By CODY WORSHAM | Tiger Rag Editor
Verge Ausberry’s office is full of mementos, relics paying homage to a successful career, both in football and after it.
There are game balls from the 2007 national championship team, and schedules he’s assembled as LSU’s senior associate athletic director since 2006. There are trophies honoring the two SEC title-winning teams he played on in 1986 and 1988, and an LSU construction helmet rests in his window, a reminder of his hand in the University’s explosion of upgraded facilities over the past decade. There are even pictures of Ausberry with each of the last four American presidents.
But for all the material worth boasting about, Ausberry – when asked to pose for a photo for the feature you’re currently reading – makes a beeline to two innocuous pictures, overshadowed to the unknowing eye by the sheer star power surrounding them.
In his right hand, the staff of the LSU athletic administration department; in his left hand, the 1987 football squad.
“These,” Ausberry says, “are my teams.”
And, judging by the look in his eyes, he couldn’t be prouder to be a part of both.
BEFORE HE SAT IN A SIXTH FLOOR OFFICE overlooking Bernie Moore Stadium, wielding arguably as much power and influence as any person in LSU Athletics, before he was the leading tackler on an SEC-championship winning team, before he was a blue-chip prospect from New Iberia, Verge Ausberry was a chunky, nimble, and precocious four-year-old.
“I started playing football in the backyard when I was four years old,” Ausberry says. “Against my cousins and my older friends in the neighborhood who were all seven, eight, nine, and 10. I was four, and I was playing with that group.
“I was a little big for my size, on the chubby side, but I could always move pretty good.”
Good enough, in fact, to help lead his neighborhood team, the Colts, to three straight Super Bowl victories. His coaches, Larry Pradia and Curley Mouton – like his parents, educators – instilled discipline the old-fashioned way.
“Back then it was a little different,” Ausberry chuckles. “You made a mistake on a play back then – you’d go to jail for this today – they used to paddle us. You make a mistake, you get a paddle on your butt.”
Ausberry was no stranger that sort of discipline. His father was a Korean War veteran and principal at New Iberia Freshman High; his mother, a parish school supervisor.
“In my house, academics was first. Grades were first and foremost,” he says. “You were going to school, and you were going to college – from day one. Football scholarships, I didn’t even know what that was about.”
He didn’t know much about LSU either. Today, Ausberry bleeds purple and gold, but his blood by birth ran crimson and cream.
“I really grew up an Oklahoma fan,” he says. “I loved OU. My parents were OU grads, and I used to watch all those great OU teams, the Barry Switzer teams. I could tell you the history of all that, because I grew up watching Oklahoma football. It was a big attraction to me.”
Like many African-Americans of his generation, Ausberry felt no affection to his state school growing up. He didn’t come to his first game in Baton Rouge until 1984, when he was an All-State senior linebacker at New Iberia Senior High, being recruited by Bill Arnsparger and Jesse Daigle.
“I didn’t know much about LSU,” he says. “It was foreign to a lot of kids in the state. There was a cycle going on then. Black players got here in ’72. It was kind of new. In every state, the blacks at that time didn’t have much affiliation for their state schools. They thought going out of state was the best thing.”
Even as a child, Ausberry recalls, LSU felt foreign, though it was only an hour’s drive from home. When he was eight or nine, he remembers, his grandparents took him to the Bayou Classic, then held in Tulane Stadium, and as he crossed the Mississippi River bridge, Ausberry saw the lights of Tiger Stadium shining bright against a darkening horizon.
What is that down there? he asked.
That’s LSU, they said. Not many of us are down there.
“That gets in your mind a little bit as a child,” says Ausberry. “You feel against LSU. I would cheer against LSU, I’ll be honest with you. I didn’t know nothing about LSU. It’s sad, but I didn’t know, right there from New Iberia. I’d see guys from Catholic High go out with their LSU shirts, and the LSU players they would talk about. I’m like, ‘Ah, Oklahoma would beat LSU any day of the week.’ I used to sit there and cheer against LSU.”
BILL ARNSPARGER CHANGED ALL OF THAT. An ex-Marine and World War II vet and architect of the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins’ famous “No Name Defense,” Arnsparger spoke Ausberry’s language. He preached discipline and toughness, and convinced Ausberry to come to LSU as a preferred walk-on in 1985.
“Coach Arnsparger was a real selling point to me,” Ausberry says. “He was a man of great integrity. He won four Super Bowls, was a visionary, a leader. I thought he could help me not only with football, but with life and a career. I came from a good family. I like discipline. I like structure, and he was that type of person.”
