Wednesday is Slip Bertram’s 74th birthday.
So everybody in the Regions Park stands at the 36th annual SEC baseball tourney, which opens today for the 15th straight year in Hoover, Ala., should sing “Happy Birthday” to ol’ Slip whether he’s at the ballpark or not.
Who in the wide, wide world of sports is Slip Bertram?
It’s a simple reminder of how a University of Miami assistant coach named J. Stanley “Skip” Bertman built a national championship program in 18 seasons as head coach at LSU that fueled the meteoric rise of a sport that had basically been dormant for five decades.
“When I first got to LSU,” Skip recalls with a laugh, “I’d have a fan yell at me during a game, `Hey Bertram, we’re one point down.’ I said, `They’re runs, not points and we’ll get some more.’
“Or another fan would scream, `Hey Slip, these referees suck.’ I said, `They’re umpires, not referees.’
“You see, all they knew at LSU was football.”
Some say it’s still that way at LSU and the rest of the SEC. That might not be hard to argue since the league has won six straight BCS national championships.
But since 1990, the national championship scoreboard is 10 for SEC football teams and nine for SEC baseball teams with a 10th possible with the postseason just starting on the diamond.
The difference between the two sports is SEC football has been good from the beginning of the league’s inception in 1933. SEC baseball seemed like it was played incognito in witness protection for 50 years until coaches like Skip and former legendary Mississippi State coach Ron Polk came along. They both proved economically viable national championship contending programs could be built in the heart of football country.
In baseball parlance, Polk was the leadoff hitter who had seven College World Series teams and 1,218 victories in 31 seasons at two SEC schools (29 years in two stints at State, two years at Georgia).
Skip, a six-time National Coach of the Year award winner, was the cleanup batter who from 1984 to 2001 won 830 games, five national championships in 11 trips to the College World Series and who still has the highest winning percentage in NCAA tournament history (.724).
During Skip’s LSU interview process before he was hired, he knew he would have an enormous challenge. He attended a Tigers’ baseball home game in a stadium built in 1938 that hadn’t had a great deal of work other than slapping on fresh coats of paint.
“There were wooden bleachers, no enclosed press box,” Skip recalls. “The public address system was so bad and so distorted that all you could hear was `Now batting No. blah, blah, blah.’ The crowd was so small that you could hear the players talk in the dugout.”
The situation wasn’t unique to LSU. Except for Misisssippi State, where Polk had been trying to drag SEC baseball in the modern ages since he was hired in 1976, baseball was regarded in the SEC as a budget-draining time-killer after spring football practice concluded.
Many of the conference members played in small, bandbox parks that were of mixture of dirt and splinters. Through the 1960s and 70s, schools often hired assistant football coaches as head baseball coach. LSU’s football equipment manager Jim Smith was head baseball coach and won a SEC title in 1975 and was also the league’s Coach of the Year.
Stop a moment and ponder what Smith accomplished. Could you see current Alabama athletic director Mal Moore inform head football coach Nick Saban that he also has to coach track?
You can stop laughing now.
But once upon a time in the SEC, that’s just the way it was until Polk, who refused to take “no” for an answer to any baseball-related legislation, and the detail-oriented Skip began tag-teaming the league’s athletic directors to pass legislation to promote the sport.
By Polk's fourth season, he had State in the College World Series. It wasn't too long before Dudy Noble Field, State's once-humble ballpark, grew to 6,700 seats in the late '80s and finally to 7,000 in 2000, when skyboxes were built.
Despite State’s success, it was a battle for Skip at LSU to get his athletic administration to believe that baseball could be a viable moneymaker, just like Mississippi State.
“My athletic director told me we couldn’t be like Mississippi State, because they drew fans from surrounding cities like Tupelo and Columbus and they stayed for the weekend,” Skip recalls. “Ron didn’t do any promotions for home games. All he did to attract a crowd was win.
“So it was a long time – at least by my standards – for athletic directors in the SEC to pick up on the fact they could make money from baseball.”
By Skip’s third season at LSU, his team won the SEC championship and made it to the College World Series for the first-time ever, finishing at 49-9.
By 1991, when LSU won its first national title under Skip, he had changed the culture of the sport in Baton Rouge.
Part of that, he said, was fortunate timing.
“We started winning at a time when our football team was losing, so that was a big boost,” Skip says.
But another reason why the program continued to build was Skip’s attention to detail that reached beyond the emerald diamond. It’s something he learned from his former boss Ron Fraser, the University of Miami’s head coach.
Fraser won 1,271 games, captured two national champions and had 12 teams qualify for the College World Series in his 30-year coaching career at Miami from 1963-1992.
