Harris: Johnny Jones’ mission is to take LSU back to the future

The Deaf Dome slumbered an hour before Bayou Madness. And parked in the loading bay, LSU men’s basketball coach Johnny Jones’ ride for the evening — a 1983 DeLorean — was momentarily crippled.

Lying on his side, Drew Guillory fiddled with a screwdriver as he figured out a way to rig an oil pan back into place. The sludge was leaking, and that wasn’t going to be good for the pristine, new floor at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center. So, a gag two weeks in the making hit a snafu — one that mirrors the undercurrent of this season.

The night’s theme was easy to spot: reviving glory that has been sporadic in the past 15 seasons.

At exactly 7:13 p.m., Guillory slowly pulled a car he purchased on eBay for $13,000 down the ramp. At the bottom, Jones stepped out in a crisp white lab coat and wearing goggles to address the crowd as LSU’s very own Doc Brown from “Back to the Future.”

It’s a display Jones’ carnival barker of a mentor, former coach Dale Brown, would love. One out of character, too, for Jones, who spoke in cautious tones last season, his first as his alma mater’s head coach.

The difference? Jones has a product worth selling, and Thursday night came his first pitch to potential buyers. On the showroom floor, there’s a lot to find alluring in this year’s model over last season’s spit-and-glue 19-17 squad.

There’s the quartet of upperclassmen, led by All-SEC forward Johnny O’Bryant III and quicksilver junior guard Anthony Hickey back to form an experienced nucleus. But, as always, it’s upgrades that get consumers to shell out time and money. A top-10 recruiting class — led by the baby-faced hometown product, forward Jarell Martin — inspires talk of the program’s first NCAA tournament berth since 2010.

The question now is whether elite newcomers around Martin in guard Tim Quarterman and forward Jordan Mickey won’t prove as fluky and finicky as the flux capacitor on the back of Doc’s ride.

Watching Martin take flight and mash down a final alley-oop during the evening’s slam dunk contest was enough to blow off those worries. For now, its not farfetched to predict a run in March. Or that LSU will be a factor in a resurgent SEC.

“We’ve got to get this place rocking,” Jones said. “Back to the place it needs to be.”

That is, if his team doesn’t run into mechanical woes like the one that briefly hobbled the 30-year-old DeLorean.

At 6:12 p.m., an hour before his grand arrival, Jones strode around Guillory’s ride and chuckled. On the passenger side, Daniel Nunes, the director of marketing for LSU’s athletic department, showed the coach the gull wing doors he’d step out of and the coiled wires snaking through the car.

“That’s just crazy,” Jones said.

At the rear of the car, Guillory and Dreyfus Milstead, the PMAC’s operations director, sliced up a white towel to wedge in the pan and sop up the oil. Next, Guillory slid back under his prized ride and with zip ties and screws held the oil pan in place. Fifteen minutes solved the problem.

“It’s always been a dream car since I saw the movies as a little kid,” Guillory said, wiping gunk from his hands.

Jones faces the same issue: turning his alma mater, which went to 10 consecutive NCAA tournaments between 1984 and 1993, back into a consistent winner. There were pockets of success under John Brady and Trent Johnson, both of whom couldn’t find a way via their personalities or style of play to surpass nostalgia for Brown’s regime.

Since his return, Jones has selectively evoked that era. He did it Thursday, too. Stepping out, he slowly unbuttoned his coat. He donned a gold mesh jersey, his old number emblazoned on the back. On the overhead screen, the final highlight of Jones’ college career played — a steal and score to seal a 77-73 victory over Florida on senior day in 1985.

The reminders are ever-present of the glory that once was.

After the first fans trickled into the building, some settled into the front row. Their eyes drifted to the rafters and banners denoting Final Four berths: 1953, 1981, 1986 and 2006. A father pointed banners on the east side of the PMAC: “Macklin, Maravich, O’Neal and Pettit,” he said.

Nostalgia is a hallmark of selling collegiate athletics, even if what you purchased needs a little restoration. It’s a fact of life that Guillory, a 26-year-old freelance videographer working with the LSU women’s basketball team, can understand: You’re willing to endure minor frustrations for something you love.

“It was just a matter of maintaining it,” Guillory said of his car, a perfect analogy for Jones’ task. “Just recently got this damn oil leak. Perfect timing, right?”

Ultimately, the best testimonial for Jones will be the product he puts on the floor this winter. The hope is the product description lives up to the marketing blitz.