This is a true story. Trouble is, Skip Bertman is afraid that the
more you know about the beginning of his journey at LSU, the
harder it will be for you to believe the ending. So each time he
drags on his ever-present cigar and launches into another
anecdote, he prefaces it with the disclaimer, "This is a true
The man has his reasons. After all, his 18-year reign as LSU's
baseball coach is pretty improbable. More than that, though,
Bertman can't resist saying that he knew exactly what was going
to happen. He saw the whole thing ahead of time. All 11 trips to
the College World Series in Omaha and all five NCAA
He'll recall a sultry August morning in 1983, his first day on
the LSU campus as coach, when he and his assistant, Ray (Smoke)
Laval, set up a pair of folding chairs on the pitcher's mound
inside LSU's then decrepit Alex Box Stadium and brainstormed "The
Big 60," a list of five dozen jobs that needed doing just to
begin rehabbing LSU's lackluster program. Skip told Smoke they
were laying the foundation for a college baseball dynasty.
Bertman said he envisioned 400 gold seats for Tigers
season-ticket holders--at a time when LSU was lucky to draw 100
fans per game--and saw poles behind the outfield wall for all the
national championship flags that would be won by a team that had
never played in the College World Series.
Almost two decades later, in his final season as the Tigers'
baseball coach, the 63-year-old Bertman sits in his office and
detects a hint of doubt in a visitor as he tells the story. So he
dispatches a team manager to the Bertman home, and minutes later
he's handing over the evidence, two laminated pages featuring 60
items with lines scratched through them. True story.
Smoke will tell you flat out that he thought his boss was
"loony." Some of Bertman's current players admit that, at first
blush, this visualization stuff sounded to them like the hokum
you see on a late-night infomercial. Then, damned if they don't
lapse into a trance and swear they can really see a bunt single
in their next at bat or the skyline of Omaha this June.
How else to explain the LSU phenomenon? In this era of
NCAA-legislated parity, when no other school has won more than
one College World Series in the last 13 years, Bertman's Tigers
have won half of the last 10--in 1991, '93, '96, '97 and 2000.
This weekend the Tigers, who finished the regular season with a
37-18-1 record, will begin NCAA tournament play by hosting one of
the 16 regionals. Bertman's credo, posted on the wall of LSU's
team room, is: ANYTHING YOU VIVIDLY IMAGINE, ARDENTLY DESIRE,
SINCERELY BELIEVE AND ENTHUSIASTICALLY ACT UPON MUST, ABSOLUTELY
MUST COME TO PASS.
How could this man not believe in destiny? J. Stanley Bertman was
dubbed Skip as an infant for reasons nobody remembers and grew up
with the sole goal of becoming a baseball coach. At age 14 he was
coaching 12-year-old Little Leaguers, and at 24, in 1962, he got
the coaching job at his alma mater, Miami Beach High. Soon
afterward Bertman told his father, Louis, an immigrant from
Estonia, that he aspired to manage the Hi-Tides to a state title.
"You can do it," Louis said. "You've got to see it, and you'll
get there. Pack your bags."
True story: When the Hi-Tides reached the state playoffs in 1970,
Bertman instructed his players to practice carrying him off the
field on their shoulders so they could "feel" the championship.
They won it a week later. In 1983, despite the need to support a
wife and four daughters, Skip took almost a 50% pay cut to leave
his job as a University of Miami assistant and go to Baton Rouge,
where he earned $30,000 and took over a program with a 146-149
record in its six previous seasons.
His first season Bertman held open tryouts for players and
informed the survivors that they were the start of something
great. "I told them we're eventually going to Omaha and play for
the national championship," he recalls. "The reaction was, 'Hey,
this coach is all right. He's on drugs like we are.' They had no
vision. They were mired in mediocrity and loving it."
Aside from Albert Belle and Ben McDonald, Bertman hasn't been
blessed with overwhelming talent. Although 10 former LSU players
are on major league rosters, five of the 10 Tigers who played in
the 1996 title game were walk-ons. Bertman bombards his players
with fundamentals, proctoring a preseason quiz that includes 69
questions on baserunning alone. He was a catcher in his college
days at Miami, and he still calls every pitch from the dugout,
plays the percentages and stacks his deck by studying everything
he can about his sport. He has observed, for instance, that 82%
of the time when a pitcher makes at least two consecutive throws
to first base he'll throw a ball on the next pitch. He once
climaxed an argument with an umpire by saying, "You can't throw
me out--I'm a legend." (He got tossed.)
"Coach makes you feel like you have an edge before the game
starts," junior shortstop Ryan Theriot says. "He's watched so
much baseball that he knows exactly when to pitch out, when to
hit-and-run, even when a guy's going to ground out to third. It's
like he has ESP."
True story: While Bertman has averaged 48 wins in each of his 18
seasons and produced the sport's best alltime NCAA tournament
winning percentage (.766), the Tigers' baseball booster club has
grown from 11 members to more than 500. LSU is leading the nation
in attendance for the sixth consecutive season, with 7,469 fans
per home game, many clad in T-shirts that read GEAUX TIGERS. So
many fans travel the 800 miles from LSU to Omaha for the World
Series each spring that gumbo is now on the menu at Rosenblatt
"Skip is like Walt Disney when he visualized Mickey Mouse and the
Magic Kingdom," says Laval, who will succeed Bertman as the
Tigers' coach. "No matter what you dream, he'll always say to
make it bigger, longer, higher."
These days LSU baseball is more popular in Baton Rouge than
basketball and trails only football. It's a testament to
Bertman's charisma that come season's end he will become the
school's athletic director. He is one of the few former baseball
coaches in the country who have been promoted to AD at a major
university. Bertman originally balked at the job, but after LSU
chancellor Mark Emmert conducted a six-month national search to
replace retiring athletic director Joe Dean, he met again with
Bertman in January and persuaded him to accept the position. "I
was looking for a great mentor, spokesman and fund-raiser with
credibility around the state, and nobody else compared to Skip,"
says Emmert, who has hired former American University athetic
director Dan Radakovich as Bertman's assistant in charge of the
Bertman has signed a three-year contract, after which he will
decide whether to continue as AD or become a full-time Tigers
baseball fan. "The toughest part of retiring as coach is leaving
my players, because they're like the sons I never had," Bertman
says. "But I'm the luckiest guy I know. That's a true story."
Bertman is puffing his stogie and visualizing one last June visit
to his spring home in Omaha: Rosenblatt Stadium. His bags are
packed. It's nearly time to geaux.
COLOR PHOTO: RICK OLIVIER "You can't throw me out," Bertman (at LSU's stadium) once told an umpire. "I'm a legend."
"Coach makes you feel like you have an edge before the game
starts," says Theriot.