Outside the box

One of Baton Rouge’s most famous faces is contorting itself into that of an overly animated grump.

This, he explains, is his impression of the typical

LSU baseball fan circa 1983. “When I interviewed there were about 200 or 300 fans per game, and the people were angry, you know, because nothing was happening,” Skip Bertman says as he kicks out his lower jaw, scrunches his brow, narrows his eyes and clenches a fist. “There were no concessions, and the announcer—Herb Vincent (current assistant athletic director) as a kid—you couldn’t even understand him over the loudspeaker, but nobody cared. Coming from Miami where there were 5,000 fans every game and always something going on, this was scary. This was so quiet it was eerie.”

John Wooden is a legend in college basketball, Bear Bryant a college football icon. College baseball has Bertman.

June 30 is his last day as LSU athletic director. On July 1 he begins a two-year tenure as an autonomous university fundraiser, a cozy position with a bronzed title: A.D. emeritus. His credentials?

How about strapping the baseball program to his back and carrying it to five national titles, prompting Baseball America to call LSU the Team of the Decade for the 1990s. Or as A.D. presiding over one of the most successful (arguably) and dramatic (definitely) seven-year spans in LSU athletics. Or hiring eight new head coaches, fostering renovations to Tiger Stadium and the Pete Maravich Assembly Center and the beginnings of the new Alex Box, and overseeing two BCS national championships and 13 SEC titles.

Even beyond the successes Bertman was no ordinary coach or A.D., nor is he likely to be an ordinary fundraiser. He talks about upgrading stadium shower soap dishes or installing new batting cages the same way he speaks of national titles and new stadiums. Nick Saban espoused the same philosophy:The little things are the focus, the championship simply the byproduct. If anything, Bertman talks about marquee successes with less enthusiasm because they can draw attention away from his point. Large or small, to him the outcome is the same because the philosophy is the same. It’s a goal. It’s achievable. It’s what needs to be done.

But he sees the big picture, too. A firm believer in visualization, he once told his players to lie down on the locker room floor before the first game of the year, close their eyes and use all five senses to imagine themselves standing in the College World Series in Omaha, Neb. Hundreds of books, audiotapes and videotapes on motivation and visualization once filled his home office next to precious memorabilia, until a fire destroyed most of them.

The future film version of this story will probably show Bertman hunching over the wheel of a U-Haul truck on his long drive from Florida, all of his baseball dreams boiling out of his heart and into a tape recorder held close to his lips so that none would escape, as rain pummels the windshield like shrapnel, every malevolent force of nature allied in a futile attempt to keep him from his destiny. Bertman did use the trip to plan what he would tell “the boys” when he finally met them in Baton Rouge. But first he walked the field alone, inspecting every inch of Alex Box Stadium. Like Kevin Costner staring out across a cornfield and seeing a baseball diamond, Bertman visualized then and there what he wanted LSU baseball to become.

He transcribed his road ramblings onto a yellow legal pad along with a list of improvements he wanted to make to the program and the stadium, his goals and the even bigger ideas of how to achieve each one. That yellow page, later laminated and revered, would become one of Bertman’s most effective motivational tools.

“It was really cool to see Skip had written down everything he wanted to accomplish,” says Kurt Ainsworth, a pitcher for the Tigers in the late 1990s. “He wanted us to know that there were guys at LSU before us who built this program, and that we are reaping the benefits, that it’s a privilege to play for LSU, and that we have to earn it.”

Finding out what the “J” in J. Stanley Bertman stands for is impossible. Go ahead, Google it. Ask Joe Dean, Dale Brown, Dandy Don. Ask Skip Bertman. He’ll tell you what his immigrant parents told him. It isn’t short for anything. The J stands for itself.

“Ever heard of Johnny Cash’s ‘A Boy Named Sue’?” Skip asks with a grin. “It’s a pain. This J is a pain.”

Ever since Bertman can remember, though, his parents called him “Skip,” a nickname with no particular significance save for its perfect ability to forecast his future as the manager, the coach, the “skipper” of a ball club. And ever since he can remember he wanted to coach baseball, as though his brain had been wired for it.

Born in Detroit in 1938 to a Russian mother and an Estonian father who worked as a window dresser, Bertman lived a working-class life in an immigrant Jewish family. After moving to Miami, he spent countless hours at Flamingo Park in nearby South Beach. There the local baseball impresario, Coach Max Sapper, ran summer league games. Like a sponge Bertman absorbed everything he could learn from Sapper, he devoured every book and—thanks to Sapper’s rare access—picked countless brilliant baseball minds.

