The impact of having Leonard Fournette, Ben Simmons and Alex Lange on one campus extends far beyond wins and losses
By JAMES MORAN
Tiger Rag Associate Editor
Editor’s note: This story appears in the first issue of Tiger Rag Extra, Tiger Rag’s new free publication across Baton Rouge. Click here to find a copy near you.
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aul Mainieri has just about seen it all in 34 years of coaching Division I athletics.
For more than the past two decades he’s worked at national landmark institutions in Notre Dame and LSU. That means national championships, No. 1 draft picks and every conceivable award or honor in between.
But never before has he been around the kind of All-American star power that comes from Leonard Fournette, Ben Simmons and Alex Lange — each arguably the best individual player in his respective sport — calling one campus home.
“That’s really something when you think about it, isn’t it?” Mainieri ponders. “We should have gotten all three of them together for a picture.”
Such a snapshot would encapsulate a fascination phenomenon in the history of LSU sports. The iconic trio came from far and wide to all end up calling the Ole War Skule home at the same time.
There’s New Orleans’ favorite son, billed since high school as the sensational running back who would bring a championship back to Tiger Town. The international superstar making a one-year stopover in Baton Rouge on his way to NBA fame and fortune. And the unassuming Midwesterner who came from relative anonymity to pitch his team to Omaha during a flawless 12-0 freshman campaign.
Individually, each player’s athletic prowess and importance to his program has been well documented.
Cumulatively, their impact on the University and the community around it transcends any box score.
THOUSANDS OF MOTORISTS sat stranded in their vehicles as police shut down every highway running into or out of Baton Rouge for more than an hour on the morning of January 14. Below Interstate-10, people lined the sidewalks standing three-and-four deep — cameras and phones at the ready — along Highland Road from the off-ramp all the way to the north gates of LSU.
The wild scene better resembled the lead-up to an extravagant New Orleans-style Mardi Gras parade than it did a Thursday morning commute through the Capitol city.
Only, the masses hadn’t gathered to plead for beads from lavish floats or dance along in revelry with marching bands — just to catch a glimpse of the approaching motorcade.
Such is life when the President of the United States comes to town for a visit.
The line to pack into the gymnasium at McKinley High for President Barack Obama’s town hall meeting stretched well around the corner. Patiently waiting alongside family, a dapperly-dressed 6-foot-10 Australian towered above the rest of the crowd.
“Maybe I’ll have to take him down to LSU to shoot some hoops,” Simmons joked to reporters of the Commander in Chief, who upon inauguration had backboards installed on the White House Tennis Courts and fills out an NCAA Tournament bracket on SportsCenter every March.
Game recognize game.
Before delving into the national and local issues he came to discuss, POTUS took notice of the next most famous man in the room.
“Since LSU has a pretty good sports teams historically, I thought I might mention you have an okay basketball player named Ben Simmons in the house,” President Obama began.
Even the staunchest conservative would have to concede the man knows how to work a room.
After some applause, President Obama noted that Simmons’ father, Dave — also in attendance — played pro ball in Australia with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who starred at Harvard before his time in Australia’s National Basketball League.
“They can hoop,” President Obama continued. “But I think they would both acknowledge Ben is better, and it’s wonderful to have him here.”
It takes a lot to humble a man who has played pickup games with Kobe Bryant and received customized sneakers from texting buddy LeBron James as a true freshman in college. It’s not easy to create wonder in someone who has been famous since before they could legally drive.
A public shout out and a handshake from the Leader of the Free World did the trick.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” Simmons reflected after the fact. “I’ve worked so hard to get where I am, and for someone like him to recognize that and give me some props for that, it’s awesome. It’s surreal.”
It was an even bigger coup for the school the Aussie star represents.
Given it was President Obama’s first public appearance since giving the State of the Union address two nights earlier, both Simmons and LSU were trending nationwide within moments of being mentioned. The story swept across the internet like wildfire and got picked up by national news and sports outlets alike.
