Mathieu's captivating rise with LSU flames out

Associated Press  |  Last updated August 11, 2012
LSU began taking steps this summer to dim the national spotlight on its most captivating star, Tyrann Mathieu, and downplayed ''The Honey Badger'' phenomenon that it so willingly promoted a season ago. Mathieu, a 2011 Heisman Trophy finalist, was excluded from the LSU delegation at the Southeastern Conference's annual football media days in July. Then, during the first nine days after the Tigers reported for August camp, coach Les Miles made Mathieu available only once, on LSU's media day last Tuesday, when every player is permitted to speak to reporters. That turned out to be Mathieu's last chance to address the media in his white, purple and gold No. 7 LSU jersey. On Friday, Mathieu was dismissed from LSU's football team for breaking an athletic department rule, a blow to the Tigers' national championship hopes three weeks before their season opener. Miles knew from experience that Mathieu, despite his passion for football that energized teammates and coaches alike, was nonetheless prone to lapses in judgment. Mathieu had been suspended for a game last season after testing positive for synthetic marijuana, and under LSU's drug policies, suspensions don't necessarily kick in until the second offense. The coach hoped that by shielding the 20-year-old Mathieu from the pitfalls of fame and emphasizing the importance of team concepts, he might lessen the chances of Mathieu running afoul of personal conduct policies enforced by the university. But by the 10th day of camp, Miles was left with no choice but to cut Mathieu loose. ''We have a simple policy here of behavior and consequences are pretty spelled out and defined,'' Miles said when announcing Mathieu's dismissal Friday. ''We did what we could do.'' The coach and Athletic Director Joe Alleva declined to specify the policy Mathieu violated. The Times-Picayune of New Orleans, citing an unidentified person close to the player, reported that Mathieu failed another drug test. Several high-ranking LSU administrators said they either did not know which rule Mathieu had violated or refused to discuss the matter. School policy allows for a player to lose his scholarship even without another positive test if he does not fulfill all the terms of university probation. ''Being an athlete is a privilege,'' Alleva said. ''It's a privilege and you have to follow the rules to take advantage of that privilege. And unfortunately, he doesn't have that privilege here anymore. ''He really is a good kid. It's a shame,'' Alleva continued. ''But I told him this morning that he has the rest of his life and his life is still ahead of him. He still has a tremendous opportunity to do good things.'' Alleva said the violation did not involve law enforcement and that the university had been trying to help Mathieu work through some unspecified issues. ''We've been trying to help him all along in everything,'' Alleva said. ''We do everything we can to help these kids.'' Mathieu could stay at LSU and pay tuition, but Alleva said that was unrealistic. ''He's not going to stay in school,'' he said. The junior defensive back - nicknamed Honey Badger for his tenacious style, small stature (5-foor-9, 175 pounds) and blonde streak of hair - rose from obscurity to become one of college football's biggest stars last season. His slew of momentum-changing plays on defense and special teams, which exhibited stunning football instincts and skill, helped the Tigers win the SEC championship and reach the BCS title game. But as quickly as Mathieu became the face of LSU football, his days in Death Valley have ended. Miles hopes Mathieu eventually will look back on his departure from LSU as a valuable lesson, but also expects him to take it hard initially. ''Am I worried about him as being emotional about this time?'' Miles said. ''Yeah, I am. ''We'll miss the guy,'' Miles said. ''The football team's got to go on. We'll have to fill the void.'' The Tigers will remain among the favorites to win the national title this year. They are No. 1 in the coaches' preseason poll. The AP college football poll will be released Aug. 18 The Tigers open the season at home Sept. 1 against North Texas. Their only big nonconference test comes the next week when Washington and star quarterback Keith Price visit Tiger Stadium. LSU opens SEC play on the road Sept. 22 at Auburn and renews its rivalry with Alabama on Nov. 3 in Death Valley. Mathieu won the Bednarik Award as national defensive player of the year last season. The All-American scored four touchdowns - two on punt returns and two on fumble returns - intercepted two passes, caused six fumbles and recovered four. LSU went 13-0 on its way to the BCS title game, and Mathieu seemed to deliver clutch plays every time the Tigers needed one. The best examples came in the Tigers' final two victories. Against Arkansas to end the regular season, LSU trailed 14-7 when Mathieu brought back a punt 92 yards for a touchdown late in the first half. The next week in the SEC title game against Georgia, the Bulldogs led 10-0 when Mathieu scored on a 62-yard punt return. But as good as Mathieu was, LSU showed it could get by without him. He was suspended for the Auburn game and the Tigers won 45-10. A New Orleans native, Mathieu has two years of eligibility left and could transfer, but he would have to sit out this season if he went to another school in major college football. If he moved down a level, to FCS, he could play right away and then enter the 2013 NFL draft. ''As talented as he is, and as capable, I would think (transferring to an FCS school this season) would be a natural direction for him,'' Miles said. ''We will help in every way we can.''
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