In 1981, LSU hired James Wharton as LSU chancellor, and he set to work immediately at modernizing the university. Most controversially, he created stricter admission standards which both raised the level of incoming student but also reduced the number of students failing out, both of which improving LSU’s academic ratings. He achieved Tier One Research standards for the first time in school history, secured a rare space grant, and brought the LIGO facility in Livingston to LSU, which would eventually result in a Nobel Prize in 2017.
But he also knew that reforms didn’t mean anything if he couldn’t attract students. And LSU sports would be his advertisement. In order to break with the corrupt past of kickbacks and the old boy’s network, he brought in Brodhead, an outsider with a history entirely in pro sports. Brodhead also had the task to fire two LSU legends: Paul Dietzel and Jerry Stovall.
Like I said, he didn’t come to make any friends. He would start his career by firing those two LSU legends. Then he set about replacing them. And winning.
“Bottom Line” Bob Brodhead
SEC Titles: Football (1986), Basketball (1985), Baseball (1986), Men’s Tennis (1985), Women’s Track (1985), Volleyball (1985 & 1986)
National Titles: Women’s Indoor Track (1987)
Programs Ended: Men’s Wrestling (1985)
Brodhead’s tenure could charitably be described as “turbulent,” but that was due to the off the field fights he picked, intentionally or otherwise. We will examine those off the field fights in our next installment, but for right now, let’s give credit to the man for what he did best: win.
In order to do that, he looked at the coaches and staff left over from the Dietzel era and decided to clean house. LSU was no longer a family, keeping beloved teachers like Dub Robinson or Harry Rabenhorst around for decades, regardless of the win-loss record. In the modern era of college sports, sentiment does not play. I do think we lost something, but I do acknowledge that Brodhead was smart to make decisions based in this new reality: winning means everything.
BRODHEAD FIRES EVERYBODY
In a previous installment, I criticized Dietzel for the lack of success of his coaching hires. Well, whatever you say about Brodhead, the one thing you cannot deny is that the man had an incredible eye for talent.
Starting in 1983, he would completely remake the LSU coaching fraternity. He would make 12 coaching hires over 11 sports in the span of just three years, and he nailed almost every single one of them. His hires include some of the legends of LSU sports: Skip Bertman, Jerry Simmons, Leon Seagrave, and Sue Gunter.
Even more important is who he didn’t fire. Brodhead would fire every single coach he inherited from Dietzel except two: Dale Brown and DD Breaux. The man knew talent and while he wanted his own people, he also knew when not to mess with a good thing.
Jerry Simmons, the tennis coach, would describe this era as Camelot. The coaches ate meals together, bonded over strategy, and encouraged each other to build the best program possible. It was an extremely competitive and collaborative environment, as competing for SEC titles was suddenly expected.
LSU went from a middle of the pack SEC program overall to winning the Bernie Moore Trophy for overall SEC sports in 1985-86. LSU would win the trophy four straight years, and five out of six years after that season.
Most impressively, LSU went to the Final Four, the Orange Bowl, and the College World Series in 1986. But Brodhead’s hires transformed almost every program on campus. Football, of course, already got its own article, so let’s look at the rest of the programs, one at a time.
GYMNASTICS: DD Breaux (retained)
Ok, gym didn’t change. DD Breaux was awesome before, and she would be awesome after. I tend to rate AD’s based on how they treated Breaux, and Brodhead is again the ultimate mixed bag. Yes, he retained Breaux, the only women’s coach to survive his purge, but he also took away her office without telling her. One day, Breaux arrived to find all of her things in tiny boxes, her key no longer fit the lock, and Sue Gunter was in her office. Breaux shrugged it off, “It was not a great day.”
DD responded to the challenge. In 1986, she guided LSU to its first regionals victory in school history. By virtue of the win, LSU qualified for nationals for the first time, and finished 9th out of the 10-team field. LSU would follow up this accomplishment by qualifying again in 1987, this time finishing 7th out of 12 teams at nationals.
For the first time in LSU gym history, a gymnast earned All American honors. In 1986, Angie Topham earned AA honors on the balance beam and she was matched in the honor in 1987 by Jennifer Lyerly, who made AA on the vault. LSU was on the verge of big things in gym under Brodhead, and then came the Bad Times, as the money faucet got shut off.
TRACK: Billy Maxwell (1983); Leon Seagrave (women’s, 1986)
Billy Maxwell took over both the men’s and women’s programs in 1983, middle of the pack in the SEC. By 1985, LSU would win the indoor and outdoor SEC women’s track titles. In 1986, the men would finish second in the SEC.
Men’s track had some success before, but this was the beginning of the team becoming a true national power. Eric Reid won the national title in the 110m hurdles, LSU’s first men’s individual title since 1979.
In a mere five years at LSU, Maxwell would oversee 26 event national champions and 189 All-American honors. He set the foundation for the dominance of LSU track. He would be inducted into the US Track Hall of Fame in 2015.
However, one of his greatest moves was promoting Leon Seagrave to the head coach of the women’s track program. Seagrave would coach the women’s team from 1986-89 and in four years, would win three national titles.
