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If ever there was proof that LSU is much more concerned about the ongoing NCAA investigation of its football program than that of its basketball program, it is the curious case of former offensive line coach James Cregg.
Key word: former.
LSU announced last June 2 that it had “parted ways” with Cregg, who was an excellent offensive line coach for the Tigers from 2018-20 after coaching offensive lines for three NFL teams. Cregg’s offensive line in the 2019 national championship season won the Joe Moore Award that goes to the nation’s best offensive line. LSU had never won that award.
“One of the most improved areas on our team all season has been the offensive line,” LSU coach Ed Orgeron said the week of the national championship game in New Orleans when the Tigers beat Clemson 42-25 on Jan. 13, 2020, with 628 yards, to finish 15-0.
“Coach Cregg started turning things around as soon as he got here,” Orgeron said.
Cregg’s 2018 offensive line was also very good, and his 2020 offensive line was not the reason the Tigers went 5-5. The offense played well enough to be 7-3 and would have been without the worst defense in school history. The Tigers did average only 121 rushing yards for 12th in the SEC and 109th nationally, but they did throw for 312 yards a game behind three quarterbacks for fourth in the SEC and finished fifth in total offense at 434 yards a game.
LSU (3-2, 1-1 SEC) is averaging 70 rushing yards a game this season for 128th nationally and 13th in the SEC entering its game at No. 16 Kentucky (5-0, 3-0) at 6:30 p.m. Saturday on the SEC Network.
The Tigers are No. 83 in total offense and 12th in the SEC with 373.8 yards a game. LSU is almost as bad at running the ball this season as it was on defense last year.
Orgeron hired Cregg because of his NFL experience with the Los Angeles Chargers in 2017, Denver from 2014-16 and Oakland in 2007 and ’08. And Cregg previously worked with Orgeron as offensive line coach at USC from 2010-13 and at Tennessee in 2009.
“It was Coach O more than anything is why I came down here,” Cregg said before that national title game. “I knew that he was destined to do what he’s doing. I knew his blueprint. And it’s working.”
So, what went wrong? Why did LSU fire Cregg?
Cregg admitted to breaking NCAA rules while recruiting five-star prospect Tristan Leigh, the No. 7 offensive tackle in the nation out of Robinson High in Fairfax, Virginia, in 2020-21. Leigh (6-foot-6, 290 pounds) was the No. 27 prospect in the nation by Rivals.com and was being courted by Clemson, where he ended up, Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State, among others.
Cregg admitted to an NCAA enforcement official last May that he visited and provided gear to a prospect during the COVID recruiting dead period.
And LSU basketball coach Will Wade just said to himself, “Is that all?”
That came out in a lawsuit against LSU for breach of contract, which Cregg filed on August 20 in Baton Rouge state court. Cregg’s lawsuit says that LSU fired him without regard to any NCAA findings on his conduct with a recruit.
The lawsuit also says Cregg was fired without cause and that he never received the hearing with LSU that he requested. And the lawsuit states that LSU was in the process of hiring Arkansas offensive line coach Brad Davis to replace Cregg before he was even terminated.
Why was LSU in such a hurry to get rid of Cregg? Because a swift firing would look good to the NCAA and likely help the LSU football program’s case, which is not nearly as serious as that of the basketball program.
LSU has admitted to just one Level 1 violation – the most serious – in football, which involves payments of $180,000 to the father of former LSU offensive lineman Vadal Alexander, who last played six years ago, from 2012-15, under former coach Les Miles.
LSU has also admitted two less serious Level 3 violations. One involves former LSU receiver Odell Beckham Jr. handing out $2,000 in cash to LSU players moments after they beat Clemson in that national championship game. The other is similar to what got Cregg fired. It involves Orgeron’s improper contact with a prospect in early 2019. Orgeron didn’t get fired.
LSU offered self-imposed penalties to the NCAA last Oct. 20 that include a loss of eight football scholarships over two years along with reductions in recruiting visits, recruiting communication and player evaluations and a bowl ban for the 2020 season. The NCAA has not yet concluded the case after nearly four years of investigating.
LSU needed Leigh bad in the 2021 recruiting class. He would probably be playing a lot now. The Tigers signed only two other offensive linemen – Garret Dellinger, the No. 18 offensive tackle in the nation and a four star from Clarkston, Michigan, and 3-star Kimo Makaneole, the No. 15 guard in the nation from Niceville, Florida, who was not ranked nationally overall.
Cregg has long been a very good offensive line coach, but he has not often been known as a great recruiter. Apparently, he really needed to get Leigh, and he made a mistake.
With Cregg, maybe LSU’s offensive line would not be struggling as much as it is. The Tigers are also 76th in the nation and 11th in the SEC in sacks allowed with 11.
Without Cregg, LSU is living out a self-imposed ban on running the football with Davis. Unlike Cregg, Davis has no NFL experience. He is also a journeyman on his seventh job in eight years. It does not appear that Orgeron took long in hiring Davis. Davis is from Baton Rouge, and he is known as a recruiter. But offensive lines need coaches. The head coach and other assistants can recruit linemen.
Perhaps Orgeron, not Cregg, should have been chasing Tristan Leigh. Recruiting has always been Orgeron’s specialty. Davis also just got to LSU in June and obviously missed all of spring practice.
“Personally, I wish we could have gotten him a little bit earlier if they were going to do a coaching change or whatever,” LSU senior guard Ed Ingram said after the season opening loss at UCLA, which held the Tigers to 49 rushing yards on 25 attempts.
“Because it’s two different coaching styles, two different techniques,” Ingram said. “He (Davis) has techniques that our old offensive line coach (Cregg) taught differently. And so it would have been good to kind of gel in with the new technique a little bit earlier, so we could get used to it and kind of integrate it into the season.”
That has not happened yet.
After LSU gained just 33 yards on 25 carries in the 24-19 loss to Auburn last week, a frustrated Orgeron said for the first time how the loss of Cregg may be impacting his offensive line.
“Listen, we lost our offensive line coach in the middle of the summer,” he said Monday. “This is not an excuse. It’s a fact. And he (Davis) comes in, and he’s a great coach. But there’s a different style. There are some different techniques.”
LSU, meanwhile, has some strange strategies.
LSU fired its offensive line coach because he visited a prospect during a non-contact period and gave him a shirt or some shoes.
Yet, LSU has not fired basketball coach Will Wade, who is on FBI wiretap and on HBO discussing a “strong ass offer” for point guard Javonte Smart, who was on the team last season. Wade’s program has been under investigation for nearly four years for the improper recruitment of 13 prospects – some of whom came to LSU and some who did not.
Yes, LSU significantly changed Wade’s contract in light of the NCAA’s investigation. He can easily be fired with cause and without any buyout money if he is investigated for a Level 1 violation, but he’s fine now. Cregg isn’t. He’s having to sue for the $700,000 in salary he feels LSU owes him. And what he’s accused of doing, Wade apparently does in his sleep.
LSU has made it abundantly clear. It is offering up the basketball program to the NCAA for whatever serious sanctions it may deem appropriate, while pleading with it to give football a pass.
If the football team loses the next three in a row or four or five of the next six, do not be surprised if some new NCAA allegations concerning Orgeron come out. Then LSU will not only be firing a coach for a second straight bad season. It will be cleaning up its program for the NCAA.