By CODY WORSHAM & JAMES MORAN
Tiger Rag Editor & Tiger Rag Associate Editor
The phone buzzing on the corner of Joe Alleva’s desk is not alone. It rings, over and over again, in considerable but organized company.
The desk of the man at the center of LSU athletics is divided into stacks. It’s a small city, paper buildings rising high above grids of wooden streets. A civil engineer would approve of these blocks, all right angles and even distribution. Even Alleva’s three highlighters are resting on their vertical axis, tips skyward, ready to be used at any moment. Everything has its own place, as if each stack is arranged by importance in its nearness to Alleva.
Closest to Alleva are memos of phone calls to be returned. One is from the agent of Ed Orgeron, the interim head coach of LSU’s four-loss football team who, just days from the moment of this interview with Tiger Rag, Alleva will hire as the Tigers’ full-time skipper, in, quite easily, the most scrutinized and publicized decision he will ever make in his tenure as the university’s athletic director.
Slightly farther away, but still within reach, is a folder marked “Trent Johnson” – yes, that Trent Johnson, the very first hire Alleva made upon accepting his current gig in 2008, a hire that looked fantastic at the time, better a year and an SEC basketball championship later, and yet now stands as the first failure of the Alleva era. Johnson bolted for Texas Christian after posting a 12-36 SEC record in his final three seasons in Baton Rouge, just as the calls for his head from what few Tiger fans remained in the PMAC reached peak amplification.
And in the farthest corner of the desk, just far enough to where Alleva would need to get up and walk around to reach it, rests an unread book, a memoir Alleva’s been meaning to get to, but, lately he’s been unable to tackle. With the search for the most important hire he’ll make in his career – The Hire that will determine the future of LSU football; The Hire that will either bring the program back into national prominence, leave it lingering a dull level or two below, or send it crashing back into the Curley Hallman days; The Hire he knows will determine his legacy – still open, he’s had other reading material to peruse.
“Résumés,” Alleva cracks. “I’ve been reading lots of résumés.”
Perhaps you’ve heard: Alleva’s been a little busy lately. Perhaps that’s why, throughout this interview, just 10 days before he will announce Orgeron as the full-time successor to Les Miles, the winningest coach in school history by percentage, Alleva’s phone won’t stop buzzing. Everyone has an insight to offer, a question to ask, a story to tell. But no one on the other end of the line has skin in the game like Alleva. His story, fair or not, will start and end with The Hire.
“A big part of my legacy here is going to be who I hire as football coach,” Alleva told Tiger Rag in an exclusive interview. “You know what? I don’t know how good that person is going to do. No matter how good they have been in the past, you don’t know how they are going to react to the pressure at LSU, because there is enormous pressure at LSU.”
Alleva would know. That pressure is, for the rest of Orgeron’s tenure atop the program, squarely on his shoulders.
BEFORE HE READ résumés professionally, Alleva was the guy sending them out, to any and all interested parties. He graduated from Lehigh with an MBA in 1976 into a terrible economy.
“In fact,” he says, “that’s why I went to graduate school. Because when I first got out of school, I couldn’t get a job.”
Not that he wasn’t qualified. Alleva got his bachelor’s while a two-sport star at Lehigh. He played baseball in the spring and quarterbacked the football team in the fall, serving as the team’s captain in 1974. But with no one hiring, Alleva went back to school for two more years.
Turns out, it was a good decision. The economy recovered, and in the pre-computer era of job searching, companies like IBM and Ford plastered the walls of the Lehigh placement offices with sign-up sheets for recent graduates interested in their openings.
One day, one of those sign-up sheets was from a place Alleva had never heard of.
“I said, ‘What the hell does Duke University want people for?’” he recalls. “So I signed up.”
That led to an interview, and Alleva hit it off with the Duke interviewer, the wife of an ex-football player. He aced the follow up, and soon he found himself in Durham, North Carolina working for the controller of the university. His first job was in Duke’s large and prestigious hospital. His long term career projection was to be a hospital administrator.
The man who had hired Alleva at Duke, Jack Adcock, called Alleva one day in 1980 with a job offer in the athletic department. Alleva turned him down initially, but Adcock convinced him to interview and, eventually, take the job as the business manager of the athletic department.
