Former LSU Athletic Director Joe Dean dies, 83

Advocate Staff Photograph by Travis Spradling -- Former LSU Athletic Director Joe Dean
Advocate Staff Photograph by Travis Spradling -- Former LSU Athletic Director Joe Dean

As a shoe salesman executive, Joe Dean mastered the art of selling.

Later, he put it to use as LSU’s athletic director. He sold coaching candidates on jobs. He sold donors on facility improvements. He sold subordinates on a strict structure.

“That’s what he did all of his life,” former LSU administrator Herb Vincent said, “he sold LSU.”

Dean, a former LSU basketball star, SEC TV analyst and head of Tiger athletics, died early Sunday morning at his home in Baton Rouge.

He was 83.

Visitation will be held from 6-8 p.m. on Tuesday at Rabenhorst Funeral Home and from 10-11 a.m. on Wednesday. The funeral is scheduled for 11 a.m. at First United Methodist Church. Burial will follow the service at Resthaven Gardens of Memory.

The family requests that, in lieu of flowers or gifts, donations be made to First United Methodist Church.

Dean’s cause of death was heart-related, said his son, Joe Dean Jr. Dean had surgery — not heart-related — last week in Baton Rouge. He returned to his home Saturday. A homecare aid found him unresponsive Sunday morning.

“We think his heart just gave out,” said Dean’s son, Joe Dean Jr.

Joe Dean Sr. led LSU athletics from 1987-2000, overseeing the baseball team’s five national championships and hiring former football coach Nick Saban. He improved facilities and instilled a strict money-managing structure that fixed LSU’s budget mess in the late 1980s.

A bespeckled, skinny kid from Indiana, Dean played guard for LSU from 1949-52, leading the team in scoring two seasons and becoming the first LSU player selected in the NBA Draft.

His booming voice may be remembered most by some. Dean spent 1969-87 as an SEC basketball TV analyst, coining the phrase “string music” to describe a jump shot swishing through a net. He juggled that gig with his time as an executive for Converse Rubber Company, where he signed contracts with basketball stars Magic Johnson and Larry Bird and former world No. 1-ranked tennis player Chris Evert.

Through his many stops, one thing always stuck out – LSU.

“He was a man who I think had a deeper love for LSU over more years than anybody I ever knew,” said Vincent, now an associate commissioner at the SEC. “He was a tremendous ambassador for LSU until the day that he died.”

The outpouring for Dean from the national sports world began Sunday morning and lasted until late that night: ESPN color analyst Dick Vitale, CBS sports anchor Tim Brando, former basketball great Shaquille O’Neal, NCAA president Mark Emmert, and even Saban, now the coach at Alabama.

Former broadcasting colleagues expressed condolences for a man whose raspy voice produced one of the most popular jump-shot calls: “stri-i-i-ing music!’

“Sad beyond comprehension over the apparent passing of Joe Dean Sr. Few men impacted basketball in more platforms. ‘String music’ forever! RIP.” Brando tweeted Sunday.

Ex co-workers remembered Dean as a loving boss who became a best friend, a business-minded money-manager who helped pull LSU out of a budget hole. When he took over, Dean described the environment as “out of whack.”

“People seemed to be doing whatever they wanted, there was no discipline, the budget structure wasn’t adhered to,” he said.

“Joe took over at a very tumultuous time,” said former LSU baseball coach Skip Bertman, who followed Dean as AD. “Joe Dean brought us structure. Joe Dean brought fiscal sanity in whatever he did.”

Dean’s 14-year tenure as athletic director is the longest in LSU history. LSU won 27 national titles and 40 SEC championships during his run. He oversaw the spending of $50 million in facility improvements and gave some revenue from athletics to the university’s academic side, a trend that continues.

He made some risky hires, selections that brought LSU years of success.

He hired Pat Henry, then a 35-year-old track coach at Blinn Junior College in Texas. Henry led the women’s and men’s outdoor and indoor programs to a combined 26 national titles over the next 16 years.

He hired John Brady, then a Samford head coach that had a ho-hum record. He led LSU to two SEC championships, an NCAA Tournament Final Four and Sweet 16.

“He gave me a shot,” Henry said. “I always felt like Joe was a guy who hired somebody like myself and let me do my job. Joe was that kind of guy: he would give you the tools and he wanted you to be successful with the tools he gave you.”

His most notable hire and his last was plucking Saban from Michigan State. The coach won two SEC titles and a national championship in his five years, recruiting a powerhouse that’s endured under current coach Les Miles.

