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Trent Johnson's LSU Tenure Misses The Mark For Several Reasons

A few missteps led to disappointing career and ultimate resignation at LSU for Trent Johnson.

The new head coach at TCU's tenure at LSU didn't go according to plan.

This October, Johnson was expected to be entering his fifth season leading a team brimming with potential and young talent on the upswing in the college basketball world.

Johnson was supposed to have locked down the Louisiana recruiting base and be a potential threat to contend for the SEC the next few seasons.

Instead, Johnson is leaving LSU for a new set of challenges at TCU rather than bracing for what looks like another uphill battle in Baton Rouge next season. TCU officials will hold a press conference Monday to announce Johnson's acceptance of the job with the Horned Frogs.

Johnson's time in Baton Rouge has been mired in mediocrity, and his 67-64 record supports that assertion.

There was a sense of good feeling around the LSU men's basketball program after Johnson's first season in which the team won the SEC and advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament. Joe Alleva, the recently-appointed athletic director, seemed to score a perfect hire for the program post-John Brady.

Three years later, the good feeling transformed into a cloud of doubt after going 12-35 in the SEC since 2009. The promising future promoted by the program after Johnson's hiring and successful first season became a stale sense of stagnancy.

Last week's news of center Justin Hamilton jumping to the pros deepened the already negative aura around the program.

It suddenly became difficult to find the silver lining entering next season. A mediocre SEC team from 2011 is poised to enter 2012 without the senior leadership of point guard Chris Bass and the low-post presence of seniors Storm Warren and Malcolm White.

To make matters worse, Hamilton's departure left the squad without its leader in five statistical categories. Hamilton was tops on the team in points per game (12.9), blocks (43), field goal percentage (.494), rebounds per game (7.2) and free throws (107).

Hamilton, Warren and White's exodus left the team with a huge void in the frontcourt. The Tigers' only post players remaining on scholarship are Johnny O'Bryant (6-9, 260), Eddie Ludwig (6-9, 210) and Jalen Courtney (6-8, 228). O'Bryant may now be forced to play the center position, something he reportedly rejected upon signing with LSU.

Johnson knew the challenges with his current roster and saw the handwriting of his future on the wall.

Barring a series of surprising events, next season would have been his final. The chance to start fresh at TCU was too hard to pass up for Johnson.

Job security is a coveted commodity these days. The TCU job guarantees at least a few seasons making a couple million dollars. LSU would probably only guarantee one more season at $1.4 million.

Johnson's tenure at LSU wasn't a complete wash. He improved the team's Academic Progress Rate (APR) and saw the opening of the new practice facility under his watch. He won one SEC title, suffered two lousy seasons and then made vast strides from the 2011 to 2012 season, increasing the conference win total from three to seven and earning an NIT bid.

But a few missteps along the way ultimately sealed Johnson's chances of finding long-term success in Baton Rouge.

First, Johnson never excelled in the bloodline of college sports and the only way to guarantee longevity as a coach – recruiting.

Steering the complex high school basketball landscape in Louisiana is no slam dunk. There haven't been many surefire recruits the past few years, but Johnson has missed on landing a few, and the few he did haven't necessarily panned out yet.

The 2010, 2011 and 2012 classes yielded a combined three Scout.com four-star recruits and eight three-star recruits from Louisiana.

Out of the 11, Johnson only landed three of them. Johnson received commitments from one Scout four-star prospect, forward Matt Derenbecker out of Country Day High School in 2010, and two Scout three-star prospects, guard John Isaac from Pickering High School in 2011 and guard Malik Morgan from John Curtis High School in 2012.

Derenbecker, the Louisiana Gatorade Player of the Year for two seasons, started 16 games as a freshman at LSU, averaging 6.5 points and 2.1 rebounds a contest. He decided to transfer to Dayton after the season.

