Reflecting on Skip Bertman’s legacy

Advocate file photo by Travis Spradling -- Alex Box, nephew of the late Alex Box, the namesake of LSU's baseball stadium, visits the stadium with his wife, Pat, on June 23, 2007.
Advocate file photo by Travis Spradling -- Alex Box, nephew of the late Alex Box, the namesake of LSU's baseball stadium, visits the stadium with his wife, Pat, on June 23, 2007.

by Les East and Joe Macaluso

Advocate sportswriters

Alex Box: Nephew of the stadium’s namesake

Alex Box shares his name with his late uncle, after whom LSU’s baseball stadium is named. And starting Friday night, Alex Box Stadium will share its name with Skip Bertman Field in a fitting tribute to two legends of the university.

“From Day One, I thought this was very, very appropriate,” Box said. “None of us know if LSU baseball could have become what it is if coach Bertman had not come along. You have to admire the vision he had, and what he did speaks for itself.

“I’ve known coach Bertman since 1990, and he has been more than gracious to our family. He has always treated my family very well, and that’s greatly appreciated. My kids think an awful lot of him. Nobody ever knew the full story of Alex Box until coach Bertman got involved and played it up.”

Box was an outfielder on the 1942 Tigers baseball team and graduated from LSU with a degree in petroleum engineering. He was killed in action in Tunisia during World War II in 1943 at the age of 22.

He is featured prominently in the Wally Pontiff Jr. Hall of Fame inside The Box, including personal memorabilia that the family donated to the university in 1991.

Box said he’ll be unable to attend the dedication Friday because of a family commitment.

“I wish I could be there,” he said, “but I intend to send him an email wishing him a really, really great night. We’re deeply appreciative of him as a human being. He means an awful lot to us.”

Hal Baird: Auburn coach, 1985-2000

At 634-328, Hal Baird is the winningest coach in Auburn history and will join Bertman, former Kentucky star Terry Shumpert and former Missouri coach Gene McArtor in the SEC Legends presentation during next week’s SEC tournament in Hoover, Ala. Baird’s tenure ran parallel to Bertman’s at LSU (1984-2001).

“It was a special time, and you surely can appreciate those days when you see what’s happened in the SEC and across college baseball,” Baird said.

“While (former Mississippi State coach) Ron Polk created interest in the sport in his area earlier than Skip and me, when Skip came along, I think (other SEC coaches) took turns to see who was going to chase Skip’s teams.

“When Skip came into the league, he set the bar higher. A lot of people don’t understand that today — that before 1990 (when Georgia won it), the SEC had never won the College World Series.

“Then Skip won five in the next 10 years. I saw a statistic that, since 1985, when I came into the league, LSU won 17 (SEC) Western Division titles in 22 years. That’s phenomenal.

“I’m tickled to death that Skip and I will be together to be remembered at the SEC tournament.”

Tookie Johnson: Former LSU player and current Runnels High coach

Tookie Johnson never would have wound up in Baton Rouge if not for Skip Bertman.

Johnson was a highly sought-after recruit in New Jersey when he was lured to LSU in 1988 because of Bertman’s reputation.

“He is the reason I came,” Johnson said. “I had a lot of family in Miami and knew about him and what he was starting to do at LSU. I had done my homework and knew he was one of the best (coaches), if not the best coach, in the country.”

Johnson played four seasons for Bertman and as a senior was part of the Tigers’ first College World Series championship team.

“Anyone who played for coach Bertman (for) any length of time gets what we call the Harvard education of baseball,” Johnson said. “He does such a thorough job of teaching the game that you can take his system and apply it anywhere — in high school, youth leagues, any size college. You learn the game inside and out.”

Johnson’s decision to hook up with Bertman led to him meeting his wife, a Baton Rouge native, and putting down roots here as the baseball coach at Runnels High School.

He called Bertman the baseball equivalent of legendary Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant and UCLA basketball coach John Wooden.

“He had the ability to get the most out of a player, even if it meant being tough on you,” Johnson said. “But the next day, he would have a smile on his face and ask you how classes were going and if you needed anything.

“That’s not easy to do, but he always found a way to wipe the slate clean.”

