actual reality is often left to console itself on the back barstool of some campus watering hole.
Back in the 1980s, Bob Brodhead presided over one of the stormiest tenures any LSU athletic director has ever had - much of it his own doing (ultimately his own undoing). But Brodhead’s lasting legacy, which still reverberates through the program to this day, is that he gave every sport the tools to win championships. From the cash cow of football down to golf - a sport I love dearly but which has virtually no means to generate revenue - Brodhead nonetheless wanted every sport to be a winner. It’s his hiring of Skip Bertman which in essence created the monolithic LSU baseball program of great achievements and weighty expectations which exists even now. It was Brodhead who built the underpinnings of a track and field program that has won 30 of its 31 combined men’s and women’s NCAA championships since 1987, and an overall culture of winning that has made LSU one of the SEC’s most successful and well-rounded athletic programs overall.
But what does it mean to the average purple and gold wearing Boudreaux or Thibodeaux out there? It’s a great achievement that LSU gymnast Susan Jackson won the NCAA all-around individual title this year (the first Tiger ever to do so) and was named SEC Female Athlete of the Year - no insignificant line on your career bio given the conference’s abundant talent. I admire her ability and accomplishments. But none of her achievements are going to move the masses of purple and gold clad worshipers as much as an appearance in the SEC Championship Game or a seventh College World Series title next June in Omaha.
Sad, perhaps, but true.
Don’t get me wrong. LSU should aspire to excellence in every single sport it fields and try to fund it accordingly. They’re currently tearing up the surface inside Bernie Moore Track Stadium. Now, the whole complex looked to my relatively untrained eye to be in pretty good shape, but the folks at LSU figured it was time to give the place a facelift. It’s something needed every few years to keep LSU’s facility - which has been good enough to host NCAA championship meets in the past - on par with the best in the country. It’s worth it to keep the prestige level up and the recruits coming.
Why should the average football season ticket holder want part of his ticket price to go to remaking Bernie Moore if he never buys a ticket to a track meet? The aforementioned Mr. Holliday is a perfect example, that’s why. The kind of athlete who enhanced not only LSU’s track program, but its football program as well.
So, more to my original point, it probably wasn’t all that dismal an athletic year all things considered. It might have been had not the LSU baseball team again returned from Hoover with the SEC Tournament hardware, but it remains to be seen if 2010 was a troubling trend or a one-year aberration for the Tigers baseball program.
Doesn’t change the fact that baseball - and of course football - are the two sports that set the tone and the mood for LSU fans across the board. A dip in men’s basketball is a lot easier to take when the football team is in the national championship hunt. A disappointing football season is a bit more palatable if the baseball team is high-fiving fans on a victory lap around Alex Box Stadium on their way back to Omaha.
There was little of that kind of proud moment for LSU in 2009-10 that was readily apparent for the average fan to see. LSU’s successes in gymnastics and volleyball and track were basically out of the earshot of the vast majority of Tiger supporters. And even the ones who did know of those exploits weren’t going to be too dissuaded from returning back to their fretting over the direction of the LSU football program in very short order.
So, was 2009-10 a good year or a bad one for LSU athletics?
Depends on how much of it you really got to see.
Scott Rabalais is a veteran sports writer who has covered LSU athletics for two decades. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.