Last Modified: Monday, November 18, 2013 11:50 AM
When news spread Sunday of the passing of Joe Dean, almost all of the accounts had a crusty-throated “String Music” reference.
In the South, after all, you couldn’t call yourself an amateur impersonator if you didn’t have a Joe Dean “String Music” or “LEX-ington K-Y” in your repertoire.
You remembered that a few years ago an Alabama newspaper rated him No. 7 among the SEC’s all-time “voices,” which was a list otherwise dominated by football.
So it was heartwarming and fitting to realize that Dean did manage, at age 83, to outlive the unfair legacy of presiding over six straight losing football seasons, eight in all, as LSU’s longest-tenured athletic director (1987-2000).
String Music, he will always be. That’s the way I want to remember Joe Dean.
Dean was one of the most gregarious human beings you ever wanted to meet, friendly and honest almost to a fault, with infectious enthusiasm and unbounded confidence.
You always came away from a talk with him feeling better.
All of which was severely tested during his reign as athletic director, which, frankly, I thought wore on him some.
He recovered nicely in his retirement, until just recently still a visible presence at LSU athletic events, ever smiling and chipper.
But as athletic director he always seemed to be hiring, defending or firing head football coaches.
Keep in mind that when Dean was talked into becoming LSU’s athletic director in 1987, there weren’t many more beloved figures in the state. Dean didn’t exactly bend over backwards to hide his Tiger allegiance while making “string music” part of the language during those SEC game of the week basketball telecasts. A native of New Albany, Ind., he never strayed far from LSU after making All-SEC three straight years (1950-52) and becoming LSU’s first NBA draft pick.
During the 1990s, the dark ages of LSU football, some of that would come back to haunt him — grumbling among LSU fans that a “basketball man” was presiding over a school that fully intended to be a football factory.
His tenure as LSU athletic director was a raving success in all areas but one — but it was the big one.
“I learned,” Dean once said. “that if the football team wins, the A.D. is pretty good.”
Football had trouble winning.
Dean was still in his last months as athletic director when Nick Saban was hired after the 1999 season, but he got no credit for it — then LSU Chancellor Mark Emmert (now NCAA president) had been on the job only a few months in Baton Rouge, but made it clear from the start that he would be handling that job and didn’t mind everybody knowing it.
In truth, Dean’s contacts — he knew everybody in athletics worth knowing and was respected and trusted by all of them — helped speed the process and cut through a lot of behind-the-scenes red tape.
But, yeah, Saban was Emmert’s hire. And Dean would have to have swallowed hard to pay a moderately proven coach the then astronomical sum of $1.25 million per year.
Dean, instead, got credit for Curley Hallman, who didn’t work out, and Gerry DiNardo, whose early magic didn’t gain any traction.
At the time, a lot of schools would have loved to have hired Hallman. LSU was just the first big-name school to have an opening, and it was only later that suspicions arose that Brett Favre might have contributed to Hallman’s success at Southern Miss.
It could have happened to anybody.
A better Dean legacy might be the peace and the harmony within the department during trying times.
LSU’s atmosphere and reputation when he took over was best summed by the cover of a Sports Illustrated a few months earlier whose headline read: “Crazy Days at LSU.” And the story didn’t even delve into the precarious financial well-being of the department.
By the time he turned things over to Skip Bertman, LSU athletics was swimming in money — and this was before ESPN decided to bank-roll the SEC.
Athletic departments that make money are pretty rare. Most brag, when they can, in terms of how they were less of a drain on the university and tax payers this year than last.
Yet the LSU athletic department, which gets no tax dollars, was in the black for all 14 of Dean’s years at the helm — in fact, he started the tradition of donating money back to the university’s general fund.
That bottom line is all the more impressive considering that most of those years the football cash cow was steady laying eggs.
For all the blame LSU fans placed on Dean for the football follies, nobody who ever worked for the man ever had a complaint.
I think I’ve told this story before, but it’s my most vivid memory of the ill-fated Hallman Era.
It actually came the day Hallman was fired, a long emotional day on campus.
After writing several stories and a column on the firing, I was finally leaving the LSU athletic administration building that night. Sitting on the bottom step outside a side door was defensive coordinator Phil Bennett, looking a bit disheveled worn by the day’s awkward events and attending to a paper bag with what was left of a pair of six packs in it.
Reaching into the bag, he invited me to join him, and for the next hour we pretty much emptied that bag, talking and reminiscing.
Bennett talked about much he liked LSU and how much he would have liked to have stayed and where it all went wrong.
But he kept coming back to Dean, the man who had just fired him.
I don’t have the exact quotes, but it was something like, “It wasn’t Joe’s fault. You put that in your paper. I ought to be mad at him right now, he just fired us, but I can’t be.
“He gave us everything we needed. The man just fired me, but I’m telling you can’t work for a better A.D. He gave us everything we could have asked for, supported us all the way. We just screwed it up big-time.”
Not a bad legacy.
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Scooter Hobbs covers LSU athletics. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Posted By: Jagee On: 11/22/2013
Title: Remembering Joe Dean
I don't remember him much as A.D. I use love him calling SEC games
on KPLC-TV on Saturdays. He had good announcer voice and was a
pleasure to listen too. Of course, that was before your time.