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ll the recorders and television cameras were switched off in the team room of the spacious fortress that is LSU’s Football Ops Building. The assembled throng of media types exceeded the normal attendance for such a post-practice presser. But before taking questions about the upcoming bowl game with Notre Dame or early draft entrants, an unofficial proclamation was made: Les Miles would once again not be the next head football coach at Michigan. So said Les Miles, though the ardent maize-and-blue-bleeding alum refused to be quoted on the record as saying as much.
The Les-to-Ann Arbor rumors kicked up the minute Brady Hoke received his walking papers two weeks earlier. Some smoke, but no fire. The search process proved arduous and grueling, playing out at times like a bizarre public spectacle, but eventually UM brass convinced another former Wolverine to come back and breathe life into the stagnating program.
Two weeks later Jim Harbaugh was reintroduced to the world as Michigan’s next head coach. Winning 10 games in his inaugural season accelerated the return to prominence. His brash persona reinvigorated a frustrated fan base and chided rivals both domestic (Ohio State) and abroad (the Southeastern Conference).
Football is a notorious copycat sport, and the success of the Michigan Man may have spurred on a homecoming trend. Hiring alums was in vogue this past offseason. Georgia, after parting ways with long-time coach Mark Richt, hired Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, a former Bulldog who played defensive back from 1995 to 1998. Soon after, Richt landed on his feet at Miami, where he’d played quarterback from 1979 to 1982. And when speculation started that Nick Saban may retire after bringing another national title to Tuscaloosa, the first name thrown out to potentially replace him was the coach he’d just bested in the title game: Clemson boss and former Crimson Tide receiver Dabo Swinney.
There’s obvious benefits to hiring a former player as a coach, particularly if the player was a star or fan favorite during his playing days. They’re already part of the program. It creates energy within the fan base immediately. Fond memories of past conquests create an almost nationalistic pride and euphoria of optimism. It’s not totally unlike electing a decorated war hero to be president of the country when times get tough down the road.
Temporary or not, the trend begs an interesting query: if LSU were to decide to go in that direction whenever the Miles era ends, who would that individual possibly be?
There isn’t really an obvious answer. The last LSU alum to be a Division I head football coach was Pete Mangurian, who resigned from Columbia after three disastrous seasons amid a 21-game losing streak and accusations of mistreatment from players that included verbal abuse and claims he pressured players to play with concussions.
Furthermore, shifting focus to a larger picture, what is it that makes a player decide to hit the reset button on their athletic careers by becoming a coach? That question is paramount to understanding why a player of any stature would spend so much time to stake his earned reputation on wins and losses.
“Given the ability to pick and choose, why did Harbaugh go back to Michigan?” asks Jerry Stovall, the last alum to be head football coach at the Ole War Skule. “Smart went back to where he played. Richt went back to where he played. Why?”
He paused for two beats before offering an answer.
“Probably the same reason Jerry Stovall went back to LSU. It’s my school. I was part of some success while I was there. I know what it’s like to put on that yellow hat and run through the goal post.”
THERE EXISTS TWO separate Jerry Stovalls in the pantheon of LSU athletics. One singular man, but two completely different stories.
The first is a storied longshot turned legend. He was the 53rd recruit of a 52-man signing class following the 1958 national championship, and as Stovall tells it, “a miracle happened.” A late flip created a late scholarship offer for a gangly runner from West Monroe High. Those who remember seeing him play describe a “killer” on the field, a two-way star and a “vicious hitter” patrolling the defensive backfield. Billy Cannon’s successor in the backfield came up 89 votes short of delivering the program’s second Heisman trophy in a consensus All-American 1962 season.
The other is a coach. A hard worker and sound football mind, but one too young and inexperienced to handle the bizarre situation he’d been thrust into. Stovall had remained in a fundraising role heading up the forerunner of TAF after being passed over to replace the departing Charlie McClendon six weeks earlier. Then Bo Rein’s plane crashed, and one day later the school appointed Stovall, a first-time head coach, to preside over a staff he didn’t hire without so much as having met many of his assistants. He lost his dream job four up-and-down years later after the ’83 Tigers failed to win a Southeastern Conference game for the first time in 52 years of being a league member.