“He taught me more about baseball before I was 15 than, well … I see a lot of coaches today writing Max’s stuff down at clinics like they just heard it for the first time,” Bertman says.

Sapper died years later, and after Bertman finished his playing career as a catcher and outfielder for the University of Miami, he returned to Flamingo Park to take over for his mentor. He ran the baseball league and coached the Hi-Tides of Miami Beach High School. There he caught the attention of University of Miami Head Coach Ron Fraser by winning Florida’s High School Coach of the Year award three times. Fraser named Bertman his associate head coach in 1976.

Under Fraser, Bertman developed a philosophy that there is more to the game than pitching, hitting and fielding. He learned that marketing and customer relations are crucial for a top program, which helped give his analytical mind more details to oversee—like requiring the previously lax Miami program to begin its home games consistently on time. With Fraser and Bertman at the helm, the Hurricanes vaulted to national prominence, culminating with a College World Series title in 1982.

A year later, Fraser was entertaining a former player and his 2-year-old son at Mark Light Stadium when he introduced them to his associate head coach. Bertman had his 1982 national championship lapel pin on him and gave it to the young boy. The gift would prove symbolic of where Bertman’s career was going, and the type of rarified head coach he would become. The former Miami player that day was Wally Pontiff Sr. Bertman would recruit his toddler son to LSU 15 years later, and watch him win a national championship of his own. When Wally Jr. died suddenly in 2002 of a heart defect, Bertman would deliver a stirring eulogy on his family’s behalf.

By the summer of 1983 Bertman was itching to coach his own club when LSU called him for the second time. He saw a football-oriented school with a ho-hum baseball program that had not won an SEC title (or many new fans) since 1975. So low was the sport on the LSU totem pole that the previous coach had once doubled as the football team’s equipment manager. Bertman had been to Alex Box Stadium before and seen the mediocre teams. He knew the job meant less pay and fewer fans. He sized up the challenge and jumped at it.

Sometimes, showing more enthusiasm than anyone else simply means wearing your baseball uniform all the time, which Bertman often did when appearing at events and among groups of fans to talk baseball and drum up interest in the team. “That was an attention-getter,” he says. Bertman’s style belied how his brain processed his new job. It was full-time. From day one, Bertman was more than the baseball coach. He was the marketer, fundraiser, cheerleader and, occasionally, even the box office. Bertman used to carry with him a stack of family passes—his idea of getting mom, dad and kids to see 30 games for $30—and sell them to fans on the spot. “The A.D. loved all of this,” Bertman says of the man who hired him, former Athletic Director Bob Broadhead. “That, and the players and I cleaning the stadium ourselves.”

Months before his first game in purple and gold, Bertman met with Broadhead with a plan to build bigger crowds. He wanted to install 100 regular chair back seats behind home plate.

“Jeez, Skip, that costs a lot of money,” the A.D. said.

“No, I’m going to make money,” Bertman shot back. “The seats cost $40, and I’m going to sell them for $100.”

Eventually Broadhead conceded. Bertman went on to double attendance that first year (and for several years afterward until LSU led the nation in attendance his final six seasons). “Broadhead came back at the end of the season and said, ‘Why don’t you put in some more?’” Bertman recalls with a sly smile.

For a former catcher, Bertman acts an awful lot like a closer. He had to do an incredible amount of convincing that first season, and years later his clashes with Joe Dean became underground legends in LSU circles. In a lot of ways he still believes his mission is to change minds. And he will need that instinct as a fundraiser, because, from his bosses to his players, from the governor to the maintenance crew that chafed under his daily calls for updates on Alex Box, Bertman has noticed something about Louisiana: Mediocrity is accepted.

“When the past governor and the one before her say, ‘We want to get to the Southern average,’ I think, ‘Our goal is to be average?’” Bertman says. “I’m not putting them down, and I understand what they mean, but you can imagine how that sounds to me. I’m not saying I could be governor and not have to say that, but in baseball I could do it.” Bertman recalls having to convince his 1984 team that they were unique and capable of achieving their goals. Two years later LSU finished fifth in the country, and by then all his players had to do for a confidence boost was put on the uniform.

Even before LSU’s first national championship, Bertman had the gutsy habit of listing the College World Series on the team schedule. Not with asterisks or in parentheses, but on the schedule as clear as a three-game series with Ole Miss. “How many other colleges do that?” asks Chad Ogea, who pitched for LSU from 1989 to 1991. “He expected to be there, and he expected to win.”

