Earlier this week, reports began to surface that, as most expected following a dreadful 10-21 season, LSU would fire basketball coach Johnny Jones following the SEC tournament.
It was a short stay in Nashville for the Tigers, as Mississippi State beat LSU 79-52 on Wednesday night. And per a Thursday report from The Advocate, Jones and LSU athletic director Joe Alleva are expected to meet sometime today.
In some ways, you have to feel for Jones, who is both an alumnus and a former player. Sure, he’s walking away with a nice chunk of change from his buyout, but LSU was his dream job, one that his former coach, Dale Brown, had been angling for him to get for nearly 20 years. Daddy Dale had always viewed his prize pupil has his natural successor, but the NCAA issues that led to Brown’s downfall ultimately precluded that from happening in the 1990s.
Still, it’s been clear that this was never going to work out for Jones, even before 2016’s high-profile failure with Ben Simmons, and 2017’s bottoming out. While he could recruit, and was quickly able to restock a roster depleted from his predecessor, Trent Johnson, it was also very clear that he was lost in big-moments, strategically. His teams were never able to play effective defense, and the offense out of timeouts looked...well...I’m far from a basketball expert, but I can at least spot a team trying to run an offensive set, and the Tigers rarely did.
Tiger Rag Editor Cody Worsham, who is is as plugged in to the hoops scene as anybody in local media, and happens to have a real feel for the game itself, had an excellent column earlier in the week that illuminated a lot, and also discussed next steps for the program:
It’s possible to overcome losing seasons, but Jones is fighting battles on more than one front. He was never Alleva’s first choice. LSU’s athletic director passed on Jones in 2008 in favor of Johnson, and first offered the job to Tubby Smith in 2012. Smith’s refusal, plus political pressure from key basketball boosters and some success at North Texas, opened the door for Jones.
Now, Alleva will not hesitate to shut it. The summer before Simmons’ arrival, several sources told me Jones had a two-year window to make or break his job. That window, it seems, was well-known enough to destabilize Jones’ staff, leading several assistants to take jobs elsewhere and their potential replacements to steer clear altogether.
Simmons’ wild year and the bad press it generated nearly cost Jones a year ago. Based on several conversations with folks in the know, I’ve inferred Jones had to make the NCAA Tournament this year to keep his job. Whether or not Alleva issued such a directive remains unclear.
Its true that Alleva was never high on Jones. He had a successful run at North Texas, but not the kind that gets a coach a job in a major conference. Nobody else was really beating down Jones’ door at the time. But Alleva’s first hire — literally, in his first few weeks on the job — was Trent Johnson. And as much as it looked like a slam dunk (pardon the pun), Johnson proved a horrible fit for LSU and struggled to recruit or ingratiate himself with the appropriate basketball power brokers here, namely Brown and Collis Temple Jr. Those same power-brokers made it known to Alleva that if he expected their support for Johnson’s replacement, he needed to hire Jones and Alleva acquiesced.
LSU basketball has a very small circle of people that have real stroke with the program. There just isn’t a long list of people who’s approval Alleva needs for a decision, the way there is in, say, football. That circle pushed for Jones’ hiring and also supported him through the rough times. That, and his status as a former player, alumnus and general class act are really what spared Jones’ a more ignoble in-season firing this year when it was clear things were off the rails. There was never going to be some locker-room execution following the last game.
But, things are remain a bit uncertain. Those same power-brokers are still going to have some say over who gets this job. LSU just isn’t set up for Alleva to be that type of autocrat. Never has been. That’s also known in the coaching community, and you can bet coaches know that they need the right connections for the job, and to succeed at it. Still, LSU is a low-pressure job in a conference that isn’t all that difficult. Its also an athletic department that can afford to throw money at the basketball problem. That’s where the attraction comes in.
Tom Crean is on his way out at Indiana with two Big 10 titles and a Final Four on his résumé. (I don’t really see this one happening, to be fair.) Buzz Williams makes big bucks at Virginia Tech, but the former UNO head coach could see the SEC as far more friendly waters to navigate. Notre Dame’s Mike Brey interviewed for the LSU job in 2008; perhaps the former Duke assistant and Northwestern State alum whose sister attended LSU desires a change of scenery. Scott Drew is the son of former Dale Brown assistant Homer, and his work at Baylor has been remarkable this year. That athletic department is highly unstable at the moment, for obvious reasons.
Should LSU swing and miss at a big name – or simply choose to take the pitch – I’d look into the successful mid-major head coach/high-major assistant coach market. Ex-LSU assistant Eric Musselman has NBA experience and turned Nevada from Mountain West cellar dwellers to Mountain West champs. Arizona assistant Joe Pasternak led UNO through turbulent post-Katrina waters and has been the target of several recent coaching searches, including UNLV and Nevada. Xavier alum Pat Kelsey just led Winthrop to the NCAA Tournament; if Chris Mack remains put in Norwood, he’ll be eyeing Power 5 jobs this offseason.
Whomever Alleva pursues, I’d expect there to be some sort of connection on the staff to Dale Brown and LSU’s hoops legacy. There’s value in keeping ties to the program’s successful past. Ex-Tiger point guard and current assistant coach Randy Livingston has only been on Jones’ staff for a year. He has recruiting ties in New Orleans and has the ear of the current roster. I’d not be shocked if he’s around for the next head coach, as well.
That’s a relatively solid list, and somebody like Brey or Crean would be a true coup for Alleva and Co. Whether or not they are realistic options is anybody’s guess. Personally, LSU basketball feels a lot like LSU football felt post Curly Hallman. And that might mean that its more realistic for the program to find a Gerry DiNardo right now, as opposed to a Nick Saban; the kind of coach that can show you the road map to big-time success, but likely not get you there. That could mean, for a former NBA guy like Musselman, a coach that comes in, wins quickly but then moves on to bigger and better things. Either way, we’re talking about a job that might not be a one-coach fix.
Whether that fix will even begin to happen is anybody’s guess right now.