But under the Brodhead era, the Lady Tigers would not start their run of national titles, instead asserting their dominance over the SEC. LSU would win national titles in both the 4x100 and 4x400 relays, setting the stage for dominance to come.
Christine Slythe would set a school record in the 1500 in 1985 at 4:17.14, a record which still stands today. However, Slythe would have a miserable day in the national finals, failing to point in the 1500. Oregon would place runners 2nd and 3rd in the race, and would outlast LSU in the finals, 52-46. LSU finished second, but the taste for titles was now in the Tigers’ mouths.
Titles were coming, even if Billy Maxwell would never win one at LSU. LSU would win its first women’s track national title at the Indoors in 1987, months after Brodhead resigned but before the new AD was hired.
GOLF: Buddy Alexander (men’s, 1983); Karen Bahsen (women’s, 1984)
Buddy Alexander graduated from Georgia Southern in 1975. Two years later, he was their head golf coach as he worked on his masters degree. He obtained his masters, tried his hand at the pro tour, and accepted the LSU job in 1983 as one of Brodhead’s first hires.
Part of being a great coach is having great players, and Alexander wasted no time in stocking the cupboard on that front. He took over a program which finished 7th in the SEC in 1982. He would finish 2nd in 1984, just his second season. By his fourth season, Alexander guided LSU to its first SEC title since 1967.
The secret to his early success was a guy named David Toms. Toms would go on to a great pro career in which he won the PGA Championship in 2001 among his 13 PGA Tour victories. Get this… he was pretty great in college, too. Toms won 6 tournaments in his college career, including the 1987 SEC title. He finished in the top 10 in an event 29 times.
Toms didn’t do it alone either. Emlyn Aubrey won the SEC title in 1984 as a sophomore and would finish 3rd in the NCAA championships in 1986. The two of them together would key some excellent teams under Alexander’s guidance, finishing in the top 10 nationally for three consecutive seasons, from 1984-86. LSU’s highest finish would be 6th in 1984.
And just as soon as Alexander built LSU into an SEC and burgeoning national power, he was gone. Tennis coach Jerry Simmons claims in his book that Alexander was the first coach to leave under Joe Dean because of pushback on his local tournament. Alexander saw the first signs of deteriorating administrative support, and he hightailed it out of Baton Rouge at the first opportunity.
Unfortunately for LSU, that first opportunity was at Florida. For all of the talk of Arnsparger sabotaging LSU and Spurrier, a story which is more myth than fact, he absolutely did steal LSU’s golf coach. Arnsparger repeatedly called Alexander for advice on a new coach at Florida until Alexander suggested a great coach who had multiple top ten finishes at nationals and an SEC title: himself.
Alexander would go on to build Florida into one of the dominant powers of NCAA golf. Alexander won two national titles in Gainesville (1993 and 2001) and finished in the top 10 eleven times on his career. He won the SEC Coach of the Year Award eight times, his first one at LSU. That could have been… hell, it should have been LSU. Brodhead found perhaps the greatest college golf coach of his era, and he followed Brodhead out the door, the crumbling of Camelot. It’s only a stroke of luck Simmons didn’t leave as well, as Simmons admits that Alexander recruited him to reunite with Arnsparger in Florida.
However, before Alexander left LSU, he did give the school a parting gift: Karen Bahsen. Alexander was hired to coach both the men’s and women’s teams, an arrangement which lasted all of one season. In 1984, Alexander found his replacement from his own roster. Bahsen graduated in 1984 and was the coach for the 1984-85 season. She took over a team that finished 9th in the SEC and in 1986, she had already guided them to a 9th place finish nationally.
Bahsen would coach at LSU for 34 years, winning her first SEC title in 1992. LSU never won the NCAA title under her guidance, though the Tigers finished 3rd in both 2011 and 2012. Her teams qualified for the postseason every year but two since regional play started in 1993, and advanced to the championships 12 times. She retired in 2018 as dean of SEC coaches and a Women’s Golf Coaches Association Hall of Famer.
MEN’S TENNIS: Jerry Simmons (1983)
Speaking of invaluable resources, Simmons’ book “Inside the Eye of the Tiger” is every bit as dishy and fun as Brodhead’s, without the smell of sulphur. His book gets more exciting under the next AD, as Simmons really hates Joe Dean and doesn’t care who knows it.
All he did under Brodhead was build an immediate winner out of nothing. He took over a 7th place SEC team and would win the SEC in his third season, 1985. This was the standard Brodhead set for all his coaches, as he told Simmons that if he didn’t compete for the SEC title or be within the top 10 nationally in five years, he didn’t belong at LSU. Simmons did it in three.
In just his second season in 1984, Simmons had the Tigers in the NCAA Final 16 for the first time since 1978 and just the second time in tennis history at LSU, which began in 1925. He won the SEC title in 1985 and never finished worse than fourth until he retired after the 1997 season. Simmons took LSU to the NCAA elite eight in 1987, finished No. 2 in the nation in 1988 and finished in the elite eight three straight years from 1991-93.
