JR Ball: Let’s treat Baton Rouge like we do LSU football


Ask Les Miles how seriously we take our LSU football. Mediocrity—or just being pretty darn good—may work at Ole Miss but here, in Baton Rouge, it’s simply not an option. Either consistently compete for national titles—while beating Alabama along the way—or you’ll find yourself exiled to a cable television broadcast booth. There is no wiggle room.

Think about what Miles, the white-hat-wearing, green-grass-chewing, fractured-speech-talking coach, accomplished during his 11-season-plus run in Tigertown. The second-winningest coach in LSU football history—with 114 victories and a .772 winning percentage—led the Tigers to a national championship, took an undefeated team to a second BCS title game, earned a pair of SEC crowns and consistently landed star-laden, top 10 recruiting classes.

He represented the purple and gold with class, and his goofball mannerisms and penchant for fake field goals made him a national media darling. More importantly, this “Michigan man” loved LSU.

In the end, however, none of that was not enough. Not enough to overcome an inability to land a quarterback capable of tossing the ball to guys who would go on to become Pro Bowl NFL receivers. Not enough to overcome a head-scratching stubbornness to alter his Bo Schembechler-like offensive beliefs. Not enough to overcome an infuriating trend of late-season conference losses.

And, as the late, great Cholly Mac learned, it’s never enough if you can’t beat Alabama on a semi-consistent basis. Bear Bryant was LSU’s nemesis in the 1960s and ‘70s, and today, of course, it’s Nick Saban, the man Tiger fans once loved (while coaching at LSU) but now delight in hating … with a passion.

Against Saban, Miles was 3-7 and riding a five-game losing streak against the evil empire heading into the 2016 season. After being Lambeau leaped by Wisconsin in the opener, time ran out on the Tigers—and Miles—a few weeks later in Auburn. Losing to Alabama—again—was no longer an option. Miles was told to “have a great day” … just not coaching at LSU.

Why do we in Baton Rouge demand such unwavering excellence of our football team while simultaneously embracing something less than that for this city we seemingly love to hate?

Here’s the point: Why do we in Baton Rouge demand such unwavering excellence of our football team while simultaneously embracing something less than that for this city we seemingly love to hate?

Inexplicably, we choose to ignore the remarkable potential of Baton Rouge.

This is the home of the state’s flagship university, an institution capable of so much more than winning football games if we’re willing to 1) demand a visionary strategic plan, 2) commit resources to its execution and 3) hold LSU’s academic leadership as accountable as we do its football coach.

Baton Rouge also boasts some outstanding regional medical facilities with amazing research potential. Indeed, there are those working to create a medical corridor, yet this is something everyone in East Baton Rouge Parish—and throughout the Capital Region—should both be demanding and investing in to make happen. Yes, the Pennington Biomedical Research Center needs more resources, but we must make that support contingent on Pennington officials embracing necessary changes in their research philosophies.

This is a city blessed with some of the friendliest people on the planet—an asset worth celebrating. Still, we can’t ignore another reality: a community divided by race and economics. At some point the finger-pointing and waiting for the “other side” to make the first move must give way to taking those first difficult—and painful—steps together.

Baton Rouge, like almost every other city in America, preaches the need to attract and retain young, educated professionals. Here, it’s been a nonstop topic of conversation since 2002 when BRAC and then-Mayor Bobby Simpson led the first canvas trip to Austin. It’s been 15 years since the mayor of Austin told us the future of that city rests with ideas bouncing around the minds of 20-somethings, yet Baton Rouge continues to nibble around the edges when it comes to making the quality of life changes these “keys to the future” demand in a city they call home.

Being a world-class city—or even America’s next great city—requires more than relaxing open container laws downtown, building a tram or, as we were once told, landing a Costco.

Being a world-class city—or even America’s next great city—requires more than relaxing open container laws downtown, building a tram or, as we were once told, landing a Costco.

We’re OK with football building one Taj Mahal facility after another in the facilities race that is today’s college football. Clearly, we’re good with shelling out serious cash on season tickets, various “excellence” and “tradition” fees and four- and five-figure donations to TAF because many of us accept that’s the price of supporting a nationally competitive program.

Contrast that against our unwillingness to spend a few hundred property tax dollars annually to address the horror show known as this area’s traffic gridlock.

One place where the state, city and private sector have made a football-like investment is on the revitalization of downtown. The transformation, frankly, has been astounding. It’s not perfect and there’s more to be done, but downtown’s rebirth is a shining example of what can happen when enough people expect and demand change.

Those who say the task is too Herculean should remember this: There was a time when LSU tried to get by on the cheap when it came to football. LSU lacked the funding mechanisms to keep pace on facilities and the university refused to pay top-dollar—or more than the athletic director was earning—on a coach. The result was six straight losing seasons until Gerry DiNardo brought “back the magic” with a 7-4-1 season that ended with a victory over Michigan State in the Independence Bowl. Yes, that’s what passed for “magic” in the dark days of the 1990s.

More daunting was the fact that only one program—Colorado—in the storied history of college football had ever overcome six straight losing seasons and gone on to win a national championship and become a consistent top 25 program. And a strong case can be made Colorado, despite winning a title, is hardly a regular winner.

Still, that was the reality facing LSU when the Napoleonic Saban arrived from East Lansing, Michigan, in 2000 with a notepad filled with changes that needed to happen if the Tigers wanted to challenge for greatness.

LSU bought in—literally and figuratively—and the result is two national titles, four conference championships and seven top-10 finishes. When that standard slipped in the slightest, Miles was sent packing.

Imagine what might happen if our passion for Baton Rouge matched our fervor for Tiger football?

Let’s build a city our football team can be proud of.

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