Ausberry earned a scholarship as a redshirt freshman, winning a letter as the Tigers won the 1986 conference title. By 1987, he was ready for action, earning his first start in a 49-16 win over Rice on Sept. 19.
Then came the Buckeyes.
“My second start was against Ohio State here,” Ausberry says, recalling the 13-13 tie with a wry smile. “Everybody thinks they’re ready, but then the game starts moving so fast. After the first few plays, you realize you can play with these guys. It was a hell of a game.”
The 1987 team, sandwiched between the ’86 and ’88 conference champs, is often overlooked, but the Tigers finished 10-1-1 that year, losing later to Alabama, allowing Auburn to claim the SEC. Despite the rings he won the year before and the year after, Ausberry swears by the squad of 1987.
“I think ’87 was our best team,” he says. “We lost to Alabama here. (Starting quarterback) Tommy (Hodson) didn’t start that night. I think we could’ve won that one, and we should’ve beaten Ohio State here. That could’ve been, and should’ve been, an undefeated season. That was a good team.”
So, too, were the champs of ’88, coached by Mike Archer, who knocked off Auburn in the famous earthquake game to set the stage for the SEC title. Ausberry was that team’s leading tackler, as he was as a senior in 1989. But more than the stats or honors, Ausberry remembers the men he played with, and with whom he still remains close years later.
“To this day, all the guys I played with at LSU, everybody in that picture is pretty successful,” he says. “It’s like a championship team, and we had two SEC championship teams here. Great teams have a lot of great people who are successful after football, and that’s something [Arnsparger] always preached to us. Discipline can carry you through life.”
THE MOST TERRIFYING DAY OF AN ATHLETE’S CAREER is the last one. No matter what level a competitor reaches, no matter in what sport or venue or age at which that day comes, it’s an awful realization of one’s mortality.
Ausberry had some NFL tryouts, and he played for a while in the World League, but sooner than he’d hoped, he faced the question he’d dreaded for so long.
“All athletes,” he says, “when they finish playing their last game, it’s, What are you going to do? I had my degree. I started some of my Masters courses already. What are you going to do? Where is your career going to take you. You’re scared. Everything you’ve done has been athletics. Now, you’ve got all this coming at you. BOOM! It’s life. You have to be prepared for that, because one day your career is going to come to an end. Then, all of a sudden, that fear is going to hit you. People handle it different ways. Some take a bad road, and some take a positive road.”
With the help of those at the University he called home, Ausberry took the positive road. He attended a speaking engagement in New Iberia, headlined by LSU athletic director Joe Dean. Dean told Ausberry to return to LSU and finish his Masters of Education, which he wrapped up in 1992. As he did so, he interned for Bo Bahnsen in the athletic department, and when a job opened up in LSU’s Academic Center, under the direction of former Tiger tailback Charles Alexander, Ausberry tackled the opportunity full on.
For seven years, Ausberry worked to get LSU athletes their degrees, from the stars of the day to the stars of the past returning for their final coursework.
“It was the most rewarding part of my career, because I got to see guys graduate,” Ausberry says. “I got to see Kevin Faulk graduate in three and a half years. That’s what it’s about, to see those guys come in here and leave to be successful. That’s the reward of this business.”
After seven years at the Academic Center, Ausberry moved to the Tiger Athletic Foundation, selling suites, clubs, and stadium additions.
“I got the academic experience, and then I got to meet all the donors through the Tiger Athletic Foundation,” Ausberry says. “I used to get in my car and drive all over the state, all over the South, Houston and Dallas. I didn’t want to fly. Just give me a car, let me stay out of the office. I didn’t care if they gave me one dollar, zero dollars, or a million dollars. I was there building relationships.”
Ausberry would visit every CEO in the state to make his pitch. It didn’t matter if they had an LSU degree or not, the latter being the case for his first $100,000 donor. His proudest moment, however, was being a part of the team that raised money for the construction of a new Academic Center, a project close to his heart for obvious reasons.
All the while, Ausberry drew on lessons from his days on the field to generate success as a professional.
“The one thing I learned that Coach Arnsparger taught me is to be honest,” Ausberry says. “Give them an honest answer, even if it’s not the answer they want to hear. When you start lying, especially in fundraising, you lose credibility.”
THAT HONESTY PAID DIVIDENDS, and not just for TAF’s coffers. When Skip Bertman accepted the job as LSU’s athletic director in 2001 and began assembling an athletic department, he tabbed Ausberry as his Associate Athletic Director for Operations. When Senior Associate AD Dan Radakovich left to take Clemson’s AD gig in 2006, Ausberry assumed his title.
