Let me preface this by stating the obvious: any year where you have two teams win a national championship in a Big Three sport, it was a great athletics year. The fact that it included a first title in a sport, period, and a sport where LSU views itself to be the juggernaut of just adds two very juicy cherries on the top.
But across the board, LSU athletics are doing better than they were since the COVID-19 pandemic hit. A lot of it has to do with the fact that Scott Woodward has left his mark on the program by replacing nearly every head coach that LSU athletics takes seriously (more on this later), but it goes beyond that. It’s also a lot harder to be pessimistic about LSU athletics than it was before. Maybe the shadow of the pandemic hung over me like it did in every other aspect of my life, but this year felt extremely freeing. Again, two titles help that but it runs deeper.
I can’t quite point my finger on one thing that changed my fan outlook, so instead I’ll highlight a few moments that stand out and weave together.
Women Break Through
One weird quirk of LSU athletics before this year was LSU women’s athletics in the postseason. Excluding the lovely ladies of track and field, across nearly every sport they’ve never been able to get to bring it home. Basketball couldn’t win in the Final Four during the Augustus/Fowles era; DD Breaux kept coming tantalizing, almost cruelly, close to her much-deserved title; and softball turning in great teams year after year that were always just a step behind the Oklahomas, Florida States, and Alabamas in the postseason.
It’s been frustrating to say the least to watch LSU field a great team in gymnastics and softball only to come up short in the postseason year after year, all the while basketball has been wandering the wilderness.
So, when they made the NCAAs in Mulkey’s second year, I was braced for impact because it had all the trappings of a typical LSU postseason: great team who had a great season but were short of the national championship caliber teams. After all, the South Carolina game weighed heavily upon my mind. And they continued through the tournament, advancing back into the Final Four, confirming the minimum of “great season”. At that point, I’m ready to cash out emotionally. When they fall behind double digits to Virginia Tech in the semifinal, I’m in like at the emotional teller’s window with my stub in hand.
But they managed to come back, and somehow, someway, win the game. It’s unfair to say I didn’t find joy in that win because I did. But I was keeping a keen eye on the other Caitlin Clark-shaped shoe to drop. LSU had already achieved the greatest season in program history, I was more than happy to accept a finalist appearance.
Only the shoe never fell. LSU shot the lights out of the arena and didn’t just win; they ran Iowa and Clark out of the building and in doing snapped the unfortunate streak of teams that couldn’t finish the drill.
Flip The Script
After LSU basketball won the first big three women’s sports title in school history, LSU baseball won it’s seventh. Math is different, but the importance is the same.
I’ve spilled enough ink on this team, but the long and short of it is that I was worried that LSU wouldn’t be able to get the job done with the top two picks in the draft and an insane lineup. Spoiler alert: they did, but in unexpected fashion by turning their greatest weakness into their greatest strength. They did win a title by mashing 18 runs, but they were only able to do that because the entire pitching staff, not just Paul Skenes, carried them through the College World Series.
This Uno reverse card is the biggest thing that changed my outlook on LSU athletics and my LSU fandom. They really did flip the script and proved that just because one thing is true in May doesn’t mean it will be true in June.
One Big Step On The Path
Look, I still am not the greatest fan of Brian Kelly. I’ll probably never be. But when he was hired, it was inarguable that the results would come. I just didn’t think that it would be so soon, and I don’t think anybody did. I’m still not entirely over the A&M debacle, and I probably will never be, but I’m not going to lose the forest for the trees.
This season was not just a success, but a resounding success. The team got better week over week, to the point where the squad we had before A&M was miles ahead of what we saw in Week 1 in New Orleans. They not only had the talent to compete with Alabama, but they also had someone on the sideline who was able of outmaneuvering the coach on the other sideline and did so. They ran into the Georgia buzzsaw in the SEC Championship, but it’s hard to hold that against them.
The exciting thing is that this would be classified as a successful year any time, and the fact that we’re heading into an expanded playoff era where this LSU team would be very much in the playoff discussion bodes very well for the program. The fact that it happened in year one of the Kelly Era? There’s a bad precedent for proclaiming college football programs as “back,” but we’re in John Wick territory.
Keep The Gun Holstered
Curiously, the last thing that sticks out to me from a positivity standpoint was an objective failure.
The LSU women’s basketball team may have snapped the women’s rough postseason luck, but that didn’t transfer across the street to Tiger Park. The softball Tigers had a decent season that didn’t quite live up to their standards and ended up suffering a humiliating loss to ULL in their own regional.
There’s no other way of slicing it, it was a bad loss that was hard to handle. Given Woodward’s penchant for running coaches who weren’t his, there were discontented rumblings that a change may be on the horizon after yet another season ended too early. This felt especially dreadful, as the cutthroat nature of modern college athletics that makes stakeholders to make more reactive decisions and less level-headed and rational decisions that make college athletics feel more like a corporate entity and less like a program representing a state university.
Only it never happened. Either Woodward believes in Beth Torina’s program or cooler heads prevailed, and unless something breaks late, Torina remains at LSU. And as she should: Torina has a .691 winning percentage at LSU and clipped her eighth 40-win season here. Yes, they haven’t made it to Oklahoma City since 2017 and pressure is mounted to get back there but firing her now would have been extremely reactionary and she has proven that she deserves as much runway as Breaux had until her retirement.
Besides, this year has proven not only can LSU women can win a title, but also things can change in a year and perceived weaknesses can turn into strengths even quicker.