It’s been an interesting Thanksgiving weekend around the LSU athletic program. After all, LSU is now apparently turning into a basketball school, as Will Wade’s hot 7-0 start and championship of the Emerald Coast Classic, earned with a dominating 75-61 win over previously-unbeaten Wake Forest puts Tiger hoops in position to jump into a Top 25 vacated by the football team weeks ago.
And Ed Orgeron got to go out a winner with a dramatic, come-from-behind 27-24 victory over Texas A&M which ruined the Aggies’ season and helped avoid the first losing year at LSU since 1999. That season, Gerry DiNardo’s last, and this one have been eerily similar in many ways, not the least of which being that this year, as in 1999, the offensive line coach will serve as the interim head coach for the final game of the season. Hal Hunter went out a huge winner in 1999 after taking over for DiNardo; we’ll see how Brad Davis does coaching in a bowl game in Birmingham, Memphis or some other locale when LSU is given its postseason assignment.
But the real news coming out of the LSU football program over the weekend was that the man many Tiger fans were led to believe was the next head football coach, Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley, isn’t coming. On Sunday, Riley threw the college football world a major curve ball when he accepted the head coaching job at USC, and that news left lots of LSU fans wondering What In The World Is Going On.
Given all of that, here are 10 quick thoughts on where LSU is with its coaching search:
1. Lincoln Riley doesn’t want to coach in the SEC, and as sexy a hire as he might be LSU might have dodged a bullet with him.
This is going to sound like sour grapes. Maybe it is. But the thing to understand is there are no perfect coaches out there. Even the guys you think are perfect still have warts. And while Riley is definitely a quarterback guru with a gorgeous, fun-to-watch offense, he isn’t perfect.
The knock on Riley from Oklahoma observers has been that his teams are soft and that it’s a reflection of their coach. That Riley is too “pretty,” and he doesn’t exude that killer instinct you see from other top-tier coaches. He’s still very young, so perhaps he’d grow into that. But on the other hand Riley has gone from three years in a row making the playoffs to a year winning the Big 12 and not making the playoffs, to now not making the Big 12 championship game. That’s more of a downward trajectory than evidence of a coach’s development, though it’s relatively unfair to trash a guy who’s 10-2. Had he stayed at Oklahoma it would have been very reasonable to expect he’d win the Big 12 again with Caleb Williams as a sophomore quarterback next year.
But all three times he made the playoffs as a head coach, Riley ran into an SEC opponent in the first round. He lost all three, the last time to Orgeron and LSU in a blowout. That he’s leaving Oklahoma for USC in advance of OU joining the SEC tells you not only didn’t he want the LSU job, he didn’t even want his own job if it was going to be in the nastiest league in college football.
And that does validate the “soft” knock on Riley.
2. Did LSU actually offer Riley?
We’re told the answer is no, and a number of LSU-connected legacy media guys, like 247 Sports’ Shea Dixon, have said the same for several days as the Riley hype built. From what we understand, LSU AD Scott Woodward put out a number among agents for football coaches, $100 million over eight years, as a potential contract for the right hire. And at some point over the course of the season Woodward and Trace Armstrong, Riley’s agent, did have conversations. But we’re told it never got so far as an actual offer to Riley, and all of the hype surrounding a Riley-to-LSU move was essentially a double smokescreen – giving USC a splash nobody saw coming, and shielding Woodward from disclosure of his own top man.
Is that true? Honestly, we have no idea. It could very well be a “CYA” narrative the athletic department is leaking out. But the fact that Dixon, who’s about as well-connected into the LSU football program as any Baton Rouge media member, was never interested in the Riley hype does give it a little bit of credence.
3. So who’s the coach?
The real answer to that question will be known when it’s time for it to be known. We could throw out a list of candidates that you’ve probably seen in a bunch of places, but here’s the thing: the way Scott Woodward works when he’s making a hire, information about what he’s doing is locked up tighter than a bank vault. Anything you hear about this process is as likely as not to be (1) made up by somebody or (2) leaked as disinformation from the athletic department so that Woodward is able to work behind the scenes like he wants to.
Smokescreens on top of smokescreens.