Records show Stovall to be the third and most recent former Tiger among the 31 to have ever served as LSU’s head football coach — 32 if you count interim coach Hal Hunter. Strangely enough, two of the three hirings can best be categorized as bizarre in nature.
Back in 1898, team captain Edmond Chavanne became the program’s first-and-only player coach. Coach Allen Jeardeau unexpectedly resigned before the season, and with the school having made no provisions to hire a replacement, the job was left to Chavanne. He posted a 3-2 record over five games during the 1898 and 1900 seasons.
The less peculiar hire was Gaynell Tinsley, a two-time All-American at LSU and an All-Pro at the NFL level. He replaced long-time coach Bernie Moore before the 1948 campaign, and was fired after seven seasons with a career record of 35-34-6.
“No, it doesn’t surprise me,” Stovall responds, asked if he figured another alum would have gotten a shot at coaching the Tigers by now. “It’s not something that runs in cycles, I don’t think. To answer your question specifically would be difficult, but I do know this.”
Stovall speaks like a cross between a coach and a preacher, often answering questions in the form of a story. Almost like sermons, but with the military-grade attention to detail West Point grad Paul Dietzel instilled in him as a freshman all those years ago.
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“And they’re so well healed financially when they leave pro football, they don’t have to do anything. If I had played for nine years and made $10 million a year, I don’t know that I would have wanted to coach.” – Jerry Stovall
And, even with a 75th birthday coming up on April 30, his memory remains sharper than many ex-players 20 and 30 years his junior. He recalls names and anecdotes from his playing or coaching careers like it all happened yesterday.
The football landscape was much different then. Stovall was taken within the first three selections of both the NFL and AFL drafts when he left LSU in 1963. He made three pro bowls over a decorated nine-year career with the St. Louis Cardinals.
Recognizing the last of his playing days drawing near, Stovall reached out to Dietzel, who coached South Carolina at the time. Coach Dietzel told him he wanted to make a change at defensive backs coach, and having played safety in the NFL for the past nine years, Stovall jumped at the chance.
“Given the option, do you want to start all over?” Stovall asks, rhetorically. “It depends on where you’re going to start, doesn’t it? It depends on who you’re going to start with, doesn’t it? And it depends on what your family base is.”
From there he followed the path that brought him success as a player, moving on to work under McClendon at LSU. Upon agreeing to return to Baton Rouge to be an assistant, he told Coach Mac he wasn’t coming back to learn all his football knowledge.
“He said, Well, what do you want then, big boy?” Stovall recalls. “I said, I wanted to make one man feel the way you made me feel when you stood up in front of us before the game.”
The collective imprint of Dietzel and McClendon on Stovall without question influenced the player’s decision to get into coaching. To this day he still unilaterally refers to his late mentors by the respectful moniker of ‘Coach.’
There’s also exists a practical explanation for why he went into coaching, which illuminates one of his primary points: despite playing professional football for nine years, Stovall still had to work to support his family upon retirement.
“For the better players today, the next level has gotten so large,” Stovall explains. “And they’re so well healed financially when they leave pro football, they don’t have to do anything. If I had played for nine years and made $10 million a year, I don’t know that I would have wanted to coach.”
There’s not a twinge of jealousy or bitterness in Stovall’s assessment. He’s apprehensive about the growing blend of youth games and business, but not resentful toward modern-day players who make monopoly money compared to the relative peanuts earned by the league’s pioneers.
He points out the abundance of high-end talent flowing from LSU to the NFL and what he calls “the desire to do bigger and better things.” He characterizes the decreasing number of high-profile former players wanting to grind their way into the coaching ranks as a fallout of a program’s success.
“I’m not trying to make out players in the league or any sport as money hungry, but when you sit down and have got the type of money some of these guys have — enough where you can move your family to anywhere you like and live the style of life you’d like — you get accustomed to that.”
