Gold Standard: The Age of the Tigers

Henry BallSenior Analyst IJune 9, 2009

12 Jun 2000:  Head Coach Skip Bertman #15 of the Louisiana State Tigers talks to a referee during the College World Series Game against the Texas Longhorns at Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Nebraska.  The Tigers defeated the Longhorns 13-5.Mandatory Credit: Andy Lyons  /Allsport

As stocks and bonds continue to experience generationally unprecedented volatility, investors and would be retirees are looking to gold as their shelter from the economic storm. 

Why? because Gold is a precious metal that has held value for all of recorded human history and when national currencies can’t be depended on the Gold Standard shines as bright as the stadium lights in Death Valley on a Saturday Night. 

In college Athletics, LSU is setting the Gold standard on an unprecedented level. From Track & Field, to women’s Basketball, Softball, Baseball, Golf, Men’s Basketball and virtually every other sport that the Tigers compete in LSU is competitive at the Championship level.

The opportunity for LSU to be a dominate athletic program has existed almost as long as the university has fielded athletic teams. All the way back in 1908 Edgar Wingard led Doc Fenton and the Tiger's football team to an undefeated season, their second conference (SIAA) championship and the School’s first (unofficial) national championship. 

Louisiana has been crazy about the Tigers ever since. In the 1930’s LSU won championships in baseball, basketball, football, track and field and golf. In the late 1950’s the Football Team gave Tiger Fans a taste of what a dominate program would look like. 

For a generation Tiger fans anxiously waited for 1959 to come, LSU was ranked No. 1 to start the year and the odds on favorite to repeat after the 1958 National Championship.  They fell short and it would be 45 years before Tiger Fans could again cheer for a (Football) National Champion.

Today much is made of the success on the Football field, and I must confess my own fandom is 80 percent football and 20 percent whatever Tiger Team is playing today. 

I submit, however, that the foundation for LSU’s current success and the entry into the Golden Age of Tiger Athletics began with the Baseball team and Legendary Coach Skip Bertman in 1984. 

While leading the Tigers to 16 CWS and winning 5 National Championships Bertman raised the bar at LSU. At the same time, Sue Gunter was building a powerhouse program and hall of fame legacy in Women’s Basketball. 

The Dale Brown era in Men’s Basketball produced a couple of deep runs in the tournament and brought in the likes of Chris Jackson and Shaquille. In the early 90’s Curley Hallman was hired with high expectations and failed miserably so Joe Dean, then Athletic Director brought in Gerry DiNardo to try and get the football program going in the right direction. 

Thus ‘began’ football’s Golden era. DiNardo, for the first time in ages, took advantage of LSUs natural resources. As Louisiana’s flag ship University and only nationally important program, LSU has an unfair advantage in recruiting in one of the most competitive high school states in the country. 

DiNardo was successful in bringing LSU out of the wilderness after 7 straight losing seasons and ended LSU’s Bowl misfortunes.  LSU had only won 2 bowl games since 1972 (2-9) but won 3 in a row under DiNardo and has only lost 2 (10-2) since.  However, DiNardo faltered due in large part to some untimely injuries to (a lot of) key players and posted 4 wins in 98 and 3 wins in 99.  LSU fan’s demanded more.

Enter the Dragon. Nick Saban became the 31st Head Football Coach in Tiger history in November of 1999. During his first couple of years at LSU he and the afore mentioned Skip Bertman, who became AD in 2001, committed the LSU Football and entire Athletic program to being a top five program annually and they delivered! 

After helping set in motion many of the projects that rank LSU’s athletic facilities among the very best in the nation, Nick Saban brought the Tigers to a new level of success on the field. 

In his second year, he lead them to the SEC Championship game as a heavy underdog to top ranked Tennessee, who just needed to beat the lower ranked Tigers to play for the National Title, UT’s championship dreams were dashed, sorry Phil. 

Two years later, it was 1959 (2003) and Tiger Fans got their 2nd National Championship!

The true testament however to LSU’s power as a program is the ability to replace Great Coaches and ADs without missing a beat. Sue Gunter became ill, eventually retired and later passed away leaving a legacy that included taking the Lady Tigers to the NCAAs 14 times and to the Elite 8 twice with one appearance in the Final Four. 

She was replaced by Pokey Chatman who continued the winning ways by leading the Lady Tigers to 3 straight final fours. When Chatman was forced out due to an improper relationship with a player she was replaced by another hall of fame coach in Van Chancellor, the winning continues! 

Likewise, when Skip Bertman retired, Smoke Laval, faced with replacing a legend put in a yeoman’s effort skippering the Baseball team but good is no longer good enough so enter Paul Mainieri. He has the tigers back in the CWS for the second year in a row and is looking VERY much like a contender. (We’ll see how that ends.)

Then we have the football team; Nick Saban decided to bring his totalitarian style to the NFL after the 2004 Season and many a Tiger Fan wondered would the winning ways continue?  Skip went out and hired this guy that most of us had never heard of, Les Miles. 

He barely had a decent record at OSU but seemed to do well in big games with back to back beatings of OU. We had our doubts. In the off season he picked up a few recruits and kept most of our home grown talent, despite the fact that the state was down that year. 

He did have a late start but no one thought much of his recruiting efforts.  There was, however, much anticipation and trepidation leading up to the season. Then Katrina.

By all accounts, Les Miles was a stalwart for the team and he encouraged them to take care of family, friends and neighbors. They did, and in spite of the hardships, some critical of Miles said that team underachieved. 

From a humanitarian, leadership and spirited standpoint those critics seemed petty. LSU abruptly ended its preparations for the season and contributed to the relief effort.  Many students had to bring their entire families into their dorm rooms as some were suddenly homeless. 

Tiger Stadium became a relief center and the Tigers early season Schedule was decimated, leading to their first home game being played in the Arizona desert. 

But the Tigers then gave Louisianans some much needed diversion and something to cheer for as Miles led the Tigers to an 11-2 record while winning the SEC West and pounding a top 10 Miami team in the Peach Bowl. 

The Les Miles era and the third chapter of football’s golden age was well underway. A few top 5 recruiting classes, 2 SEC West crowns, an SEC Title and a National Championship later and it is clear that the man who is currently the winningest coach (by percentage) in school history was indeed the right man to replace Coach Saban.

As Coach Mainieri and the Baseball team go after a 6th National Championship and as the summer burns away leading to what promises to be another exciting and competitive football season, know that all is well in Baton Rouge, the Golden years are just getting started and our future is so bright we gotta wear shades!