Any publicity can be taken as good publicity, but from a marketing standpoint, it doesn’t get much better than a heaping helping of presidential praise.
Even if POTUS did commit the social faux pas of thanking New Orleans on his way out of town.
FOR TWO MONTHS the phones rang off the hook on the fifth floor of the LSU athletic administration building. Leonard Fournette’s prolific dash to frontrunner status in the Heisman Trophy race was the college football story of September and October, and there were barely enough hands on deck in the well-staffed LSU sports information department to field — much less fill — the flood of requests perpetually pouring in.
“At the height of his run we were probably receiving 20-to-25 national requests per week for Leonard alone,” says LSU Associate AD and communications director Michael Bonnette. “They were asking for an hour here or 45 minutes there. And that’s on top of the weekly stuff he does with the local guys. For a 20-year-old, that can be kind of overwhelming.”
Buga-mania reached its fever pitch as Fournette romped Auburn, Syracuse and Eastern Michigan in successive weeks to become the first SEC back in history to rush for 200-plus yards in three consecutive games. You’d have to have spent the fall living under a rock with no internet reception to miss the highlight reel he put together against the Plainsmen.
It wasn’t even the sheer volume of requests that created a problem — it was their nature. Fournette graced the cover of all the major national publications. He took a camera crew around his hometown for a profile aired on College GameDay. One network even asked to embed a reporter on campus to trail Fournette for an entire week leading up to a game.
The media circus became so hectic at one point that Les Miles changed the player availability schedule and personally took to overseeing any requests for Fournette’s time.
“You’re trying to manage that with the understanding that he’s still a student and he still has football stuff he’s got to do,” Bonnette says. “So there were a lot of challenges, but it’s good to be in that position. There’s a lot of schools that would beg for that type of attention.”
As they should.
In a sport where recruiting elite high school talent is a program’s lifeblood, elevating brand awareness is everything. And for the first two months of the football season, no player in any sport — amateur or professional — received more media coverage than Fournette.
“It’s great attention for the program because you’re putting the LSU name out there for the world to see,” Bonnette says. “The brand is nationwide and stronger than ever, and a lot of that has to do with Leonard and the things he does on the football field.”
But it can prove to be a double-edged sword.
Cultivating such massive interest on the field means living under a microscope away from it. And, in the realm of college football, many a high-profile star has fallen victim to the fame monster his own play created.
Matured in the spotlight during his high school days at St. Augustine, Fournette hasn’t yet shown any signs of vulnerability to such pit falls. By all accounts he’s the ideal teammate and a good leader. He’s never had any run-ins with the law or team policy. His social media postings consist mainly of motivational phrases and pictures of his adorable daughter, Lyric, perhaps the most photogenic baby on Instagram.
As far as being the face of a program, that’s the total package. A fact no one is more appreciative of than the man whose job description includes dealing with public relations headaches.
“I won’t point fingers or name names, but all you have to do is look around at recent history,” Bonnette says. “There’s a lot of guys who have done it on the field, but man, you just can’t sleep at night not knowing what I’m going to get a call about or what I’m going to read in the paper the next morning.”
A PALPABLE BUZZ filled the air around the Pete Maravich Assembly Center on January 30. A tinge of anticipation usually reserved for top-10 SEC showdowns at the football cathedral across the street. A crowd of 13,882 — the second-largest attendance for a basketball game since 2006 — packed the house to see the Benny versus Buddy Show with top-ranked Oklahoma in town.
The Sooners certainly brought a good deal of extra juice to the festivities, but capacity crowds have actually been the norm as opposed to the exception with Simmons in the fold. LSU will only have the Aussie sensation lace ‘em up in the PMAC 18 times, and so far, folks have come out in droves to catch a glimpse.
Despite sputtering through the pre-conference slate, LSU basketball has dwarfed attendance figures from the first three years of the Johnny Jones era. As of press time, the Tigers drew an average of 11,383 — that’s actual attendance, not tickets sold — for the 18 home dates.
