MULE': No one stays on top for long

Oh, the voice on the radio was filled with fury. "The man can't do it anymore,'' he said. "He doesn't know how to move base runners or handle pitchers. If I know anything about the game, and I'm pretty sure I do, LSU is finished as a factor in college baseball.''

Those statements weren't made last week, when beleaguered Smoke Laval's Tigers were left out of the postseason.

 

No, those sentiments were uttered on New Orleans airways in 1999, when the Tigers failed for the second year in a row to win a baseball national championship. The object of the scorn was J. Stanley Bertman, the man who molded LSU's nationally-renown program and the skipper of four previous No. 1 pennants.

 

One thing you learn quickly in covering LSU athletics is that no one can do enough for Tiger fans. If a coach can lead his team to the Promised Land of that sport, transform it into either a champion or contender, they'll never be happy again – unless the Tigers win and win and win. Every year.

 

Of course, nobody can. The nature of sports is that there are always challengers, and no one stays at the top for long.

 

Right, tell it to Tiger fans.

 

If you listen to the experts and detractors on the air, Laval's bones should be thrown onto the nearest junk-heap.

 

The sin of Laval, who has one season remaining on his contract, is that he finished his fifth season at LSU with a 35-24 record, 13-17 in the SEC. Those are markers, bad markers. The 35 wins are the fewest since Bertman Tigers went 32-23 in his first year of 1984, and the SEC record was the worst since 9-13 in 1983.

 

Coincidently, the last time the Tigers didn't reach the NCAA Tournament was in 1988 – ironically, also Bertman's fifth season as a head coach, when it was much easier for a program that put a premium on baseball to lord over many opponents who treated the sport as a tree-shade pastime.

 

As bad as a theoretical case against him can be made, the crux of the anger directed at Laval is not only that LSU didn't make the postseason, but that Mississippi State, a team no better than the Tigers, did, a team that didn't even make the SEC Tournament.

 

That's what really fries the butts of Tiger fans.

 

Although there are points in Laval's favor that are not new, though they are pertinent, particularly when it's remembered how much harder it is to recruit now in the SEC's most antiquated stadium, one that will not be replaced for another year. It's a prime reason LSU has been replaced as the flagship of Louisiana baseball by Tulane, which spent this season at a minor-league facility, Zephyr Field, similar to the showcases that now dot the SEC.

 

In a notable achievement, Tulane managed to win 41 games despite the continuing travails of Katrina.

 

Yet, it should also be pointed out that in the five seasons since Laval took over at LSU, the Tigers have been to two College World Series. In that same span, Tulane has made it once.

 

In the same five years, no one in the SEC has won more regular season games as Lavel (88-60-1), virtually the same record as South Carolina's Ray Tanner (88-61). Ole Miss' Mike Bianco, the flavor of the month for Tiger partisans, has an 84-66 over the same five seasons.

 

The Tigers under Laval have two SEC championships, same as Bianco, and made those two CWS appearances – more than anyone in the SEC.

 

There are a couple of other things to consider about Laval: he's coached two SEC Players of the Year, Aaron Hill and Jon Zeringue, an indication he's helping his athletes develop; In 2004 and 2005 Laval had 12 players make the All-SEC academic honors, most in school history. A lot of fans don't care about that latter stat, but it's another indication he's doing his job of helping his players develop in yet another area. LSU is a college, you know, a fact sometimes lost by the folks in the stands.

 

"Most LSU coaches survive one bad year,'' conceded Bertman, who hired Laval to be his successor.

 

That seems only fair. With five starters back, and eight pitchers, and a promising crop of recruits, Laval deserves another year.

 

If he can't cut it after that, then let him go and bring in somebody new to field teams in the new Alex Box Stadium.

 

Do it that way and LSU won't even have to come up with the money to buy out Laval's contract.

 

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Marty Mule' can be reached at MJM981@Bellsouth.net.


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