Ron Higgins: Evaluate, marinate and don’t hesitate keeps Scott Woodward a step ahead of the competition

If there was any question LSU athletics director Scott Woodward wants to win at every sport, he provided the answer on April 25 with the greatest coaching poaching in Tigers’ athletics history.

His “how did he pull that off?” hire of Baylor’s three-time women’s national championship basketball coach and Louisiana native Kim Mulkey to resuscitate LSU’s lifeless female hoops program was pleasantly stunning and badly needed on so many levels.

An eight-year $23.6 million contract and the prospect that the almost 59-year-old Mulkey could eat crawfish and Ponchatoula strawberries for the rest of her life convinced the Tickfaw, La. native to come home.

Mulkey said a 10-minute conversation with Woodward convinced her to step out of her comfort zone and away from the Baylor dynasty she created and ruled for 21 seasons.

If that chit-chat swayed her, don’t you wish you could have tapped into Woodward’s phone calls to big-money donors asking them to foot the bill to hire someone who has more head coaching wins combined than six of the previous seven LSU women’s head coaches in history?

The fact that previous Tigers’ head coach Nikki Fargas, who allegedly resigned after 10 seasons to “pursue other opportunities” (which is code for jump before you get pushed), is the second winningest women’s basketball coach in LSU history, reveals the program’s low expectations.

Home crowds dwindled so much in recent years that this season’s COVID-19 policy restricting attendance for safety purposes wasn’t even needed. It was like LSU played its home games in witness protection.

Fargas is a nice person, but also an ineffective recruiter who put a mediocre, often overmatched product on the court. If you watch high-level college women’s programs on TV like Baylor or UConn or Notre Dame, you see teams filled with smart, physical athletic players that have mastered fundamental basketball skills and understand their roles in clearly defined offensive and defensive systems.

LSU?

Under Fargas, there was none of the above in recent seasons. She was hired by previous LSU athletics director Joe Alleva, who gave her a three-year contract extension in 2018 despite after her first three seasons never having a team advance past the first round of the NCAA tourney or not getting a bid.

Yet, she probably could have coached for as long as she liked had Alleva not been dumped from his job in April 2019. There was such apathy for the women’s basketball program it seemed all was well as long as Fargas and her players weren’t in the headlines for wrong reasons.

Until LSU hired Baton Rouge native Woodward, who was once the school’s Director of External Affairs from 2000-04. 

He followed the same procedure replacing Fargas with Mulkey that he used in his previous A.D. jobs at Washington and Texas A&M.

Evaluate. Marinate. But don’t hesitate to fire and hire.

Woodward was hired at Texas A&M in January 2016 and watched Aggies’ football coach Kevin Sumlin stumble through a second straight 8-5 season. In May 2017, Woodward fired a public warning shot when he said on the Paul Finebaum Show that “Coach Sumlin knows he has to win, he has to win this year. He has to do better than he has done in the past.”

A day after the Aggies closed the 2017 season at 7-5 following a loss at LSU, Woodward fired Sumlin. Within a week, he hired Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher and money-whipped him with a 10-year, $75 million deal.

The fact Woodward made such decisive, bold moves about the Tigers’ women’s basketball program has a portion of the LSU fandom eager to see him do the same with baseball coach Paul Mainieri.

Mainieri has won 70 percent of his games in 15 seasons at LSU with a national championship in five College World Series trips.

The 2021 Tigers are 27-17 overall and just 7-14 in the SEC, still trying to dig their way out of a horrific 1-8 league start with a lineup of mostly sophomores whose 2020 season ended before SEC play started and true freshmen who were in the same boat in high school a year ago.

Unlike Fargas, Mainieri has continued to recruit top-rated classes as did former LSU football coach Les Miles even after the Miles’ Tigers lost 21-0 to Alabama in the 2011 BCS national title game.

But one of the reasons Miles finally got fired four games into the 2016 season, besides his stubbornness refusing to change his archaic, predictable offense, was his year-to-year slippage in SEC play despite an influx of talent.

From 2012 until his firing after a 2-2 start in 2016 when LSU’s offense hadn’t scored in the fourth quarter of all four games, Miles was a mere 21-13 in the SEC.

And it wasn’t only that he had lost to Alabama every year. It was the fact he was also a combined 7-5 against Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Arkansas, teams LSU are annually favored to beat.

Mainieri appears mired in a similar path. Since LSU lost to Florida in the finals of the 2017 College World Series, the Tigers are 39-42 in the SEC.

One thing Mainieri’s critics don’t know is losing gnaws at him. Don’t mistake his soft-spoken manner for not wanting to win.

All coaches have weaknesses. For Mainieri, his faith in his players sometimes clouds his judgment, like deciding when to pull a pitcher from the game.

He loves his players so much he wants them to work through tough situations hoping they will succeed. When they do, it builds a player’s confidence. When they don’t, Mainieri’s haters can’t wait to spew venom on every form of social communication except for maybe smoke signals and skywriting.

In recent years when his teams struggled, Mainieri always seemed to pick himself up and approach situations with hope and energy.

But this season, he seems physically and mentally drained. Maybe the neck surgeries he underwent for disc replacement in December 2019 and a vertebrae fusion last November are hurting again.

Also, Mainieri’s heartache has never waned over the death of his dad Demie in March 2019.

Demie Manieri, a junior college baseball coach for 30 years and an American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer, was his son’s mentor. Paul Mainieri’s father was his daily sounding board, especially during baseball season.

So maybe physical pain, mental anguish and trying to push the right coaching buttons dealing with a young, inexperienced team has exacted a toll this season on the 63-year old Mainieri.

People who deal with Mainieri on a daily basis respect and like him so much that they feel his pain when he hurts.

They want the best for him. So does Woodward.

When the time comes for a decision to be made on Mainieri’s future, whether it’s at the end of this season or after next season or a few years down the line, he and Woodward will do it together in a thoughtful manner honoring someone who’s given his life’s passion to the game his dad taught him to love and which gave him a career that he lives and breathes.

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