For comparison, the previous high-water mark for actual attendance in the Jones era was 8,910 (2013-14 season) with the three-year average sitting at 8,487.
In an attempt to quantify Simmons’ effect on attendance, consider the 2015-16 attendance equates to a 34.1 percent jump from the three-year average while the team’s 2015-16 winning percentage (60 percent) has actually decreased from both last season (66.7 percent) and the first three years of Jones’ tenure (62.2 percent) as a whole.
The bump has brought the basketball program more in line with perennial attendance juggernauts football and baseball. But that steep uptick in interest hasn’t been enough to sustain the type of secondary ticket market many envisioned for Simmons’ limited-time-only tour or Tiger Town.
Speaking with Tiger Rag under a condition of anonymity, one seasoned scalper attributed the relative lack of resale value to the availability of cheap season tickets — LSU offers a $99 upper deck basketball season ticket — and having eight weeknight games slated for 8 p.m. starts: “You can’t give those things away.”
Editor’s Note: The graphic above reflects the 2015-16 season through 13 home dates.
Even for the Oklahoma game — a Saturday matinee featuring the nation’s two biggest star attractions — tickets were available on StubHub prior to tipoff for as little as $23.20. The most expensive seats sold for $422.99 as a pair, but the average ticket sale came out to just $44.90.
“If this game was in Kentucky, it would be $200 to get in the door,” he says. “But the market is pathetic. It’s a frugal fan base, and when you factor in that people have options — parades, nice weather, the start of crawfish season — resale is rarely more than face value, which is cheap.”
MOST HIGH SCHOOL ball players good enough to break into a travel circuit head into a showcase with a one-track mind. Shine on the field, get noticed and find a way to reach the next level. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s quite literally what they’re there for.
Renee Lange didn’t raise her son to be like most high schoolers. That’s why she’d take him with her to volunteer at homeless shelters every Thanksgiving and Christmas day.
Back in the summer of 2013, Alex Lange traveled from Lee’s Summit, Mo., to Long Beach, Calif., to compete in the Area Code Games, a weeklong tournament showcasing the nation’s elite 16, 17 and 18-year-old talent. The most powerful connection he made out on the left coast was neither a coach nor a scout.
But before going any further, a story.
Jessica Joy Rees — “Jessie” to her family and friends — was just 12 years old when she was diagnosed with DIPG (Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma), an aggressive and largely chemotherapy-resistant form of brain cancer that strikes during childhood. She battled two inoperable tumors on her brain stem from March 3, 2011 until Jan. 5, 2012.
Seeing their youngest daughter endure 10 months of chemotherapy, Erik and Stacey Rees faced the kind of grief no parents should have to endure. But they were able to get through it, thanks largely in part to the remarkable strength and compassion Jessie showed in the face of so much cause for despair.
“During her fight she felt this tremendous burden for children who couldn’t leave the hospital,” Erik Rees says. “She was outpatient, but there are a lot of kids who aren’t. So she began filling up these jars with toys and games and love as a way to cheer up some of the other children facing cancer.”
Jessie personally stuffed and hand delivered more than 3,000 jars to other children just like herself. Erik and Stacey Rees carried on the Jessie Reese Foundation to honor their daughter’s courageous battle.
To this day, over 125,000 JoyJars have been stuffed and sent to kids worldwide.
“Everything we do was started by Jess,” Erik Rees says. “Her little slogan was NEGU, which stands for Never Ever Give Up. That’s what we stand for.”
One of their first initiatives: instituting a yearly pilgrimage for a group of ‘courageous kids’ from the local children’s hospitals to meet the athletes competing at the nearby Area Code Games.
“They brought some kids out to the game, so I decided to get involved and I just fell in love with it,” Lange says. “Then when I went back home to Missouri we hosted a couple cancer games at my high school to raise money for the foundation.”
