If LSU–Texas A&M Needed an AD Heist to Become a Real Rivalry, It Got One
Let’s check in on LSU–Texas A&M: a top-shelf (and top-dollar) head football coach whom one school flirted with but the other eventually landed; a mad scientist defensive coordinator whom one school courted but the other eventually kept; another defensive coordinator one school lured away from the other that set off a 30-month-long legal battle over the buyout; two staff members fired by one school and then hired by the other; a one-sided series that was snapped last November by the highest-scoring game in FBS history, which ended after seven overtimes with an on-field brawl; and, most recently, an athletic director, cherished by one school, hijacked by the other.
LSU’s hiring of Texas A&M AD Scott Woodward is only the latest jab in a neverending battle between two SEC West foes. They are kindred spirits: two very wealthy athletic departments located in talent-rich areas that, despite those advantages, often underwhelm their vocal fan bases. The latest side-switching is more fuel on a fire that flared up in earnest last fall. After a seven-overtime, 74–72 Texas A&M victory, a fracas unfolded at Kyle Field during which Aggies and Tigers staffers traded shoves, punches and words. That game pitted two head coaches, LSU’s Ed Orgeron and A&M’s Jimbo Fisher, whose careers have been intertwined ever since LSU unsuccessfully tried to hire Fisher away from Florida State in 2015.
Orgeron took over instead two years ago and fired two assistants, Dameyune Craig and Bradley Dale Peveto, who ultimately landed on Fisher’s staff in College Station. The talent swaps stretch back to ’14, when Texas A&M hired LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis; we nearly saw a replay last spring when Fisher offered a fistful of dollars to current Tigers DC Dave Aranda, only to have LSU offer two fists, briefly making Aranda the highest-paid coordinator in the country with a contract worth a total of $10 million.
Rivalries begin in countless ways, but they all need a spark. If you were unconvinced before, it’s safe to call LSU–Texas A&M a rivalry now. The moves in Baton Rouge on Wednesday swept through college athletics—the ouster of a beleaguered athletic director and his swift replacement with a ballyhooed native son.
The details of how it happened come down to a maxim you’ve read in this space before: Everything in Louisiana is political. Decisions such as the suspension and reinstatement of basketball coach Will Wade, the removal of Alleva and the hiring of Woodward go well beyond even the highest-ranking school administrators. LSU is the only Power 5 program in the state. This place bleeds purple and gold, and the colors spill into the Louisiana state capitol building, about three miles north of LSU’s campus. The governor hunts with the head football coach, throws passes at practice and poses for photos on the sidelines. He gets to hand-pick a powerful group of decision-makers, the LSU Board of Supervisors, which has the authority to hire and fire many of the campus’s key leaders.
The Alleva-for-Woodward swap was one driven by at least a portion of these 16 board members. In an election year for the man who appointed them, they flexed their influence, jumping at Woodward’s interest in the position days ago by quickly hammering out a deal with him over the last several days. This all didn’t just happen on Wednesday. The courtship began nearly a month ago, when university leaders asked themselves a question: How do we stabilize an athletic department with such an unpopular leader made more unpopular by the controversy surrounding Wade? It wasn’t difficult for those at LSU to test Woodward’s interests. He is an LSU alum, born and raised in Baton Rouge, whose in-state connections run deep. He visits Louisiana often. He owns a camp on the bayou, and his parents still live in Baton Rouge. This is where he laid his foundation for this transition, becoming the pet project of future NCAA president Mark Emmert, then LSU’s chancellor, who made the young political lobbyist his right-hand man in Baton Rouge. Woodward mostly advised Emmert on policy and government appropriations before following him to Seattle when Emmert became the president of the University of Washington; from 2008 to ’16, Woodward served as the Huskies’ athletic director. How close are Emmert and Woodward? Woodward’s son married Emmert’s daughter.
In the eyes of LSU leaders, this move was like trading sirloin steak for filet mignon. It was always going to end with Alleva being shoved out of town, but of all his missteps, p.r. disasters and controversial decisions, it is one he didn’t necessarily have full control of—the unpopular handling of Wade’s suspension—that has him headed for the nebulous role of “special assistant to the president for donor relations”. Alleva has long been a local punching bag, a laughingstock among national media members, and he has even found himself at odds with the SEC office. His worst moments have happened behind podiums; he was never as polished in public as other prominent ADs in his own conference, and his tenure was marked by a cold relationship with the media. His news conferences were often uncomfortable, his answers terse and sometimes condescending. Once, while asked on a local radio station about a potential search committee for finding a new football coach, Alleva notoriously said, “I’m the search.” He was often prickly to reporters and seldom granted interviews. He wasn’t the most friendly and adept fundraiser, sometimes ruffling the feathers of high-level boosters.
Around the university, everyone seems to have at least one Alleva story, and they paint the picture of a introvert raised in the Northeast who fit about as well into south Louisiana as a crawfish boil does in Manhattan. There’s the one in which Alleva abandoned a conversation with a high-ranking state legislator at an annual golf tournament to spend time alone on the putting green. There’s the one where Alleva barely spoke to one of the school’s most influential boosters during an all-day trip on a private jet to a road football game. There are the people in the building who say they haven’t seen Alleva in weeks—no pop-in or hello from the leader of one of the country’s richest athletic departments.
I have stories of my own. In nearly five years as an LSU football beat writer for The Advocate in Baton Rouge, he granted me two one-on-one interviews—one by phone and the other in person. Excluded from that list are a third one-on-one interview that lasted 90 seconds and came only after I chased him down in a dimly lit parking lot, and a fourth one-on-one that lasted 35 seconds and came only after I waited for him outside of the men’s room in the Kyle Field press box. I’ve been in his office once. Being friendly to politicians, money men, co-workers and media members is not a prerequisite for being an athletic director, let alone for being a successful athletic director, but it does help—sometimes tremendously. When the face of an athletic department is one you rarely see, then your athletic department has no face. In the world of Twitter and Facebook, you need a face.
University leaders took a long, serious look at Alleva’s job performance in the winter of 2017–18, ultimately deciding to keep him despite his public pratfalls and low approval rating. Why? His department was flourishing financially and has stayed out of major NCAA trouble. Woodward’s interest in the job had more to do with Alleva’s ouster than any of Alleva’s shortcomings. He’s everything Alleva is not: greatly respected among his peers, personable and outgoing, a Louisiana guy. And he made two splashy hires in the past two years in College Station, plucking Fisher from Florida State and Buzz Williams from Virginia Tech.
In a somewhat ironic twist, Woodward helped shape LSU’s athletic department from afar over the last few years. He drove up the price for Aranda, and he struck the big-money deal with Fisher—$75 million over 10 years—that LSU leaders would not complete in 2015 and did not accept in 2016. Now, from within Alleva’s old office, he’ll get to steer the department directly, probably hoping to land a few jabs against his old employer in a back-and-forth street fight that shows no signs of stopping. LSU and Texas A&M tee it up next in Tiger Stadium on Nov. 30, by the way.