Bertman: 'It's the most intense time of my life'
Tuesday, September 20, 2005 - 6:30 p.m.
By Jim Kleinpeter
BATON ROUGE – As the humidity-soaked days of summer grinded onward toward the start of LSU’s football season, the No. 1 topic among fans was the most physically visible.
Would the renovations on Tiger Stadium’s west upper deck be finished in time for the season?
Athletic director Skip Bertman’s stock answer throughout was that barring a hurricane, the section would be habitable and every Tiger ticket-holder would have a seat this season.
The statement turned out to be more ironic than prophetic.
The hurricane - the infamous Katrina - did come, precipitating the largest natural disaster in U.S. history on New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. Seemingly everything at LSU but the stadium renovation – still close to, if not right on schedule – was turned topsy-turvy in Bertman’s world.
Two consecutive weeks he had to disappoint LSU fans by postponing the season opener and relocating the second home game. And in the grander scheme, the life-and-death matters, he watched his physical plant be turned into ground zero for the relief effort.
His long workdays suddenly revolved around daily morning and afternoon meetings with Chancellor Sean O’Keefe and various other university officials and relief agencies such as FEMA. Events were in a constant state of flux and decisions were being made in rapid-fire order. Nearly every sport under his auspices was affected, displaced or delayed in some manner.
Now that the stress on LSU has eased somewhat, Bertman said what the school and athletic department accomplished in its role gives him a feeling of satisfaction and pride.
“I have never been more proud of the people in the athletic department and LSU in general,” Bertman said. “(These kinds of tragedies) bring out the best and worst in people. But here at LSU I didn’t see any bad things. I didn’t see anyone who wasn’t willing to help.
“It was the most intense time I’ve ever had in my life, the most serious. I worked real hard coaching the 1996 Olympic baseball team. That was physically hard. This was much more intense and much more important.
“It’s different from Jim (Miller) at UNO and Rick (Dickson) at Tulane. First, they had to get a house and get to safety; they had to find a place for the teams. I can’t relate to that. It must be awful for them.”
Almost as quickly as the hurricane had hit and the tragedy and destructiveness of the aftermath become apparent, LSU was springing into action. The Pete Maravich Assembly Center had been predetermined as a refugee site and quickly became “the largest triage site in the history of America,” Bertman said, with 30,000 people coming through. The underground practice court became a temporary morgue and the Carl Maddox Field House a 500-bed hospital. Ambulances raced into and out of the campus while helicopters of all shapes and sizes ferried in evacuees, using Bernie Moore Track Stadium as a helipad. Alex Box Stadium was a dropoff point for evacuees, who were then bused to the Baton Rouge River Center.
Once the sites were determined, the relief effort needed able hands. About 3,000 student volunteers, many of them athletes and other athletic department personnel aided the dozens of doctors and nurses from across the country tending to the injured and sick while seeing things they’d never see.
“Every agency that came in here said LSU really stepped up to the plate,” said Jim Fernandez, vice provost of academic affairs. “At no time was there ever a standoff or stoppage. Everybody in the athletic department did what they had to do.”
Sports information student worker Bill Martin volunteered in triage and watched a man die. He then wrote about it in a poignant e-mail that made its way around the country. Videographer Doug Aucoin
worked his usual 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. shift before volunteering at the Field House until 4:30 a.m. one morning. Equipment manager Greg Stringfellow stayed past midnight to wash donated clothing for the refugees. Head trainer Jack Marucci cleaned out his medical supply cabinet and donated what he could. PMAC manager Dwight Johnson rounded up cots, mattresses, blood, IVs, telephones and whatever the emergency workers and security people needed. Football players visited with and comforted the sick and injured, gaining a new cadre of fans.
Bertman never said a word about volunteering.
“It just happened,” associate athletic director Herb Vincent said. “People saw it and knew they had to help because they were in the middle of it. These are people that work long hours anyway and took it upon themselves to work some more.”
Said Bertman: “One of the FEMA people said in his 25 years of experience he’d never seen anything better.”
Coaches understood. Bertman held a meeting of all coaches explaining the situation and that some would be unable to
use their facilities.
He didn’t get one question from them asking ‘When will I be able to get back into my facility?’ or ‘How long is this going to take?’
With the area around the PMAC buzzing like a beehive, it was apparent the first football game against North Texas couldn’t be played on Sept. 3 in Tiger Stadium. That game was postponed and later rescheduled for Oct. 29.
With hotel space nonexistent because of the evacuees and emergency workers, LSU made the decision on Sept. 6 to move the Arizona State game, set for Sept. 10, from Baton Rouge to Tempe, Ariz. It not only made it a tougher game to win but cost LSU $2.5 million.
“That just wasn’t an issue,” Bertman said.
Twice in a row was a tough one for LSU fans to swallow, though Vincent said most of the e-mail contacts they received supported the decision. Bertman said it was the toughest one the school had to make, and one that was made by the school as a whole and with its best interests at heart.
“This is bigger than an athletic department,” he said. “No AD wants his football coach to play the opener on the road when it’s supposed to be at home, especially when he’s a new coach. We tried to play the game in the worst way and bumped into amazingly enough only one untenable obstacle. And that was no hotel rooms in a 200-mile radius around Baton Rouge, even in Shreveport. College football teams need 105 rooms and a full-service hotel.
“By gameday things had settled down at the PMAC, but at the time we had to make the decision, the hospital was still here and we didn’t want to a huge traffic tie up with helicopters and ambulances still trying to get in.”
Bertman absorbed some criticism from anxious LSU fans, including one who e-mailed that LSU was a “university and not a hospital.”
The result of the game brought an unparalleled sense of relief.
“I was emotionally invested in this game more than any game I’ve been involved in,” Bertman said. “I wanted this game for the fans, for the players, for (head coach) Les Miles. Other than the national championship game, I can’t remember being this emotionally involved.”
There is still much unemotional involvement left for Bertman. Hotels will be tricky for visiting teams for the rest of the season, though residents are slowly filtering back to the New Orleans metro area. The Tennessee football team may have to arrive in Baton Rouge on game day and fly out that night for the Sept. 24 game.
LSU is set to play host to four Saints games, while officials from the Hornets, the Sugar Bowl and the high school state championship games are negotiating with LSU about using school’s facilities.
“The only ones I haven’t heard from are the Zephyrs,” Bertman chuckled.
“I didn’t do anything personally except take my daughters (from New Orleans) in as evacuees. I watched people in our department spring forward and do some wonderful, great things. I was really proud of LSU and Louisiana.”