By JAMES MORAN
Tiger Rag Associate Editor
Joe Alleva took to the podium ahead of his interim coach’s Monday press luncheon and repeated himself three times.
LSU’s athletic director even enunciated to make sure the message came through loud and clear in Birmingham, Gainesville, Bristol and any anywhere else people spent the previous weekend negotiating the rescheduling of his team’s indefinitely postponed game with Florida.
“One thing we’re going to hold very firm on is we’ve got a home game on Nov. 19 and we’re going to have a home game on Nov. 19,” Alleva said.
Once more, with feeling: “We are going to have a home game on Nov. 19. We are not going to change that situation.”
A well-documented line in the sand had been drawn, and three days later, the Southeastern Conference and Florida begrudgingly trudged across it.
The SEC announced last Thursday an agreement had been reached to reschedule the annual cross-division rivalry game for Nov. 19 — in Tiger Stadium. LSU in conjunction agreed to play the Gators in Gainesville in 2017 as well as the regularly-scheduled trip in 2018. LSU and Florida bought out game contracts of their respective Nov. 19 opponents, South Alabama and Presbyterian, who’ll play that same day.
This resolution at least stopped the bleeding on what had become a public embarrassment for the league. All 14 teams will play eight conference games and two division champions will be determined the same way they always have been.
All’s well that ends well in the league that proudly boasts “it just means more.”
The ink wasn’t yet dry on the official press release before the spin war kicked back into high gear.
“The conference office asked us to find a solution in working with LSU, yet LSU was never a true partner in our discussions,” Florida AD Jeremy Foley said in the immediate aftermath of news breaking.
Sankey implicitly echoed this account of the events by going out of his way to thank Foley and all other involved parties for their cooperation — but not Alleva or LSU. The commissioner took umbrage with Alleva’s public inflexibility, which rang tantamount to a public challenge.
Alleva took heat all week from national media types who criticized him for not appearing willing to cancel a rent-a-win in the name of preserving the competitive integrity of the league. Florida had dealt with a hurricane, they opined, have some compassion.
But none of that matters. It’s all just noise. The fact of the matter is Alleva desperately needed a win on the home front and got one.
Alleva knows full well these next few months will go a long way toward determining his legacy in Baton Rouge. He badly wants to rewrite his current legacy, one that includes bungling the Duke Lacrosse scandal at his previous gig and botching the Les Miles firing last November.
The only way to do that will be to nail the impending coaching hire. The stakes will be high for the man who boldly declared himself “The Search” a couple weeks back. There’s already nervous people in high places watching eagerly, and Alleva couldn’t afford to begin the process with another public defeat.
Not after Foley, one week earlier, had drawn his own line in the sand for the SEC to walk across. When he declared on Wednesday, not 24 hours before the indefinite postponement, that the game would not be moved from Gainesville.
Not after Alleva made every attempt to get the game played that past weekend. He offered airplanes and busses to help Florida relocate the game if need be. LSU offered to fly in Sunday, play the game and fly home. They’d have agreed to play Monday or in front of a vacant stadium if the first responders couldn’t be spared.
Not after Sankey failed to mediate some kind of resolution as Foley rebuffed every offer en route to an indefinite postponement. It wasn’t until Sankey played an apparent trump card — a previously unpublicized SEC bylaw stating teams must play eight conference games to be eligible to make the title game in Atlanta — that Foley acquiesced.
But Alleva never budged. Foley himself vouched for as much.
Frankly, he couldn’t yield.
Insisting on keeping a home game on Nov. 19 wasn’t a simple football decision or the result of pettiness over how the league handled the fiasco. The Baton Rouge economy depends on those home dates. For small businesses and their employees, the economic boon that football brings is rent money.
Baton Rouge couldn’t afford to lose even one home game. Not this fall. Not after a summer of racial tensions and a 1,000-year flood decimated much of the region. People are struggling to rebuild, and what many outside the state don’t realize is losing a home game would set that process back.
Those are the people who counted on Alleva to make sure there was a home game in Tiger Stadium on Nov. 19. He couldn’t afford to sell them down the river in the name of the SEC. He couldn’t bend over backward to help Sankey out of a jam just because the commissioner wouldn’t or couldn’t make Foley play ball the week prior.
Alleva had no say in the initial decision, but the indefinite postponement gave him a hand of cards to play, and he deftly used that leverage to obtain the best outcome for his program.
Boast all you want about SEC unity, but at the end of the day, his job is to do what’s best for LSU. And if doing so draws some public heat from the commissioner, or anyone else, for that matter, then so be it.
Now “The Search” must go out and nail his first football coaching hire at LSU. And hey, if nothing else, adding Florida to November completes a brutal five-games-in-six-weeks SEC slate that should go a long way to determining if the right man for the job is already in the building.