And win they did. With a 6-3 victory over Wichita State, LSU took home its first of five CWS titles in 1991. Former players and assistants say Bertman stayed focused and never lost himself in the moment. Even after Warren Morris’ ninth-inning homer in 1996, the most thrilling finish in LSU baseball history, Bertman, with his players dog-piling on the mound, walked calmly over to Miami Coach Jim Morris and shook his hand. “He was excited of course, but it was almost like business to him,” Ogea says of the 1991 championship. “Skip never lost sight of the program itself. And to have the program at that level for that long takes something special.”

When Bertman hired Paul Mainieri in 2006 to replace his chosen successor, friend and former assistant Raymond “Smoke” Laval, he was asked if Mainieri had big shoes to fill. Of course the new coach did, but Bertman’s reply was better. It was instructional. “Having high expectations is better than having low realities,” he said. The fact is Bertman was tempted to return as coach after Laval’s high-profile ousting.

“I know after he became A.D., he did miss the game, that pressure-filled atmosphere around play-off time,” says former Bertman assistant Henry “Turtle” Thomas, now head coach at Florida International. Thomas was the hitting coach for Bertman’s 2000 championship team and stayed on under Laval when Bertman became A.D. At 68, though, close friends say that trying to resurrect the dynasty would have been a mistake on Bertman’s part, and many told him so at the time.

Giving his speech as the first inductee of the first class of the College Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006, Bertman had this to say about his retirement: “(At my age) what do you talk about when (recruits) come in for 48 hours? I found myself saying to these 17- and 18-year-olds, ‘Did you see Britney Spears on TV last night? Wasn’t she hot?’ I knew it was time to get out.”

Bertman always saw himself as more than a baseball coach, and as A.D. he expected the coaches to do unconventional things to build their programs, too. Though Bertman has hired eight head coaches in seven years, early on he took heat from Tiger fans for showing what they deemed to be too much loyalty to Laval, and for giving head basketball Coach John Brady too many second chances to build a consistent program. After five seasons Bertman replaced Laval in 2006, and in February he fired Brady.

“You can’t purge,” Bertman says emphatically. “I gave every coach a chance. I’d say, ‘If you don’t do it next year we may have to make a change.’ I said it in advance so they always knew it was coming. All of them.”

Were these coaches fired for not doing things the Bertman way? The outgoing A.D. insists not. “We’re all different, and there are many ways to get the job done,” he says. “It’s not just my way. But in all cases I need intensity.”

Compared to his golden 1990s as a coach, his tenure as A.D. has hit controversial waters. Bertman had to rein in his popular off-the-cuff quips as A.D., lest a joke hurt ticket sales. He wasn’t just in his baseball realm anymore. His decisions and comments could affect LSU football. Where previously he’d simply charmed boosters to raise baseball ticket prices, he drew ire twice by raising the price of football season tickets. This, according to the search committee looking for his replacement, is a necessary evil at one of the few programs nationally that uses no state tax dollars or student fees for funding. Bertman sees ticket hikes as a means to an end. They help build a winning program with top facilities. He wants the new Alex Box Stadium to be a gem.

What once threatened as Bertman’s biggest controversy struck in October 2006, when he failed to disclose the sale of his summer baseball camp to his coaching successor, Laval. An internal audit revealed Laval paid Bertman $100,000 for the business. After meeting with SEC and NCAA officials, former LSU Chancellor Sean O’Keefe announced Bertman had not violated university rules. No league fines were issued, and the incident faded.

Last fall three of Bertman’s former players were named in the infamous Mitchell Report for allegedly using illegal steroids or human growth hormone in the professional ranks. The players named in the report are pitchers Paul Byrd and Ryan Jorgensen, and outfielder Armando Rios. Bertman says his LSU staff ran a clean program, recruiting power hitters and strikeout pitchers with an emphasis on strength training, and never facilitated or encouraged steroid use.

Becoming LSU’s athletic director may have been the furthest thing from Bertman’s mind in the summer of 2000. In an interview with Business Report a year earlier, he entertained the question of one day becoming athletic director for some small liberal arts college, one where academics would be more important than athletics. He denied coveting the LSU job. Instead, he planned to follow the trail blazed by Dale Brown. Bertman had 31 motivational speeches lined up for the following year with the Washington Speakers Bureau. But while gearing up for his final season as head coach, then-Chancellor Mark Emmert asked Bertman to end the LSU board’s gridlock over potential hire Mitch Barnhart, and take up the A.D. mantle himself.

“I knew the job sucked,” Bertman says. “It’s a terrible job, but that’s what they needed, and I knew I could do this.”