In a statement Sunday, Saban called Dean “a great man.” He credited his opportunity and success at LSU to his former boss.

“Obviously, he was instrumental in the opportunity we had at LSU which we certainly appreciate,” Saban said. “He worked very hard to give us the things that we needed to be successful and he deserves a great deal of credit for the success we had in our years at LSU.”

Most LSU fans look at his hirings of football coach Curley Hallman and Gerry DiNardo, who combined for six losing seasons in nine years, as the biggest mistakes.

Dean joked about it a few years ago.

“I learned that if the football team wins, the A.D. is pretty good,” he said. “If the football team loses, the A.D. is not very good.”

An avid LSU hoops fan, Dean had the same seats — behind the LSU bench — at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center for decades.

He was a basketball-lover born and raised in the hard-court country of Indiana, a sweet-shooting guard who made his own string music on the court for the Tigers.

Dean led LSU in scoring in 1950 and 1951, and in 1952 became just the second player to score at least 1,000 points at LSU. He was named to LSU’s All-Century Team in 2009 and is just one of three LSU players to be inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame.

He never forgot his Midwestern roots. Dean attended 45 straight Kentucky Derbys. In May, he celebrated No. 45 with a horseshoe-shaped cake at Pat’s Steakhouse in Louisville, Ky., surrounded by family and friends.

“Joe loved the derby,” Todd Politz, LSU’s director of digital media and a member of that last derby-going group, wrote in an email. “He would also travel early one morning before the races to visit his parents’ gravesite each year. New Albany, Ind., isn’t far from Louisville.”

Dean came to LSU in 1948 as “a skinny freshman from Indiana and didn’t know anybody,” his son said.

He met his wife, the former Doris Kernan Hall of Marksville, La., in 1952 and the two were together for 50 years before her death. Dean is survived by his three children — Joe Jr., Mardi and Mark — eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

And a host of friends that remember an always-smiling, outgoing and personable guy who could sell you anything.

Dean enjoyed telling the story about nearly pulling off the biggest shoe sale of his life, getting a contract with pop star Michael Jackson, Vincent said. Dean and Converse had designed a shoe inspired by Jackson’s white glove.

“He said he never could pull that one out,” Vincent said with a chuckle.

Dean was a likeable and affectionate man, someone who bonded with subordinates and developed young up-and-comers.

He always had time to talk, DiNardo said, even when the coach would walk into Dean’s office sweat-soaked after a long run.

“I’d go for long jogs and it was always hot and I’d be soaking wet and I’d go up to his office to talk about what I had thought about on my run,” said DiNardo, LSU’s football coach from 1995-99.

“I was soaking wet so I never could sit on his furniture. I’d sit on his floor and he’d lean back laughing because I’d have all of this I was thinking I was about to tell him. Sometimes, I was out of line, I was wrong, irrational, emotional, but he just sat there and listened.”

DiNardo was fired during the 1999 season. He met with Dean and then-LSU Chancellor Emmert in the school’s alumni center, a way to dodge reporters, DiNardo said.

“Mark fired me and I stood up and Joe stood up and we told each other we loved each other and we hugged and I walked out,” DiNardo said. “Joe didn’t have to do that. This was a new chancellor. Why did Joe put himself at risk there? That was my last memory of Joe as my boss.”

His hiring of Saban may have been his biggest sell.

Dean’s friend, Sean Tuohy, a former Ole Miss basketball player and sports commentator, alerted Dean to Saban’s interest in the job in 1999. Saban’s agent, Jimmie Sexton, is friends with Tuohy.

At first, Dean recoiled.

“Dad’s comment was, ‘I’m not getting involved with him just so he can up the ante at Michigan State,’” Joe Dean Jr. said. “Jimmy called him back and said, ‘Nick will take the LSU job if he’s offered.’”

“I remember getting a call from Joe, I think Thanksgiving morning,” Vincent said.

“‘Get together all the information you can find on Nick Saban and put it in my box,’” Vincent said Dean told him. “Sure enough, Nick Saban was in the office as the next football coach the next week.”

He did it all for LSU, the true love and passion of this basketball star turned shoe salesman turned TV analyst turned administrator.

That last one? It’s the one he cherished most of all.

“That,” Joe Dean Jr. said, “was a dream come true.”

Advocate sportswriters Scott Rabalais, Sheldon Mickles and Matt Harris contributed to this report.