It was there he made a fast friend with a young up-and-coming coach who lived just a few doors down from Alleva. They met often for lunchtime racquetball games. Afterward, Alleva would head back to his office, and Mike Krzyzewski would trudge back to Cameron Indoor Stadium, pondering ways to pull Duke basketball out of the depths of mediocrity.
“I’m one of the few people who calls him Mike,” Alleva laughs. “Everyone calls him Coach K, but I knew him when he was just Mike Krzyzewski.”
Kryzewski’s rise into national prominence mirrored Alleva’s own internal rise at Duke. Both took jobs in the department in 1980. As Coach K brought Duke into the forefront of college basketball, Alleva worked to turn the Iron Dukes – the university’s athletics fundraising arm, comparable to LSU’s Tiger Athletic Foundation – into a $4 million cash generator annually. In 1986, the same year Duke made its first Final Four under Krzyzewski, Alleva earned his first major promotion: assistant athletic director.
And when Alleva’s boss, former Duke athletic director Tom Butters, resigned in 1997, it was Krzyzewski – by then a two-time national champion and on his way to becoming college basketball’s all-time winningest coach – who helped Alleva land the gig.
It’s a familiar story, Alleva’s ascension to Duke A.D. Many hoped the school would hire a prestigious external name. Alleva was the first man to apply for the job, but Duke’s board and president considered, literally, hundreds of names. Iowa A.D. Bob Bowlsby, the school’s first choice, had to decline Duke’s offer for Alleva to remain in contention.
But Alleva, in a script that seems downright poetic, given the nature of The Hire he’s just made, had the backing of many influencers at Duke, like Krzyzewski, who felt the board should weigh Alleva’s familiarity with and passion for the university.
“Certainly we should get the best that Duke can get,” Krzyzewski said at the time. “And we shouldn’t overlook the fact that the best may already be here.”
Needless to say, Alleva got the job. Others might’ve bristled at Duke’s flirtation with other candidates. Alleva, instead, embraced, in his own words, his “dream job.”
“I’ve never felt like second-best,” he told reporters upon his hire. “My wife is not the first woman I went out with, but I think she’s the best woman in the world.”
ALLEVA LOVES MOMENTOS. His sixth-floor office is lined with official chairs from various Final Fours — last spring he completed a five-year term on the NCAA’s Men’s Basketball Committee — and the walls are adorned with memorabilia from LSU greats and triumphs under his tenure interspersed with photographs of his wife, children and now grandchildren.
His desk reads like a roadmap outlining highs and lows of Alleva’s time in Baton Rouge. One of his favorites is a darkened photograph perched near the far end of his desk. It’s a reminder of his administration’s first project, he says. Upon closer inspection, it’s a black-and-white photo of the old, dilapidated windows at Tiger Stadium.
Alleva isn’t much like his predecessors. He’s not a living legend like Skip Bertman nor a beloved alumni like Joe Dean. He’s a career administrator, born and educated in the Northeast, who spent most of his career at a prestigious private institution that’s about as “Southern” in its makeup as Tulane.
Prior to interviewing for the athletics director position, Alleva had never even been on LSU’s campus. All he knew about the programs he planned to oversee were previous successes and that it existed in a much wider scope than he dealt with at Duke — that’s what drew him to the job in 2008.
“Let’s face it, at Duke we’d have 12,000 or 15,000 people at a football game,” Alleva says. “That’s what attracted me here. I always wanted to be part of a big football school. So there’s no question. Here football is huge. Baseball is huge. At Duke, Cameron Indoor only holds 10,000 people. And only about 5,700 of those are paid. The rest are students. They’re free.
“My son described it best one day: ‘You went from the minor leagues to the major leagues.’”
[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]”That’s what attracted me here. I always wanted to be part of a big football school.”[/perfectpullquote]
LSU leaders interviewed Alleva in the University’s Law School building. Afterward, it occurred to him that at no point in the process had he ever been able to cross Highland Road and see the side of campus that houses the bulk of LSU’s athletic facilities.
He strolled past the Journalism Building and walked down Victory Hill for the first time. The first thing that struck him, of course, was the immense size of Tiger Stadium, towering over the low-lying campus. Then, as he drew closer, his eyes became transfixed on those windows.
