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LHSAA split playoffs diminishes competition, worth

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By Annie Ourso

A New York Times article on Nov. 19 featured the East Iberville football team out of St. Gabriel, Louisiana.

The squad of less than 20 had not won a single game for the second consecutive season, yet the Tigers were headed to the Class 1A playoffs.

All teams should share in the excitement of making playoffs, though, right? Everyone deserves a shot at the championship, don’t they?

East Iberville, 0-11, traveled five hours to lose 48-0. Four players decided to not even make the trip.

You tell me what’s exciting or deserving about that.

But East Iberville is not to blame. The Louisiana High School Athletic Association is.

The Times writer called it an “unintended consequence” of the LHSAA’s 2013 decision to split football playoffs based on public and private, or non-select and select, high schools.

Unintended may be the wrong word.

Supporters of this new system had to know a situation like East Iberville’s would happen. The public-private split diminishes competition and the significance of making playoffs and winning championships. It fosters the everyone-deserves-a-trophy mentality.

The LHSAA has raised the number of championships from five to nine and the number of playoff games from 155 to 217. In the postseason, public schools play in their Class 5A-1A divisions, while private schools compete in new Divisions I-IV.

The split, however, is not totally unreasonable. After all, LHSAA member-school principals voted 152-67 to keep the split in February. Some explanation must be behind this.

And there is: Public schools have grown tired of an uneven playing field.

Private schools are able to draw in students from outside the traditional attendance zones that limit public schools’ enrollments. Certain private schools are also accused of recruiting to garner the best athletes.

These practices have led to football powerhouses like John Curtis of River Ridge, which has won 25 state titles.

So the public school argument is understandable. The proposed solution, however, is not.

Splitting playoffs for public and private schools not only waters down the competition; it makes winning less meaningful.

The new system gives more teams a chance to win, but it’s unrealistic. In the real world, you cannot simply change the rules and reduce the competition to achieve success.

The playoff split could also be for economic gain – more games equal more money. But for the sake of the students and all that is good, I hope money is not the secret motive behind the LHSAA’s decision.

In the end, the bad outweighs the good in the split playoffs system. Now, you may ask, how else can we remedy the high school football woes?

Start at the root of the problem: recruiting. The LHSAA prohibits recruiting, of course, but it could do a better job at monitoring it.

Dutchtown High coach Benny Saia offered a viable alternative to the split playoffs system, according to The Advocate on June 20, 2013.

To solve recruiting issues, Saia suggested the LHSAA consider a system in which each school has its membership renewed every two years based on a vote of other member schools.

“There’s no question that something needed to be done,” Saia said. “There are (private) schools from Baton Rouge who come into Ascension Parish for players. And there are public schools who do some of the same things. But that’s not every school out there. My problem with this system is that you’re punishing some people who don’t deserve it.”

LSU grad takes career to CBS sports

By Annie Ourso

Sitting at a small table in a Baton Rouge CC’s Coffee House, CBS sports director Mark Grant motioned his arms through the air as if he were conducting a symphony.

“If you watch the guy who conducts a symphony,” he said, “a bunch of different instruments make it all come together. The drums, the woodwinds, the brass – someone has to make it all come together.”

That’s what Grant does, except as a network television sports director.

“I take the camera guys, the camera shots, the replays, the graphics and listen to announcers – somebody has to wrap all that up into a nice little package and make it have some continuity for TV,” he said. “I tell people I’m like the conductor of the orchestra.”

Grant, a Baton Rouge resident and 1981 LSU graduate, has been directing NFL and college football games at CBS for 17 years.

Only 16 people in the country do what he does, Grant said.

Every weekend for seven months, he travels to games across the country. During the games, Grant can be found inside the TV production truck, calling the shots – literally.

“When you watch a game and see a replay, it’s the director who makes that come on the air,” Grant said. “If you see a graphic, it’s the director who says, ‘Put the graphic up.’ Anytime something changes on screen, it’s the director who does that.”

It’s about more than just airing a game, though. For Grant, it’s about telling a story through pictures.

