Alexander discusses issues facing LSU, SEC

Advocate file photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- LSU President F. King Alexander Show caption
Advocate file photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- LSU President F. King Alexander

LSU System President F. (Fieldon) King Alexander has been on the job for nearly a year now, presiding over nine campuses with a collective 43,000 students and an annual budget of $3.3 billion. But this week, he heads to his first Southeastern Conference Spring Meeting in Destin, Florida, as LSU’s top administrator.

The son of Kern Alexander, former Murray State and Western Kentucky university president, and Ruth Alexander, the first women’s athletic director at Florida.

Alexander grew up in Gainesville, Florida, before going on to play college basketball at St. Lawrence University in New York and the University of Oxford in England. He was a high school teammate of former Florida basketball standouts Vernon Maxwell and Kevin Bradshaw, who broke Pete Maravich’s NCAA single-game scoring record of 69 points with 72 points for U.S. International in a 1991 game.

“I could only average about eight and a half a game,” said Alexander, who played point guard.

Alexander, 50, was also president at Murray State and Long Beach State, where he was twice named president of the year by the California State University Student Association, before arriving at LSU.

He recently sat down with The Advocate at his office at the LSU System Building to discuss issues facing college athletics and his constant search for a challenging pickup basketball game:

What is your view of athletics being the front porch of a university?

It really is, and it can be a very useful, vibrant and good-for-the-university front porch, or it can be a scarred, dirty, somewhat demeaning-to-the-institution front porch — depending on how it’s managed and run.

We’ve all seen examples of that around the country. North Carolina. Penn State. What’s that doing to Penn State in the long run? That (scandal) is going to be in and out of the news for 10 years.

If you’re not making sure your front porch is clean and that you have good people, good coaches, who care about the same things, then that front porch may not be as useful as you want it to be. In fact, it can be quite detrimental to the institution.

There are really only two public universities known by their initials: LSU and UCLA. Most of that is associated with the success we both have in sports.

But you don’t want to have a tarnished image in that arena because that will hurt recruiting, alumni support, and diminish the value of your degrees.

How do you feel about the SEC’s 6-1-1 scheduling format, which will continue to have LSU play Florida every year?

Not going to Florida but growing up there, I’ve known LSU and the SEC for many, many years.

To protect two rivals we created five. But it is what it is.

You come to LSU at a challenging time financially for higher education in Louisiana. How important is it that you have an athletic department that pays for itself without using university funds or requiring student fees?

That certainly helps. And there will be times when we need more assistance from them. But we want people to understand that these aren’t dichotomous areas. Without classes and programs there is no Tiger Stadium. The front porch gets wiped out. I think it’s very important that our fans continue to support LSU.

At the same time, we need to insure them that we are doing everything we can to control costs, because those costs do get shifted to our fans in terms of ticket sales. We want families to be able to go to the games. We don’t want them to be priced out, which is part of the concern of the rising expenditure cold war that we’re watching.

I think there will be a lot more discussion as to what we can do behind closed doors collectively, what can those institutions in the SEC and Big Ten do collectively to slow down costs. I think if the Big Ten and SEC were to set a trend of collectively making some decisions that might slow these trends down, it could be one of the most beneficial (decisions) for all of our institutions in higher education.

Because I don’t know where the rest of these institutions are going to end up, the Oregon States, Wake Forests, Virginias, Mississippi States, Indianas, Purdues. You can almost pick off the top four or five in each conference and say, “They’ll make it,” but the rest are really not going to be able to keep up.

What would you like to see in terms of the NCAA governance structure for schools like LSU?

I think we will be discussing more flexibility. But I hope that flexibility doesn’t ultimately end up with provisions that allow us to grow faster, spend more, expand into even greater arenas. With the 65 schools, the big five conferences basically, it would put undue pressure on many campuses to become 66, 67, 68, 69.

So I think there are autonomous issues we need to get addressed, but I hope we are careful about how we do that. Because we don’t need to hasten the spending race that ultimately costs the fans more and costs institutions reputations.

What are we going to do to get control of this and reel this back in and ensure that the cart’s not pulling the horse or the tail’s not wagging the tiger? That’s a real concern of mine and my colleagues.

What is your opinion about paying student-athletes a stipend, doing something for them to cover the so-called “full cost” of education?

I think they do need more assistance if they’re not able to eat or meet life’s necessities. But paying players is not something I’m in favor of because it opens up a Pandora’s box that has no end.

Do you pay by fan support? Do you pay by wins and losses? Gymnastics finished third in the country — should they get more?

The SEC presidents are unified on that front. We think that’s the wrong direction to go.

You were known for playing pickup basketball games with students and staff at Long Beach State. Have you been able to do the same thing here?

I was in one yesterday morning. I was actually at the (basketball) practice facility with some of the athletic staff and the grad students. I’m trying to get back up to two a week. That’s my goal.

Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.