“That’s what Tiger Stadium used to look like,” he says, motioning to the photo on his desk. “I just thought it was a real eye sore for the whole campus. Not just for athletics, but for the whole campus. It wasn’t representative of what a great school this was, and that’s true for all of our sports. You want the athletics side of it to be like the front porch. When 12-year-old kids come on campus, you want them to think ‘Wow, I want to play in that stadium or sit in that stadium and watch games.’”
New windows were only the beginning.
LSU has experienced a wave of facility upgrades since Alleva took over in 2008. In 2014, the expansion of the South End Zone boosted Tiger Stadium’s capacity past 100,000, installed two new video screens and added more revenue-generating club seating among other cosmetic upgrades.
Last year, LSU unveiled brand new facilities for gymnastics and tennis. Earlier this year, construction finished on a state-of-the-art weight room, housed in the Football Ops building, to be utilized by a handful of teams on campus. Next up: an athlete-only Nutrition Center housed in an expansive 30,000-square-foot space in the South End of Tiger Stadium.
Shiny new buildings are only one metric of success for an athletic director. There’s also academics, Alleva says, an area he’s invested heavily in during his tenure, largely through the Cox Academic Center for Student Athletes, a brainchild of Nick Saban’s time as LSU coach. Next time a recruit visits campus, monitor his Twitter account or follow-up article. Chances are, he will glow about the Cox Center.
The NCAA recently reported LSU student-athletes had recorded a Graduate Success Rate of 88, four points higher than its previous all-time high set last year. LSU’s GSR was 69 the year before Alleva took over.
“I’ve put a lot of money into that academic center,” Alleva says. “We’ve hired learning specialists and reading specialists because I think it’s important. At the end of the day, it’s important that we prepare the young people here for the rest of their lives.”
Success is also defined by handling finances, a self-described specialty of Alleva’s. He majored in it during his undergrad days at Lehigh. Working at LSU has been a night-and-day difference in that department from Duke, where steep tuition actually subsidizes athletics.
Under his direction, LSU athletics has continued to transfer millions of dollars annually to help bootstrap a school increasingly threatened by budget cuts. In 2015, the athletic department announced it’d transferred $10 million to the University — roughly $3 million more than its required payment.
President F. King Alexander has publicly lobbied for greater financial contributions from outside the athletic department. LSU ranks just 13th in the SEC in alumni non-athletics giving. The devastating budget cuts Louisiana has endured over the past decade haven’t yet impacted athletics, Alleva says, but he warns that giving away a chunk of his operating budget is becoming less feasible every year.
“We’re lucky that we’re able to do it,” he says. “I think, down the road, we’re not going to be able to do it as much as we’ve been doing it because expenses keep going up and things change. The more money that you give is great for the University, but if other schools that we’re competing against aren’t doing that, then it puts us at a competitive disadvantage because it’s money that they’re plowing back into their programs. So I don’t know if we’re going to be able to continue doing that.”
Alleva’s work in these regards have earned his multiple contract extensions from the Board of Supervisors that keep Alleva signed with LSU through July of 2020.
“There’s a lot of success to be proud of,” member Blake Chatelain said of the athletic department before the board voted unanimously to approve one such extension in 2014.
Despite institutional success, that sentiment has never resonated with a fan base that doesn’t have a great deal of faith in its AD. Only 13 months ago there were “Keep Les, Fire Alleva” and “Keep the Hat, Fire the Rat” signs in and around Tiger Stadium. One such sign briefly hung from a pricey suite during LSU’s win over Texas A&M in 2015.
Balancing budgets and writing checks keeps the suits on the board happy, which is important. But as Alleva knows full well, it’s not what people will remember about him in 10 or 20 years. It’s the nature of the profession.
Like the coaches they hire, athletic directors are ultimately judged by their win-loss record.
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“Every experience you have helps you,” Alleva says. “Even the hires that you make that were bad, that end up bad – those are the ones you learn from the most.”
DAVID CUTLIFFE ROSE early on the morning of December 13, 2007. He’d never been to Duke before, and anyone who has knows full well how easy it is to get lost on the highways and scenic roads surrounding the quaint campus tucked away among the trees in Durham.
He arrived at 4 a.m. for an 8 a.m. interview to be Duke’s next football coach and walked until he couldn’t stand it anymore. By 7:15, he’d marched up to Joe Alleva’s office, fully ready to wait the 45 minutes. He was happy for the warmth of the indoors, and itching to make his case for the job.
Little did he know – Alleva was itching more.