Throughout his career, Grant has told countless stories – some that have stuck with him to this day. The UCLA-Gonzaga game in the 2006 NCAA basketball tournament, Grant said, was one of those stories.

Gonzaga, led by player of the year Adam Morrison, maintained the lead for the first half of the game until UCLA slowly started making a comeback to beat Gonzaga in the final seconds.

“The story wasn’t so much about UCLA winning, but Adam Morrison, player of the year – my camera guy gets a shot of him on the floor, crying,” Grant said. “Here you have this kid, who’s going to be one of the first players taken in the draft, and he’s on the floor crying because his team is out of the tournament. It’s his last college game.

“That shot became an image of what the NCAA basketball tournament is all about – the joy, the pain, the happiness, the sorrow.”

Capturing those moments and emotions are a part of Grant’s job.

Becoming a director, however, doesn’t happen overnight. Grant spent many early years of his career working his way up through the broadcasting ranks.

He said his first job was at a local cable company, covering high school sports.

“Everyone has to start somewhere else,” Grant said. “If you can’t be great there, you can’t be great at the next step.”

While working at the cable company, Grant took side jobs with ESPN when the crew came to town. He said he used the knowledge he gained working for a big network like ESPN to improve his work at the local station.

His efforts did not go unnoticed. Grant moved up to director and producer at the cable company and began to win awards for his work.

“In local cable, you had the CableACE Awards,” he said. “Our company won, and I was producer. I got a lot of recognition. ESPN recognized that I was more than just a camera person.”

In 1986, Grant was hired on at ESPN as an assistant director. When asked to cover college football, he decided to quit his job at the local cable company.

“Since then, I’ve never really looked back,” Grant said.

His next big break came just a few years later.

In 1989, Grant was working a football game in Georgia when the director’s wife went into labor and he had to leave. ESPN needed someone to direct the show.

“To this day, I don’t know how many people they asked till they got to me,” Grant said. “But they finally got to me and asked not only if I wanted to do it, but could I do it. It was my experience doing local cable as a director that got me that opportunity.

Grant proved himself to ESPN, and by 1990, he was promoted to director.

So, how did he get to CBS? Simple. He was offered a better deal.

In 1998, just before signing another contract with ESPN, Grant received a call from his agent. He told Grant to hold off on signing with ESPN because CBS got the rights back to broadcast the NFL and was looking for directors.

After a phone call and an interview, Grant said, CBS wanted him as a director and haggled with ESPN over who could make the better offer. CBS won out.

“You can’t get comfortable working for one company in a competitive business,” Grant said. “For a lot of reasons, it was a better move for me. Seventeen years later, here I am, doing what I do, and I love it.”

What’s funny, Grant said, is that what he loves most about his job is also what he hates about his job.

“I’m fortunate in that I’ve been all over the world covering sports,” he said. “I’ve met people who are friends for life because I cover sports. I’ve seen cities I never would have. That part of traveling is great, but the day-to-day grind of getting up, packing a suitcase, unpacking and flying – that part of the travel is what I hate most about my job.”

Grant admitted he did not always want to work in television. He started out as a pre-med student at LSU but soon decided that wasn’t for him.

He laughed as he told the story of how he got into mass communications: It was a girl who sparked his interest, not the actual field itself. Grant wanted to be in her major, broadcast journalism, to spend more time with her.

“Once I got into the major, I was fascinated by what goes on in television, especially behind the scenes,” Grant said. “I never really wanted to be on camera, but I just loved editing and writing and putting it all together.”

One of Grant’s classmates at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication was Steve Schneider, the local WAFB sports director. After graduation, Grant and Schneider worked together at the local cable company.

“Mark used to joke that he’d get assigned to cover city council meetings, and they were so boring that they just drove him to excellence, to succeed at something more,” Schneider said. “He excelled. He was determined to learn every part of the business.”

For that, Grant has become well respected in the community, Schneider said, and someone he personally admires.