Shortly after, Lange went on a series of hospital visits with Kaitlin Sandeno, a four-time Olympic-medaling swimmer and national spokesperson for Team NEGU. He’s visited the Joy Factory in California and stuffed his fair share of jars. The foundation has become such a big part of his life he’s even dating Jessie Rees’ older sister, Shaya. “It’s kind of in the family now,” he says.
Mainieri gave Lange his blessing to allow a sick child to throw out a ceremonial first pitch and hang out in the dugout before a game last season. He’s since laid the groundwork for a relationship between LSU baseball and the New Orleans Children’s Hospital to both bring sick children out for games and to have players make the trip down to go visit those who can’t leave.
“We’re just trying to give them an experience to help them get their minds off the horrible things they’re going through,” Lange says. “Give the team a chance to rally around these kids and really push forward for them. Being an athlete on a platform like LSU, my ability to reach out to kids and help make them smile every day, that sort of thing is what it’s all about. It’s not just about going to school or playing baseball. You make the time. It can be tough during baseball season, but that’s how it is for me.”
In recognition of his efforts, Erik Rees says Lange is one of the organization’s 75 “All-Stars” and was flown to California to be honored at the foundation’s annual gala.
“We’re just honored that Alex would use his life and his time and his talents and volunteer to help bring smiles to these kid’s faces,” Erik Rees says. “We like to say we cure bad days. Alex and LSU helps us cure bad days.”
ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN on live television. It’s that source of the medium’s magic and it’s why the marriage with sports has proved such a fruitful one for all involved parties.
And if harnessed effectively by a charismatic, media-savvy individual free of material motive, it can prove pretty damn powerful.
Leonard Fournette, pulled aside for a postgame interview on ESPN following LSU’s 45-24 victory over South Carolina in Baton Rouge, cut off the reporter and read from a typed statement announced he’d be auctioning off his game-worn jersey with the proceeds going to benefit the victims in flood-ravaged Columbia.
“I want to send my prayers, condolences and empathy to the people of South Carolina,” Fournette began. “What they are going through reminds me of what we went through, my people in New Orleans, Louisiana, went through 10 years ago with Hurricane Katrina. We played a game today, but the people in South Carolina right now are in need.”
It’d take weeks for LSU to work through the miles of NCAA red tape, but Emmet and Toni Stephenson knew they wanted that iconic No. 7 as soon as the words left Fournette’s lips.
“I thought that it was a very classy thing for him to do,” Emmet Stephenson says. “It was a kind-hearted gesture on his part to think of the people of South Carolina. He’d gone through it himself as a child and he knew what they were faced with.”
It’s a cause near and dear to the Stephensons’ heart, as well. The LSU alumni and long-time benefactors founded the Stephenson Disaster Management Institute back in 2007 by donating $25 million in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Eventually, the rules were reworked to allow LSU to proceed with its online auction through the weekend of the Alabama game. And with less than an hour left on the clock, the bidding took off like a rocket into the stratosphere.
By the time the dust settled, the bid had nearly tripled in a span of an hour. It quickly rose from $45,000 at 10:53 a.m. to the eventual winning bid of $101,000 — four-times the previous record for a college jersey — cast at 11:11 a.m. It was a two-man race from the $60,000-mark on with the money going to a good cause.
The prize will too. The plan is for the purple No. 7 jersey to be displayed prominently in the Stephenson Disaster Management Institute at LSU.
“I didn’t buy it to collect it,” Stephenson laughs. “It’s a symbol of what happened to Louisiana and what happened to Leonard and what happens to other people when disasters strike. It’s also a symbol of everything we’re working for at SDMI.”
It’s also a symbol of the kind of impact a collegiate star can make on the campus and world around them given such a platform to work from.
Now, do they deserve fair compensation for bringing that kind of tangible value? The sort of value that, when it merges and multiplies, can reach the White House, fight cancer, and help save flood victims?
That’s a discussion for another day. Some things, you just can’t put a price on.