“I was impressed he was there, and I was glad he was there,” Cutliffe says. “I wanted to get talking.”
The former Tennessee offensive coordinator and Ole Miss head coach was certainly qualified. He had groomed both Manning brothers in college. He’d been named SEC Coach of the Year and led Ole Miss to a share of the 2003 SEC Western title (with LSU, you might remember). But he was three years removed from his dismissal at Ole Miss, which came on the heels of his only losing season in Oxford, and he was eager to get back into the head coaching ranks.
Alleva, however, was more eager to make the right hire. The first two football coaches he’d appointed at Duke, Carl Franks and Ted Roof, had posted a combined record of 13-90, a cumulative .126 winning percentage. He needed a winner. Cutcliffe, on paper, passed the test.
Then, he aced the interview.
“I interviewed him for 10 minutes,” Alleva says, “and I knew I was going to hire him.”
The feeling, it turns out, was mutual.
“I felt like – seriously, within 10 or 15 minutes – I felt the same way,” Cutcliffe says. “First impressions: he was honest, straightforward, confident, and knew exactly what they were looking for. I felt like I’d been talked to in a straightforward manner, and I felt Duke was a fit.”
That feeling has long since been validated. Duke and David were a match made in heaven. Cutcliffe has won 40 games the past five seasons, and he led the Blue Devils to four straight bowl games for the first time in school history. He’s won two ACC Coach of the Year nods and was the Walter Camp and Maxwell National Coach of the Year in 2013.
He and Alleva still speak nearly every weekend after Duke’s games – even though Alleva was never in charge at Duke during a Cutcliffe-coached game.
“He’s been amazingly supportive from afar,” says Cutcliffe. “If there’s a big win, whether it’s the 10th win in a season, or we win the Coastal Division championship, first text I’m going to have coming in was Joe. That’s impressive that he could leave all that behind, but he’s stayed interested.”
Cutliffe remains the hallmark of Alleva hires, proof he’s capable of changing the course of a program with a selection. At LSU, however, he’s mostly unproven. His coaching selections have ranged from excellent (Beth Torina) to disappointing (Trent Johnson) to TBD (Johnny Jones, Nikki Fargas). While the good hires look better upon reflection, don’t think Alleva didn’t consider the ones that didn’t pan out during the final hours of the crucial hiring process that ended in Orgeron’s favor.
Perhaps that’s why that folder bearing Johnson’s name sat on his desk days before.
“Every experience you have helps you,” Alleva says. “Even the hires that you make that were bad, that end up bad – those are the ones you learn from the most.”
The Johnson hire, in particular, has had some portion of the Tiger fanbase nervous about Alleva’s ability to bring in the right head coach to helm the football program. At the time, it seemed like a home run. Johnson had led both Stanford and Nevada to deep NCAA Tournament runs and held the respect of coaches and administrators nationwide.
Then, he went 40-56 in his last three seasons at LSU, and just 12-36 in SEC play. It’s the paradox that haunts every decision-maker in any hiring process: the best candidate on paper doesn’t always pan out. Hindsight trumps foresight, every time.
“You don’t know how they’re going to react,” Alleva says of coaching hires. “You don’t know how they are going to change. Sometimes people get a job, and it’s their dream job – I’ve had this happen before. I was with a guy. He worked his ass off to get the job. He worked and worked and worked. Then he got the job, and he totally changed. You never know how people are going to react to a situation you put them in.”
It cuts both ways, though. Alleva knows this from experience. The season after he left Duke, he watched ACC rival Clemson emerge from an underachieving football powerhouse-in-waiting to, eventually, perennial conference and national championship contenders – all the back of a promoted position coach who worked his way into the job with passion for the job, a reputation for recruiting, and a charming Southern twang. Ring a bell?
“Think of Dabo Swinney,” Alleva says. “Did you ever hear of Dabo Swinney before he got the job at Clemson? He’d never even been a coordinator, and right now he’s rated as one of the best coaches in the country. So you never know. You never know.”
WERE IT UP to him, Alleva’s name and photo would rarely show up in the morning paper. He prefers to run things from behind the scenes. It’s not that he’s inaccessible — this interview with Tiger Rag was set up via a simple email request to Alleva’s secretary — but he kept press conferences and public appearances to a minimum during his first eight years on the job.
