Tiger Rag editor Matt Deville had the opportunity to sit down with LSU athletic director Skip Bertman on Tuesday afternoon. In that discussion, Bertman chatted about the last two minutes inside the LSU football program, the departure of Nick Saban, the hiring of Les Miles and the fallout that followed. Also, the fourth year AD discussed the major construction projects currently underway at LSU plus the success of women's sports, the future of the men's basketball program and an array of topics surrounding baseball, the life as an athletic director and welcoming a new chancellor to LSU.
Deville: How has the face of athletics changed in terms of economics in your 21 years at LSU?
Bertman: The reason it (college athletics) changed in the financial sense is gender equity. There isn't any question about it – Title IX. Before then, they didn't even have softball in those days. Now she is getting a new stadium before the baseball coach. The softball coach makes more money than I made after I had won two national championships. That is where the money is. Of course the second thing is the football and basketball coaches and baseball coach now and the upping of their salaries. I would say it mostly has to do with the salaries. Facilities have gotten better and people are putting millions of dollars into facilities, not just here but at all schools. We are just catching up.
Deville: When you speak of college athletics and paying a football coach $2.5 million or $3 million, do you find that almost absurd when just five years ago those salaries on the college were unheard of?
Bertman: This has been a quick move for football the last five years. Nick did some unusual things that I can't say that other coaches have done; some very unusual things. One was he hit the market at the right place; he was a winner at the right time at the right place. He was a great producer in terms of wins and losses. Remember, in the five year period he was here, nobody in the 113-year history ever did better than he did. And no one may ever do that well again. I don't care who you hire. He did an amazing job, especially where he came from when he started here, with the first team he had here. He is a great coach.
Deville: With what is going on in Major League baseball concerning the steroid scandal, do you think baseball can recover from the current problems or is the sport now tainted?
Bertman: I don't think this is close to the NFL canceling their season or the 1994 baseball walkout for baseball. I don't think it is even close. I think this is much more of a watershed event. I think people are now going to question more and more, for years they didn't want to, they really fought it, like about how Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa could do that (hit home runs). Then ultimately Barry Bonds and how he could do that (hit 73 home runs). Of course, personally, I think I knew and you knew, the owners knew, but everybody kept coming to the ball park because home runs are everything. They had the best attendance they had. In 1998, when Mark McGwire did that, it was the best year they ever had. Then Bonds comes right back and hits 73.
Now you have Bonds moving into the 600 range and into 700 and ultimately will pass Henry Aaron – it should be the greatest time in baseball history but it won't be. There will be incredible debates about asterisks and stuff like before your time when Roger Maris hit 61 in 162 games and the babe only had 156. As you know, the then commissioner puts the asterisk next to his name and then a later commissioner removes it. But at any case, it will be debated forever.
Deville: Do you think the damage can be repaired?
Bertman: No. In other words, there will be a pre steroid era and a post steroid era. They used to refer to it the live ball era and the dead ball era because people would win the home run title in the 1930s with 12 homers. But then the Babe hit more homers in one year – 60 – than the rest of the league combined. Then everybody said this home run thing is a cool thing. So then they made the ball tighter. Then, of course, everybody started to hit them.
But then you see guys that shouldn't be hitting them, then they start hitting 33, 35. Big strong guys are hitting 48. A couple of years ago, Luis Gonzalez hit 52 homers. Something is wrong. It can't be the ball, because they already did that. You have the tightest wound, hardest ball you can get. It can't be the bat because it is the same wood that comes from the center of the tree hat comes from the same company. It can only be being stronger and everybody is stronger. You have weight lifting, better food and better training conditions. Everyone is muscling up, getting bigger and stronger, so you have to give some due to Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa and Luis Gonzalez that hit well with home runs, but my gosh, the numbers are unscientific like. They don't jive and it is sad. I am not angry and I am not making any judgments, but it is just sad because it is an issue.
It is not the same for pitchers because they will be able to take Greg Maddux or in this case (Roger) Clemens and Randy Johnson and match their records against the Tom Seavers. It'll match up because there is not much the steroids can do to the pitchers because it is not like you can throw the ball faster just because you're stronger.
On the other hand, they might use them too, maybe I am wrong. But it is so much more obvious with the bats and the strength of the players.
Deville: Do you miss the game of baseball as a coach?
Bertman: As a coach, coaching for 40 years, you miss the players the most; you miss the players a lot. You talk to players every day. But I also miss the games that were close in the seventh inning and the excitement. But what I miss most is the fact that I don't get to talk much baseball. Nowadays, normally people don't ask me much about baseball anymore. Nobody comes up to me and asks, 'how is baseball?' A lot of times I have to go to the field to talk baseball or find the other coach that is coming in from another school to talk baseball. There is not a lot of baseball talk around here just the same as there is no gymnastics talk around here. Nobody talks Major League Baseball or Olympic Gymnastics.
Bertman: I speak to them, a little bit, not as much as I did when they started. They call and I call them back. I see the ADs of those schools all the time and they really like those guys a lot. That is nice, nice to have those guys out there. A lot of guys that coached with me are out there whether it is college or high school or somewhere, some junior college.
Deville: Do you find it as an advantage to be the athletic director that has been a coach and how important is that for a university compared to have a business man, number crunching type of guy?
Bertman: That is a question that has
come up as of late with Mike McGhee retiring at
Deville: It is only you and Frank
Bertman: That's right. There aren't many left since coach (Vince) Dooley left.
Deville: Have you had much interaction with the new chancellor?
Bertman: Not much. I met the chancellor twice and spent several hours with him and he is really a charming and intelligent wonderful person, but I haven't talked sports with him.
Deville: From what you can tell, is chancellor (Sean) O'Keefe is involved in sports like former chancellor Mark Emmert?
Bertman: No I don't think so.
Deville: That was a pretty unique situation with the way chancellor Emmert took such an active role in athletics.
Bertman: It was. Let me tell you, Emmert knew, he protected the athletic department because it was his cash cow. You see what I mean, he didn't really think it was anymore important than any other guy. But he knew it brought to him and the university, after the national championship the number of out of state students 42-percent. Is that a coincidence? There is no doubt hat had something to do with it. There was more money brought in. The school made more money and he knew that.
A lot of chancellors may know that, are afraid to get involved in athletics because they think that looks bad in the professors eyes. Mark was above that. He was just as good as an academic than any other chancellor, but he knew that football, as well as other sports, had some value to the university other than being extra curricular activities, like the band, student government and other organizations. Everyone knows those things are valuable, but there is nothing those things can do that can get a lot kids to focus their attention on LSU.
No matter how good the cheerleaders are at LSU, they could be the best, but if your football team is the best in the nation or your basketball team is the best in the nation, you have 20-to-30-to-40 million people watching your team on television. When they've seen you on television 10 or 15 times, the next thing you know they are on the Internet hitting your website because they like your colors or because something was said about your team. Next thing you know they are checking out the economics department or geography. That is how it works. It is the window by which people see through first to see LSU. They sports aren't the most important thing, of course it's not. The class room is the most important thing, but it is an extra curricular activity (football) that provides valuable benefits to the university.Mark (Emmert) recognized these things and understood them. The new chancellor might as well, I just don't know yet.