His point isn’t strictly financial, either. After being a star player in today’s era of social media celebrity, there’s an ego hit that comes with starting all over from the bottom in one field after reaching the peak of another. Coaching is a lot of grunt work and man hours, especially in the beginning. It’s a thankless job at times that tends to create more criticism than glory.
That’s why it’s not always the great player that makes the great coach.
A CURSIVE CRIMSON ‘A’ emblazoned on a tri-folded piece of parchment sticks out like a sore thumb on Marcus Randall’s cluttered desk in his second-floor office at the Southern University Laboratory School.
Mail hasn’t stopped flooding in since Randall helped deliver the school’s first football state title since 1996 in his first season as a head coach. This specific piece was a hand-written thank you note to Randall for bringing blue chip linebacker Christopher Allen and a handful of others to Tuscaloosa for Alabama’s annual junior day.
The post script wished the Kittens well ahead of their upcoming title defense. It came from the coach he’d quarterbacked under for five years at LSU — and a man who knows a thing or two about defending titles — Nick Saban.
“We’ve been getting letters from college coaches from all over the place offering congratulations, so those were good to see,” Randall says. “That one made me feel a little more special.”
Randall’s college years spanned the entirety of the Saban era. Arriving on campus as a talented-but-raw prospect, he largely served as a fleet-footed backup. Improving as he matured, Randall saw starting duty down the stretch in place of an injured Matt Mauck 2002 and shared the job with JaMarcus Russell throughout his senior season in 2004.
Bluegrass Miracle heroics notwithstanding, Randall never developed into a marquee player. His older brother, Eric, had been the much bigger collegiate star. He capped a brilliant four-year run as Southern’s quarterback by leading the Jags to the Black College National Championship in 1995.
Recognizing the writing on the wall that NFL fortune might not be coming down the pipeline, Marcus constructed a backup plan. By his redshirt-sophomore season he’d switched his major to education, figuring coaching high school ball would be a likely first stop at the conclusion of his playing days.
After a brief cup of coffee in the NFL, Randall came home and began climbing up the high school ranks. He spent a year at Tara High before taking a job coaching quarterbacks at Woodlawn High, a post he’d occupy for two seasons.
Then Eric, by that time a veteran of the coaching ranks, took over a stagnant program at Scotlandville High and invited little brother to come aboard the rebuilding effort as his offensive coordinator. Eric gave Marcus full latitude to devise the gameplan and call plays during their three seasons together.
That chance and experience is the first thing Randall mentions when asked about his greatest coaching influences. Then lessons imparted to him while in his playing days at LSU.
First, a simple truth that is at the heart of the process and the logic behind why Saban does the things that he does: Focus on the little things because championships are decided in the details.
“From the groundskeepers all the way up to the president and chancellor, he likes everything done with class and done the right way,” he explains. “Doesn’t want to leave no T’s uncrossed or any I’s un-dotted. From the bottom up to the top.”
Then the subject shifts to Fisher, who was Randall’s coordinator and position coach. The pair worked closely together for five years and remain in touch more than a decade later.
Before the start of his inaugural season at Southern Lab, Randall and college teammate Corey Webster traveled to Tallahassee at Fisher’s invitation. They were given a tour of the campus, and afterword Fisher brought Randall into his office for an impromptu film session.
“He actually gave me a lot of pointers going into my first season,” Randall says. “Gave me a lot of cut-ups of some of the things we ran back at LSU and then some of the new things he’s implemented at Florida State. The line of communication has always been open.”
Years earlier, Randall had seriously considered signing on as a graduate assistant at Florida State back when Fisher was still just the coach-in-waiting to Bobby Bowden.
[su_pullquote align=”right” class=”wide”]“If I knew half of the stuff I learned from them when I was in high school, how much more of a better player would I have been? How much more of a better student?” – Marcus Randall[/su_pullquote]
But the thought of working under Fisher again reminded Randall of how much he’d learned in five years of sharing a meeting room with him. Of how much better a collegiate player he could have been if someone had taught him like that as a high schooler.
