WIN! (or else)

Fan expectations

As ESPN was going to commercial during a College World Series game between Tulane and Baylor, a camera caught an LSU fan hanging over a railing hoisting a sign into the air.

With purple and gold blazing, the rather forthright fan displayed a sign reading, "Hey Smoke, I'm here, where's my team?"

 

The incident went unmentioned by the ESPN commentators and was considered an afterthought by many LSU followers. However, that sign is a prime example of the growing trend in college athletics, most notably Tiger sports.

 

Even athletic director Skip Bertman will say the LSU baseball team underachieved in 2005, failing to advance past the regional round for the first time since 1995. But at the same time, the bar is set at such heights these days one might begin to wonder can coaches and players ever again meet the expectations heaped upon them by a fan base growing ever-restless.

 

"I think there was a time for LSU athletics when good seasons were enough," Bertman said. "That is not the case here anymore."

 

Take baseball coach Smoke Laval for example. In four years as coach at LSU, he has won more SEC games than any other coach in the league over that span of time. An SEC title and coach of the year honors in 2003, Laval led the Tigers to Omaha in his second (03) and third (04) year, but failed to win a game each time. A 40-22 record in 2005 and being bounced from regional play by Rice at Alex Box Stadium has fans calling for his job.

 

Unreasonable?

 

Some fans so no, others yes, but above all is the old cliché, "just win baby."

 

"All you have to do is win and it changes everything," said Bertman, who set the bar at its present height winning five national titles in 10 years as head baseball coach at LSU.

 

Bertman quoted legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden when speaking of national championships. Wooden won 10 titles in 12 years, including seven in a row from 1967-73.

 

"John Wooden once said in his book, ‘to all my good friends I wish a national championship, but to all my enemies, I wish two,'" Bertman said. "Once you win, the fever to win again is enormous. The expectations are huge and of course unrealistic."

 

Speaking of basketball championships, Bertman pointed out Duke coach Mike Kryzewski and former North Carolina legend Dean Smith won a combined five national titles. Kryzewski, who is in his 27th year at Duke, won titles in 1991, 1992 and 2001. Smith, who retired from UNC after 25 years as the then-leader in wins in NCAA history (surpassed by Tennessee's Pat Summitt last year), captured national crowns in 1983 and 1992. Arguably the two greatest coaches of the recent era has coached a combined 52 seasons.

 

"The best in the business can win one every10 years," Bertman said. "That is why rooting for the national championship makes for unrealistic expectations."

 

But even taking Kryzewski and Smith into consideration, with coaches' salaries eclipsing the $1 million mark and heightened prices of game tickets and corporate sponsorships and television rights, fans expect more wins compounded with championships as each year passes.

 

Bertman explained while the existence of these expectations is beneficial in terms of maintaining fan interest, reaching the brass ring every year is sometimes too much to ask for.

 

"The most realistic expectation that you can have is to be a nationally competitive team year in and year out," Bertman said. "Then one year or two, you will get lucky and a guy will hit a home run in the bottom of the ninth with two out and you will win. But in order to do that, you have to be competitive every year. But there are years when you are competitive, but don't move as far."

 

When a team is competitive but fails to reach a predetermined level of success considered by the fan base as acceptable, that is when unrest grips the landscape.

 

"It is a low percentage of the fans," Bertman said. "Our fans are the best, the greatest. I value every fans opinions. It is the passion the fans have that makes people the way they are."

 

However, while fans feel one way, the players and coaches must maintain a level of consistency in their own personal expectations, which Bertman says are generally met each year.

 

"Not unrealistic is for the players and coaches to do the best they can," he said. "And we generally are successful throughout the SEC and in our region, the southeastern portion of the U.S."

 

Bertman sits in a different seat than he did as coach of the "Program of the Decade." In the athletic director's chair, he not only runs the athletic department, he works as a caretaker of both coaches, players and fans, which requires delicate handling at times.

