“My parents always taught me that there are many people who need help, and that we should do what we can to help them.” Milt Retif, former Tulane baseball coach
The words hit Milt Retif like cold water being thrown in his face.
“We sure didn’t expect you to say that.’’
Tulane was looking for a new baseball coach in 1967, one who would work for nothing — and one who wouldn’t need scholarships or financial aid for players, or even assistant coaches.
Retif was getting his own oil business off the ground, an enterprise that required more than an eight-hour work day to secure the well-being of his growing family. Tulane was asking an awful lot.
On the other hand, the portion of Retif’s blood that didn’t bleed green was blue. He was Tulane baseball through and through. A Green Wave infielder — and captain of the team — in the early 1950s, Retif had already saved the program from sinking into a club sport the year before with major financial contributions that keep the sport afloat.
But this might have been asking too much.
For a lifetime filled with achievement, Retif will be recognized Saturday by the Louisiana Sports Writers Association with the Dave Dixon leadership award in Natchitoches and will be inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame.
“I’m touched by this, to tell the truth,’’ Retif said. “Not only because of the significance of the award, but because it’s named for Dave Dixon, who did so much for the city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana.’’
Dixon was the driving spirit behind the building of the Superdome and the securing of an NFL franchise, the Saints, in New Orleans.
“He really was a special guy,’’ Retif said. “I always respected him, and he was a man always interested in helping people.’’
A highly successful businessman, Tulane was not the only beneficiary of Retif’s largesse. For years he has been a major sponsor of American Legion baseball at his alma mater Jesuit and Archbishop Shaw high schools. He created an endowment for students at Jesuit, led fundraising campaigns for Manresa Retreat, Shaw High and myriad other causes and put together a baseball exhibition between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox shortly after the Superdome was completed in 1975, with proceeds going to Grambling and Christian Brothers School in New Orleans.
“It’s kind of in my blood to be a salesman,’’ he said, “and I’ve used that gift to help raise money for others. My parents always taught me that there are many people who need help, and that we should do what we can to help them.’’
Retif has received Shaw’s Don Bosco Award for being a “role model for youth and through sports and school activities,’’ and in 1993 he was voted Jesuit’s Outstanding Alumnus of the Year.
In one of those fork-in-the-road moments, where seemingly small decisions have major outcomes, Retif took the assignment at Tulane on the stipulation that it was for one year.
Eight years later, he finally relinquished the reins after coaching the Green Wave to a 123-73 (.628) record in those days of abbreviated schedules, including reaching a No. 7 national ranking during the 1971 season — quite a feat considering Retif’s only aide was an interested economics professor who hit fungos in practice.
He had put Tulane was on the college baseball map, not only on the field but in the minds of the sport’s elite programs. Retif called together 30 of Tulane’s major financial contributors to a dinner at Commander’s Palace, the real purpose of which was to garner pledges of support for baseball.
“I told them nobody’s leaving here without a pledge of at least $1,000,’’ Retif said.
He got what he wanted — and that was the start of Tulane’s Dugout Club, which financed team locker rooms, uniforms and other necessary amenities.
“In those days, we’d take a bus to Hammond to play Southeastern, Hattiesburg to play Southern Miss, Baton Rouge to play LSU. We played a sort of neighborhood schedule,’’ said Retif, 80. “After that, I scheduled games in California and against some pretty strong opponents, like Arizona State, Miami, Oklahoma State, a few like that, just to make us better. I think we did it.’’
Retif developed several prominent players like Cary Livingston, Barry Butera, Chris Winter and Steve Mura, who Pete Rose said had “the best curveball in the major leagues.’’
After he left the dugout coaching Tulane baseball to finally concentrate fully on his business — which afforded him a comfortable living — he didn’t give up on the Green Wave diamond. He handpicked his successor, Joe Brockhoff, a teacher/coach at East Jefferson High School, who coached Tulane for the princely sum of $5,000. Then, when Brockhoff stepped aside, Retif took the advice of Miami’s legendary Ron Fraser and was instrumental in the hiring of a former Hurricane assistant, Rick Jones, the current Tulane coach, who, it should be noted, has scholarships to work with and three full-time assistant coaches. He used those advantages to guide the Wave to two College World Series appearances.
Instead of the program being junked, as it would have if Retif hadn’t stepped up to the plate, baseball has become the most visible of Tulane-sponsored sports.