4. But why the smokescreens?
Well, let’s remember something. LSU fans, and not just the fans – you have boosters, and especially Board of Supervisors members – are some of the chattiest gossip-merchants on earth. It gets even worse given the all-out passion this state has for LSU athletics; the gossipers have an overabundance of willing listeners for everything they dish.
So if you’re Scott Woodward, it’s not enough just to go and hire somebody. You have to make sure the hire is done quietly and away from the eyes and ears of these people, because if it’s out in the open it’s guaranteed that somebody among them will go and blab it to the Advocate or one of the TV stations. That played a large part in ruining a planned coaching transition from Les Miles to Jimbo Fisher in 2015; an LSU board member essentially blew up the Fisher hire on purpose because he didn’t want Miles fired.
So you have to make mushrooms out of the insiders; meaning, keep them in the dark and feed them s**t. The Riley hype would have bought Woodward an entire week to do vetting and negotiation with whoever his real guy might be.
5. Doesn’t LSU look bad in all this, though? USC has a coach, and so does Florida. Even TCU found somebody. Why doesn’t LSU?
First of all, Florida hired Billy Napier from ULL. LSU wasn’t interested in Napier, who’s done well there but not enough to get Woodward’s attention. And it ought to be recognized that even top-flight coaches from the Sun Belt – like Neal Brown (Troy) at West Virginia and Scott Satterwhite (Appalachian State) at Louisville – very often struggle when moving up to Power 5 schools. And Napier has only built a program at one place; that’s a hole in his resume. You’re a proven head coach when you’ve been able to build and maintain, or build and rebuild, at one school or – what’s even better – to have built a program at multiple places.
LSU could have had Napier. Woodward is setting his sights higher. It doesn’t matter who hires first, it matters who hires best. Woodward might be wrong about Napier, and Napier might do really well at Florida. But if LSU hires a top coach it’s irrelevant what Florida did. And the optics of Riley going to USC rather than LSU don’t mean a hill of beans if four years from now LSU has a better program under the coach Woodward does hire than USC does.
6. There isn’t one savior for LSU’s program.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in this idea that the one coach out there you’ve decided you like is who Woodward had better hire, or else it’s a disaster. Try not to fall for that, because it’s stupid.
Let’s remember that the last three coaches at LSU have all won national championships, and the last two have been fired – and rightly so. Both were in the process of driving the program into decline, and neither had a clue how to fix their problems. What that means is that you don’t have to hire a Nick Saban to win championships at LSU. You just need somebody who’s above average. A coach NFL teams are interested in is probably good enough to kick ass at LSU. A coach who’s won multiple Coach of the Year awards is probably going to do at least as well as Les Miles or Ed Orgeron did here.
So whoever the hire is, don’t throw a fit over it. Woodward is a professional athletic director who knows what he’s doing, and he’s vetted these guys a hell of a lot more than you have and has a lot more information than you do. Besides…
7. Whoever it is, two days after the hire is made you’re going to think he’s the best coach ever.
You can deny this, but it’s undeniable.
After all, when Gerry DiNardo was hired he’d never had a winning season as a head coach. Actually, he never had one after he left LSU. When his name leaked out the folks were apoplectic about the hire. Then DiNardo came to campus, gave a stirring speech about “bringing back the magic” of Tiger Stadium, and all of a sudden everybody was on board. And when Orgeron got the job despite being wholly unqualified for it, less than a week later Tiger Nation was bought in to the narrative of how cool it is that LSU had a Cajun from Cut Off coaching the team.
Whoever Woodward hires, and he’ll make this hire according to a far higher standard than LSU has had over most of the last 45 years, you’re going to buy in. Because you want to buy in. Once the guy starts talking about how awesome LSU is and how he’s going to bring you a championship, you’ll be hooked. Just admit that and you’ll be happier. You can then turn on him once he proves he’s a bum, if he does, and you can say you always thought he was a bum. But we and you know that’ll be dishonest. It’s fine. That’s how this works.