Yet way beyond his coaching talent, Fraser became a marketing genius when the school cut his budget. He never met a microphone he didn’t like. No game promotion was too outlandish.
There were giveaways for everything from trips to Las Vegas (fans had to bring suitcases to the ballpark to leave immediately if they won) to a free heart procedure. Fraser staged bikini nights where females gained free admittance by wearing very little.
Fraser once held an 11-course, $5,000 a plate fundraising dinner featuring strolling violinists and goldfish swimming in free-form pools. And all of this taking place on the infield of Miami’s stadium.
There was also the time Fraser had a parachutist wearing a U of Miami uniform float in the stadium and deliver the game ball. It didn’t exactly work as planned when a tricky crosswind blew the chutist near U.S. Highway 1. When the chutist finally showed up at the stadium, Fraser said, “Tell him he’s got to pay his own way in.”
For eight seasons as Fraser’s assistant from 1976-83, Skip had a front-row seat watching Fraser serve as ringmaster of the Miami circus. Skip couldn’t have gotten a better education before he became LSU’s coach.
Because beyond Fraser’s wacky promotions, there were some non-negotiable points that Skip learned from Fraser that contributed to a program that LSU fans and the city of Baton Rouge could embrace.
Skip understood that recruiting great players who were even better kids went a long way with selling the program.
“Baseball players are nice kids,” Skip says. “They sign autographs, even after a loss. They are approachable, because they aren’t 6-11 or they don’t bench 500 pounds. They’re not oversized. They look like everybody’s else’s nephew.”
Skip was also cognizant of the fan experience.
“I wanted to make sure all the seats were wiped clean,” he says. “I wanted to make sure the hot drinks were hot, the cold drinks were cold and the hot dogs well-done. Little things mean a lot.”
Skip never minded sharing most of his marketing secrets and philosophies with fellow head coaches, particularly in the SEC. As far as Skip was concerned, it was one for all and all for one.
"When he played here in Columbia one year, he spent a lot of time with me and my coaching staff," says South Carolina coach Ray Tanner, whose Gamecocks are currently shooting for their third straight national championship. "He shared his thoughts on how to build a winning program, and he talked to my team and our booster club."
Until 1987, the SEC had never had more than one team appear in the College World Series. By 1990, in the league’s 58th year, the SEC had its first national champion in Georgia and LSU followed in 1991.
That success opened the floodgates for SEC baseball. Schools actually began marketing the sport. New stadiums were built and old ones were drastically updated. Since 1990, 10 of 12 SEC schools have played in the College World Series a total of 46 times, winning nine national titles and finishing runner-up four times.
Skip knew SEC baseball was on the right track when he received a call one day from then-Auburn athletic director David Housel.
“Auburn had built a new stadium and we were supposed to open the series on a Friday night,” Skip recalls. “David calls me and says, `The forecast says it’s going to rain Friday night. Would you mind if we moved the game to the afternoon?’
“I thought that was so cool. That was the first time anybody thought about rain or who your opponent was or what they should do with the game. We did play in the afternoon, there was a huge crowd and it did rain that night.”
Skip was just as gratified when former Arkansas athletic director Frank Broyles called him out of the blue to thank him. Broyles opened beautiful new Baum Stadium in 1996 and expanded it three times to the point that Arkansas led the nation in attendance in 2007.
“It was very classy for Frank to call and thank me,” Skip says. “Now, there are schools throughout this league that draw unbelievable attendance numbers, turn those numbers into grocery (concession) and souvenir dollars, turn those numbers into parking dollars and almost pay for their baseball programs.”
It shouldn’t have been a surprise that when Skip retired from coaching after the 2001 season and then served as LSU’s athletic director through 2007, the school gave him a three-year extension as athletic director emeritus. His last task was overseeing the construction of the school's new $34 million Alex Box Stadium that opened in February 2009.
The sweat, planning and fretting that Skip put into Alex Box shows. With its capacity now at 10,326, it may very well be the most sparkling jewel among all college baseball facilities.
Skip, of course, has a prime seat in the new Alex Box behind home plate. He doesn’t stay seated very much, preferring to roam the park to burn off nervousness while acting very much like the stadium’s host.
“What makes me most excited about the new park is that when somebody on the opposing team makes a great play,” Skip says, “like a Vanderbilt outfielder did a couple of weekends ago when he made a diving catch for a third out, all of our fans got to their feet and gave him an ovation.
“To me, that total evolution of where our program is now from where it was when I first got to LSU is very gratifying.”
Absolutely understandable, Slip.
I mean, Skip.
Sorry, Coach Bertram, uh Bertman.