Johnny Jones, as they say, won the room.
He took the lectern in the LSU athletic department’s fifth-floor auditorium, home court of so many hirings and firings over the years, wearing a dark suit, a purple tie, and an LSU lapel pin over his heart.
Unlike any LSU coach in memory, he got an ovation just walking in the door.
Admittedly, it was a stacked deck. To his right was his wife and family. Directly in front of him were decades of LSU basketball history and supporters, his former coach and mentor Dale Brown sitting directly in the center of the room.
It was a day Jones often dreamed about but wasn’t sure would ever come, especially not after LSU hired Trent Johnson four years ago following what Jones felt was a successful interview with then-new athletic director Joe Alleva. Jones joked that when he heard Johnson was thinking of leaving for TCU, he was tempted to reach out to him to see if he could help make sure it was a firm decision.
It was, and four years after Johnson was hired, Alleva sat beaming on the left side of the platform while Jones delivered a high-energy speech about his plans for the future of LSU basketball, capped by how he lifted his hands over his head, Muhammad Ali style when Alleva called Friday to offer him the job.
No matter how you feel about the Jones hiring, whether you wish Alleva had gone out and waved some wand to pull in a Jamie Dixon or a Shaka Smart, or whether you are convinced this was a politically motivated hire driven by the men with whom Jones played and coached, it was impossible to be in that room and not be happy for the man who was known as “Bullet” in his playing days.
For others, the LSU job as it exists today was a tough sell. For Jones, it was a job he would have walked down I-49 from North Texas on his hands to get.
The chance to come home to the LSU job was often Jones’ final thought as he drifted off to sleep at night. If you’ve ever been fortunate enough to have a dream job open up for you, had the chance to celebrate with your inner Ali, you know what this means to him.
“I can’t tell you how excited I am to be here,” Jones said. “I’m going to try to bring back that passion and excitement that LSU basketball had when you talk about the glory days.”
Jones is a living, breathing relic of those glory days. A backup point guard to Ethan Martin on the 1981 Final Four team. An assistant coach on the 1986 Final Four team.
Jones’ hiring evokes memories of a packed PMAC, a truly Deaf Dome.
Anthony Wilson’s rim-rattler to beat Memphis State in the 1986 NCAA tournament. Shaquille O’Neal swatting shots into the sixth row. Chris Jackson’s silky and uncannily accurate jump shots.
What do all those memories have to do with each other? Winning.
Jones will be charged with blanketing the state to preach the gospel of Tiger basketball that has to many become a dead language, but no promotional whiz will be able to help LSU help fill the PMAC’s seats if Jones doesn’t win.
Alleva knows that as well as anyone.
“You always want the coach to be accepted and popular, and he’s accepted and popular,” Alleva said. “That’s fine and dandy. But the bottom line is, in the next few years he’s going to have to go out and recruit players and build this program back up. We have a good nucleus of players, we just don’t have enough of them right now.
“Interest comes from winning.”
Nobody has to remind Jones of that, but if he needed a refresher, he just had to look around the room and find the faces of Les Miles or Paul Mainieri.
Unlike when Brown was cranking up LSU basketball to unprecedented heights in the late 1970s, football and baseball are light years ahead of basketball in terms of success and fan support.
Despite the angst over January’s BCS national championship game, LSU football has never been better than it has been over the last decade or so, and will start this season at or very near the top of the national polls. The baseball Tigers clawed to the top of one of the three national polls Monday in advance of their No. 1 versus No. 2 showdown at Kentucky this weekend.
Is Jones the man to put LSU men’s basketball on par with football and baseball’s success? Is anyone? The answer, at least for now, is no one is expecting LSU basketball to be Kentucky. For now it needs to be entertaining and competitive, a consistent winner.
Frankly, if it can be done at Mississippi State, it can be done at LSU.
Winning the room is nice. Winning the hearts and minds of fans and recruits — and winning on the court — will be Jones’ ultimate test.
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