Next month is the 35th anniversary of a memorable Sports Illustrated feature on LSU athletics. The headline on the cover of the Nov. 18, 1985 issue read “Crazy Days at LSU” coupled with a photograph of 50-year-old Dale Brown, his handsome visage staring ahead glumly with a caption that referred to him as the embattled coach of the Bayou Bengals.
In what should have been the best of times for LSU, the Tigers managed to snare controversy from the jaws of victory in a year that was destined to produce a SEC title for the football team, the first College World Series for Skip Bertman’s baseball unit and a second Final Four appearance for Brown and his basketballers.
Athletic Director Bob Brodhead was in a battle royal with the football coach he hired, Bill Arnsparger, and was facing a wiretapping trial at the federal courthouse. Brown was no favorite of the LSU faculty and was angered that his wife, Vonnie, was released from her $16,000 a year post as a folk dancing instructor in an obvious attempt to piss off the loquacious coach. He won the 1985 SEC title, but lost two more postseason games to run his losing streak in those outings to ten. The vultures were swarming, and Brown was fighting back. His words were pugnacious with his fists ready for his tormentors.
A year later, Brown was back in good graces with a miracle postseason in his wake while Brodhead had resigned under fire and Arnsparger was defecting to Florida to become the Gators’ athletic director, leaving the helm of the LSU football ship to 33-year-old Mike Archer. The Board of Supervisors selected Archer over Steve Spurrier, Sam Rutigliano and Mike Shanahan. In retrospect, the best choice would have been another defensive coordinator, 35-year-old Nick Saban of Michigan State.
The turbulence of three and one half decades ago is relevant today at the Ole War Skule where the leadership of the university is unsettled, and highly successful football and basketball coaches are reeling for different reasons.
Ed Orgeron eclipsed the 11-0 perfect season of 1958 with his 15-0 run last year, but the victory lap ended before his team hit the locker room of the Superdome on Jan. 13 as grandstander Odell Beckham Jr. rewarded players with gobs of cash after pummeling Clemson 42-25.
A few weeks later, Orgeron announced he was getting a divorce with internet kooks showcasing their keyboard courage and attacking his wife. Then COVID-19 came to Louisiana in March, and George Floyd was murdered on camera by a Minneapolis police officer in May. A pandemic and a national debate about race are not issues coaches traditionally learn about as grad assistants.
Coach O also lost an all-star cast led by Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow and key coaches in Joe Brady and Dave Aranda. His adjustment to the changes has been rocky with athletes distracted and looking nonchalant in losses to a pair of weak teams in Mississippi State and Missouri.
In three weeks of competition, LSU has three fewer wins than Alabama and is trying to make the results of 2020 merely respectable after the historic season of 2019. Orgeron is in no current danger of being fired, but he does face the prospect of revolt if LSU finishes with its first losing season in 21 years.
Will Wade is off to a 64-30 start in three years as basketball coach as LSU starts its 50th season at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center. At 37, Wade should be the most coveted coach in the land with a conference championship and another stellar recruiting class.
Instead, Wade is on the hot seat and faces intense NCAA scrutiny for his recruiting machinations. He is emerging as the most investigated coach in the college game since Jerry Tarkanian. The “Shark” outran NCAA gumshoes for a generation and won a national title, but his battle for survival was as convoluted as attempting to beat the house at a Las Vegas gaming table.
Tarkanian attacked the NCAA in a newspaper piece while at Long Beach State, charging that powerful schools were given a pass for infractions while he was target No. 1. His program was placed on probation as Tarkanian left Long Beach one step ahead of the posse to take the coaching post at UNLV.
The Runnin’ Rebels won 509 games in 15 years under Tarkanian, who was suspended for two years by the NCAA but never left the UNLV sideline as the case crept through the court system. Ultimately, the college governing body was compelled to pay the coach $2.5 million to settle a lawsuit in which he claimed years of harassment.
The NCAA of today headed by former LSU Chancellor Mark Emmert has no stomach to ignite a Tarkanian-type struggle with Will Wade, who has proved to be resilient in his quest to stay employed at LSU. The Wade story is far from complete, and the next LSU president and chancellor will have to deal with a mess that Athletic Director Scott Woodward inherited. Notably, Woodward’s predecessor Joe Alleva has called Wade his worst hire.
This week, the LSU Board should decide whether to divide duties between a president and chancellor as was the case when William Jenkins was president and Emmert operated the flagship campus. The most rumored outcome is that Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne will be appointed president with interim leader Tom Galligan remaining as chancellor. No matter the outcome, look for the same kinds of wild board meetings involving athletic controversies that we witnessed in the 80s.
Former Chancellor Mike Martin termed LSU “the most political place on the planet,” and he spoke as a man with a lifetime in academia throughout the U.S. This major institution with an endowment that is only one-third the $1.5 billion boasted by Liberty University is quick on the draw when there is controversy in revenue-producing sports, which reign as the biggest money-makers on campus.
Dardenne, a Baton Rouge native whose father was a ticket taker at Tiger Stadium, is no stranger to sporting brouhahas at the LSU System building. In 1978, he was a 24-year-old student member on the LSU Board and lobbied hard for Joe Dean, not Paul Dietzel, to be chosen as athletic director. Based on the performances of the two men in that position, it can be stated that Dardenne was right and the majority of the board in error when Tall Paul was summoned from Indiana for a second coming on the bayou. Dean got the job nine years later and presided over more national championships than any LSU administrator before or since.
Dardenne is now 66 and ready to complete a career that includes stops as a metro councilman, state senator, secretary of state and lieutenant governor. He and fellow Baton. Rouge native Woodward will be assigned to keep the national titles coming and mitigate any negative publicity injurious to their alma mater.
Those goals are much more daunting than they were at the start of 2020.