LSU runs into pressure barrier

By Will Kimmey
March 25, 2005

Louisiana State stands 26-12 and owns a No. 20 ranking, but that’s not enough for many Tigers fans.

Not enough, because LSU’s 7-8 Southeastern Conference record puts it ahead of exactly two teams in the 12-team league. Not enough, because LSU must improve if it still wants to make the SEC tournament and serve as a NCAA regional host. And certainly not enough because rival Tulane, LSU’s opponent Tuesday night, is 32-6 and ranked No. 3. The game will be telecast on ESPN2 starting at 7 p.m. Eastern.

LSU won five national championships under Skip Bertman from 1991-2000, setting the bar immeasurably high for successor Smoke Laval and his players when he took over the program in 2002. Laval’s Tigers have advanced to Omaha in 2003 and 2004, but haven’t won a game there.

“Good success isn’t enough when you’ve had great success,” said a scout who’s covered Louisiana for years. “The biggest slap in the face is Tulane is the better team now and the LSU fans know that. There’s no excuse for (the fans) that Tulane is better.”

The fans have been showing their displeasure by not showing up at games. About 115,000 fans passed through the turnstiles through 25 home games in 2004, compared to 95,000 at the same point this year.

Fans are also calling for Laval’s firing on talk radio shows and messages. Bertman, who hand-picked Laval as his successor and now serves as LSU’s athletic director, publicly supports his choice, his friend. He knows Laval’s situation is similar to succeeding Bear Bryant with Alabama’s football program or John Wooden with UCLA’s basketball team.

“It’s unfair to him,” said another scout. “Most coaches make super-regionals or Omaha and they get a five-year contract extention. These fans want him gone because he’s not winning in Omaha. They’ve lost the sense of accomplishment.”

Brad Holland was an assistant to Laval at Louisiana-Monroe and took over the head job when he left. He calls the expectations unrealistic and laughs at LSU fans who want a new coach. Holland and Laval speak several times per week, and Holland said he isn’t worried about how his friend is handling the pressure.

Laval doesn’t sound like he’s worried either, answering questions about LSU’s season with his typical dry humor. But that could be his own way of deflecting the question, deflecting the pressure.

“We’re struggling right along,” he said. “The good thing is we don’t have any injuries.”

LSU’s only major health concern came with senior infielder Blake Gill’s shoulder surgery in the fall, one that’s caused him to vacate shortstop and spend time at DH and third base.

The problem has come from the production of those players. Seniors Ryan Patterson and Clay Harris are enjoying strong seasons while Gill and Nick Stavinoha are performing as they have in the past, but the rest of the lineup has struggled with batting averages ranging from .211 to .253 and decreased power.

“What happens is there’s a pressure barrier,” Laval said. “It’s a draft year or a sophomore jinx after a good freshman year. What they’re trying to do is live up to expectations. If you hit .320 before, you’ve got to hit .320 or better. They don’t say that, but subconsciously it gets to you.

“Now it comes to a point where veterans have to overcome their success in past years.”

Laval said he thinks the offense is taking shape, following a series against Mississippi over the weekend in which the Tigers scored 20 runs in winning two out of three. The team’s .300 batting average ranks eighth in the league, though its 52 home runs rank first and 284 runs rank third.

Some observers feel the pressure on the players isn’t coming from the outside, but the inside. Carl Dubois, who has covered LSU for four years for the Baton Rouge Advocate, points to a giant billboard in right field depicting a ferocious tiger and the years of the five national titles'1991, Õ93, Õ96, Õ97 and 2000.

“The Intimidator sign used to intimidate opposing players,” Dubois said. “Now, I think it intimidates LSU players. Every time they look at it, it’s a reminder that LSU is in its longest stretch without a national championship since it won its first in 1991. Each year that passes without LSU adding a new championship year to the Intimidator, the pressure builds.”

That pressure comes with any former dynasty. Still, fans spoiled by success don’t want the team to drift back to the pack, or for the pack to catch up to their team. Laval’s eventual successor surely will have less pressure, as fans see that coach cleaning up the shortcomings they cite with Laval.

That LSU fans don’t own all the bragging rights over their neighbors at Tulane anymore can’t all be Laval’s fault. Remember, Tulane beat LSU at a 2001 super-regional, ending Bertman’s final season one game from Omaha. Like the rest of college baseball, the Green Wave was catching up for a long time.

Side bar:

Scout’s take on LSUÕs talent:

“The pitching is just OK. It doesn’t have a guy who’s going to go out and get you 12 strikeouts on a Friday night. (Senior lefthander Lane) Mestepey has been around the league, but he’d be a good Sunday starter, not Friday. He throws in the mid-80s and battles. And the hitters, they’re just OK for an LSU team. They’re playing so many guys out of position (defensively) with (left fielder Ryan) Patterson in center, (freshman Micahel) Hollander’s a second baseman (but heÕs playing) shortstop, and Clay Harris should be at first base (not second). We’re halfway through the SEC season and there’s not a set lineup.

“Smoke’s too smart of an X’s and O’s coach to not make changes. He’s a good game management coach. He’s given everyone a chance and he’s tired of messing around. They could go on a long run now.”