From humble beginnings, Bertman built LSU dynasty

Advocate file photo: LSU baseball coach Skip Bertman at a youth camp.
Advocate file photo: LSU baseball coach Skip Bertman at a youth camp.

Anyone who has paid attention to LSU baseball and Skip Bertman knows how his coaching days ended. It was a 7-1 loss to Tulane in the third game of a 2001 NCAA super regional at jam-packed Zephyr Field in Metairie.

Not many know how it began: ironically, a 7-1 win at Southern Miss.

LSU played 1,203 games starting with Bertman’s 1984 debut and ending with that loss to the Green Wave. His teams won 870 of those games, lost 330 and tied three for a .724 winning percentage.

But there were five games among those 1,203 that made it easy for a panel to vote him into the inaugural class of the College Baseball Hall of Fame:

College World Series championships all, they are games that elevated the Miami native, the former University of Miami catcher, the man who left his hometown with a wife and four daughters, the assistant coach who left an ultra-succcessful Miami program and in 2001 the soon-to-be LSU athletic director to legendary status in the game he said he loved so much.

Then-LSU Athletic Director Bob Brodhead admitted back in April 1983 that it took a lot of talking to convince Bertman that Baton Rouge and LSU were the right places and it was the right time to take a program from somewhere below also-ran status to the top of the college baseball world.

Bertman took over from Jack Lamabe, an ex-major league pitcher and former Jacksonville University coach. In 1979, he became LSU’s first full-time baseball coach, but three years without commitments from the university left him hanging by a thread.

Brodhead had spent time with the Miami Dolphins and knew Bertman’s reputation throughout South Florida, the years when he brought South Beach High to the top in the Florida’s prep playoffs, then a stint in Miami’s rec department, then as the top assistant under Ron Fraser at Miami.

“He was the right man. I knew he was. He needed help, and we knew that. But he knew that building a program was going to be on his shoulders,” Brodhead said 10 years later, after he had been removed from his post.

His first recruiting class found out that learning “Bertman Ball” was one of their chores.

“He told us the stadium needed cleaning. It needed painting, so we’d practice one day in the fall, then spend the next day sweeping, cleaning up the locker room. And the next day we’d practice, then two days later we were painting,” remembered pitcher Stan Loewer, who was in Bertman’s first recruiting class.

The field was next and, by the next spring, Alex Box Stadium was brighter and shinier than the players remembered.

It was ready when the 2-0 Tigers opened with an 8-6 win over McNeese State. The crowd estimate? Maybe 400.

There were more people showing up when LSU finished 32-23 that season, but even more were there in 1985, when Bertman’s team won the SEC Western Division title by beating out the vaunted Mississippi State team led by All-Americans and soon-to-be-major leaguers Will Clark, Rafael Palmiero and Jeff Brantley. For only the second time in school history (the first was 1975 under Jim Smith), the Tigers were selected for an NCAA tournament berth.

There was something else, too.

Back then, Bertman said he knew Louisiana had solid baseball talent, that he knew he could win with homegrown kids, but there had to be renewed interest in the sport. It had to be about more than football.

After a weekend series during those first five springs, Bertman gave the players off on Monday, then he and maybe one assistant coach took to the road. There was a coaching clinic in all corners of the state for 10 straight Mondays.

Even during the 1986 season and the 27-2 start in the year LSU reached the College World Series, the first year LSU was host to an NCAA regional, Bertman was on the road. Odd that it was Miami, his old team, that eliminated the Tigers from the CWS that year.

The 1987 regional in New Orleans got LSU a second straight spot in the CWS, but LSU was left out of the field in 1988. Then came 1989, when Bertman-coached Ben McDonald won the coveted Golden Spikes Award, and the trip to Texas A&M, the country’s No. 1 team.

It wasn’t hot in College Station that last weekend in May; it was boiling. LSU came back from a second-game loss to South Alabama to face the regional-unbeaten Aggies in the Sunday game for the CWS spot.

LSU’s 13-5 win — A&M’s sixth loss that season — forced a second game. Into the night the teams went until little-used third baseman Pat Garrity doubled off the right-field fence to drive in Craig Cala for a 5-4, extra-inning win.

LSU was back in the CWS — and back to stay for a long time. The Tigers’ fifth trip turned into gold, capped by a 6-3 win over Wichita State ace Tyler Green, and then came appearances in 1993, ’94, ’96, ’97, ’98 and 2000 yielding for more titles.

“Those five championships in the span of 10 years is phenomenal,” former Auburn coach Hal Baird said. “It was amazing how Skip kept sending great pitching staffs out there every year.

“There was (Mark) Guthrie, Loewer, (Clay) Parker, then (Eric) Hetzel, (Dan) Kite, McDonald and (Russ) Springer, then (Curtis) Leskanic, and (Chad) Ogea and (Paul) Byrd and (Mike) Sirotka, and (Rick) Greene and one of his who didn’t make the majors, but was excellent, Lloyd Peever. I looked it up the other day, and Skip sent 40-something players in to the majors. And we had to play them.

“I’m fortunate to have lasted 15 years in the league.”

Bertman’s prowess flowed over into Team USA with a gold medal in the 1988 Olympics and a bronze four year later.

Bertman was on the field for the CWS’s three most memorable plays: Warren Morris’ last-of-the-ninth, two-out, two-run homer that beat Miami 9-8 in 1996; the 1982 play that has been known for years as the “Grand Illusion” when Bertman, the Miami assistant, master-minded a phantom pick-off play at first base that nailed an unsuspecting Phil Stephenson at second; and Paul Carey’s bottom-of-the-10th grand slam off McDonald that gave Stanford a 6-5 victory and kept LSU, in all likelihood, from advancing to the title game.

Like all levels of baseball, the numbers tell most of the story: five national titles, seven SEC pennants, 11 CWS trips, six SEC tournament championships and nine 50-win seasons.

With Bertman starting the ball rolling, LSU is college baseball’s all-time percentage leader in NCAA tournament wins: The team has a 127-49 record for a .722 winning percentage. Southern Cal is next at .715 with its 11 CWS titles.

When Bertman retired from the field in 2001, the road running next to Alex Box Stadium was renamed Skip Bertman Drive. On Friday night, the surface at the new Alex Box Stadium will become Skip Bertman Field.

From coach to administrator to fundraiser, what started with a 7-1 road victory at Southern Miss ended with LSU’s baseball field named in his honor.