The thing about Simmons is that he hated the idea that tennis was a “country club” sport. He wanted his players to be tough and to fight like hell, like he had to build USL into a powerful program down the road, bringing himself onto Brodhead’s radar. He has the distinction of being the greatest tennis coach in both programs’ history:
Never did his tennis players realize they were not playing a “country club” sport more than on a bus trip back from a loss at Florida in 1991.
“We had beat Florida nine times in a row,” Simmons said Thursday night at a press conference here. “The guys didn’t do anything I told them. They just did what they wanted. So I went out and bought eight cans of Alpo dog food.”
They rode in the bus from Gainesville toward Baton Rouge for a while before one of the players asked Simmons, “Hey, coach, are we going to stop and eat?”
That was Simmons’ cue. He broke out the dog food.
“You play like dogs. You’re going to eat like dogs,” he said.
LSU went on to finish 19-6, No. 2 in the SEC and reached the elite eight.
“We stopped later at a Chili’s, but the point was made,” Simmons said.
Simmons is the winningest tennis coach in LSU history at 278-105 in 15 years. He is the Cajuns’ winningest tennis coach at 214-92-2 in 11 years.
Simmons was able to win right away because, like Alexander, he recruited one of the greatest athletes in the program’s history. Fernando Perez won two SEC titles, one as a freshman (1983) and the other as a senior (1986). Not bad for a guy who helped Mexico beat Germany in the Davis Cup in 1986, thanks to his doubles victory over Boris Becker. Before coming to LSU, Perez made the semifinals in both the US Open and French Open in doubles.
While his successes in international tennis were as a doubles partner, he dominated in college as a singles player, reaching the rank of #7.
Billy Uribe, Jeff Brown, Carolos Homodes all won SEC titles as well, as LSU made the Sweet 16 from 1984-86, finally breaking through to the quarterfinals in 1987.
Simmons raved about Brodhead in his book. TigerVision allowed LSU to televise all of its home tennis matches, giving LSU a recruiting edge. He could put players on TV, while no one else could. Brodhead expected you to win, but he also made sure you had the tools to do it.
What Simmons didn’t like was the politics of LSU. “Baton Rouge was and still is a political cesspool. Of course, it became my cesspool,” Simmons quipped.
Simmons felt that he didn’t just have to win, you had to be good at politics, and Bob didn’t care about politics. He did his best to shield his coaches from criticism, taking bullets for them, but he never was good at back-slapping or keeping the old boys’ happy.
Simmons blamed Chancellor Wharton, claiming that Wharton kept carryover employees from the prior administration in the AD office to act as a pipeline of information to the chancellor. Chief among these legacy employees was Doc Broussard, one of Brodhead’s most visible and vocal critics. And for this, we take a detour.
Martin “Doc” Broussard lettered in football, baseball, and track at LSU in the 1940s, winning the SEC broad jump title in 1944. He graduated in 1945 and after a brief tenure at Florida and Texas A&M, he returned to LSU as the athletic trainer in 1948, a position he would hold until his semi-retirement in 1993.
He earned his doctorate in 1967 and was named a full professor in 1970. His professional honors are multitude:
“He was selected as a trainer for the 1955 Pan American Games, for the U.S. Olympic team in 1960, and was named “Trainer of the Year” by the Rockne Foundation in 1960. In 1978, Broussard was named to the National Athletic Trainers Association Hall of Fame followed by the Louisiana Athletic Trainer’s Hall of Fame in 1982. Broussard was also inducted to the National Football Foundation Hall of Fame in 1989.”
“He was stern and most athletes feared him,” said Dean, who was close with Broussard. “I arrived at LSU as a basketball player in 1949. Doc didn’t give you a chance if you were a freshman, sophomore or junior, but once you were a senior he formed a friendship with you; that was my case and we became very good friends.
Most athletes were reluctant to go to Broussard with minor injuries.
“You should almost be in a body bag before you saw the Doc, you couldn’t just go to him with minor injuries, ankle taping or a broken finger. Nope he wouldn’t accept that from any athlete,” said Dean.
I’m not sure why not treating injuries is a good thing, but that’s the legend of Doc Broussard. He was a tough man from a bygone era. The Martin Broussard Athletic Training Facility opened in 1998 and serves as the major rehabilitation facility for LSU athletes. He’s a towering figure in LSU sports.
He also was a big ‘ol racist. Last time we checked in on Broussard, he was refusing to tape Collis Temple’s ankles, “Temple Jr. said Broussard, who died in 2003, once told him to get his “a– out of the training room” because he was a n—–, after Temple Jr. came to him seeking to be treated for a sprained ankle.”
“When you have a guy who is going to teach you two or three classes at 17 in your freshman year call you a n—- to your face, it really doesn’t matter why and how it came up,” Collis Jr. says. “It stings. It stung me pretty well in 1970. He and I, over a long period of time, made up and became closely acquainted, but it was tough for he and I. And he was an icon at LSU. I wasn’t an icon…”
“He wasn’t an icon, yet,” interjects Collis III.