Mike Bianco: Former LSU player and assistant and current Ole Miss coach

Mike Bianco knows Skip Bertman from just about every baseball angle imaginable.

Bianco was a catcher on Bertman’s LSU teams in 1988 and ’89, was the pitching coach on Bertman’s teams from 1993-97 and opposed Bertman after becoming head coach at Ole Miss for the 2001 season.

So it’s appropriate that one of Bertman’s closest protégés brings his Rebels team to Alex Box Stadium for the dedication of Skip Bertman Field.

“I’m fortunate to know Skip from baseball,” Bianco said, “but you’re going to see people here this weekend that he touched from Miami to California — including actors, people who have started their own businesses. He has touched so many people in so many different ways.

“He’s a champion at life — a champion not just in baseball but as a husband and father. He didn’t just teach you how to play bunt defense. He made us all better people.”

Bertman’s 1993 championship team, on which Bianco was pitching coach, will share the spotlight with Bertman on Friday.

“To share this with a baseball legend and a Louisiana icon, an icon around the country, is neat,” Bianco said. “I don’t know if people realize that what he did — five national championships in 10 years — is never going to be done again. Not just at LSU, but anywhere.”

Jim Callis | Executive editor, Baseball America

Jim Callis began his professional writing career in 1986 with Baseball America and now is the publication’s executive editor.

“If someone was making a Mount Rushmore of college baseball, you’d start with (former Southern California coach) Rod Dedeaux, (former Miami coach) Ron Fraser and Skip Bertman,” Callis said.

“Baseball never had a coach who excelled in all aspects of college baseball like Skip. His five titles were won in a much more competitive environment than Dedeaux (who won 10 at USC). Skip’s is as impressive a record as there is in the college game, and you can argue that his team’s accomplishments were on the same plane as Dedeaux’s.

“Skip was a master of promotion. He learned that from Fraser at Miami, and you really can say that Skip was a part of seven (national) championships — his five at LSU and two at Miami.

“He raised the bar for everyone. He was the total package — a coach, a promoter, a motivator — and his five championships proves how successful he was ... and still is, because LSU continues to lead the nation in attendance. And he was successful coaching Team USA.

“Skip did it with pitching, and when the bats were alive, he won with home runs and hitting. He’s the reason every SEC school built or remodeled their stadiums in the 1990s and continue to upgrade them today.”

Paul Mainieri: LSU coach

When Paul Mainieri goes to work each day, he passes Skip Bertman Drive.

His parking spot is a few feet from the one reserved for Bertman.

And starting Friday night, he’ll be working at Skip Bertman Field.

Bertman built the elite baseball program that Mainieri now coaches, and Bertman hired Mainieri seven years ago when he was athletic director.

“My only goal is to make Skip proud that he hired me,” said Mainieri, whose 2009 team added a sixth College World Series title to the five Bertman’s teams won. “I think I’ve done that.”

Mainieri said he had “a very, very blunt conversation” with Bertman when he interviewed for the job after having been a head coach at three other colleges.

“I said, ‘I can’t be you, Skip. I didn’t play for you or coach under you. But I want you to advise me and counsel me. I will never be offended by any suggestions you make. You just can’t tell me who to pitch on Friday night,’ ” Mainieri said. “And he has been a great counsel to me.”

Mainieri said some LSU administrators told him not to be surprised if Bertman passed through the dugout during a game, and they offered to speak with Bertman if Mainieri thought his presence would be a problem.

“I told them, ‘I want him to walk through the dugout; I want him to go anywhere he wants,’ ” Mainieri said. “The man has earned that respect. Nothing that we enjoy here today would be possible without what he did.

“I tell our players to wrap their arms around Skip Bertman. He’s the one who built this. I want to celebrate him.”

The entire LSU community will celebrate Bertman with the dedication of Skip Bertman Field on Friday.

“When they announced that it was going to happen, I said how honored and privileged I feel to go to work every day on Skip Bertman Field,” Mainieri said. “I consider Skip — next to my father (Demie) — the greatest college baseball coach in history, and I consider him a great friend.

“He gave me the opportunity to come here, and to see his name upon the field every day warms my heart. It makes me very proud to be the coach here.”