Before there was a dynasty, before there was a legend and before there were 10,000-plus-person home crowds, the doors to greatness had to be opened.
Looking back into the history of LSU baseball, there is one team in particular that displays the roots of this juggernaut. The 1986 team was the first squad in LSU history to make the elusive College World Series, triggering an impressive streak of 15 College World Series appearances and six championships in the following 25 years.
“I believe that we helped set the foundation,” catcher Rob Leary said. “We had a joke that we literally laid the foundation for LSU. We were painting the clubhouse, raking the infield dirt after practice and doing all those things that you have to do to establish a winning program. I’ve been in professional baseball for 26 years, and I take a lot of pride that I was there at the beginning.”
Skip Bertman was in his third year of coaching at LSU after being hired from the University of Miami in 1984. He would go on to be named the National Coach of the Year six times – firstly in 1986.
“Skip was very big on family and making sure that things were done right,” outfielder Jack Voigt said. “Still to this day I use a lot of Skip’s teachings not just as a player professionally, but as a coach professionally.”
Following the 1986 season, Bertman had the tools to begin transitioning the program into the powerhouse it is today.
“I remember when Coach Bertman had coaching clinics for the local kids,” outfielder Mike Papajohn said. “When those kids are young and see us going to the College World Series and when those kids are college-aged, they would come to LSU. When you look at our roster, we had guys from California, Alabama and all over. Now if you look at the program, most of the players are from Louisiana. He got the kids thinking about the College World Series in their dreams.”
In 1985, LSU had the 14th highest total attendance in the country of 40,762. Following 1986 College World Series appearance, those numbers rose drastically. During Bertman’s last six seasons as head coach for the Tigers from 1996-2001, Alex Box Stadium averaged the highest national attendance every season.
“I can’t remember the exact numbers, but I remember having nice crowds,” infielder Andy Galy said. “As we continued to win the crowds continued to swell. By my senior year, having crowds of five or six-thousand people on the weekend was normal. From the time I was a freshman until the time I graduated in 1988, the crowds continued to get bigger and bigger.”
The Tigers posted a 55-14 (22-5 SEC) record en route to SEC regular-season and tournament championships. The 1986 team posted the highest SEC winning percentage in the Skip Bertman era. The team went on to set or tie 33 individual and team records.
Junior and senior veteran players such as co-captains Leary and Jeff Reboulet, sluggers Jeff Yurtin, Jim Bowie and Albert Belle and pitchers Stan Loewer, Mark Guthrie and Barry Manuel, led the team.
“We had tremendous players talent-wise, and we had guys that didn’t have great talent but had great work ethic,” Reboulet, the Tigers’ shortstop, said. “When you focus in on a goal you start to work for it. We didn’t have guys that were afraid to work for it. We wanted to go out, win games, achieve our goal of making the College World Series and seeing what happened when we got there.”
The Tigers earned a berth in the College World Series after winning the NCAA South I Regional against a field of Tulane, Oklahoma, Louisiana Tech, Eastern Kentucky and Jackson State. The final game of the regional was a 7-6 win against Tulane in a game that was delayed by rain.
“We were late in the game, and it was tied,” Leary said. “It was nasty weather. I just remember we wanted so badly to finish what we started that night. Mother Nature said we couldn’t do it. It was tough to go to sleep and think that we’re going to come back for just an inning and a half. We had to resume the game in the next morning. Jeff Reboulet came up with the bases loaded and hit a ball down the third base line. He beat the throw to first base, and that gave us the go-ahead run. We went on to close it out in the ninth. Fortunately, everything went in our favor.”
The Tigers’ run in the College World Series saw the team finish 1-2, with both losses by only one run. Their first game was a loss to Loyola Marymount 4-3. LSU proceeded to eliminate Maine in its second game, 8-4. The third and final game was a 4-3 loss to Miami.
“I was the first batter in the first game of the College World Series,” Papajohn said. “I remember looking at all of the ESPN signs and thinking about all of my friends and family who were able to watch me back home. What a big stage it was. I thought a lot about my high school coaches, my little league and the people who helped me along the road.”
Despite the Tigers’ on-the-field prowess, what made the 1986 team special was its personal relationships off the field.
“I think the difference was back then we were not the blue-chip type players that LSU gets today,” Guthrie, a pitcher, said. “There were some wonderful guys and we were like a fraternity. It was a unique situation where it all clicked. Great personalities meshed together that created things that can never be repeated. We enjoyed our college years to the fullest.”
The players today are lifelong friends, still associated with LSU or the greater Baton Rouge area and some are even business partners. The group includes players who played professionally, coached professionally and even a Hollywood actor (Papajohn). They all agree on one thing: Skip Bertman had a profound effect on their lives.
“By the time we left we could see the foundation being set in place,” Guthrie said. “Everyone when they left would agree that there wasn’t a better coach in the country than Coach Bertman. I remember when I was leaving I thought to myself that if Skip ever became athletic director then LSU would never lose a game. That is the confidence that we had in him.”