Late last week stories, which we already chronicled, began to break about Justin Hamilton leaving to pursue pro-ball and Trent Johnson interested in the TCU head coaching position. Johnson will hold a press conference Monday afternoon to be announced as TCU’s new man and Hamilton has already came out to announce he was leaving the school. The announcements busted the bubble of any post-season opportunity the school had next season and now it seems as though the basketball program is even worse off that before Johnson arrived on-campus.
Lets take a quick ride and look at the history of LSU basketball, don’t worry it is a short trip. In over 100 years of men’s basketball, LSU claims to have won the 1935 national championship (LSU actually won the American Legion Bowl, not recognized by the NCAA). LSU won its first SEC championship in 1935 (only its third year in the league), but has only won the SEC regular season title ten times in eighty years and only won the conference tournaments once (1980). Since 1952 LSU had made a post-season tournament 23 times (19 NCAA, 4 NIT) and 21 of those appearances happened after 1978.
LSU basketball has been successful, but only in short spurts. The Tigers had a few good years in the 1950’s thanks to Bob Petite. In the late 1960’s LSU was on national TV weekly to see Pete Maravich play, but most of Maravich’s teams barely won more than half of their games. In 1972, Dale Brown entered the scene at LSU as coach and led LSU into its wining-est era in the schools history. He led LSU to 13 of its 19 NCAA tournament appearances and four of there SEC titles.
Growing up in the 1980s and early 1990s, it was just as big of an event to go to the “deaf dome” for a basketball games as it was for a football game, but all of that changed quick. Following the 1993 season, LSU would go into the dark ages of the sport and have only come out into the sun a few times and that is the problem with the program, lack of stability.
If you were born after 1985 then the only positive memory you have of the basketball program is their sweet-sixteen run in 2000 and their final four run in 2006. In the meantime the baseball and football teams have won multiple championships. So basically the under 30 Tiger fan could give a crap about basketball because of low expectations and the over 50 crowd remembers the dark days before Dale Brown where success only came by a once in a generation player. Leaving both of those bases skeptical of investing their time or money on a product they can’t stand behind.
So where does that leave the program now? In short not good, as it stands now LSU only has nine players coming back and the recruiting class looks weak. The Tigers still have a week to try to fill the five empty scholarships, and at this point only has one recruit committed. LSU has to look beyond just the success of next year’s team, but what level do they want the program to be at in three, five and ten years from now. As Dale Brown showed, with an above average coach and good teams, fans will support this team and LSU can be a productive basketball program.
I read an article the other day about how the basketball team is at the same crossroads that the football team was before they hired Gerry Dinardo. I respectfully have to disagree. The main reason is that the fans have always been behind the football team, but if you have been to the PMAC in the last three years or just try to find someone to talk LSU basketball, there just isn’t many fans out there. The PMAC holds over 13,000 fans per home game, but since 2000 only five years has had an average attendance of over 9,500 fans. What Joe Alleva has to do is figure out how to get fans interested in going to the PMAC and following the basketball program.
The first thing Alleva has to do is find the coach that creates a little buzz in Baton Rouge. Alleva has already done this by hiring Trent Johnson back in 2008. Just look at the attendance in 2008 (John Brady’s last season) the average home attendance was 8565, but just a year later the attendance jumped to 10,373. Where things went wrong for Johnson was that we could not recruit, this is what Alleva needs to get right this go around. LSU needs a coach to can set up a fence around the state in recruiting and be able to get into the in-rows of local AAU basketball teams (something Johnson was terrible at). It also would not hurt if the coach has some ties to Texas recruiting and why not be a former coach and player.
Think this guy is hard to find, he isn’t. The coach LSU needs is currently located at North Texas. Johnny Jones played and was an assistant coach for LSU during the Dale Brown era and has spent the last decade turning North Texas into a successful program. The LSU coaching shoe seems to fit Jones perfectly, but would he be interested in taking over a program that might seem to some as beyond repairable? If LSU can get Jones and he can recruit New Orleans and Baton Rouge then he should be able to sustain the level of success John Brady had in the middle part of the 2000s.
The other part of Alleva’s job is to improve the overall fan experience at the PMAC. LSU hasn’t had to do this in football and baseball, so I understand how slow the athletic department has been in making changes. Over the past three seasons the best thing LSU has done is lowered ticket prices on both season and individual game tickets. For 100 dollars you can get season tickets and 10 dollars earns you individual game tickets, but money isn’t the problem. Lowering ticket prices is the same as offering two-for-one specials on sand in the sierra, it doesn’t matter what price you make tickets when people don’t want/need it. Alleva could attract more crowds by scheduling more interesting home games. The best LSU did last year was Marquette and Virginia, only two out of conference games against teams in the top-25 (when they played them). Both game attracted large crowds for OCC matchups and both game were extreamly entertaining. The SEC already has agreements with other conferences for yearly matchups, but normally the conference tries to match teams up against one another equally. Last year LSU traveled to Rutgers, what was the good in that? How hard would it be to schedule a home and home with Texas, Memphis, or Louisville? All would love to come here for recruiting and the home games would surely draw well and air nationally. Lets give LSU fans the chance to go out and watch a good team (even if it isn’t LSU) and the chance to root the Tigers on in a possible upset would be great for the morale of the program.
If you went to a game in 2000 and didn’t return until 2012, almost everything would look and feel the same in the PMAC. Sure the seats have changed colors, but that is about it. Where is the fan interaction? Last week I took my nephew to a Hornets game (the tickets were free). I was amazed at the interaction between the team any myself. I sat in good, but not great seats (lower bowl in a curve), but all game had waitresses (not vendors) coming by asking if I wanted food or drinks. For thirty dollars I signed my nephew up for the kidz club in which he received a backpack, shorts, basketball, ball cap, binder, lanyard, a Hornet’s bobble-head, and numerous other toys and decals. You don’t think this kid is a Hornets fan for life? Of course he is. It is an opportunity like this LSU needs to take advantage of. LSU needs to give us a reason to get out of our recliners and watch the game from the PMAC instead of on TV or online.
Obviously, I could write a book on how to improve fan interactions across the board, but I won’t for now. Instead I will ask you, what will it take for you to go out to watch a LSU basketball game at the PMAC? Is it only about putting a good product on the floor, or would an exciting opponent and a fun environment pull you out to the arena no matter what the outcome was?