Simmons further claimed that Doc Broussard referred to Stanley Jacobs, as “that Jew bastard friend of yours.” Broussard used that same epithet to refer to Skip Bertman. He further called Gerry DiNardo “that Dago motherfucker.” This wasn’t in the 1960s, when that kind of language was tolerated by the powers that be, maybe even encouraged. This was in the 1990s.
We took Middleton’s name off the library for less, and Broussard did not have Middleton’s accomplishments either nor Middleton’s late career redemption.
WOMEN’S TENNIS: Philip Campbell (1984)
Campbell wasn’t quite as successful as Simmons, but he also transformed the tennis team. He inherited a team with a losing record and in his second season, 1985, LSU finished as the SEC runners up, thanks to a blistering close to the season. LSU won nine of its last ten matches in order to rocket up the standings.
The team was anchored by twin sisters Dana De and De Ann Watlington. De Ann won the SEC individual title in 1985, joined by her sister and Elanor Jonason as 1985 doubles champions. Dana would win the doubles title again in 1986, this time with Pattie Harrison.
Dana De Watlington still holds the LSU record for matches won with 151 victories. DeAnn ranks fourth all-time with 120.
For his part, Campbell took off after 1988, continuing the post-Camelot exodus after Brodhead’s termination. Campbell suffered his first losing in 1988, his last at LSU. He would later serve as the President of the Louisiana Tennis Association.
VOLLEYBALL: Scott Luster (1985)
Ruth Nelson held on longer than most Dietzel hires. Her four-year tenure is the longest of any of his hires, and is even more noteworthy because she managed to survive two seasons under Brodhead.
LSU finished 31-26 (4-1) in 1983, good for 2nd in the SEC. That held off Brodhead’s axe for a year, but she followed it up with an 18-23 (4-2) mark. That wasn’t good enough for Brodhead, and he brought in Luster for the 1985 season. Luster won two Metro Conference titles at Louisville.
In Luster’s first two seasons at LSU, he won two SEC titles. Not a bad start, and another killer hire by Brodhead. Again, the coach came in like gangbusters not just because the coach was good, but because the team has a bunch of really talented athletes.
Wendy Stammer had 703 kills in 1986, the LSU record to this day. Stammer finished her LSU career with 1592 kills, 2nd in school history. She also had 1261 digs, 8th in school history. She wasn’t alone.
Detra Brown was right behind Stammer with 1504 career kills and 1169 digs. Brown was also at her best when it mattered the most, winning the SEC tournament MVP in 1986. LSU fell just short of the SEC tourney title in 1985, losing to Georgia in four sets, and getting revenge in 1986.
Winning the SEC tournament earned LSU an NCAA tournament bid. LSU outlasted Arizona in five sets in the first round. LSU swept Texas-Arlington to make it to the Elite Eight before dropping the Regional Finals to host Texas. LSU would beat Texas in 1987, but drop the next round to Florida.
SWIMMING: Scott Woodburn (1983), Sam Freas (1986)
There was only one hire of Brodhead’s which did not work out. Woodburn went 8-17 as the women’s coach and 16-12 as the men’s over the three seasons. His only winning season was in 1984-85 for the men.
As if to make up for that mistake, Brodhead went out and hired Sam Freas in 1986, one of the true legends of his sport. Freas quite literally wrote the book on coaching swim sprinting.
And he won right away. Freas took over a losing team, and in his first season in 1986, the women went 12-2 and the men went 9-1. They each finished middle of the pack in a loaded SEC, but the women finished 10th nationally and the men finished 11th. In 1988, the men won the SEC title.
“Coach Freas was an out-of-the-box coach in the world of swimming before it was standard to be an out-of-the-box coach,” said LSU head swimming coach Dave Geyer. “His training methods in sprinting are ones that are looked at still today as pivotal in athlete, not just swimmer, development. Sam built a powerhouse program here at LSU in the 80’s and left his mark with an SEC Championship, multiple NCAA Championships and the development of Olympians. Beyond coaching, Coach was a wonderful human that brought joy and laughter everywhere he went. His distinct laugh will be missed on the pool deck.”
Neil Harper, who is currently the head swimming and diving coach at the University of Arkansas and former swimmer at LSU under Freas, had some nice things to say about his former coach.
“Sam meant so much to so many of us. Not only was he our coach, but he was a mentor, a father figure, a motivator and a family man. He raised the bar for our program at LSU (SEC Championship and 6th place NCAA finish) and brought individuals from all over the world to be on one team and with one goal. He inspired quite a few of us to go into collegiate coaching and has stayed in touch with most of us as we moved into the real world and became parents and successful adults. His larger than life personality and continuous love and caring for all of his athletes will be what I always remember. Sam would do anything to help anyone out. We will all miss him, but I know he has shared so much advice and knowledge with all of us that we take a piece of him with us as we all continue our own journey.”
Freas is a legit legend of the sport, as his former athlete raved.
The 1988 SEC Championship swim/dive team at LSU is a classic example of Sam’s greatness. What started out as a hodgepodge of misdirected, but solid swimmers and divers in 1985 (when Sam took over) became a confident, and determined team that believed in our abilities. Indeed, Sam was a master motivator and incredible recruiter. More importantly, Dr. Freas could find each person’s “gift” in life and mesh it into the puzzle that made the most effective and dynamic team.
