athletics director Skip Bertman told the Times-Picayune last week he would prefer to see the LSU football team play at least one of its non-conference games over the next seven years, perhaps beyond, against Division I schools from Louisiana instead of paying schools from out of state to take on the Tigers.
Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana Monroe, Louisiana Tech and Tulane would all have to come to Tiger Stadium to play LSU, and one of these schools could fill the void created in the 2002 schedule created when the Tigers backed out of their Oct. 5 date with Central Florida.
"I think it would be very beneficial to everyone if the money we're now sending to places like Utah and Wyoming stays in Louisiana," Bertman told Marty Mule' of the Picayune. "We can help those other Louisiana schools and they can help us."
The help for LSU Bertman is talking about is in terms of attendance. A record 91,782 fans attended the season opener against Tulane, although it must be noted that Tulane failed to sell out its allotment of tickets. Those tickets were returned to LSU, which promptly sold them to Tiger fans eager to see the opening act of the 2001 season.
By comparison, the LSU-Utah State game the following week drew 87,756 – short of a sellout but the fifth largest crowd in Tiger Stadium history at the time.
"That's a lot of empty seats, and a lot of lost money that could be doing a lot of good at Louisiana programs," Bertman said.
A move by LSU to scheduling games against lower-tier, in-state Division I-A competition would go against the grain of what other schools in the Southeastern Conference are doing. The options are limited in some states inside the league, but most have steered clear of scheduling rent-a-wins from close to home.
Florida, while maintaining its rivalry with Florida State and occasionally meeting Miami, has only played Central Florida once in school history (1999) and has never played South Florida.
Mississippi State and Ole Miss have a more formidable in-state I-A foe in Southern Miss, a team that gave many SEC squads all they could handle starting in the late 80's. The Bulldogs stopped playing Southern Miss after 1990 (USM leads series: 14-12-1) and the Rebels haven't met the Golden Eagles since 1984 (Rebels lead series: 18-6-0).
Alabama and Auburn have a fairly well known Division I-A school within easy driving distance -- Alabama-Birmingham. But the Tigers have only faced UAB once (1996) in 109 years of football, and the Crimson Tide has never battled the Blazers. Neither Alabama nor Auburn has ever crossed paths with Troy State, the latest Division I-A entry from the Heart of Dixie.
Georgia faces Georgia Tech on an annual basis and played Division I-AA powerhouse Georgia Southern twice in the last ten years ('92, '00).
Tennessee and Vanderbilt have two Division I-A options at close range – Memphis and Middle Tennessee. The Commodores haven't played Memphis since 1989, but the Volunteers have met the Tigers 18 times since 1968 and won all but one game.
Middle Tennessee, a program that joined Division I in 1999, has never appeared on the Tennessee schedule and hasn't played Vanderbilt since 1956. The Blue Raiders played and beat Vanderbilt earlier this season and have plans to meet again in 2003.
Kentucky has a 9-4 record against Louisville, an in-state rivalry that dates back to 1912 and was resurrected in 1994 to become an annual contest. The Cardinals are the only other I-A competition for the Wildcats within the Commonwealth, and one could argue that the U of L has surpassed UK in terms of football.
South Carolina has a long history with Clemson going back to its days in the Atlantic Coast Conference, but the Gamecocks have no other I-A schools within state borders.
Arkansas has never played Arkansas State, the only other Division I-A school in its vicinity.
So what are we to make of Bertman's proposal?
His sentiment is good but it seems there is no guarantee that the in-state match-ups will guarantee sellouts of Tiger Stadium, especially if LSU continually routes the likes of ULL, ULM, Tech and Tulane. It's hard to imagine 10,000 ULL fans eager to make the trip over to Baton Rouge to watch the Ragin' Cajuns submitted to another thrashing. Heck, it's hard to imagine 10,000 Ragin' Cajun fans – period.
Bringing in the in-state schools on occasion is a good suggestion, but the seven-year stretch with the possibility of seeing two in-state teams in some years could grow tiresome. The rent-a-win label would do more fuel antagonism between LSU and the other Louisiana schools, rather than foster a healthy spirit of rivalry. You might consider LSU's long-running intrastate meetings in basketball and baseball as a contradiction to that claim, but the chasm between the "haves" and "have-nots" is much greater in football. How uplifting is it to be reminded every 2-3 years that your program has been and always will be second banana to the flagship school?
Personally, I like the idea of bringing in a team, like Utah State, that's never had the opportunity to experience Tiger Stadium and south Louisiana culture. These out-of-towners can provide a bigger boost to the local economy than the UL-Lafayette and Tulane fans who are more like to arrive in Baton Rouge the day of the game, go home immediately after and less likely to stay in our hotels, eat at our restaurants and visit our tourist attractions.
As for the consideration of keeping LSU's money close to home, I don't necessarily know if that's an attractive incentive for Louisiana's other I-A schools. Louisiana Tech, ULL, ULM and Tulane have made regular rounds of the SEC, and you have to believe the paychecks from Florida, Ole Miss and Alabama are going to be comparable to what LSU has to offer.
But maybe therein lies the solution.
The strongest Division I-A schools outside the SEC we've mention here are ones who have made strong conference affiliations. Southern Miss, Louisville, UAB and Tulane have prospered through Conference USA. Perhaps if CUSA and the SEC could work out a rotation arrangement, the smaller schools will continue to enjoy healthy payouts and SEC teams could offer a rotation of enticing match-ups to fill its stadiums.
A similar arrangement could be worked out with the Sun Belt Conference, which claims UL-Monroe, UL-Lafayette, Arkansas State and Middle Tennessee among its members. Like CUSA, the Sun Belt is largely based in the South and lends itself to forming regional rivalries with SEC schools – and not just the ones within their state.
Louisiana Tech, as a member of the watered-down Western Athletic Conference, is the odd man out in these proposed CUSA and Sun Belt rotations. But the Bulldogs have not really known any long-standing conference allegiance, and since we're talking hypothetically, is it beyond the realm of possibilities to tie Tech in with Division I-A independent South Florida in a new southern-based conference?
We haven't touched upon bowl tie-ins between the SEC and these other conferences, but wouldn't that make their regular season non-conference meetings a little more meaningful?
We've stretched the imagination a bit here, but I think some creative thinking may be in order to address the issue Bertman's proposal brings up: Should LSU play a part in elevating the status of the other Division I-A programs in Louisiana?
Yes, I believe, but not the sole part. Locking the Louisiana schools into games at Tiger Stadium would be unfair to LSU fans and the athletes from the other Louisiana schools, which have historically represented our state well.
What LSU fan didn't rejoice when Louisiana Tech toppled Alabama a few years back? And you can bet more than a few Tiger fans rejoiced when USL sent Texas A&M home losers not so long ago. Even Tulane would probably get some Bengal backing if they ever renewed their series against Florida.
Those scenarios would probably be less likely if Tech, ULM, ULL and Tulane were locked into a meeting with LSU once every 2-3 years.
Regardless of the outcome of his current proposal, Bertman should be credited for thinking out of the box (pardon the pun) when it comes to LSU's football schedule. He has endorsed Nick Saban's wish to schedule nationally recognized programs in home-and-home non-conference series. Ultimately, Bertman wants what's best for the Tigers and is certain to come to that end with careful forethought.