“Once I got into college and started learning the things I did from my coaches — Coach Saban, Jimbo Fisher, Coach (Will) Muschamp and all those guys — I started thinking back,” Randall says. “If I knew half of the stuff I learned from them when I was in high school, how much more of a better player would I have been? How much more of a better student?
“I knew I wanted to give something back to those kids and give them as much information as I can going forward.”
The desire to mold took Marcus down the same path his brother walked decades earlier. The explanation he gave rung eerily similar to an answer Frank Wilson gave during a radio interview with ESPN 104.5’s Culotta and the Price in February after taking the head coaching job at UTSA.
Wilson, while not an LSU alum, laid a blueprint for how a Louisiana high school coach can climb the ranks and even take a Division I program of their own. He offered the following when asked about the advantages of having been a high school head coach and teacher before undertaking the task at the college level.
“Because I’m genuine,” Wilson said. “I’m pure from the teaching perspective. Understanding from an academic component that I was a classroom teacher and had to adapt to different learning styles of how kids learn.”
He continued: “Whether they’re in high school, college or the NFL, it doesn’t change. They still need someone who is caring, someone who really has their best interest at hand. You continue that process to be a mentor to model for young men and women to be successful. What it is to be a good husband. What it is to be a good father. What it is to work hard.”
Randall began coaching high school seven years ago with his grandest professional goal being to win a state championship. He’d never won one as a player, so he wanted to badly.
He conquered that feat in his first go-round as a head coach. If he takes after his college coach at all, that feeling of accomplishment figures to quickly give way to a gnawing internal drive to find another mountain to scale.
“When I first started coaching, high school was where I wanted to be,” he says. “It’s only been over the last couple of years that I’ve started to think about the college ranks. It’s comes up in my head more now that I’ve been coaching for seven years now, and I’ve got personal goals that I would like to see about reaching.”
Any particular goals you wouldn’t mind sharing? His mind darted back to an earlier topic of conversation. The idea hadn’t been in his head long, but it seemed to have quickly started sprouting roots.
“Who would that next LSU guy be? We don’t even have a candidate right now,” Randall smiles. “I might want to be that guy. That might have to be a goal for me.”
SUCCESSFUL COACHES DON’T need to be part of a school’s history to weave themselves into the fabric of the program itself. The exceptional discard the status quo that exists upon arrival and organically create a culture all their own. The truly transcendent leave behind a legacy that continues on after their tenures end.
No conversation into the history of coaching at LSU goes on for too long before Dale Brown and Skip Bertman come up.
The former led a pair of Final Four runs and built a perennial SEC contender that achieved a level of consistency unmatched by the program, before or since.
The latter was the architect behind one of college baseball’s all-time dynasties that remains standing as a national brand and perennial Omaha contender today.
“The head coach and the quality of individual that he is has the ability to recruit people comparable to that quality to be assistant coaches,” Stovall says. “He has the same ability to recruit the athlete who doesn’t want to be good, but wants to be the very best they can be.”[su_pullquote align=”right” class=”wide”]“I noticed the older players gravitated toward him,” Brown says of Johnny Jones. “He was kind of the black Dick Vitale. He had more information on players and stories, and the older guys really liked him. He had a good sense of humor, leadership qualities and knew basketball.” [/su_pullquote]
Daddy Dale won a program-record 448 games in 25 years patrolling the sidelines on the hardwood. During that time he had 19 assistant coaches, 11 of whom went on to collegiate head coaches. Of those 11, two were former players.
Ricky Blanton, who played on the 1986 Final Four team, took the head coaching job at Nicholls State in 2002. The Colonels went 9-46 over the next two seasons and Blanton resigned before what would have been his third, citing family concerns.
The other, of course, is current LSU coach Johnny Jones. The man from DeRidder arrived in 1980 and played in the 1981 Final Four as a true freshman.
“I noticed the older players gravitated toward him,” Brown says. “He was kind of the black Dick Vitale. He had more information on players and stories, and the older guys really liked him. He had a good sense of humor, leadership qualities and knew basketball.”
