With Trent Johnson's official exit, we can close the book on his tenure. I hate to call the hire a disaster, and it certainly seemed like a great hire at the time. But it's clear that the Johnson hire didn't entirely work, and he leaves he with a losing record, albeit by one measly game.
Johnson made the postseason twice, and the tourney only once, his first year. He also finished last in the West twice. This is a level of performance that gets a guy fired, AD's don't like it when a guy finished last half of the time. However, Johnson skipped town before Alleva had the chance to lower the axe (and he certainly wasn't going to do it this year).
The Johnson hire ended up being a bad hire, but it wasn't an unmitigated disaster. Outside of football, LSU's hires have rarely been great, but also rarely terrible in the past two decades. The Athletic Department is like a solid singles hitter. Sure, you get on, but you're not a big run producer either. So, without further ado, LSU's worst hires in the past twenty years, by sport:
FOOTBALL: Gerry Dinardo
In Dinardo's defense, he wasn't a terrible coach and he was a radical improvement over the guy who he replaced. Dinardo revitalized LSU's recruiting and most importantly, ended LSU's run of losing seasons. He pulled the program out of its death spiral and at least got it back to respectability, finishing in the top 25 three straight years and losing the SEC West by tiebreakers twice (and unlike Ole Miss, wasn't so desperate as to hang a banner, honoring not making it to Atlanta).
Dinardo's problem was that he couldn't build off of those early successes. He replaced DC Phil Bennett with Lou Tepper, and the less said about that, the better. He took a preseason top ten team to a dismal 4-7 season, and the next year was even worse. By the time his captain, WR Larry Foster, was run down by students in the quad for stealing a purse, proving both poor leadership and a lack of SEC speed, the writing was on the wall. Dinardo didn't even make it out of the season with the his job, but the players he recruited would go on to win an SEC and then a national title under Saban.
Dinardo wasn't a great coach, but he did save the program and got it back on the track. I prefer to remember his first three years instead of his last two. However, he's clearly the worst football coach has had in the past twenty years, which actually says a lot about the football program.
TRACK AND FIELD: Dennis Shaver
Poor Dennis Shaver. He's actually a very good coach, but his problem is that he's not one of the best coaches ever, and the guy he replaced was. The problem here was not hiring Shaver, but letting Pat Henry walk. Henry went to Texas A&M and built a juggernaut there, just like he did here.
Skip Bertman hasn't made many mistakes, but this is his biggest one. He and Henry always had a prickly relationship, and Bertman didn't invest in the track program in some sort of bizarre way to show his dominance as LSU's greatest coach in any sport. It was petty and silly, and now the best coach in his sport left LSU to what is now a conference rival.
Of the non-revenue sports, this is the worst head coaching hire, which once again, shows how well LSU has done in hiring and firing coaches. There's been a shortage of home run hires, but when the worst hire is "the guy was very good instead of great", you're doing pretty darn good. I know Yvette Girouard has her critics, but those people are dumb. She's won three SEC titles and taken the Lady Tigers to their only two WCWS appearances. I'm not sure what else people want out of the softball program.
WOMEN'S BASKETBALL: Van Chancellor
Van's a legend. He was a great coach at Ole Miss for decades, and then he won four WNBA titles, a world title, and an Olympic gold medal. It's really hard to attack that resume. So when Pokey Chatman was forced to resign due to an inappropriate relationship with several players, he was a great guy to come in and fill the gap.*
Why, Pokey? She actually was a home run hire but LSU sort of had to fire her. She didn't even lie about the relationships or hire them into university positions. Lesson to Arkansas.
Chancellor may have been a legend, but even legends can reach their expiration date. He was a disinterested recruiter, and he took a program that had gone to four straight Final Fours on a straight slope of decline: Final Four, second round, second round, not in tournament. In four years, he turned one of the elite programs in women's basketball into an also ran.
It's hard to be mad at the guy. He was hired to be a stand in until the AD found another coach, it just took them four years to get off their ass and find a worthy successor to Pokey. I think they found that coach in Nikki Caldwell, but she's starting from near ground zero instead of walking into Final Four or even Sweet Sixteen level program. This one is squarely on the AD, and I hope Van enjoys his retriment. He earned it.
BASEBALL: Smoke Lavall
You never want to be the guy who follows a legend. Bertman hired Smoke in 2001 as an assistant, and the next season, handed off the reigns of one of the best college programs in any sport. Laval lost in the Supers in his first year and then followed it up with two trips to Omaha, where he went two and Q both times. Those three teams won 44, 45, and 46 games, respectively. So, in 2005, LSU won "only" 40 games and failed to make the Supers for the first time since the Supers were invented, fans naturally called for his head.
Really, the level of vitriol spewed at Smoke is hard to describe, or even understand. His great sin was not being Skip Bertman. He actually kept the program at a pretty high level, but he had the personality of a rock, and fans turned on him ruthlessly. Which was bound to happen once LSU fans realized you can't win the national title every other year like Skip seemed to do. He had his first bad year in 2006, missing the tournament, and Skip promptly fired his hand-picked successor.
I feel bad for Smoke as he was hired to be fired. You just can't follow a legend unless you become a legend yourself. The standard for Smoke was win a national title or get canned, and when he couldn't win in Omaha, he got the axe. He probably deserved to get fired, but he didn't quite deserve to be demonized the way he was. He's not Skip. No one is. Still, a bad hire because it shows the importance of personality and public relations. Smoke was miserable at PR, and that lack of goodwill cost him his job.
MEN'S BASKETBALL - John Brady
Let's get this out of the way: John Brady did go to a Final Four, and that counts for a lot. 2006 was a great season capped by a great run. I've got nothing negative to say about that team. So what was bad about John Brady? Pretty much everything else. In fact, I believe he was the worst hire by LSU in any sport over the past two decades.
Remember when I critiqued Trent for finishing last in half of his seasons? Guess who else turned that trick? John Brady coached at LSU for 11 seasons and LSU finished last in the West in five of them. He got LSU to the tournament four times, meaning Brady had more last place finishes than tournament trips over an eleven year tenure.
Sure, he took over a team on probation. The last years of Dale Brown's tenure were pretty miserable, but Brady inherited a team that was pretty devoid of talent. He responded by employing a roster management style that can only be described as reckless. Brady was never the most skilled recruiter, but he was terrible at keeping guys in the program. Transfers abounded which made the scholarship limitations even worse, this by his own hand. By the time the NCAA invented the APR metric, Brady was among the worst violators in the nation.
In eleven seasons, LSU had a winning record in SEC play three times. That's right, three. Two of those years, he won the SEC title. He was the worst kind of bad coach: a bad coach who every four years has a great season to keep his job and extend his reign of terror. Really, D-Mitch draining that three pointer in the final second against A&M might have been the worst thing that ever happened to LSU basketball. Sure, it sparked a Final Four run, but if LSU loses in the second round, Brady gets canned three years earlier.
LSU went from a national brand under Daddy Dale to a complete backwater under Brady. The Deaf Dome died, and fans stayed away in droves. the teams didn't just lose, but they lost playing a bland, unattractive style of basketball. He left a wreckage behind him which Johnson has just managed to pick up, repairing our APR from the dangerous levels under Brady and restoring some sense of discipline in the program.
Johnson wasn't a great coach at LSU, but he was better than Brady. However, that's damning the man with faint praise. This program needs something to bring back the days of the Deaf Dome, because we are separated from that era by more than just time.