Men’s basketball coach Jones in pursuit of an entertaining style in an effort to get LSU fans to buy tickets and attend games this season
Nikki Caldwell ducked in a LSU men’s basketball practice one day and caught a mundane sight.
The coach of the Lady Tigers saw her counterpart in Johnny Jones lofting up jump shots during a rebounding drill. Often, the task is farmed out to an assistant coach. Off to the side, the man pulling in a multimillion dollar salary will appraise the knot of men scrambling once it ricochets.
Instead, Jones set off the chain reaction: Raise, aim, flip the wrist and put the ball on its arcing path.
During a lull, Caldwell asked why he hadn’t doled out the job.
“They need to see the ball going in,” Jones told her.
On the cusp of his second year guiding his alma mater, the snippet sums up Jones’ approach to stagging a revival at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
Two weeks ago, there was a cinematic flash during Bayou Madness involving a DeLorean and a “Back to Future” reference. Yet Jones’ marketing has remained rooted in results, in wins outnumbering losses. But Monday, Jones said style looms large in luring masses back to the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
“We understand it’s an entertaining business for us,” Jones said. “We just want to try and capture that audience that’s out there.”
At roughly 7,600 fans a night for home games, the Tigers ranked seventh among Southeastern Conference programs in attendance. Yet, the Tigers never notched a sellout, and matchups against Florida and Ole Miss registered just over 10,100 fans — or 76 percent of the 41-year-old facility’s capacity.
Unlike his mentor in Dale Brown, though, Jones isn’t touring the back roads of Louisiana stringing up purple-and-gold nets from rims in driveways.
Retail politics still has its place, though. Last week, LSU opened a Thursday practice with two students, while the men’s and women’s programs have put on events at the Mall of Louisiana and Student Union on campus in the past two months along with Bayou Madness a couple weeks ago.
“We’ve got to make sure that we take care of every opportunity we get, whether it’s through social media or face to face,” Jones said. “Everything is so much more open right now, and we have so many more opportunities to try and be out front and center with people.”
And Jones is accustomed to serving as a pitch man after a 12-year stint at North Texas, a commuter school of 36,000 students in Denton and relatively obscure in the crowded sports marketplace.
The experience informs Jones’ logic now: With a slew of options to chose from, winning is the only way to produce interest. Promotions and public appearances matter little if fans don’t like the product on the floor.
So even at LSU, which has substantially more history with Four Final trips and equity with its fan base than the Mean Green, Jones’ charisma and sheer will can’t make fans plunk down dollars.
“I’ve never taken anything for granted when it comes to that,” Jones said. “If we were selling out every night, I’d be the same way. And if we’re selling out, I want people standing in line outside.”
A week before its exhibition opener against Xavier (New Orleans), the program’s pitch is clear: LSU’s top-10 recruiting class blends with a core of veterans to play an up-tempo style. Donning updated uniforms, ones where the reviled Toonces-styled logo has been dumped, Jones’ players created an echo chamber.
“You don’t want to tell your friends, ‘You missed it last night,’ ” guard Anthony Hickey said. “There was a fastbreak with Jarell Martin where he went between his legs, or it was Lob City.’ You just want to be there, and we’re doing our best to make LSU basketball more entertaining.”
Quietly, Jones expects to assemble a product coveted by the masses, but skepticism only fades with proof of reliability.
“We do feel like at some point this year we have chance to possibly get some sellouts,” Jones said, “but we would love for people to come out early instead of late buying into what we are doing.”