 

"It is like talking to a parent about his or her child as a coach," Bertman said. "You are not going to win that argument because the parent is coming from emotion. That fan is coming from emotion. It is okay, but sometimes they are out of line. I don't think a majority of people make certain statements. But every fan is important. But what makes them say something is the passion. They are hurt because LSU didn't win."

 

Two sports in which Tiger fans tend to get their feelings hurt the most is the aforementioned baseball and men's basketball. No two coaches on the LSU campus (or the SEC for that matter) take more heat than Laval and basketball coach John Brady. Laval is criticized heavily due to the fact he is following Bertman. Brady, in his ninth year at LSU, shouldered massive NCAA sanctions in his first few seasons as coach. Since winning the SEC title in 2000, the Tigers have made four postseason appearances, but only two were visits to the NCAA Tournament where they were ousted unceremoniously each time in the first round.

 

Under Bertman in the 1990s, the game of college baseball was brought to a new level, an achievement LSU fans relish. However, as the game grew, the rest of the field caught the Tiger program and Laval has struggled to maintain the level is success in his four years as head coach.

 

"This team underachieved and the coach has to take responsibility," Bertman said. "But make no mistake, no one is more disappointed than Smoke and the players. They would all agree that this team underachieved."

Bertman said he takes into consideration the task Laval has assumed in trying to keep LSU baseball on the top of the mountain.

 

"He inherited a monster," Bertman said. "The thing is most everyone out there didn't play in college, like two-percent did. They don't understand. They are missing one important point. I don't want to hear about John Wooden or Brea Bryant, but Smoke replacing me is a little tougher on the kids than people think. You have to go through the year and feel that pressure. Like Theodore Roosevelt said, ‘the man in the battle,' that is the pressure. They don't feel that pressure at school X, Y, or Z like they do at LSU."

 

While fans target both Laval and Brady with endless criticism, the situations are entirely different. While the baseball team did underachieve, Brady's basketball Tigers actually surpassed preseason expectations. Picked to finish third in the SEC Western Division, LSU rallied from a 6-5 record to win 12 games in the league and win the SEC West. However, an early exit from the Big Dance left a bad taste in the mouths of fans.

 

"In basketball, they did not necessarily underachieve," Bertman said. "Smoke's team won the west. Brady's team won the (SEC) west and each advanced to NCAA play. For us, that is not enough. Where that comes from is passion. Without passion we wouldn't have jobs. The passion is what is buzzing the e-mails, is what you hear in the community."

 

Brady admitted he understands the expectations of the fans, but says he pays little attention to the building pressure of the fan base because of the self-inflicted demands he places on himself and his team.

 

"I don't think fans put anymore expectations on this team than I do," Brady said. "I don't think they expect anything more than I expect from myself or my coaches or my players. I am on the same level as they (fans) are. It doesn't really bother or concern me (fan expectations). I want to win every game. After we lose, I get upset. I get disappointed when things do not go as they are supposed to go."

 

Brady, who is known for his energetic outbursts courtside, said he invites the praise and censure from Tiger patrons.

 

"I would hope they do," Brady said about fans being outspoken. "I love this job. I love the lifestyle it brings and the competitiveness of it. I don't think anyone can question that I am competitive. The criticism on me is that I show it too much. I wear it all on my sleeve. I have as much concern and passion and care for it as the fans do. LSU is just one of those places where it just runs very deep."

 

While fans were disenchanted with the abrupt end to LSU's hoops campaign, Brady said no one was more frustrated than himself. After a miraculous run through the SEC, in which Brandon Bass and Glen Davis were named the league's top players, the team stumbled in the playoffs resulting in an embarrassing loss.

 

"The disappointment this year wasn't that we didn't meet expectations because we were picked third in the west and we ended up winning the west," he said. "From the outside looking in, we did better than the expectations heaped upon us. The problem we encountered was as well as we played down the stretch, we leapfrogged the expectations. We got them up there. As well as we played down the stretch, then we played as poorly as we did in the UAB game. That is when you feel it. Once you exceed the expectation and live beyond it and everyone perceives what you can do. Then when you do play poorly, you are criticized."

