Pierce left lasting impact on Demon athletics

Even as Jerry Pierce’s titles changed and his duties increased, he remained a constant presence around Northwestern State athletics.

Pierce, who served NSU in various leadership capacities inside and outside athletics, died Tuesday at age 83 after a brief illness. He had served as executive vice president for the past year, assisting Dr. Marcus Jones, the ninth Northwestern president that benefitted from Pierce’s skills and knowledge.

Visitation will be from 5-8 p.m. Friday with a 2 p.m. funeral service Saturday at First Baptist Church in Natchitoches, located at 508 2nd Street.

Having spent the final 32-plus years of his distinguished Northwestern State career as the university’s vice president of external affairs, Pierce’s impact on athletics at his alma mater stayed visible.

“This is a major loss to the institution as well as to Northwestern State athletics,” Jones said. “Jerry has been a part of the fabric of the institution since the mid-60s and has done so much to further the institution and athletics in particular. His impact in the political landscape, higher education and athletics is something rare, and it will be missed.”

Pierce’s affiliation with Northwestern State athletics dated to his undergraduate tenure at the university. A Springhill native, Pierce served as a manager/trainer under legendary NSU football coach Jack Clayton before graduating with a journalism degree in 1961. Including his undergraduate tenure, Pierce was an integral part of Northwestern State Athletics for 61 years, far surpassing any other tenure within the department.

After a four-year stint as the assistant state editor, assistant layout editor and eventually the executive sports editor at the New Orleans Times Picayune, Pierce returned to Natchitoches in September 1965 and began a 57-year career at his alma mater.

Upon his return to Natchitoches, Pierce spent two years as the university’s sports information director, re-establishing his deep athletic ties to NSU and the state. He quickly moved up the university’s administrative ladder, remaining involved in athletics with oversight and management roles that grew in stature.

From his return to campus in 1965 until Tuesday, Pierce’s imprint and impact on Northwestern State athletics was never-ending.

“NSU has lost one of the most enduring and engaging figures in its 138-year history,” said former NSU Director of Athletics Greg Burke, who led the department for more than 25 years while reporting to Pierce. “Jerry was many things to many people – faculty member, administrator, mentor, orator, writer, arbitrator, leader, confidante, humorist, family man and most importantly, a friend. His influence over the years was evident through success in so many areas vital to the mission of the university, including fund-raising, athletics and alumni relations to name a few. His passing leaves an irreplaceable void at his beloved alma mater.”

The combination of Pierce and Burke oversaw arguably the most successful quarter-century run in Northwestern State athletics.

The Pierce-Burke partnership produced 107 NCAA postseason individual competitors, 94 national awards honoring academic and athletic success, 25 NCAA postseason appearances, 25 Southland Conference championships and 20 Southland Conference Tournament championships.

His influence spread across the landscape of the Southland Conference once NSU entered the league.

“Mr. Pierce was a tremendous asset and a go-to for anything I needed insight on within the UL System or that was percolating in the legislature or anywhere on the Louisiana political scene,” said former Southland Conference Commissioner Tom Burnett, who served in that role from 2002 until earlier this year. “Jerry was always connected and beneficial to myself, certainly. He helped me make some decisions in my role as commissioner in a way that helped the conference. It is a huge loss.

“I don’t know that we will ever see anyone like him again in that role. We are all better for having known him and for working with him.”

During his tenure as an NSU administrator, Pierce’s employee tree stretched high and wide. Among those whose administrative careers brought them to Natchitoches are current Auburn Director of Athletics John Cohen and Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey.

Cohen got his head coaching start with the NSU baseball program while Sankey spent two-and-a-half years (1989-91) in a variety of roles at Northwestern State. Sankey began his NSU career as an administrative intern and head golf coach and later became NSU’s first director of compliance and academic services.

“Jerry was an important contributor for decades at Northwestern State,” Sankey said in a statement. “I enjoyed my relationship with him and admired his longtime service, commitment and dedication to the university. Jerry will be missed but certainly will be long remembered.”

While remaining a presence around and in the operation of Northwestern State athletics was part of his job description, Pierce’s passion for athletics literally was on display in Prather Coliseum for years.

Pierce, often cited as the father of the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, was responsible for the creation of the Hall of Fame display in Prather Coliseum in 1972. He was chairman of the LSHOF from 1971-90, when he was promoted from assistant to the president to vice president of external affairs at NSU.

While those artifacts moved to the palatial Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and Northwest Louisiana History Museum in downtown Natchitoches in 2013, Pierce’s contributions did not go unnoticed.

In June, Pierce was honored during the 50th anniversary of the Hall’s time in Natchitoches, receiving a standing ovation from the capacity crowd at the Natchitoches Events Center. It was a fitting tribute for a man who was named one of 20 athletic administrators and coaches named as “Who’s Who In Louisiana Sports” by the Times-Picayune in 1993, standing alongside New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson, LSU director of athletics Joe Dean, then-LSU basketball coach Dale Brown and legendary Grambling football coach Eddie Robinson.

“It did not take long after arriving in Natchitoches for me to see what Jerry Pierce meant to Northwestern State University and its athletic program,” current NSU Director of Athletics Kevin Bostian said. “The same can be said for what he meant to Natchitoches and to the state of Louisiana as a whole. His impact was indelible and the legacy he left will be felt for many generations.”

During his nearly six-decade-long NSU tenure, Pierce helped generations of Northwestern State student-athletes and was a key part of many milestone moments, including helping NSU become the first Louisiana institution to offer women full athletic scholarships in 1975 and paving the way for the NSU athletic program attain Division I membership two years later.

Pierce earned inclusion in the N-Club Hall of Fame as he was presented the N-Club Leadership Award in 2018.

The award was fitting, given Pierce’s reputation across campus and the Natchitoches community.

“I would not have been athletic director at Northwestern State if it weren’t for Jerry Pierce,” said Tynes Hildebrand, a former Demon basketball coach who was NSU’s director of athletics from 1983-96. “He went to (NSU President) Dr. (Joseph) Orze and said, ‘A.L. Williams is leaving the AD/head football coach position to go to Louisiana Tech, and the guy you need to hire is Tynes Hildebrand.’”

Hildebrand remained appreciative to his longtime friend, whom he first crossed paths with “in the early 1960s,” when Pierce worked with Clayton’s legendary NSU football teams.

Throughout his 13-year tenure as AD, Hildebrand relied on Pierce as a sounding board and to deliver his messages in a concise, direct way.

“When I had problems, I would go to Jerry,” Hildebrand said. “All of those years, I could go to Jerry for advice because Jerry’s advice was always good. That was everybody he dealt with.

“He could advise the presidents well. He could advise the VPs well. He could advise the ADs very well. I would use him a lot when I needed to talk to my coaches. He was very good with that. I would tell him what I’d like him to talk about and he would deliver it in a way that was very direct but very good for them.”