Sam had an uncanny way of figuring out each person’s strength and meshing it to the benefit of the team. I was a solid “B final” level swimmer, barely making my way onto the conference team each year. Yet, Sam always told me how important I was to the team because I was a natural leader and could help sell his vision of our success every day. I took that charge from him and cheered for my teammates and their success from my heart.
Freas would leave almost as soon as Brodhead left as well. He stayed just three seasons at LSU, quitting his post in 1988. He would later coach Hawaii, Oklahoma Baptist, and the South African national team.
It was another illustration of how brief and how great the Camelot era was. When Brodhead left, so did the administrative support, then the talent left as well. Freas was just another example.
WOMEN’S HOOPS: Sue Gunter (1983)
Sue Gunter came to LSU from Stephen F Austin, where she had built a terrific program in the early days of the NCAA women’s sports. She was hired in 1983. In her first season, she won 20 games and earned the National Coach of the Year award.
How good of a hire was Sue Gunter? Well, let’s look at her resume when she retired:
Gunter, who was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in June 2000, completed her career among the leaders in several NCAA coaching categories: seasons coached (No. 1 - 40); games coached (No. 3 - 1,016); wins (No. 3 - 708); and 20-win seasons (No. 4 - 22).
Gunter’s influence was a catalyst behind the growth of the game and things were no different in Baton Rouge as the Lady Tigers continue to play before school-record crowds and media attention is at an all-time high. In Gunter’s 22-year tenure at LSU, her list of accomplishments are long and impressive — 14 NCAA Tournament appearances, one trip to the Final Four, four NCAA Elite Eight appearances, eight NCAA Sweet 16 appearances, two SEC Tournament titles, a Women’s NIT title, and a handful of Coach of the Year awards.
Gunter won, and she won right away. In 1984, LSU earned a #5 seed and made it all the way to the Sweet Sixteen before dropping its final game to Louisiana Tech. LSU missed the tournament in 1985, but the Lady Tigers ran the table and won the NIT.
This set up the 1986 season, in which LSU earned a #2 overall seed. They marched all the way to the Elite Eight before losing to Tennessee by one point. LSU won an NIT and had two deep tourney runs thwarted by the two best programs of the era: Tech and Tennessee.
Gunter, like the rest of the Camelot coaches, had some incredible players. First among them was Joyce Walker, an All-American in 1983 and 1984. I don’t want to venture into hyperbole, but Walker is one of the greatest players in SEC history. First, she dominates the LSU record book.
Walker was the only player in LSU history to rank in the school’s top 10 in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals, and blocked shots. Today, she ranks first in points (2906), second in steals (326), and sixth in assists (426).
But dominating the LSU record book isn’t enough, she also dots the SEC record book. Her scoring mark is third all-time in the SEC and she didn’t just lead the SEC in scoring for three consecutive seasons, her 24.8 PPG scoring average is the standing SEC record for players with at least two seasons starting. Her scoring record held up until Chamique Holdsclaw in 1999.
Walker was awesome, but she didn’t do it alone. Both Alisha Jones and Madeline Doucet scored over 1500 points in their LSU careers, and both contributed over 750 rebounds. But it was still the Joyce Walker show:
“She was one of the most unstoppable players I’ve ever coached against,” LSU Coach Van Chancellor said. “When I was at Ole Miss, she lit me up more than any player lit me up at any place or at any time.”
Chancellor recalled devising new defensive schemes that all went for naught against a player with such an arsenal of offensive weapons.
“I tried every defense I could think of, but you name it, she scored on it,” he said. “Going to the basket, from outside, pulling up and hitting the 15-footer; she did everything. She didn’t even have time to play defense, she was so busy scoring. I want to say she had 38 points.”
In fact, Chancellor’s memory sells Walker’s performance against him a tad short, according to musty, handwritten box scores still on file at LSU. On Jan. 15, 1983, the Rebels beat the Lady Tigers in Oxford by holding Walker to 20 points. But the following month the teams, each with just one SEC loss, met again in Baton Rouge. On that day, Walker hit 16 of 25 field-goal attempts and made 11 of 14 free throws to finish with 43 points.
“She would scrimmage against our guys, and she would hold her own,” Brown said. “She practiced with our guys constantly, she didn’t back down at all, and our players loved her. She was a survivor, but there was also a gentle side to her, and she never had any arrogance at all. If I was to start a women’s basketball team right now, the first player I would pick is Joyce Walker.”
After LSU, Walker would win an Olympic gold medal in 1984 and then played a stint with the Harlem Globetrotters. With no US professional league at the time, she played professionally in Europe.
Gunter, for her part, kept on winning at LSU.
BASEBALL: Skip Bertman (1984)
As the story goes Jack Lamabe found out he was no longer the coach when his wife discovered a classified ad for his position in the morning paper. I can’t find a contemporaneous source which confirms that, but The Advocate did report that Lamabe and Brodhead were in a dispute over whether he resigned or was fired. And the story has been passed down as fact.