Brown says you can’t always tell right away if a guy had what it took to be a coach. He says Ethan Martin, the starting point guard on that 1981 team, would have made a fine coach. Solid leader. Outstanding basketball IQ. “But he didn’t like it.” Couldn’t abide the lack of discipline in a changing high school climate.
Jones was just a rookie playing reserve minutes off the bench at that time, but the man nicknamed ‘The Bullet’ made an impression on his coach from the start.
“There’s some you know instantly and others you’re not so sure of,” Brown says. “I knew then, with him as a freshman, if he developed the way I thought he would, as soon as he got out, I was going to try to hire him as a graduate assistant or assistant coach.”
Jones joined the bench from the day his eligibility ran out. He’d spend the next 13 years coaching under Brown in one capacity or another on the LSU staff. He went on to Memphis and Alabama before landing a head coaching job at North Texas.
Jones compiled a 190-146 record — the best in program history — and made two NCAA Tournament appearances in 11 seasons leading the Mean Green. On April 15, 2012, Athletic director Joe Alleva introduced Jones as the fifth alumni to be named head basketball coach.
“SKIP TELLS YOU like it is.”
Will Davis knew he wanted to be a baseball coach when he arrived on campus as a rookie backstop — in essence, a bullpen catcher — in 2004. So, he figured, why not try to pick the brain of the iconic baseball minds who’d stop by practice more than occasionally.
“The first thing he told me was that I wouldn’t be any good,” laughs Davis, now the coach-in-waiting at Lamar. He’ll take over the keys to the program once long-time coach Jim Gilligan retires at the conclusion of the 2016 season.
It’s an opportunity many, including Bertman himself, campaigned for him to get. It came not a year removed from Davis being a finalist for the UNO job that ultimately stayed with interim coach Blake Dean. Another former Tiger, albeit once with a longer playing career and considerably less time spent as an assistant.
“By the time I left here, Skip was actually trying to help me get coaching jobs,” Davis says. “And he wouldn’t do that for anyone. He’s got to believe in you to do that, and that meant a lot to me. Over seven or eight years I won Skip Bertman over, and that’s an accomplishment.”
The way he did that was by proving himself through years of loyal service logged as a trusted assistant on Paul Mainieri’s coaching staff.
While Davis always knew he wanted to be a head coach — “anybody who knows me knows I’m a type-A personality, and I like to be in charge” — he says it was important to first learn to be an assistant. There are dues that must be paid along the way.
Davis pondered leaving once his eligibility ran out to start coaching a high school team, but Mainieri convinced him to stay. A year later, in 2008, Mainieri made him his coordinator of baseball operations before promoting him to a volunteer assistant coach in 2009.
He began his career from the semi-awkward position of coaching guys he’s played with. Some of whom he’d even lived with.
“Obviously I couldn’t be given the title of coach and just start yelling and screaming at them,” Davis says. “I had to approach those guys differently, and as I built up some time as a coach and we’d had some success, new kids came in and I was able to approach them a little differently. You start helping some guys to have some success at the next level and help the team win. That earns you some credibility.”
Davis didn’t need a mentor to stoke his fire for the profession. Like Mainieri, the coaching gene is in his blood stream thanks to growing up the son of a long-time college baseball coach. He’s naturally sharp and a skilled recruiter with a keen eye for talent and a clever understanding of roster building.
What he admittedly needed, however, was guidance on how to run a program. Being the head coach means making the tough decisions that can alter players’ careers, and everybody knows it. Assistant coaches enjoy the luxury of popularity, he says.
While no two different people handle a given situation in the same way, Davis says he admired and respected the way Mainieri dealt with players. “His thing was once the kids start showing up, you put everything else that comes with the job to the side and make it about them.” The kind of experience a first-time coach can lean on.
“Paul’s a leader. Skip Bertman is a leader. My dad was a leader,” Davis says. “Those are the kind of people that are successful in this business, so that’s the blueprint that I’ve developed coming up watching those guys.”
