For years, Northwestern State baseball fans have been able to boast about former Demon coaches who moved into the forefront of college baseball.
It has been an incredible run. Jim Wells, Dave Van Horn and John Cohen were head coaches at NSU who subsequently took Power 5 conference programs to the finals of the College World Series. Wells’ former Demon assistant Mike Bianco had been very successful for years at Ole Miss before his resurgent Rebels shocked everybody by winning last year’s national championship. Van Horn’s pitching coach with the Demons, Rob Childress, won 66 percent of his games in 15 seasons at Texas A&M and got the Aggies to Omaha.
Mitch Gaspard coached with Wells at NSU, went with him to Alabama in 1994, and after three CWS trips in seven years, took over the Demons’ program when Cohen departed. He went back to Alabama as Wells’ assistant and heir apparent in 2009 and two years later, Wells stepped aside and Gaspard spent the next seven seasons in charge of the Crimson Tide.
For eight seasons (2009-16), all of the SEC West’s head coaches except for Paul Mainieri at LSU and two flailing failures at Auburn were former Demons – Childress at A&M, Van Horn with Arkansas, Bianco at Ole Miss, Cohen at Mississippi State and Wells, then Gaspard at ‘Bama.
Demon fans loved it.
Until recently. Even more so, until Monday.
Seven years ago, when Lane Burroughs was hired away from NSU by Louisiana Tech, Demon fans cringed. Any other school, they moaned. But by then, even the most ardent Northwestern supporter had to accept that the historic rivalry was, in fact, history. Tech had much more money, more students, and more to offer.
Sure, when the schools collided in competition, there was some added intensity and interest. Still is. But Burroughs got a hefty raise and infinitely more resources by moving upstate, trading the Christmas Festival for the Peach Festival. Understandable.
Fast forward to Monday. It became official, what was reported here last Friday morning as very likely. Bobby Barbier, the first NSU grad to lead his alma mater since Wells (1990-94), departed the Demons for fellow Southland Conference member Southeastern Louisiana.
Barbier was a Demon as a player (2003-06), as an assistant coach under Gaspard (2007), J.P. Davis (2008-09) and Burroughs (2015-16), and for the last seven seasons as head coach. That’s 16 years playing or coaching at Brown-Stroud Field. He was in his happy place. He was proud to wear the purple and white, and NSU fans were very proud to have him at home.
And he left to go to an in-state Southland rival? That hurt.
It wasn’t his idea; SLU athletic director Jay Artigues, once the head baseball coach at Bossier Parish Community College, pursued him. Made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
It wasn’t about the Barbier bank account. Sure, he got a nice pay bump, but the decision had everything to do with other things that Southeastern offered and Northwestern couldn’t.
The Lions have averaged about 1,400 fans per game, far better than any other of the eight other Southland baseball programs, and more than double what the Demons draw. That translates into baseball being a revenue-producing sport in Hammond, really the No. 2 sport on campus behind football.
Southeastern has the best home environment and facility in the league – one that 10 years ago was ranked as the 16th-best in the country by StadiumJourney.com. It’s getting even better. On the far side of the left field fence at Pat Kennelly Diamond at Alumni Field, the Lions are developing a baseball operations center, the kind that has been dreamed about for years but was never more than on a wish list at NSU.
It was not apples and oranges as Barbier contemplated staying at Northwestern or making what the uninformed considered a lateral move. While enrollment declines and staff reductions have unfolded in the last couple of years at Northwestern, SLU has almost 14,000 students and that brings in an estimated $1.2 million more in student fee support for the Lions’ athletic program than what NSU Athletics receives.
A bit of the angst was relieved Monday when NSU’s second-year athletic director, Kevin Bostian, wisely promoted associate head coach Chris Bertrand to replace Barbier. Bertrand – whose four UT-Tyler teams won three conference titles and made three NCAA Division III Tournament appearances – has been Barbier’s right-hand man every step of the way since 2016.
It soothes the sting and pleases loyal supporters writing especially meaningful checks to try to keep NSU baseball competitive. More are needed, Supporters, and hefty checks.
Among his many attributes, Bertrand is a strong recruiter, which is vital, considering a 13-man 2023 senior class and a sudden transfer portal signup coinciding with Barbier’s exit. Some of those players were leaving anyway, but losing freshman first-team All-Southland third baseman Michael Datallo was a painful shock.
Bertrand is the first head coach since Van Horn (following the 1994 season) to take over NSU’s program with prior head coaching experience. He’ll say all the right things when Bostian introduces him at the Don Kelly NSU Athletic Fieldhouse at 2 o’clock today. Come see – it’s open to everybody.
At least the affable “Bert” knows all there is to know about the Demons’ program. That vital advantage can help him stave off what would otherwise be a disaster-prone situation, and gives him the best chance to sustain NSU’s winning tradition. It’s tougher than ever, part of the reason Barbier went south.
Contact Doug at firstname.lastname@example.org