College Athletics in Louisiana is Getting Messy

There’s a lot of drama brewing in Division 1 college athletics in South Louisiana.

Perhaps the most publicized display of this over the past year took place during an early round NIT postseason game between the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns and the LSU Tigers. The match-up garnered national media attention with SB Nation saying of the game: “LSU vs. Louisiana is the college basketball rivalry you never knew you needed”.

The Cajuns’ coach had said some things earlier in the week that were taken out of context by the media. LSU coach Will Wade used it to motivate his team and to motivate the fans.

Motivation was exactly what Tigers basketball and its fans needed after a few lackluster seasons and a postseason invitation to the NIT – a major accomplishment to a mid-major program like the Cajuns, but a disappointment to the team that plays ball in the house that Shaq built.

Ultimately, the drama spilled out onto the court.

The game was reminiscent of the baseball regional in 2002 between LSU and the Cajuns that nearly erupted into a brawl and resulted in several players and coaches ejected.

In this game, coaches had to be held back from fights. Technical fouls were called. There were reportedly chants of “F*** YOU!” coming from LSU fans in the stands, egged on by LSU head coach Will Wade. And then, Wade capped off the night with an infamous statement that he would never schedule the Cajuns for future match-ups under their current leadership. 

The best basketball rivalry in the state was effectively over before it even started.

Scheduling Dilemma

It’s just the latest in a long line of scheduling drama between the Cajuns and the Tigers. LSU head softball coach Beth Torina has refused to play at Lamson Park in Lafayette despite other top 10 softball programs coming to visit the perennial top-25 Cajuns over the past few years.

After a recent postseason matchup between the two in Baton Rouge, Torina exclaimed “I think it’s nice to see how strong college softball is in the state of Louisiana. I think it’s a lot of fun. As long as we keep hosting it here in Tiger Park, I’m good with it.”

While a lot of drama has taken place between the Cajuns and LSU, Tulane has seen its fair share as well. Several years ago, LSU ended their annual rivalry matchup against Tulane by buying out of the contract for a reported $700,000.

At the time, the Tulane game was largely noncompetitive – a symptom of the cyclical nature of college football.

Even so, college football nostalgics will tell you that this rivalry has important historical significance, going all the way back to 1893. In fact, Tulane has a building on its campus whose windows are rumored to be arranged in such a way that they spell out “Go Green Wave, beat LSU” in punch card/Morse code – a subtle architectural nod to the intense rivalry.

Although that rumor was debunked, the myth lives on.

Just to compare with another historical rivalry that went through a non-competitive period, Navy’s 14-year win streak over Army was about as long as LSU’s longest win streak over Tulane. Has anyone ever called for an end to the Army-Navy game?

But there’s more…

Just this past week there was more drama stirred up between Tulane and LSU, as Tigers baseball coach Paul Mainieri announced an end to the annual baseball home-and-home series.

It’s just the latest example of LSU bullying a smaller in-state team, despite Mainieri’s strong words having no basis on the field in recent years. In the last three seasons, the Tigers are 1-5 vs Tulane, 1-2 vs McNeese State, and 2-2 against UNO and the Ragin’ Cajuns.

It’s easy to read between the lines and see that Mainieri is just looking for an out. Some way to save face from embarrassing in-state losses against a team located in Louisiana’s largest media market. It keeps negative headlines for LSU out of newspapers in New Orleans.

But is that what’s good for college sports in the state?

Athletics in Louisiana

It’s natural to hold a little animosity against a program that’s beaten you five of the last six times, so I can understand Manieri’s frustration. But there’s a very high cost when LSU doesn’t play ball with in-state schools.

The fact is, in-state rivalries are good for in-state athletics. Some of the top football recruiting states in the country (Texas, California, Florida, Georgia) all have great in-state rivalries; Florida-Florida State, USC-UCLA, UGA-Georgia Tech, etc.

Kids in-state grow up watching those games and wanting to play in them. It fosters an interest in sports.

To illustrate this phenomenon, look no further than the 2005 Lafayette Little League team from Lafayette, Louisiana.

In 2000 both Louisiana and LSU made an appearance in the College World Series in Omaha. Louisiana and LSU were two of the best baseball programs in the state at the time, and when the teams met on the field during that period, the games were intense.

A few years after both teams made an appearance in Omaha, the Lafayette Little League team advanced to the U.S. Semi-Final in the Little League World Series. About a decade after that, players from the 2005 Lafayette Little League team were on the rosters of LSU, ULM, Louisiana, LSU-Eunice, etc.

Recruiting

There are other consequences as well, notably recruiting.

As a result of LSU’s behavior, a lot of other Power 5 schools end up with airtime on TV in Louisiana media markets. It’s a recruiting tactic for those out of state schools masquerading as a non-conference matchup.  The practice can help coaches recruit and lure talent out of the state when they can tell a kid, “If you come to our school we’ll schedule a game in your hometown.”

Consider the scheduling practices of Auburn’s women’s basketball team.