“I think he’s one of those good people – always stood for the right things, always going out of his way to help people,” Schneider said.

Grant stays involved with the Manship School, teaching classes in broadcasting when he can, and also helps out at the local Cox Sports Television cable channel.

“I like to teach people locally,” Grant said. “I like to help them get to a higher level. It’s rewarding.”

His continued involvement at LSU and in the local community earned Grant a spot in the Manship School’s Hall of Fame.

David Kurpius, LSU’s associate vice chancellor for enrollment management and former Manship School professor, nominated Grant to be inducted in 2003.

Kurpius said Hall of Fame members should be professionals in the field who are still engaged with LSU and the Manship School.

“Mark’s fabulous,” Kurpius said. “He’s had a really great career as director for ESPN and CBS. He also gives back to the school. He’s actively involved in teaching students, getting students to the next level and helping them get jobs and internships.”

It’s easy to relate to the students, Grant said, because he’s been in their shoes and he knows what it takes to get to the next level: hard work.

You have to pay your dues, he said, and really believe and make others believe that you are the best at what you do.

“There are hundreds of people who would like the do what I do,” Grant said. “I do the NFL every Sunday. Only 16 people in the country do what I do, but there are a lot of people, thousands, who could do it and want to do it.”

Grant’s job, then, is to continue performing at such a high level that CBS thinks he’s one of the only who can do it.

“As long as I do that, I have a job,” Grant said. “But the minute I lose my edge and my passion and start taking the easy way and don’t prepare for games – that’s when you start to fall. And when you do, there’s someone more hungry than you.”

Cajuns’ success prompts expansion, grows fan base

By Annie Ourso

It’s a good time to be a Ragin’ Cajun, said Louisiana-Lafayette sports information director Matt Sullivan.

Cajun Field has seen substantial renovations this year, football ticket sales and donations are at all-time highs, and after six straight wins, the Cajuns are bowl eligible for the fourth consecutive year.

“We’ve got consistent winning seasons, so what you’re going to see now is growth – in terms of community support, donations, everything,” Sullivan said. “You have to have the right person, the right scenario, and I think with head coach (Mark) Hudspeth coming in, things were able to take off.”

Since the Hudspeth Era began in 2011, the Cajuns have won three straight bowl game championships – a complete turnaround from lackluster seasons of years past.

With the Cajuns’ newfound success came more support and more money, and with more support and more money came facility improvements.

Cajun Field received a major makeover for the start of the 2014 football season.

Seating was added to the south end of the stadium, increasing capacity to 36,900. UL-Lafayette also installed a new video board, three times the size of the previous board, and added two outdoor patio suites on the southwest end.

John Dugas, associate athletics director, said this is the first time Cajun Field has seen improvements on this level since it opened in 1971.

The stadium upgrade is part of Tier 1 of UL-Lafayette’s three-tiered, $115 million Athletic Facilities Master Plan.

Further expansions for Cajun Field are in the works, Sullivan said, as UL-Lafayette’s fan base continues to grow.

“Since Coach Hud, we’ve more than doubled our season ticket output,” said Matt Casbon, UL-Lafayette’s ticket manager.

This year alone, Casbon said, football season ticket sales have risen 36 percent. Overall attendance at games has increased as well.

“Attendance has been great these last four years,” Sullivan said. “Two of the last three years, we’ve led the Sun Belt Conference in attendance. We have a chance to lead it again this year. Right now, we’re right behind Arkansas State.”

Donations to the Ragin’ Cajun Athletics Foundation also rose this year to about $2 million for the first time, he said.

Even as a newcomer to the athletics staff, Sullivan said he has seen progress across the board at UL-Lafayette.

“I’ve been here for a year,” he said. “I was born in Lafayette, and I haven’t been back in 30 years. Seeing everything now, I’ve been amazed. The growth and everything going on with football and Coach Hud, it’s been phenomenal – a tremendous four-year ride.”

Dugas has been with the Cajuns through the long haul, and he said these last four years have been nothing short of a dream come true.