Isaac saw limited playing time this past season, appearing in 31 games with 2.7 points a contest. Morgan, the third Louisiana prospect, will join the team in the summer.

Johnson's biggest misses have been guard Langston Galloway, a Scout four-star recruit in 2010 from Christian Life Academy in Baton Rouge, and forward Richardo Gathers from Riverside Academy in Reserve in 2012. Galloway picked St. Joseph's, and Gathers infamously chose Baylor over the Tigers in February, claiming Johnson didn't recruit him hard enough.

Johnson's resistance to hiring an assistant with Louisiana connections didn't help him with recruiting in state. Forming ties with Louisiana high school and AAU coaches is key to recruiting local talent, and Johnson's refusal to add a top-notch recruiter on staff with local ties hurt him in the long run.

Johnson did reach out beyond the Pelican State to nab forward Johnny O'Bryant from Mississippi and Anthony Hickey from Kentucky last season. In 2010 he signed three Scout three-star recruits from out of state – guard Ralston Turner from Alabama and point guard Andre Stringer and forward Jalen Courtney from Mississippi.

Besides poor recruiting, attrition plagued the program. The deck was constantly being shuffled between seasons. Derenbecker, Aaron Dotson, Garrett Green and Justin Hamilton all left the program earlier than expected. Also, walk-on point guard Daron Populist left to pursue a scholarship at Southeastern.

Off the court, Johnson had trouble connecting with a couple of former LSU greats. He didn't have stellar relationships with LSU basketball legends Collis Temple Jr. and former coach Dale Brown.

Temple, LSU's first African-American player in 1971, has been an ambassador for the LSU program through the years, steering recruits and his two sons to play for LSU. Brown compiled a 448-301 overall record in his 25-year run, taking LSU to two Final Fours.

Even though Johnson reached out to many previous LSU legends and allowed access to the program to many of them, he never shared a close bond with Temple or Brown. He simply did things differently than Temple or Brown and preferred to keep his distance.

Johnson did things his own way when dealing with the media as well. He was never the most charismatic coach in front the microphone during his tenure.

His press conferences were often mundane and even tense at times as the coach kept things close to the vest and answered questions in his own sarcastic style. It's safe to say the minutes spent with the media each week during the season were the least enjoyable moments of Johnson's week.

While I covered every game of the 2011 season as a sports writer for The Daily Reveille, I became accustomed to the rigid press conferences.

During one particular press conference I asked Johnson about his team's motivation and what they were playing for. The team was 3-12 entering the season finale against Auburn to close out the 2011 season.

Johnson took a deep breath, leaned back in his chair on stage and chuckled a little bit. I won't repeat his exact response to me, but he basically told me not to question the motivation of his team and how I was just trying to sell newspapers, among other things.

A few minutes later during the press conference he made a comment to another sports writer asking the sports writer to console me after the press conference and make sure I was OK.

His demeanor and body language after this particular question wasn't unusual for Johnson, but that type of condescending answer was out of the normal realm.

LSU's sports information director for men's basketball called me after the press conference to apologize, and the next morning Johnson personally apologized. I accepted both of them and hold no grudges against Johnson.

I'm only sharing this story to give readers a glimpse of how Johnson somtimes dealt with the media during his tenure.

Coaches don't have to be close friends with members of the media, but whether coaches like it or not, their images are often formed by the media. The media serve as a buffer between coaches and fans.

Johnson's combination of poor media relations and losing record hurt his chances of gaining the benefit of the doubt from many fans.

Time is ticking to find Johnson's replacement. Joe Alleva is on the clock to find LSU's fourth head coach since 1972.

Names such as Johnny Jones, Randy Livingston, Reggie Theus, Jamie Dixon and Scott Drew have been thrown around, but only Alleva knows his true target.

If the next coach wants to last more than four seasons, he must do some of the things Johnson didn't do. He must have the ability to recruit, keep his players for multiple years, utilize the resources of LSU's history and most of all – win games.

 
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