8. The fact that LSU didn’t announce a hire today is meaningless.
There are folks who think that because Sunday came and went (as of this writing Sunday NIGHT has not yet expired), it means LSU’s next coach is either coaching in a conference championship game or perhaps is even coaching in the NFL at present.
Let’s give that a day or two before we commit to it.
There are reasons, and particularly PR reasons, why it might be better to let speculation simmer for a couple of more days before letting news of a hire leak out even if the coach Woodward is reeling in is finished with the 2021 regular season.
For one thing, USC and Florida have made hires, and they’re going to be holding press conferences about it. That means they’ll at least share in the news cycle. If you’re Woodward, what you want is to claim the whole thing and dominate it. Wait a day or two and then start leaking out the goods, and if you do a press conference on Wednesday, let’s say, you will have the whole college football world watching.
Not to mention that LSU plays a relatively highly-thought-of Ohio University team in hoops on Wednesday night. If you’ve got a Tuesday leak and a Wednesday announcement and the new coach is in the PMAC on his first day on campus, you probably have a huge walk-up crowd, a full arena and a maximum amount of energy there with the whole world looking in.
That’s a very cool way to announce a Matt Campbell, for example, or a Brian Kelly.
Or maybe the hire is a Dave Aranda, or a Mario Cristobal, or a Luke Fickell, whose teams play in conference championships this coming weekend. If so, the wait can’t be avoided.
Either way, Woodward could well be staging this for maximum media attention, which you wouldn’t do by leaking it out on Sunday.
9. But Woodward already has his man, right?
Probably. Lots of people are saying that, though there is no specific evidence to back that contention. But the LSU job has been open for more than a month now, and Woodward has wanted to replace Orgeron pretty much ever since he took over as the athletic director. It’s very reasonable to think he’s done an enormous amount of vetting of potential coaches, and it’s certainly not in his pattern to be scrambling around looking for one.
The fact that there was no interest in Napier, and so little buzz around Aranda, when both coaches have proximity and/or connection to the program and would be quite likely as fallback options, is telling. Woodward is not somebody who gets caught with his pants down. It makes sense he’s already locked his guy in and the only question is when the news begins to leak out.
10. So who would make sense?
What we’re not going to do is make a prediction here, because that would have to be based on actual information about Woodward’s process – and we don’t have any, nor does anybody else outside of a small handful of people.
But we would say there are a few coaches out there who would seem to fit Woodward’s modus operandi, and who could foreseeably do exceptionally well at LSU.
Aranda would be one, obviously, though if he were going to be the coach you’d probably have heard more buzz. There is a persistent rumor in Baton Rouge that someone named Aranda has enrolled kids in The Dunham School for the spring semester, but that’s literally the only nugget of information out there pointing to him. There should be more. He’s got an LSU connection, having spent four years as the defensive coordinator here, but a 12-9 record as a head coach in two years is way too thin compared with the Chris Peterson-Jimbo Fisher-Buzz Williams-Kim Mulkey-Jay Johnson pattern Woodward usually sticks to with his major program hires.
Closer to that pattern would be a Brian Kelly, who has won big at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan, Cincinnati and Notre Dame. Or a Luke Fickell, who’s poised to put Cincinnati into the playoffs for the first time ever. Or even Campbell, who’s won four conference Coach of the Year awards at Toledo and Iowa State, is ISU’s winningest coach, has beaten Riley two of the last three years and almost beat him this year and has a heretofore-downtrodden program on the verge of getting its fifth straight bowl bid. Kentucky’s Mark Stoops is another name out there; Stoops has taken UK to six straight bowl games. He’s probably a little more blue-collar than we’d expect, but there’s no question he’s capable, and if he had a top-flight offensive coordinator at LSU we wouldn’t be surprised at all if he won big.
There are others out there, and we wouldn’t be surprised if a massive name nobody thinks is possible were to shake loose. If Woodward’s number of $12 million a year is a real thing, it’s not impossible that Clemson’s Dabo Swinney might appear out of the ether; Swinney is making $8.3 million now and he’s more or less maxed out what that program can do.
Scott Woodward makes big-time, splash hires. He spends a lot of money doing it. There is every reason to think that’s what’s coming in the next few days. Relax and enjoy it.
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