Rabalais: Academics as important as winning

A large purple board hanging on a wall of the cavernous LSU football meeting room lists the Tigers’ annual goals.

Under the heading “Outcomes” are the words “National Champions.” No surprise. Over the last decade, LSU has evolved into a program where aiming for the national championship every season is realistic and expected.

On the same line are the words “100% Graduation.”

To coach Les Miles, the two are synonymous.

Having an 81 percent winning percentage in Miles’ eight seasons is fueled to a significant degree by a 77 percent football graduation rate this season. That’s the second-highest in the Southeastern Conference behind only Ivy League-ish Vanderbilt.

“On that board, it’s always been ‘national championship’ and ‘100 percent graduation’ on the same line,” Miles said Friday, extending a thick left hand toward the board. “It’s kind of the same goal.”

There are of course those who will cynically snicker about a football program’s commitment to academics. But when you remember that LSU lost four players to academics for the entire season back in September — including talented Tahj Jones, a projected starter at outside linebacker — you have at least some evidence to the contrary.

“It’s a statistic that says when you come to school here you will get the needed emphasis, direction, support, that improves one’s ability to compete in the classroom,” Miles said. “The graduation rate is proof that it’s being done extremely well at LSU. I’m very proud of it.”

In a hyper-competitive conference like the SEC, it’s hard to stand out. Academics can be the make-or-break because in the end many recruits ultimately figure out they will have to make a living doing something other than professional football.

“Everyone wants to go to the NFL, and certainly we do a great job making that case,” Miles said. “That being said, to me what you have to look at is the emphasis in that program to get your degree? Are your players graduating? I think that’s happening.”

It very well may be happening this weekend.

LSU has again put together a top-10 recruiting class for 2013 but still lacks a consensus five-star commitment.

Enter Priest Willis, a five-star defensive back blue chipper from Tempe, Ariz., here this weekend for his official recruiting visit.

Willis of course came to see Tiger Stadium (and Mike the Tiger, I’m sure), the football locker rooms, the weight room, the sports medicine facility, etc.

But he also wanted to check out LSU’s newly expanded business school. At a school that has suffered through numerous deep academic cutbacks in recent years, the chance to showcase a program that recently moved into brand new facilities could be crucial.

Eventually, Willis will need that business degree. If he’s impressed enough this weekend, maybe it’ll be an LSU business degree earned after a national championship ring.

Both goals with the same line on the big purple board.