By JIM ENGSTER
President, Tiger Rag Magazine
Leo Honeycutt, who five years ago penned what is touted as the top-selling book in the history of Louisiana publishing with his authorized opus about Edwin Edwards, has a new biographical target. The latest state celebrity to receive the Honeycutt treatment is Skip Bertman.
Honeycutt has shifted sights from an Octogenarian former governor to a Septuagenarian LSU athletic kingpin. The man who was the architect of an LSU baseball program that is the model for the country will have his remarkable odyssey from near obscurity to coaching legend captured for the ages by Honeycutt. The Bertman book is primed for publication by Christmas.
Bertman, who turns 78 on May 23, remains a fascinating fellow some 15 years after his exit from the dugout at the original Alex Box Stadium. The Detroit native was a high school coach in Miami until he was 37 and emerged as a superstar assistant to Ron Fraser at the University of Miami from 1976-83. At age 45, he became head coach at LSU. Athletic Director Bob Brodhead advertised the position in The Advocate in the spring of 1983 before informing Jack Lamabe he was out of a job. Brodhead’s selection of Bertman overcame a dramatic departure from decorum by Bottom Line Bob.
“You have the finesse of an elephant,” was the description that former Gov. John McKeithen used for Brodhead when the bulldozing athletic director employed similar strong arm methods to dismiss LSU football coach Jerry Stovall a few months later.
The parallels between Bertman’s push to the pinnacle of college baseball and Nick Saban’s rise to the penthouse of college football are worthy of mention. Both men were journeymen in the coaching vineyards when they arrived in TigerTown. It was apparent from their initial introductions to those chronicling their voyages that Bertman in 1983 and Saban in 1999 were special creatures on the brink of greatness.
Bertman and his 1991 team celebrated their 25th anniversary as the first LSU College World Series champions last week. The coach was 53 when he entered the winner’s circle in Omaha as was Saban in January of 2004 when LSU beat Oklahoma 21-14 in the BCS Championship Game in New Orleans.
Saban defected to the city that Bertman vacated as Saban left LSU for Miami and the NFL five years after he had righted a Tigership that had weathered 8 losing seasons in 11 years. Bertman was the athletic director who drew the daunting task of replacing Saban.
Skip also selected and sent packing his successor on the diamond in Raymond “Smoke” Laval, who lasted the same five seasons as head coach as Lamabe. Despite that debacle, Bertman coaching hires Les Miles and Paul Mainieri are positioned to become the winningest football and baseball mentors in the history of the Ole War Skule.
When Alabama lured Saban from the Dolphins at 55, he was the age that Bertman was when he captured his second CWS title. It is curious that the most successful coaches in modern SEC history were coaxed to less opulent destinations from the posh Miami shores. Saban, who has thrived in Tuscaloosa for nine years after going 15-17 in two seasons with the Dolphins, has five national championships in football, the same number that Bertman attained at LSU from 1991-2000.
Bertman called it a career as coach in Baton Rouge when he was 63. Saban may make it to 70 as the maestro at Alabama. He captured the 2015 football crown at 64 and appears to be an ageless wonder on the sidelines. Next to Bear Bryant, Skip and Nick are the most decorated coaches in league history in the three major sports.
The honor roll of SEC coaches who have secured national titles in football, basketball and baseball is not long. The list of those to do it four times or more is slim indeed. Just four names highlight the roster of SEC coaches to win a minimum of four national championships in revenue sports.
SEC Coach Schools Sport Years as National Champion Total
Bear Bryant Kentucky, Alabama Football 1950,’61,’64, ’65, ’73, ’78, ’79 7
Nick Saban LSU, Alabama Football 2003, ’09, ’11, ’12, ’15 5
Skip Bertman LSU Baseball 1991, ’93, ’96, ’97, ’00 5
Adolph Rupp Kentucky Basketball 1948, ’49, ’51, ’58 4
Bertman is indisputably the most accomplished baseball coach in SEC history, and Saban is arguably the most successful football coach. Bear Bryant’s 7 national titles (6 at Alabama and 1 at Kentucky) are contested by other schools in 5 of his 7 championship seasons (1950 by Tennessee, 1961 by Ole Miss, 1964 by Arkansas, 1973 by Notre Dame and 1978 by USC). Saban shared the 2003 title at LSU with USC, which was named the national champion by the Associated Press. Saban’s four crowns are Alabama are not challenged.
Years from now it will be noted that for two years, Bertman and Saban were coaching at LSU simultaneously just as Bear Bryant (1913-83) and Adolph Rupp (1901-1977) were leading Kentucky football and basketball on the same campus at Lexington from 1946-53. The LSU athletic director during the Bertman-Saban years was Joe Dean, and the chancellor was Mark Emmert, current president of the NCAA. It was a remarkable quartet directing LSU fortunes in the distance of a short walk from Thomas Boyd Hall to Nicholson Drive.
The men who guided LSU sports into its Golden Age were equally ambitious, egotistical and successful. The seeds of present day glory at the new Box and at Tiger Stadium were planted by Bertman and Saban at the close of the 20th Century with substantial support from Emmert and Dean.
Look for the talented Mr. Honeycutt to knock it out of the park with his prose about Bertman as other legends hover in the periphery of the story of an LSU sports Renaissance that has survived coaching changes and budget cuts. The championships in football and baseball are not as plentiful as they were in previous decades, but LSU’s programs continue to be the envy of the nation.