Screw it, print the legend.
Lamabe was the last standing hire from the Carl Maddox era, and when he took the LSU job, his wife commented that “Jack had always had a love for the SEC Conference and LSU. Needless to say, he was thrilled to be offered the job. It was a great place—a family place.” Under Brodhead, LSU sports got a lot better… but it was no longer a family place like it was under Maddox.
Lamabe was an accomplished player and by all accounts, a good coach, great teacher, and even better person. He deserves better than to be remembered as a punchline. But if you’re going to set fire to the family atmosphere, you better run a kick ass business. And that’s what Skip Bertman did.
“First year, I had to run off a lot of kids,” the coach said. “The work ethic was too hard for them.”
His first group of players expected to have Mardi Gras off, as they had in the past. They were in for a rude awakening.
“What? You think this is American Legion baseball?” Bertman fired back.
Bertman’s name was not picked out of a hat or after some great national search, but was probably a plan of Brodhead’s from the beginning. The story goes, as recently repeated in the SEC Network’s “Hold The Rope” documentary, that when Brodhead, then CFO for the Miami Dolphins, was leaving for the LSU AD job in 1982, Dolphin’s PR director Bob Kearney, who had at one point worked as a reporter on the then lowly college baseball beat for the Miami Herald, got in his ear about this great assistant coach on the Hurricane’s staff.
Skip went 32-23 in his first season, not good enough to make the 48-team NCAA field of the time. In 1985, LSU started 21-5 en route to a 40+ win season. However, the #19 Tigers didn’t earn a host site for one of the eight 6-team regionals. LSU travelled to Houston, where LSU was overwhelmed by UH and then Lamar to get quickly eliminated. It was LSU’s first regional appearance since 1975 and the season seemed like a success to almost everyone not named Skip Bertman.
In 1986, Bertman would leave no doubt. LSU started the season 27-2 and the team would win all nine of its SEC series to finish 22-5 in conference play. LSU would add three straight wins in Baton Rouge to cruise to the SEC tournament title.
In order to further prepare for the tournament, LSU added four exhibition games after the SECT, including a nationally televised game against Florida St, which the Noles won, 6-4. LSU boasted a 50-12 record and earned its first regional host in school history.
LSU wouldn’t drop a game this time, and this being before the era of the Super Regionals, earned its first trip to the College World Series by beating Tulane, but not without its share of drama. Tulane knocked Mark Guthrie from the game early, and the teams were knotted up 6-6 in the eighth when the rains came and forced a continuation the next day.
The rain continued, however, forcing LSU to hire helicopters to help drain the field of water. Rob Hartwig scratched out a hit, stole second and then moved over to third on a sacrifice, allowing Jeff Reboulet to play hero with the game-winning RBI hit on a single which never left the infield.
Speedy left fielder Rob Hartwig got things started for LSU in the top of the ninth, smacking a ball that ricocheted off the pitcher’s glove. Hartwig rounded first and slipped. He limped back to the first base bag.
“We still tell that story,” Papajohn said. “Skip walked out there to see if he was hurt or not, and Hartwig said, ‘Get back in the dugout, Skip!’ ”
“I go out to him, walking down the right field line. I wanted to (have him) steal second,” Bertman said. “He said, ‘Coach, get back in the dugout. I’m faking it.’
“On the very first pitch,” Bertman said, “he stole second” with a head-first slide.
Albert Belle (still “Joey” at the time) was named the Regional MVP, and his two two-RBI home runs help key the win against Tulane. He hit .429 with 9 RBI in the Regionals.
The trip to Omaha didn’t go quite as planned. LSU lost its opener 4-3 against Loyola Marymount before rebounding with an 8-4 win over Maine. This set up an elimination game with Miami. Despite the heroics of Belle, who hit 2 of LSU’s 3 home runs, LSU would fall, 4-3. Not quite two and Q, but LSU’s 1-2 finish in Omaha would be Skip’s worst until 1994.
The team failed to advance in Omaha in 1987 because Skip suspended his best player after an altercation in Starkville. Stanford’s Paul Carey hit a grand slam off of Ben McDonald in the 10th to give the Cardinal a 6-5 win. The media report from the time tells the tale about Belle:
Joey Belle, holder of almost every batting record at Louisiana State University, was suspended today from the baseball team, just two days before it begins competition in the National Collegiate Athletic Association regional playoffs.
An announcement from the school did not specify a reason for the ban, but it did mention the incident Sunday during the Southeastern Conference championship game when Belle had to be restrained as he chased a spectator after fans yelled racial taunts.
Belle, an outfielder from Shreveport, La., was batting .349 with 21 home runs and 66 runs batted in. In the Sunday game, play was delayed because Belle ran off the field after a Mississippi State fan and had to be restrained by teammates, umpires and campus security personnel.
In the recent ESPN documentary on Skip, he expressed regret over the decision. He explained he was trying to motivate Belle and the move completely backfired, as Belle instead walked off the team.