“This is my 21st season being a part of the Ragin’ Cajuns football program,” Dugas said. “This is more than a team to me; it’s truly part of who I am.”

Hudspeth was the spark the Cajuns needed to turn the program around, Dugas said, and his flame has spread throughout the entire university and city of Lafayette.

“Hope is a powerful motivator,” he said. “More than anything, Coach Hud represents what is possible for this team and this athletic department.

“We’ve had brief moments of success in the past, but nothing that has been sustained. We have everyone on board now, so the time to completely transform has arrived. It’s up to us to keep it going.”

GameDay analysts talk LSU-Ole Miss

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GameDay analyst Desmond Howard says the LSU-Ole Miss game is an important match-up.

By Annie Ourso

Each campus ESPN’s “College GameDay” visits has its own unique personality, said cast analyst Desmond Howard.

LSU is certainly no exception. With its rowdy crowd, eccentric coach and unpredictable history, LSU is sure to make the visit worthwhile.

The GameDay crew arrived in Baton Rouge this week to host its pregame show Saturday before the Tigers take on Ole Miss.

The analysts held an interview session Friday outside their production offices at the LSU Union to discuss the two SEC teams and what it’s like to be back at LSU.

For David Pollack, memories come flooding back of when he played in Tiger Stadium in 2003 as an All-American Georgia lineman.

“I’ve said it – not just because I’m here – I think it’s the best atmosphere in college football,” Pollack said of Death Valley. “It’s the toughest. The fans are the rowdiest. It’s awesome.”

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David Pollack speaks to reporters during an interview session at the LSU Union Friday.

No. 3 Ole Miss, however, may be able to silence LSU’s raucous crowd come Saturday, said show host Chris Fowler, but there’s unpredictability all around in this game, especially with a coach like Les Miles in the mix.

“Les Miles is a home dog, unpredictable X-factor,” Fowler said. “You need characters (like Miles) in this sport.”

To Howard, Miles is an old friend. The former Heisman Trophy winner played under Miles when he was assistant coach at Michigan, the school that is also Miles’ alma mater.

“He’s a great coach,” Howard said. “It’s different with Les because I have a personal relationship with him.”

The LSU-Ole Miss matchup will be an important game, Howard said, and he’s eager to see the Rebels’ passing game against LSU’s secondary.

Although most will favor Ole Miss in this game, Pollack said, styles make the fight. LSU’s weakness is defense, while Ole Miss is lacking in its offensive line.

For the Tigers, the passing game and balance will be key, Pollack said.

This is GameDay’s 10th trip to LSU. The last visit was in 2012 when LSU lost to No. 1 Alabama. This year’s show will be held on the LSU Parade Grounds.

By the end of the interviews, one question still remained for College GameDay’s show on Saturday: Who will be the guest picker?

Producer Lee Fitting said fans will have to wait until tomorrow to find out, but he did reveal that the guest is a male and not an LSU alumnus.

Harris, freshmen offense excel against Aggies

By Annie Ourso

True freshmen, led by quarterback Brandon Harris, showed their strengths and dominated Death Valley Saturday night as LSU defeated New Mexico State 63-7 in Tiger Stadium.

Harris made his appearance in the second quarter after sophomore quarterback Anthony Jennings committed three turnovers in the first.

Effectively turning the game around, Harris contributed five touchdowns, 178 total yards, completed 11 of 14 passes and carried for 36 yards.

“The reason why I had so much success, we had so much success, passing the football was because we had a great running game,” Harris said.

Fans basically called Harris onto the field themselves after they audibly expressed their displeasure with Jennings’ performance.

“I think it’s important that we support Anthony when he’s in there,” Harris said. “It shouldn’t be the way it was tonight.”

Still, there’s no denying Harris played the better game Saturday.

“I’m a young guy,” he said. “I’ll continue to develop in certain areas. You know, I don’t think it’s my role to lead the team. I think we have older, veteran guys who take that role, and I continue to learn from them.”

