Jim Engster: LSU aims for September start to football

PHOTO by Ron Higgins

Joe Burrow and the national champion LSU team will be saluted for generations as the last great college team before the COVID-19 age. The Tigers of 2019 are celebrated every night in an empty, but illuminated Tiger Stadium as “15-0, Best Ever” races across a deluxe scoreboard that hovers above 102,321 seats that beg for occupancy in a few months.

Crews at Tiger Stadium are busy installing a new field as the regal edifice joins Louisiana’s State Capitol as the grandest structures from the Huey Long Era. With a full board of lights showcasing Death Valley as a ghost town on many nights, it is easy to ponder what happens come September when season ticket holders are expecting to be in the arena where they intend to be yelling, snorting, slurping, sneezing and coughing as fans surrender their inhibitions.

LSU partisans tolerated the timid removal of Mike the Tiger from the stadium in this hyper-sensitive age, but there is no rationale to convince them that their absence is good for business or the won-loss record. The majesty and mythology of Tiger Stadium depend on LSU’s vociferous backers filling the bowl with loud expressions, obscenities, threats and even occasional humor directed at beleaguered visiting teams.

LSU’s bottom line requires a full house for eight dates a year. If fans are treated like pariahs, they will revolt. Imagine the revolt if a lottery determines those in the stadium for specific foes and one patron gets an opportunity to see mighty Texas-San Antonio on Sept. 5 while a longtime friend draws a ticket for Alabama on Nov. 7.

The sentiments of Francis Albert Sinatra are cascading through the Valley. It is all or nothing at all for LSU fans this fall. Either the place is packed or games should be delayed or canceled.

There is uncertainty about a second wave of coronavirus or whether the pandemic will survive one season or two or three. The best scenario is to allow the madding crowd to enter the stadium at its own risk.

Families through the years have quietly spread ashes of their loved ones on the hallowed turf of Tiger Stadium. This devotion to the LSU football Gods is strong enough that most supporters will risk their lives to unleash eight months of pent-up passion when their championship gladiators take the field the Saturday after Labor Day.

The season is 11 weeks away.

Let the games begin.

Bertman legacy is large with a loophole remaining

LSU baseball icon Skip Bertman turned 82 with hundreds of his players wishing the five-time CWS victor good health and a continuing reign as senior statesman for a sport he lifted to profitable levels while producing an assembly line of titles in 1991, ’93. ’96. ’97 and 2000.

In major college sports, only UCLA’s John Wooden in college basketball with ten crowns in a dozen years and Nick Saban of LSU and Alabama with six titles in eleven years dominated a period after WWII the way Bertman did in his prime.

Four of Bertman’s CWS trophies were reaped during the Bill Clinton presidency, an appropriate distinction for a loyal Democrat. Despite toiling in a Red State with a large preponderance of his players leaning to the right side of the spectrum, Bertman was toasted on his May 23 birthday by many conservatives such as former LSU Sports Information Director Herb Vincent, who posted a photo of Bertman on Facebook, reading “He changed lives.”

Vincent’s post received 285 likes and 35 comments. This is the bipartisan spirit that will make America great again.

Let’s hope Bertman is inclined to take the high road and bury his most inexplicable feud. It is heartening to conjure an image of the irascible octogenarian pushing for admission to the LSU Athletic Hall of Fame of his greatest player, Albert (formerly Joey) Belle.

Belle reigns as the best MLB player from LSU. With 381 major league home runs, Belle dominated the American League the same decade that Bertman was soaring above his coaching brothers on the diamond.

From 1991-2000, the era of Bertman pre-eminence at the CWS, Belle averaged 37 home runs, 120 RBIs and a .945 OPS. The Shreveport native finished in the top eight in MVP voting five times and three times was among the top three vote getters. In a strike-shortened 1995 season, Belle became the only MLB slugger to register 50 homers and 50 doubles in the same season.

Belle was deprived of the 1995 American League MVP by writers who detested him. But his 50-50 standard has withstood the steroid era and 25 years of accelerated offensive numbers by MLB hitters.

Unlike Pete Maravich, who lacks the requisite college diploma and can’t acquire the necessary credits from his permanent residence at Resthaven Gardens of Memory in Baton Rouge, Belle has a degree in accounting, more than sufficient to receive a Hall call from his alma mater.

The only explanation for Belle not ascending to his worthy place in the LSU Athletic Hall is pettiness.

Storm-provoked outburst from Belle is 25 years old

Albert Belle exploded in a dugout tirade at the 1995 World Series against Hannah Storm of NBC Sports, who committed the sin of doing her job as Belle was getting in the zone for the fall classic. He responded to a fine imposed on him by saying, “The Cleveland Indians wanted me to issue a statement of regret when the fine was announced, but I told them to take it out. I apologize for nothing.”

Storm is an elegant presence and graceful personality who has achieved long tenure as one of America’s favorite sportscasters. She is also the daughter of former American Basketball Association Commissioner Mike Storen, who was the catalyst for Indiana and Kentucky winning ABA titles and successfully completed a merger with his league and the NBA. Storen died at 84 on May 7 in Atlanta.

Storen was similar to Belle, underappreciated, outspoken and controversial. Hannah’s description of her dad sounded like someone talking about Albert Belle. “My dad was the most enthusiastic, loudest guy in the room,” Hannah told the New York Times. “But his strong personality led him to a variety of jobs.”

After his ABA stint, Storen had much lower profile jobs as commissioner of the Continental Basketball Association, the Global Basketball Association and the Indoor Professional Football League. He worked through a battle with a rare former of cancer in his final years, selling sports caps at Lids sportswear shops in Atlanta. His daughter noted that her father stayed on his feet ten hours a day spinning stories such as details of his first ABA stint as general manager.

Operating from the back room of an Indianapolis jewelry store, he built a championship team featuring Mel Daniels and Roger Brown with Slick Leonard as coach of the Pacers. A plan called “Operation Kingfish” designed to coax billionaire Howard Hughes to bankroll the signing of UCLA great Lew Alcindor (Kareem Adbul-Jabbar) failed.

Storen served five years in the Marines, and like Hannah, graduated from Notre Dame. He landed his first professional sports job answering a newspaper ad to sell tickets for the Chicago Zephyrs, a franchise which became the Baltimore Bullets.

The classified route to success was critical to LSU and Skip Bertman, who in 1983, responded to an ad in The Advocate for the head baseball coaching job. It was unfortunately placed by Athletic Director Bob Brodhead before he informed Jack Lamabe that he was being fired at the close of his fifth season.

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Jim Engster | President, Tiger Rag

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