Skip would later leave Belle off of the USA Baseball team he coached, further straining the relationship between the two men, a strain which has never really healed. Belle has not been back to LSU and while he hasn’t been purged from the records or anything, he does not hold his rightful place as the best position player in LSU history, which he almost certainly is.
Belle’s college stats were certainly impressive. Known then as “Joey,” he led the Tigers to the 1986 College World Series, the first trip to Omaha for LSU, but was suspended for the 1987 CWS after going in the stands to confront a heckler spewing racial epithets. At LSU, Belle slammed 49 homers in 585 at-bats, had 172 RBI and a .332 batting average. Controversy likely kept the 6-foot-2, 225-pound specimen from being a first round choice. Belle was selected in round two by Cleveland in 1987. By 1989, he was starring in the big show.
The player generally recognized today as the best in baseball is Mike Trout of the Angels. Trout is a special talent, but his offensive numbers actually trail those of Belle at a similar stage of their careers.
The comparison actually is still favorable to Belle with updated numbers. In their first ten seasons, these are their hitting stats:
- Belle: 1237 games, 4684 AB, 321 HR, 1019 RBI, 296/368/577 148 OPS+
- Trout: 1199 games, 4340 AB, 285 HR, 752 RBI, 305/419/581 176 OPS+
Trout is widely considered one of the greatest players ever and in their first decade of pro ball, Belle displayed better power stats, even if he lags behind a bit on getting on base, baserunning, and defense. Still, Trout is an inner circle Hall of Famer and Belle’s first decade in the pros compares favorably to him.
Belle would suffer from a degenerative hip condition and would quickly tail off in production. He also continued to have a series of anger-management issues and PR blunders. That shouldn’t matter. Albert Belle is one of the greatest hitters to ever play baseball and it’s a travesty he’s not in the Hall of Fame.
He was that good. He is perhaps the most terrifying hitter I have ever watched. There have been better hitters, though not many, but none inspired such fear.
As for Skip, his resume would speak for itself:
In 18 seasons, Bertman led the Tigers to 16 NCAA Tournament appearances, five National Championships, and seven SEC Championships. He posted a final record of 870-330-3. He was named National Coach of the Year six times (1986, 1991, 1993, 1996, 1997, 2000) and SEC Coach of the Year seven times (1986, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1996, 1997).
Skip is the gold standard in all of college baseball. Lamabe was callously run off, and it was certainly done the wrong way, but it’s impossible to say Brodhead made the wrong call when it came to firing his coach and hiring Skip.
MEN’S HOOPS: Dale Brown (retained)
The one thing Brodhead did not touch was the men’s basketball program. Dale gave him no reason to. Well, maybe some reasons. Dale started a ten year stretch of tournament appearances in 1984, the year before the field finally expanded all the way to 64, but he also had a bad habit of laying an egg in the first round.
The 1983-84 team fell apart down the stretch, losing its final four games, including two postseason games. LSU lost in overtime to Alabama in the conference tourney then dropped its first round game to a lower seeded Dayton in Salt Lake City. The 1984-85 team was even more disappointing, as the Tigers won their final four regular season games to earn a #4 seed in the tournament. LSU would lose to Auburn in the the SECT then lose to #13 seed Navy by 20 points. Yeah, they had David Robinson but… come on.
The 1985 offseason was then an unmitigated disaster.
First, Jerry Reynolds left early for the NBA back when early entrants were still fairly rare. Reynolds was one of five juniors selected in the first round. Then, the long saga of Tito Horford came to its end with Dale Brown kicking the troubled center off of the team. Team captain Nikita Wilson plus Dennis Brown were suspended for the spring semester due to academic reasons. Oh, and backup center Zoran Jovanovich, now pressed into a likely starting role, tore up his knee in a pickup game and was out for the year. Five players gone, including three starters and every center on the roster.
Dale Brown, being Dale Brown, responded by moving Ricky Blanton, a guard charitably listed at 6’7”, to center. This would have been enough obstacles for any team, but then the fates added one final test: the chicken pox.
First Blanton got it briefly. Star sophomore forward John Williams of Los Angeles and backup freshman forward Bernard Woodside got the worst of it and were hospitalized for a week. The team was quarantined for a week, and Brown resorted to recruiting 6-7 Chris Carrier, a safety on the LSU football team from Eunice.
“The whole season was a test,” said Brown, who was 50 that season.
Brown somehow got the SEC to postpone a Jan. 25, national TV game at Auburn on NBC as Brown said he was down to only a handful of healthy players.
“I think coach may have used a red marker on some of the kids,” Bahnsen said.
The schedule change forced LSU to play four road games in five days, but Brown had his cause. After four straight valiant efforts in defeat at Florida, at home against No. 8 Kentucky by two, at Georgia and at No. 12 Georgetown by two, the Tigers won that game at Auburn by two. And LSU was off to five wins in seven games and the NCAA Tournament.
After losing six of eight games as the roster depleted in mid-January through early February, the Tigers finished 26-12 overall and 9-9 in the SEC.
“Coach Brown just channeled all of that into motivation,” Blanton said. “Each day, we were ready to go through a brick wall, he had us so jacked up.”