Much of Harris’ support this game, however, came from other freshmen on the field: Leonard Fournette, Malachi Dupre, Darrel Williams and Trey Quinn.

Fournette finished with 18 carries and 122 yards and scored two touchdowns for the Tigers in the best game of his young college career.

“I think I’m doing pretty well,” Fournette said. “I’m a true freshman. Thanks to Kenny (Hilliard); thanks to Terrence (Magee) – they’re my mentors. All the freshmen are still learning pretty much. I ask Kenny and Terrence for help all the time.”

There’s a difference between playing in high school and in college, Fournette said, and it’s something freshmen have to adjust to.

“You have to get used to the speed and aggressiveness of other teams,” he said.

Wide receiver Malachi Dupre has also stepped up as a freshman this season. Against New Mexico State, he totaled 54 yards and scored on a 27-yard pass from Harris.

“When we were recruited, coach told us young guys will play big roles here,” Dupre said. “Guys like myself are stepping in, realizing there’s truth to that statement.”

In all, LSU’s offense completed 200 passing yards and 363 rushing yards, compared to New Mexico State’s 102 passing yards and 172 rushing yards.

Coach Les Miles said he was happy to see freshmen get in the game and show what they’re capable of.

As for the quarterback battle, though, he still hasn’t shown favor toward either Harris or Jennings.

“We’re going to need both quarterbacks as we go forward,” Miles said.

From 1924 to now: Tiger Stadium boasts extensive history

Tiger Stadium, 1936

 

By Annie Ourso

Imagine Tiger Stadium today.

Now imagine that stadium with only 12,000 seats, no north or south end stands, no premium suites and no gigantic video boards. Now you’re looking at Tiger Stadium circa 1924.

Needless to say, Death Valley has come a long way since then.

Today, LSU’s stadium can seat up to 102,321 fans, thanks to the 2014 expansion project on the south end, making it the sixth-largest college football stadium in the country.

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“We are progressing just like any other NCAA Division 1 university,” said Emmett David, facility development director at LSU. “We have the demand. The average size of (largest) stadiums in the Southeastern Conference ranges anywhere from 95,000 to 102,000.”

The latest stadium expansion was one of many projects over the past 90 years aimed at making Tiger Stadium bigger, better and more accommodating to its ever-growing fan base.

“This is very common for stadiums – Alabama, Tennessee, Penn State,” David said. “You can go through the trends of stadiums as the higher education population grew from pre-war in the 1930s and 40s to post-war. Higher education expanded its growth, so they began building their stadiums.”

LSU professor Chad Seifried wrote a paper depicting the history of LSU stadium expansion, titled “The Development of Death Valley: The Modernization of Tiger Stadium,” soon to be published in the Louisiana History journal.

According to Seifried’s paper, Tiger Stadium first opened its gates on Thanksgiving Day 1924, as the Tigers took on rival Tulane. At that time, the stadium included only east and west stands, seating about 12,000 people.

By the early 1930s, the first expansion project was underway. Tiger Stadium added 10,000 seats above the east and west stands, increasing its capacity to 22,000.

Under those stands were stadium dormitories that housed 1,500 students. According to the media guide, the football team actually lived in Tiger Stadium in 1986 while the athletics dorm was being renovated.

In 1931, Saturday nights in Death Valley became an LSU tradition as lights were added to the stadium, along with an electric scoreboard.

The Tigers played their first game under the new lights on Oct. 3, 1931, a 35-0 victory over Spring Hill.

By 1936, the stadium formed a horseshoe shape with the addition of the north end stands, increasing capacity to 46,000. Seventeen years later, the south end addition transformed the horseshoe stadium into a bowl and boosted seating capacity to 67,720.

Once all sides were added, Tiger Stadium began building up. In 1978, an upper deck was constructed above the west stands along with additional seating in two club level sections. All together, 10,000 seats were added, and capacity rose to 78,000.

During the late 1980s, the stands were waterproofed, 25,000 chair-back seats replaced bench seats and old bleachers were replaced. Also, more seats were added to the west end along with new bleacher seating.