THE FINAL CHAPTER of the McClendon Era wasn’t a bon voyage into the sunset. The announcement had already been made that the 1979 season would be McClendon’s 18th and final one as LSU coach. His 137 wins still stand as the most in program history, but he hadn’t won enough. ‘Help Mac Pack’ bumper stickers were cropping up all over Baton Rouge as the ‘lame duck’ season wore on to a 7-5 finish.
That set the stage of the ire that would be directed at the favorite son who stepped in for the fallen young coach originally tapped to replace McClendon.
Cries of “Get Stovall a U-Haul” started up among fans after the team finished 3-7-1 in the coach’s second season at the helm.
Those died down as the Tigers posted an 8-3-1 mark and an Orange Bowl appearance in 1982 only to return with a vengeance as LSU failed to win a conference game during the disastrous ’83 campaign.
The cover of Tiger Rag read ‘The Trial of Jerry Stovall,’ and the case was very much playing out in the public eye.
Those frustrated with the roller coaster ride of two seven-loss seasons in three years called for the job of the same man they’d heralded as a player. As the debate raged on, both sides ratcheted up the rhetoric.
“The thing that will break your heart is your wife and daughter come home from grocery shopping,” Stovall says, an emotional frankness in his voice. “Your daughter is about six years old, and they’re both crying. Your daughter says to you ‘Daddy, why are people saying bad things about you?’ In the grocery store for good golly’s sake. I had never prepared myself to have that conversation with one of my children.”
Others rallied to the coach’s cause. Some were fans who remembered his on-field greatness, too. Others sympathized with the difficult situation Stovall stepped into amid the Rein tragedy.
Opinions of his coaching aside, the public perception of Stovall was as a good, Christian man. He taught Sunday school and isn’t shy to speak of his faith and the central role it plays in his life. The players he connected with remain close to his heart today.
Many in his corner directed their ire at athletics director Bob Brodhead, choosing to side with a program stalwart over the perceived outsider who hailed from the pro level without any real ties to the school. Sound familiar?
Brodhead, who made the recommendation to the University’s Board of Supervisors that Stovall be dismissed, was quoted by the New York Times in 1983 as saying “Jerry Stovall’s greatest importance is he’s from LSU. Jerry Stovall is a P.R. man’s dreams. But sadly, you don’t evaluate a P.R. man’s dreams.”
On Dec. 2, 1983, the Board of Supervisors voted by a 13-to-5 count to approve Brodhead’s recommendation and buy out the final year of Stovall’s contract, relieving him of his duties effective immediately.
As the story goes, reporters left the meeting to look for Stovall in hopes of getting a comment. The press corps found him jogging around the university lakes and had to break the bad news after Stovall asked if they knew how the vote went. A lone comment on losing his dream job: “It’s disappointing.”
Stovall never took another coaching job after LSU. He briefly took over as the athletic director of Louisiana Tech, but he’s spent the last 20-plus years as the president and CEO of the Baton Rouge Area Sports Foundation, an organization that works to secure sporting events in and around the city.
There’s a framed picture in Stovall’s downtown office of him and four players on the sidelines during the waning seconds of LSU’s 20-10 win over Bear Bryant and Alabama in 1982. Asked if going back to coach LSU was worth it, he points to it and a smile appears on his face.
“Does that picture mean much to anyone but me?”
At the far left of the shot is Leonard Marshall. Stovall calls him ‘Lenny.’ He went on to become a two-time All-Pro defensive end and won a pair of Super Bowls with the New York Giants. Pride swells within him recounting recently meeting Lenny’s family and the ‘mansion’ he’s built for himself.
Moments later, the old coach’s eyes well up as he remembers visiting a former player in jail simply because “he was one of mine, and if I don’t go see him, nobody else will.” Another called to ask for prayers from Stovall and wife Judy — the players always called her Miss Judy — after his 4-year-old daughter drowned.
“You spend so much more time with other people’s children than your own, and time is the one thing you don’t have plenty of,” Stovall says. “And it’s the one thing you can never go back and recover.
“But you sit yourself down and ask yourself if you had fun doing it. Oh yeah.”