LSU eked into the field as an eleven seed, but by a quirk in NCAA rules, was permitted to host the first round games at the PMAC. The NCAA closed this loophole, largely due to the 1986 LSU team and also its move to more neutral sites.
Purdue took LSU to double overtime, but buoyed by a raucous home crowd, the Tigers managed to outlast the Boilermakers. Beating the sixth-seeded Boilermakers is one thing, but then came third-seeded Memphis St. Anthony Wilson hit a jumper at the buzzer to advance to the Sweet 16.
The secret to the success? Well, if you ask Brown, it was the team’s faith in one another, which is a very Dale Brown thing to say. The home crowd certainly helped. But so did the defense known as “The Freak”.
“One of the things was they had nothing to lose because nobody expected them to win or get there,” Brown said. “But as we rolled along, they were always on a high, smiling, there didn’t seem to be any pressure.”
The “Freak,” a constantly-switching series of zones, continued to wreak havoc and Blanton held his own against a series of future NBA players: Memphis State’s William Bedford, Georgia Tech’s John Salley, Kentucky’s Kenny Walker.
The first weekend was great, but that had the energy of the Tiger faithful behind it. That is not an advantage LSU would have in the second weekend, when midnight tends to strike for Cinderella. LSU would also have to face a loaded Georgia Tech starring Mike Price and John Salley, which had made the finals of the ACC Tournament, knocking out Len Bias and Maryland.
No problem. LSU had its “easiest” game of the tournament, a 6-point win. We have video!
This set up a rematch with LSU’s longtime tormentor on the hardwood, Kentucky. The Wildcats were the #1 seed in the region, SEC regular season and tourney champs, and owners of a 32-3 record.
They also owned three wins over LSU in 1986, two of them by three points or less. LSU could get close, but not over the hump. Well, they got over the hump in dramatic fashion.
Love. Food. Meditation. Neboisha Bukumirovich. A “freak” defense. A kid who drives a fertilizer truck. A frontal lobotomy. You name it, Dale Brown was prepared to try it if Louisiana State could beat Kentucky in a game of basketball, just once.
So, LSU threw everything but the locker-room sink at the Kentuckians Saturday at the Omni. And sure enough, LSU finally got the best of them, 59-57, after failing to do so three times previously this season, to take the NCAA Southeast Regional and qualify for the Final Four.
Sophomore center Ricky Blanton made a lay-up with 15 seconds remaining to put LSU ahead by four, and Kentucky, after cutting the difference to two, could do no more than get off a half-court heave by James Blackmon that clanked against the side of the rim.
Ricky Blanton’s layups is one of The Moments of LSU sports, when years of frustration turn into celebration. It’s Billy Cannon’s run, Warren Morris’ home run, and Ricky Blanton’s shot. These are those indelible moments which last forever.
Blanton running down the court, rolling his arms above his head in celebration is one of those images perfectly captured in my mind’s eye forever. It’s the joy of the moment that will never fade.
Ricky Blanton was named to the LSU All-Century Team on the power of that moment and that run. But his career didn’t end there.
As a senior in 1988-89, Blanton again served as team captain and led the Tigers to their sixth straight NCAA Tournament appearance. In two of the most memorable games in LSU history, Blanton played the role of hero scoring the game-winning layup to defeat #2 Georgetown in New Orleans and hitting a three-pointer with three seconds left to upset nationally ranked UNLV. Blanton started all 32 games and averaged 20.3 points and 8.2 rebounds per game and was named to the 1989 Coaches’ All-SEC team and the AP All-SEC team.
Blanton currently sits at 15th all-time in LSU history in scoring with 1,501 points and 14th in rebounding with 766. He is also ninth all-time in assists with 314. He was drafted in the second round of the 1989 NBA draft by the Phoenix Suns.
The dream died in the Final Four, as LSU fell to Pervis Ellison’s Louisville team by eleven. LSU would be the lowest seeded team (11) to make the Final Four until George Mason tied the mark in 2006.
The unfortunate postscript is that Don Redden would die of heart attack in 1988. Redden died on March 9, 1988, roughly two months after Pete Maravich was found dead of heart attack at the age of 40. Two Tiger legends, both gone far too young.
SO HOW DID IT GO WRONG?
The first job of any Athletic Director is to win. LSU won the Bernie Moore Trophy for best all-around Athletic Department four years in a row, starting in 1985-86.
But it’s not just that they won, it’s that they won because of hires made by Brodhead. He may not have done it in the nicest of ways, but he rebuilt the staff and he somehow nailed almost every hire, hiring multiple Hall of Famers.
Several of those coaches would follow Arnsparger out the door. But many would hang on through the next administration, winning multiple SEC and national titles, even as administrative support dwindled.
The second job of an AD is to make money, and Brodhead was a master at that, securing finances, finding new revenue streams, and simply getting more people to buy tickets thanks to all of the winning.
The thing he didn’t do was avoid scandal. And for that, we will pick up in the next installment. Because as much as there was happening on the playing field, there was just as much going on off of it.