By 1994, Tiger Stadium reached a capacity of 80,000.

It wasn’t long before LSU expanded again in 2000 as the upper east deck was built, adding 70 skyboxes, or “Tiger Dens,” and 11,600 seats, which brought capacity to 92,000.

From 2005 to 2006, the west upper deck was rebuilt to mirror the east deck and a new press box was added. An 80-foot-wide, high-definition video board was also installed in the north end zone in 2009.

Windows on the north side were restored in 2010 to preserve the look of Tiger Stadium, and a lighting system was installed in 2012 along with letters spelling out Tiger Stadium on the west side.

Finally, the latest expansion project was completed this year. The south end added 66 suites, 3,000 club seats and 1,400 general public seats above the club seats.

Not only have seats been added, but also an improved sound system, two large video replay screens and new and improved bathrooms.

“I think a lot of it extends from the need of certain fans,” said Eddie Nunez, LSU senior associate athletic director. “People start looking for the premium seats. It’s the general interest of our fan base.”

Because Tiger Stadium has had such a rich history, Nunez said LSU also works to preserve the older look of Tiger Stadium when making renovations or expansions.

“It’s an iconic place in college football and a special place to our fans, so we put emphasis on keeping it looking the way it used to,” he said.

 

Top 10 largest college stadiums:

1. Michigan Stadium – Michigan Wolverines – 109,901

2. Beaver Stadium – Penn State Nittany Lions – 106,572

3. Kyle Field – Texas A&M Aggies– 106,512

4. Ohio Stadium – Ohio State Buckeyes – 104,944

5. Neyland Stadium – Tennessee Volunteers – 102,455

6. Tiger Stadium – LSU Tigers – 102,321

7. Bryant-Denny Stadium – Alabama Crimson Tide – 101,821

8. DKR – Texas Memorial Stadium – Texas Longhorns – 100,119

9. Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum – USC Trojans – 93,607

10. Sanford Stadium – Georgia Bulldogs – 92,746

 

Tiger Stadium Timeline:

* 1924 – The stadium was first constructed to include the east and west stands, seating about 12,000 people.

* 1931-1935 – The east and west stands were raised to seat 10,000 more fans, bringing capacity to 22,000, and stadium dormitories were constructed under the stands to house 1,500 students. Lights and a scoreboard were also added to Tiger stadium during this time.

* 1936 – North end stands with 24,000 seats were constructed to create a horseshoe configuration, increasing total seats to 46,000.

* 1953 – The south end stands were completed, transforming the horseshoe into a bowl and bringing seating capacity to 67,720.

* 1978 – The upper deck above the west stands was built along with additional seating in two club level sections, adding about 10,000 seats to increase entire stadium capacity to 78,000.

* 1985-1987 – The stands were waterproofed, old bleachers were replaced and 25,000 chair-back seats replaced older bench seats. The field was also moved 11 feet south to make room between the back line of the north end zone and the curvature of the stadium fence. More seats were added to the west lower stands, and seating size was reconfigured to make all seats uniform.

* 1988-1994 – Bleacher seating was added, increasing the overall capacity to about 80,150. However, some bleacher seating was removed in 1994, decreasing seating capacity to 80,000.

* 2000 – Seating capacity reached 92,000 with the addition of 11,600 seats in the upper east deck and 70 luxury boxes, or “Tiger Dens.”

* 2005-2006 – The west upper deck project, which added 3,200 club-level seats and added a new press box, was completed. The west upper deck was also renovated to mirror the east upper deck.

* 2009 – An 80-foot wide high-definition video board was installed in the north end zone.

* 2010 – Windows on the stadium’s north side were refurbished to preserve the look of Tiger Stadium.

* 2012 – A lighting system was installed to illuminate the north end of the stadium in “victory gold” lights after an LSU win. Letters spelling out Tiger Stadium were also added on the west side.

* 2014 – The south end zone added 66 suites, 3,000 club seats above the existing south end seats and 1,400 general public seats above the new club seats. Seating capacity increased to 102,321.