Motivating his staff and coaches like he had motivated his players came naturally. Assistant A.D. Verge Ausberry played Tiger football in the 1980s when his teammates would watch Bertman’s early seasons from the railroad tracks. Back then he never dreamed getting good baseball tickets would be as difficult as finding good football tickets. But that day has arrived, and it is because of Bertman. Ausberry calls him a role model who taught everyone in the athletic department the value of customer service. “Especially the younger guys because we tended to look at this as a cutthroat business,” Ausberry says. “But he taught us not to treat people that way, even if you disagree with them. We return every phone call and e-mail, and that’s because of Skip.”

Bertman was that way as a coach as well, obsessed with taking care of fans as much as he was taking care of opponents. In the middle of one game he sent an assistant coach to the concession stand to check if the nacho cheese was warm, the drinks cold and the hot dogs fresh.

But even with five championship rings and an Olympic bronze medal, Bertman makes it a point to keep a healthy distance from Mainieri’s team and let the new coach run things his own way. When Bertman attends home games he doesn’t watch from the dugout. He may walk through and shake some hands, but mostly he just looks on until his cigar burns down, and then quietly leaves.

“The only satisfaction as an A.D. is seeing the other coaches learn how to be successful through motivation, and I’ve watched that happen, so that’s been gratifying,” Bertman says. “This is a job with very little satisfaction, very little. As a coach, the satisfaction is obvious. You don’t even have to win, you just have to see the kid get better.”

Getting Bertman to talk about motivation or success is easy. Getting him to talk about baseball in those terms is more difficult. He changes the focus quickly, as if the sport is much too small to contain his tenacious feelings on the topic.

“Baseball was just one way to teach it,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what it is, you have to get people to believe that the sum total is greater than any of its parts. Once you are 100% team and everybody trusts one another, you can go to a place where only teams can go. Individuals and dysfunctional units can’t get there.”

Turtle Thomas says Bertman called this concept “teamsmanship.”

“He brought everyone together,” Thomas says. “He coached the game of baseball the way it should be coached.”

Though he had a six-year major league career, Chad Ogea says he never played for a coach who could assemble a team like his old LSU skipper. Even now Bertman can read people like few others, something he picked up back in Miami watching Max Sapper’s every move. He learned how to deal with every kind of player and parent since he began coaching as a skinny teenager obsessed with the game. Growing up he devoured articles and books about people overcoming adversity. By the time he arrived at LSU it was second nature.

“He’s a really intelligent guy, and he knew what buttons to push on each player,” Ainsworth says. “That’s the biggest thing. He didn’t coach everyone the same way. He knew how to get the best out of every player.”

Bertman once stood in front of his Tigers with a marshmallow in one hand and a cigarette lighter in the other. He held the flame underneath the marshmallow and let it burn. “Some of you guys are soft,” he said. “And when the heat is on, you melt.” Then he held out a jellybean and did the same thing. “Some of you guys are hard on the outside, you look tough, but with enough heat, you melt too.” Finally he held up a rock and watched it resist the flame. “See, I need you guys to be like rocks,” he said. “I can put all kinds of heat on a rock.”

Bertman could put on the heat, and his brand of motivation wasn’t always the warm and fuzzy kind. Pete Bush played first base for LSU from 1986 to 1989. He watched Bertman coach marshmallows, jellybeans and rocks—and motivate each in different ways. As a freshman Bush was turning double-play drills when Bertman walked out to the mound and without even glancing Bush’s way said, “Jesus Christ, Bush, when’s the last time you practiced, freshman year of high school?” It may have been the first thing coach ever said to him. Bush was furious, but would use that quip as motivation to become one of LSU’s best defensive first basemen. “I’ve been through every emotion with that guy,” says Bush, now a financial planner in Baton Rouge. “But he commands respect, and looking back on it, he made me a better man.”

The key, Bertman says, is he never let the team settle or make excuses. “America’s favorite pastime is the transfer of blame,” was his favorite saying. “It’s my fault,” Bertman would say after a player’s poor performance. “I shouldn’t have recruited you.”

“They couldn’t feel ‘I did enough,’ or ‘Two out of three is OK,’ because I was on them all the time,” Bertman says. “They had to be good off the field, in the classroom, and they had to win. They had to be as good as they could be.”

To Bertman this meant making his coaches work with consultants on their public images and turning his players into ambassadors for the team. He taught them public speaking and got them involved in the community. As Ainsworth puts it, Bertman got them prepared for life.