 

While Brady and Laval feel the brunt of fan disapproval, even LSU's most successful coaches get their fair share of criticism.

 

In only here first full season as the head coach of the women's basketball team, Pokey Chatman led the Lady Tigers to a 33-3 record, the program's first-ever regular season SEC title and a second straight Final Four.

However, LSU, heavily favored to win the NCAA title, ran into a red-hot Baylor team in the national semifinal. Tickfaw, La. native Kim Mulkey-Robertson's Lady Bear team upset the Lady Tigers, which brought muffled criticism of Chatman.

 

Surprisingly, one e-mail received at the Tiger Rag office suggested LSU dismiss Chatman and try and secure the likes of Mulkey-Robertson, being that she is a Louisiana native.

 

However, Chatman received a sizeable raise, 90-percent more than her previous contract, including a base salary of $250,000.

 

"Pokey has stepped in and taken our women's basketball program to heights never reached before here at LSU," Bertman said. "Her leadership abilities, both on and off the floor, along with her recruiting talent, continue to make LSU one of the top women's programs in the country.

 

"This contract shows our belief in what she's doing and what she will do in the future for women's basketball at LSU."

 

Another highly-successful LSU coach that has drawn recent criticism is gymnastics coach D-D Breaux. Achieving the program's first-ever No. 1 national ranking this past season, Breaux's team slumped at the end of the season finishing second to SEC rival Georgia. Then, Breaux and Co. failed to reach the elusive Super Six, equivalent to the Final Four in basketball. In 28 years, Breaux has never reached the Super Six.

 

"D-D is a wonderful gymnastics coach here, has been for 28 years," Bertman said. "She has been to the final 12, 11 times. Then you try and go to the final six. She has never made it to the final six. She has missed it by fractions of a point. But if she was the football or baseball coach or basketball coach; she would get a heckuva a lot of e-mails. So would I because she didn't meet the standard. The cliché would apply, ‘she could make it there, but not win the big one.' But finally John Elway wins that Super Bowl."

 

Bertman applied Breaux's travails to his experiences as the baseball coach at LSU. Bertman made four trips to the College World Series before his team every raised the grand prize.

 

"I remember we went to Omaha in 1991, our fifth time and hadn't won it yet," Bertman said. "I remember telling Smoke, ‘we better win this one or I will be known as the guy that couldn't win the big one.' We won and then what happens next? We went in 1992 and didn't do well. Then we went back in 1993 and I told Smoke ‘we better win this one or I will be known as the guy who got lucky once.' You see, they are all clichés."

 

Another LSU coach that has been granted some leniency is track coach Dennis Shaver. Filling in for the legendary Pat Henry, Shaver's team was decimated by graduation thus allowing the new coach a year to rebuild his roster.

 

However, one man who will not be granted a pardon is new football coach Les Miles. Returning 17 starters, 10 n offense, the Tiger football team is ranked in the Top 10 in every major poll and three different services has said Miles' team has a shot to win the national title. The former Oklahoma State coach and his players are definitely going to be expected to produce immediately.

 

"The football players will feel that pressure," Bertman said. "In that sense we talked to Les, but of course his expectations are up there with everybody's."

 

In Nick Saban's second season at LSU, the fans booed he and his team after a loss to Ole Miss. Two years later, Saban's Tigers won the national title. But the current Miami Dolphins head coach mentioned several times the booing in 2001 and never forgot the scorn of LSU fans. Miles, on the other hand, said he is pleased with the enthusiasm in Baton Rouge and is not bothered by the heightened pressure of the fan base.

 

"I'll be honest with you, I was in a place where I had to fight like hell to get them to believe that they could win," Miles said. "I had to fight like hell to get them to consider the possibility of beating every opponent that they lined up against. And I must prefer to have everybody united saying I want to be the hell out somebody. To have the people that live here have the same feeling that the team does. We ought to win, we are better. We are a good football team. We expect to win."

 

Miles had better be ready because he is now in the deep end of the pool without a life preserver.

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