Remember when Scott Woodward was first hired as LSU’s athletic director three years ago and everyone kept waiting and waiting for him to make a big coaching hire?
Amusing idea now.
Virtually his entire tenure back at his alma mater, Woodward has been on a hiring (some would say spending) spree. The coaching changes started slowly, making Jay Clark co-head coach of gymnastics with DD Breaux (until then LSU’s one and only coach) in May 2019.
The past year has been unprecedented. For the first time in school history, LSU has changed coaches in the big four sports — football, baseball, men’s and women’s basketball — within the same calendar year. All involved moving successful coaches who could have stayed where they were or easily could have found employment elsewhere.
What was the key? Big-time wages help. Football coach Brian Kelly left Notre Dame for LSU in December for a $100 million package. Women’s basketball coach Kim Mulkey felt the time was right to come home, but it wouldn’t have happened if Woodward had lowballed her salary. Instead, he paid her $2.5 million this season, and it is going up to $3.3 million by year eight.
But it takes a vision to convince coaches they will be as successful or more at LSU than they were at their previous places.
Let’s take a look at Kelly’s hires in chronological order:
• JAY CLARK, gymnastics: Clark took over as the solo head coach in August 2020 after Breaux retired. His Tigers finished sixth in the 2021 NCAA championships and are the No. 6 seed going into NCAA regional competition Thursday in Raleigh, North Carolina. Some fans have grown impatient waiting for LSU’s first NCAA title after finishing as runner-up four times since 2014. But Clark is an excellent recruiter who might have been lured away for another head coaching opportunity. It still seems a matter of when, not if, LSU will put it together for a title run.
• SIAN HUDSON, soccer: LSU made a big splash last fall, getting off to an 8-0 start and reaching No. 5 nationally. The Tigers slumped to an 11-8-1 finish goal reached the NCAA tournament for just the sixth time since the program started in 1995, and first time since 2018 when it won the SEC tournament. It’s progress for a program that has much growing to do.
• KIM MULKEY, women’s basketball: Big things were expected when LSU hired Mulkey away from Baylor. But even she over-delivered with a 26-6 first season that included a runner-up SEC finish, a No. 3 regional seed and a top-10 ranking. Mulkey is the most accomplished LSU coach ever has hired in any sport. It didn’t take a huge sell job by Woodward to persuade her to come home, just an unprecedented amount of imagination and financial commitment.
• RICK BISHOP, swimming and diving: Hired June 24, Bishop went straight to serving as Hong Kong’s national team coach for the Tokyo Olympics. He spent the previous nine seasons as associate head coach at Michigan, which won the 2013 NCAA men’s title while he was there. Swimming and diving’s biggest issue is support, competing in the LSU Natatorium, which has needed improvements for years.
• JAY JOHNSON, baseball: At the moment, Johnson is probably Woodward’s most questioned hire, considering the struggles LSU has had against quality competition this season. The Tigers have great pieces but aren’t a good team. But when you see Johnson’s success at Arizona and his granular attention to detail, you have to expect he will eventually have success at LSU. He also signed the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class in November.
• BRIAN KELLY, soccer: Kelly has the best resume of any football coach LSU has hired. His next stop after LSU is almost certainly the College Football Hall of Fame. It’s only been two spring practices, and his Tigers are far from their first game, but Kelly’s attention to detail and demands for accountability from his players make him sound like the kind of coach LSU needs. Even if he doesn’t sound like he’s from the south (South Boston, maybe).
• TONYA JOHNSON, volleyball: A former LSU player and Zachary native, Johnson returned to LSU in December after helping Texas to five Final Fours. She played on LSU’s 1990 Final Four team. It’s been a long time since the Tigers have been on that stage, but Johnson knows the path to get there.
• MATT McMAHON, men’s basketball: Given the specter of NCAA sanctions, this was probably Woodward’s toughest hire. McMahon isn’t a typical Woodward splash hire. But he could have left Murray State for a host of other Power Five programs this year. Instead, Woodward sold him on this being the opportunity of a lifetime. Murray State is a perennial stepping stone for coaches, some successful and some not (Steve Prohm left for Iowa State, got fired and just returned to Murray). It will take time, but if Woodward is wrong about McMahon, a lot of other schools were willing to make the same mistake.