Charlie Clary served as team chaplain for the Tigers throughout the 1990s. A longtime LSU fan, Clary remembers the depressing pre-Bertman era when Mississippi State cowbells outnumbered Tiger fans at their own home games. He calls the former coach a master of marketing and motivation. Some describe Bertman as having a spiritual, if not devout, side, and Clary remembers him offering the occasional post-game prayer. “He talks about the Creator a lot,” Clary says. “And once after we got blown out in the World Series, he thanked God for the season, and for loving the team. He obviously didn’t say Jesus’ name, but Skip didn’t write that prayer down, you know, where did it come from?”

In 1998 Bertman approached Clary with an assignment: Find a large stick and give a team speech about what God had done for the Israelites through the staff of Moses. Clary offered to inscribe the names of former players on the stick for inspiration. This was the year after Brandon Larson smacked 40 homeruns then left the program after one season. But when Bertman handed Clary his list, Larson was nowhere on it. Instead were the names of players who exemplified what Bertman valued more: discipline, humility and teamwork.

“I presented it to the team captain, Blair Barbier, and they all passed it around and touched the stick,” Clary recalls.

Brad Cresse, the catcher who smacked the clutch championship-winning single in 2000, came to LSU from Southern California. “If I wanted to go to college to bunt I would have gone to Cal State Fullerton,” says the heavy-hitting Cresse. He remembers motivational things like the stick and the Sunday speaker series—when Bertman brought in a range of folks from football great Jim Taylor to Cresse’s father, a coach for the L.A. Dodgers—building an atmosphere of intense bonding and achievement. Playing for LSU felt like a family, and the family, Cresse says, remains close to this day.

“We loved coming to the park every day to not only play, but to see each other,” Cresse says. “We were our own fraternity, and that’s what made us work so hard as a team.”

Bertman’s brand of “teamsmanship” translated well off the field, too.

Wally Pontiff Sr. says Bertman treated the baseball parents like family, inviting them to watch scrimmages and always feeding them afterward. When Wally Pontiff Jr. wanted to take his girlfriend to Ruth’s Chris Steak House for Valentine’s Day and the restaurant was booked, he called his coach for help. The next day Bertman told him he had a table reserved.

“Skip was Wally’s daddy in Baton Rouge,” Pontiff Sr. says. “He demanded a lot from his players, but he gave a lot, too.”

Bryant and football. Wooden and basketball. Bertman and baseball.

Sure Augie Garrido of Texas is a proven winner, and the late Rod Dedeaux of USC was a legend, but Bertman beat them all into the College Baseball Hall of Fame. And no one who takes a slow ride down Skip Bertman Drive—or sits in Alex Box with 7,512 other screaming fans—can argue with that.

“From youth leagues to college, baseball would not be the same without Skip Bertman,” Cresse says.

In an era when top coaches command huge salaries and change schools like underclassmen change majors, Baton Rouge won the lottery landing Bertman. Vegas oddsmakers would have a field day calculating the chances that a first-generation American who grew up near and played and coached for a baseball powerhouse like Miami would select a smalltime program like LSU, transform it and remain there for more than a quarter of a century. The odds against must be staggering.

But it did happen, like anything else happens, after a series of key decisions. Despite being friends with Tommy Lasorda and other professional managers, Bertman never succumbed to major league temptations. “He would have been frustrated with pro ball and guys making millions, telling him, ‘No, I’m going to do it my way,’” Ogea says. “Skip knew the grass wasn’t greener on the other side.”

Bertman declined two offers to return to Miami for his “dream job,” and in 1996 he waved off a big check from Texas to defect to the Longhorns. He never once took those offers back to the A.D. as bargaining chips for raises.

Bertman didn’t need an agent working the angles. He knew the angles. He had been working them his whole life. He was content with his role but never let himself be satisfied with how he played it. His pursuit was one of progress. And progress is never ending.

Sitting on the pitcher’s mound in the quiet of 1983, Bertman closed his eyes and visualized the future of LSU baseball. At that moment he fell in love with the potential he saw in Baton Rouge. That is the difference. That is why he came here, and that is why he is still here. Two years from now when he officially retires, when he has raised his last dollar, he will have worked 27 years for the university. On that day this husband to wife Sandy and father to four daughters would rather not be lauded as a good baseball coach or athletic director.

“Instead I’d like people to say, ‘He was a guy who you knew what to expect, and he always gave it to you with hard work and results because he was very well balanced, a good family man, a good community member, a good coach, a good A.D.,’” Bertman says, pausing to pick his words carefully. “And that he loved LSU.’”