“It’s purposeful,” he says. “I think pictures and newspapers and all that are for the players and the coaches. I don’t seek any of that stuff. I don’t mind talking to you all. That’s fine. But I’m not looking for the spotlight.”
That’s seemingly changed of late. Alleva’s spent noticeably more time at podiums in the past 13 months, largely out of turbulent necessity.
The retention of Les Miles last November. The promotion of Ed Orgeron after Miles’ September firing. He spoke shortly after the Southeastern Conference postponed the Florida game and then again to draw a public line in the sand regarding its eventual rescheduling. Promoting Ed Orgeron — permanently.
It was an uncharacteristic move for Alleva to go on ESPN 104.5 in late September and proclaim “I’m the search” for the world to hear as LSU looked for its next full-time leader. Certainly a dependable way to find a spotlight.
While introducing Orgeron, Alleva revealed that he’d actually led a five-man search team that included LSU president F. King Alexander and three members of the Board of Supervisors. He explained his motives two weeks before announcing the hire.
“I did that on purpose because, at the end of the day, 10 years from now, what’re they going to say?” Alleva begins. “They’re going to say ‘Well, Alleva hired this guy.’ You can have a committee. And let’s not be naive. I’ve got people I’ve got to report to. But I didn’t need to throw their names out there. And I’ve got people helping me. I’m not doing this in a vacuum. But people don’t need to know that.”
That’s much the same way Alleva leads LSU’s athletic department on a day-to-day basis. He describes his process as a team-first approach that stems from his days as a quarterback.
“You can have the greatest arm in the world, but if the receiver drops the ball and the line doesn’t block, it’s not worth a crap,” he says. “The same thing is true of running a department. You’re only as good as the people around you.”
His current compliment of blockers and pass catchers include deputy athletic directors Eddie Nunez and Verge Ausberry, associate directors Mark Ewing and Mariam Segar, and Bo Bahnsen, LSU’s head of compliance. Each has their own set of prescribed tasks and responsibilities to keep the department moving.
“I’m a big believer in the team concept and having good people around you,” Alleva says. “I’m a big believer in hiring good people and letting them do their job and not micromanaging them. If you talk to any of my people, I don’t get in their way. They have expectations of what I expect from them, but I don’t go in there and micromanage them and tell them what to do.
“They can handle their stuff, and they don’t call me unless there’s a real problem I need to handle. They can handle a lot of stuff. So I’m fortunate there.”
A CEO-type leader who believes in delegating tasks to a hand-picked, top-notch staff and trusting them to get the job done while preaching accountability from the top down.
Sound like any other pitch that’s been in the news lately? Perhaps that of a fiery Cajun coach who recently landed a coveted promotion.
ALLEVA DOESN’T PLAY racquetball anymore. It’s been years since he played every day at Duke as part of a perpetual lunchtime round-robin with Krzyzewski and a rotating cast of rivals.
“I’d probably pop an Achilles after a few minutes if I tried to play now,” smiles Alleva.
He still keeps up a daily exercise regimen to stay in shape. Though these days that typically means spending an hour or so on the elliptical or the stationary bike — another perk of pouring money into those top-notch facilities.
Alleva believes he’ll play more golf once he retires from his post — Steve Spurrier is a close friend with his fair share of standing tee times around the Southeast — though it’s not a finish line he’s racing to in any way. Upon taking the job nine years ago, Alleva remarked on the record that he’d like to spend 10 years at LSU.
Suffice it to say, much and more has happened since he made that comment.
“Did I say that?” Alleva retorts. “This is my ninth year here — I judge years in football seasons — and I hope to work here another… I don’t know when. I’m 63, so I could see myself working until 70, to be honest with you. I could see myself working until 70. Not much beyond 70 though.”
Alleva knows doing so will be contingent on good health and a healthy run of success for the football coach upon whom he’s just staked his reputation. In the Southeastern Conference, athletic directors who miss on hiring a football coach don’t always get to try again.
Retirement is a notion he’s devoted a fair amount of thought to already. Enough so that he’s already decided he’ll spend it somewhere warm — possibly Baton Rouge — an altogether common aspiration for anyone who spent their formative years in a place that endures snowy winters. He says he’d also like to teach a class or two to give back and occupy some of his time.
But the one change he most looks forward to after his LSU days are done? The ability to rip the battery out of that ‘damn phone.’ It’ll be nice, someday, to enjoy a break from its constant buzzing.