It may not have been “Mama” calling him home like it was for Bear Bryant, but a phone call from his alma mater more than three decades ago brought Doug Ireland to the place he calls home.
Standing in the center of the 24,000-square foot edifice he poured his heart and soul into helping become a reality, Ireland finally took center stage during a Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame press conference to speak about himself instead of simply interviewing others.
“I wouldn’t have come back to anywhere else,” said Ireland, one of three Distinguished Service Award in Sports Journalism honorees announced Thursday during the Class of 2021 Hall of Fame induction news conference. “I worked at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette when it was USL from (19)82 to 85 with Hall of Famer Dan McDonald. That was a wonderful experience, and I loved what I was doing but wound up in the sports writing business and loved what I was doing there.
“I couldn’t imagine going anywhere until Northwestern called. I always thought I was going to go up the ladder as a sports writer and had some great experiences – covered some great games and some Hall of Famers – but Northwestern called. That’s home. Natchitoches already had my heart. They had me at hello.”
Typically, it’s Ireland who offers the initial “hello” from the Hall of Fame to its newest inductees, serving as the Hall’s chairman. He then emcees the annual news conference that airs live on Cox Sports Television.
Ireland, who spent more than 30 years as the sports information director and an assistant athletic director at Northwestern State, pulled double duty this time as the Hall inducted its second class in two months after the Class of 2020’s induction was postponed a year by the COVID-19 pandemic.
As one of the driving forces behind the physical creation of the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and Northwest Louisiana History Museum that anchors the north end of downtown Natchitoches, Ireland saw his share of delays. The proverbial wait was worth it, however, for Ireland when the museum thrust open its doors in 2013 with a larger-than-life induction class headlined by Shaquille O’Neal, who dubbed the town “Shaqitoches.”
“No,” Ireland emphatically stated when asked whether he doubted the project would reach completion. “The greatness of the institution is so profound. You go all the way back to the first induction class in 1958 and the heroes, the legends, the stories. That transcends any region of the state. From Ida on the Arkansas border to Grand Isle, from Lake Providence to Lake Charles, there’s Louisiana sports history that anchors the state. Fortunately, governmental leaders and politicians all the way up to the governor’s office – certainly the lieutenant governors – they all understood that. That’s what kept us going.
“The building was far more than we dared to dream. To see it come to fruition was incredibly gratifying. Most of all, to have Hall of Famers who had been inducted – some for many years, some in their later years – to be moved by that experience and to be able to walk through here was pretty good stuff. Shelia Thompson-Johnson, who was our first girls All-American basketball player and later a player and athletic director at Louisiana College, she came and hug me and cried.”
Befitting his reputation as a storyteller and someone who shined a light on others for close to four decades, Ireland continued to talk about others on a day where he was honored. Even as fellow Louisiana Sports Hall of Famer Kent Lowe asked him about his career, invariably Ireland turned it around to focus on someone beside himself.
“It’s really incomprehensible,” he said. “I’m here on the shoulders of so many people who have been my teammates, my colleagues, my mentors – from the Northwestern and sports information perspective, the sports journalism perspective and from the Hall of Fame perspective. This is the people’s sports temple in Louisiana. Our state leaders from 2000 forward, for the past 21 years, have been so supportive of recognizing how important sports are in this state and how much a part of the true culture and heartbeat of the state sports are. It is a mass of people who have allowed me to receive this accolade, and I’m absolutely blown away by the reality of it.”