Today, Ausberry is in charge of all athletic operations. He’s best known as the lead man for LSU football’s schedule, but he also oversees track and field, LSU’s equipment, strength and conditioning, and video staffs, and assists the LSU President/Chancellor’s Office in external and governmental affairs.
Through the years, Ausberry’s positions have changed, but his philosophies have not.
“Every day, in this business, you get better or you get worse,” he says. “That’s something Coach Arnsparger used to tell us all the time. Joe Alleva says it, too. You never stay the same.”
That’s why any time he’s asked by a staffer for a particular purchase or product, Ausberry’s answer is a question.
Does this help you win?
“I don’t like to lose,” Ausberry says. “I don’t like to lose at anything. I watch all the teams. Anything with that LSU on their chest. If we’re competing out there, I don’t care what it is, we want to win. That’s taught through the guys I’ve been around, from Bill Arnsparger to Mark Emmert. If we do things, we’re going to win.”
Winning, famously contagious by nature, is spreading like wildfire around Tiger athletics these days, from a national championship in men’s golf to this remarkable accomplishment: in 2014-15, LSU became the first SEC program to make a football bowl game, qualify for the men’s and women’s NCAA Basketball tournaments, and advance to the baseball and softball College World Series.
Those accomplishments take place on the field, but they begin in the offices at Nicholson and North Stadium, manned by the team Ausberry can’t stop beaming about.
“What we do here, we work as a team,” he says. “Teamwork is the most important thing. We have a great staff here, and we all work together. We might not all agree on something, but when you walk out of the room, this is the direction we’re going to take as a team and support each other. It’s not selfish, jockeying to see who can do better than the other. It’s, how can we get this done? It doesn’t matter who gets the credit for it.”
Victory on the field alone won’t cut it for Ausberry. A child of educators, he spends as much time at the Capitol during the legislative session as he does in his office. Mingling with lawmakers and lobbyists alike, Ausberry’s sales instincts take over, only now he’s selling the entire University as a worthwhile investment of taxpayer money.
“It’s bigger than the LSU Athletic Department,” he says. “We recruit kids, and parents ask, ‘Are classes going to be good? Will the school be good? Will it still be a Tier One institution? Will they be able to graduate in four years? Will the classes continue to be offered?’ There’s a bigger picture here. Mark Emmert started that.
“The better the institution, the better the athletics,” he adds. “We only have 490 athletes. We have 30,000 students at LSU. Now, we’re the front porch to the house, and we have to make sure that front porch is always looking good.”
Maintaining the porch is no easy task. It’s a daily arms race to keep up in the cash-rich SEC, just as it’s a daily wrestling match to keep the University’s state funding from drying up. Good thing for him, Ausberry’s never been one for taking the easy road, something playing in purple and gold reinforced in his worldview.
“There’s no shortcuts in winning a football game,” he says. “There’s no shortcuts when you line up against Alabama. There’s no shortcuts when you line up against Florida. There’s no shortcuts when you play Kentucky in basketball. There’s no shortcuts when the women’s basketball team plays Tennessee. There’s no shortcuts when the gymnastics team is competing against Alabama and Georgia and Florida. There’s no shortcuts in track.
lass=”” size=””]”Discipline,” Ausberry says, “can carry you through life.”[/perfectpullquote]
“The same thing applies to what we do in administration. There’s no shortcuts. It’s hard work, it’s long hours. It’s a lot of pressure. But what we do, it’s not about us. It’s about LSU. We’re being leased to make sure LSU is the best it can be for the student athletes, the coaches, the alumni, and the fans who support LSU.”
The program is far from perfect. The honesty he sold with compels Ausberry to admit as much. There are mistakes made, daily, and there are battles to be fought they may not win.
But Ausberry is also compelled by other qualities, like discipline, and determination, and teamwork – and, foremost of all, his words make abundantly clear, pride.
“I feel that if you look around, we’re one of the best athletic departments in the country,” he says. “Fiscally, we’re in the black. Every athletic department has some off the field issues at times, and we have our share, too, but we’re not on the worse end of it. We’ve been in compliance. There’s never been a major NCAA investigation on us here. It’s because we have good people who care for this institution.
“I went to this school. LSU is my school. I want to make sure when I’m here, it runs correctly and things go by right, and when I leave here, we set the next group on a path to be successful and continue to win.”