In the past three years, Auburn women’s basketball has played five non-conference games in Louisiana. Last year, half of their 12 non-conference games were against Louisiana teams. They had a player from Louisiana on the roster each of those years.

And speaking of recruiting, the Tigers have sought to impose their will on in-state programs hosting football satellite camps. In recent years, LSU has put the pressure on schools like Southeastern and Tulane, preventing them from hosting out-of-state schools like Michigan and Texas A&M at satellite camps.

According to SI.com “(Tulane and Southeastern) appeared to succumb to pressure from LSU, which has financial and political power in its state that few schools in the country can match”.

How did LSU justify the move? The same superiority complex we’ve seen from them in situations time and time again. Head Coach Ed Orgeron exclaimed, “Protecting the state of Louisiana is always going to be my job as the coach of LSU”  – as if anyone in the state outside of Baton Rouge needed Coach O’s “protection”. Make no mistake – Orgeron’s move benefited nobody but LSU.

“Nobody is weeping for Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, Texas coach Tom Herman or Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin, and nobody should. But the losers in this whole affair are prospects in Louisiana, especially those who can’t afford to traverse the country to attend camps. Some of them may have earned scholarships to Texas, Michigan, Arkansas or Houston.”

Let’s Look at an Example

To illustrate the Tulane baseball dilemma, let’s look at how the scheduling situation could play out.

The series with LSU has historically been on a weeknight. If the Green Wave want to replace one of their midweek games with another team of similar caliber (next highest RPI in the SEC), their closest opponent would be Mississippi State, about three and a half hours away (vs LSU an hour away).

The away stretch of a Tulane-Mississippi State series for a mid-week game would mean leaving New Orleans around noon and not getting back to New Orleans until around 2:00 AM – if there are no extra innings.

Let’s hope none of the players have 8:00 AM classes.

That’s unless the Green Wave get hotel rooms for 45 players and staff and spend the night up in Starkville, which would put the team back in New Orleans the next day, and result in even more missed class and more travel expense.

That’s also assuming that Mississippi State would even agree to return the favor of scheduling a home-and-home series.

A similar scenario with LSU (6:00 PM first pitch, no extra-innings) would have the Green Wave back to New Orleans before midnight. It’s better for fans, makes it a lot easier for players to balance all their activities, and saves Tulane a decent amount of travel money.

It’s easy to see the toll this can take on a student-athlete and the financial impact on a program that has to ship its players around the country on a weeknight to try and fill scheduling gaps.

‘I’m just trying to make a point on priorities’

“I’m just trying to make a point on priorities”, exclaimed Louisiana legislator Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge.

Back in 2016, Carter, LSU-tennis-coach-turned-politician – introduced House Bill 971 into the Louisiana legislature, aimed at curbing spending in college athletics during the state budget crisis.

All teams in programs except football and basketball would be banned from traveling more than 375 miles for competitions, unless competing in a championship or the opposing team pays all travel costs.

Naturally, the bill carved out an exception for its author’s alma mater, LSU, which would be free to schedule how it pleased. The bill would have forced schools like Louisiana Tech, ULM, and Louisiana to essentially end their conference affiliations with the Sun Belt and Conference USA, and would have decimated college athletics in the state.

The bill never made it anywhere, but the entire situation reeks of irony and arrogance.

Teams within the state have tried to schedule closer to home over the past several years – they have made attempts time and time again, and have been met with nothing but resistance and inequitable demands from LSU.

And here, we have a legislator in the state capitol with an LSU background, going so far as to introduce legislation in an attempt to curb travel spending on out-of-state scheduling when it’s something these schools are often times forced into by… LSU.

The Bottom Line

In football, LSU flexes its muscles to keep out-of-state Power 5 conferences out of satellite camps, preventing many high school athletes getting exposure. This can ultimately hurt scholarship opportunities for a kid without the resources to travel and attend camps across the country.

In non-revenue sports, LSU imposes strict scheduling demands to avoid embarrassing losses outside of Baton Rouge. As a result, in-state rivalries in non-revenue sports aren’t allowed to thrive.

Smaller schools are forced to play more games on the road at more far-flung locations, putting their roles as student-athletes in jeopardy, and spending more of already cash-strapped-budgets on expensive travel.

Time and time again in this state we’ve seen LSU act in its own best interest to the detriment of athletics in the state of Louisiana.

By refusing to continue centuries-old rivalries.

By preventing high school athletes from getting exposure and earning scholarships.

By refusing to play in-state teams outside of Baton Rouge, if at all.

There’s the usual defense of LSU’s behavior that somehow the other schools in the state need LSU. That these schools and their fanbases should be happy and grateful to get to travel to Baton Rouge to play against the flagship school. The reality is quite different.

When asked sometime after the infamous Cajuns-LSU matchup in the NIT about scheduling a series with Louisiana in the future, LSU head coach Will Wade responded, “It has to be good for LSU. Period.”

To that, I simply respond – What about what’s good for athletics in Louisiana?

 

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