In an era of roster turnover, new Northwestern State baseball coach Chris Bertrand showed during his introductory news conference Tuesday afternoon he can rattle off names in rapid succession.
“This job is about the people,” Bertrand said in front of a crowded Stroud Room inside the Donald G. Kelly Fieldhouse. “The job requires it. Success requires it. This job is about the people, and it’s about more than a game. That’s why I chose to do it. The people in this room have made an impact on me, and I want to continue to try to make an impact on you.
“There’s nothing better than a Bill Rutledge bear hug, knowing what friendship is. There’s nothing better than walking into Mr. Bill Townsend’s office and having a conversation where he makes you feel like you’re the only person in the world in that moment. There’s nothing better than a Carrie Beth (Hough) idea and the attention to detail that comes from a simple idea. When I walk into Exchange Bank and get a firm handshake from Mike Newton and a conversation about life. That’s what I love about Demon baseball. It affords me to the opportunity to do those things, and those people get to make an impact on our program and our program gets to make an impact on them.”
Bertrand became NSU’s 13th head baseball coach Monday after Bobby Barbier resigned to take the head coaching job at Southeastern. Bertrand spent the past seven years as Barbier’s top assistant and associate head coach, handling a multitude of roles within the program.
Both Bertrand and Director of Athletics Kevin Bostian made it a point to thank Barbier for his service to his alma mater.
“Without Bobby, this doesn’t take place,” Bertrand said. “Seven years ago when Bobby gave me an opportunity, it wasn’t the first time I tried to get into Division I baseball. Bobby gave me an opportunity. Bobby trusted me. I feel we built the program for the right reasons and in the right way. Without Bobby, this moment doesn’t take place. He trusted and built something we all now get to enjoy. He deserves a great deal of thanks. I am forever indebted for what he did for my family seven years ago and for the role he played in allowing this to happen.”
Barbier hired Bertrand after a four-year head coaching stint at UT Tyler where Bertrand led the Patriots to three American Southwest Conference championships and three NCAA Division III Tournaments.
In his second year at Northwestern State, Bertrand helped the Demons collect the first Southland Conference Tournament championship in program history. He was in charge of an NSU offense that set the school record for single-season home runs with 61 this past season.
Maintaining that continuity was an important piece of Bostian’s decision to elevate Bertrand to his first Division I head coaching position.
“The process was quick,” Bostian said. “You always think of what you may do in the situations. For us, it was a natural fit to elevate and promote coach Bertrand. He’s been Bobby’s right-hand man for seven years. He’s been an integral part of this community. He knows the donors. He knows the kids who are growing up and playing ball in the community. For a program that has to be able to fund raise, he’s a natural fit.
“Then you add the fact he’s been a head coach – and a very successful head coach – at UT Tyler, he brings everything I would look for in a head coach. It was easy. I said, ‘(Northwestern State President) Dr. (Marcus) Jones, this is a possibility. Coach Barbier may be leaving, and I want to do this.’ He right away said, ‘This is the right move.’”
It was a move born of a college coaching career that officially started at the NAIA and Division III levels but initially was honed in Abbeville thanks to a school fundraiser.
“The big fundraiser then was magazine sales if you remember,” the 40-year-old Bertrand said. “My older brother convinced our grandfather to get us a ‘Sports Illustrated’ subscription. My favorite issues were the previews they did for the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball. I vividly remember, I would study them cover to cover, and I would go back an flip the pages and look at the team logo and try to guess who the head coach was.
“I tried to memorize every head coach of every major sports team. I was fascinated with coaching. I was fascinated with leadership. I was fascinated with the business of sport. To see it come true in a way with this opportunity, you have to know dreams come true.”
In addition to his childhood dreams, Bertrand said NSU’s gilded legacy of baseball coaches was not lost on him either. Four former NSU head coaches – Jim Wells, Dave Van Horn, John Cohen and Mitch Gaspard – ascended to head coaching positions in the Southeastern Conference as did former Demon assistants Rob Childress and Mike Bianco.
While referencing how his dream came true, Bertrand mentioned his family and the sacrifices his parents made while raising six children.
Calling his father “my hero,” Bertrand said the NSU program would bear the fingerprints and footprints of his father and of Bertrand’s college coach at Louisiana Christian, Mike Byrnes, who Bertrand called the best at melding life and baseball together.
He saved the most emotional comments of his roughly 15-minute speech for his wife, Lori, and the couple’s children, Rayleigh and Callen.
“I don’t know what I did to deserve this woman,” he said, choking up briefly. “All she knows how to do is love. She loves me unconditionally, and that’s a really hard thing to do. You can’t be successful in this business without a really supportive person by your side, and the good Lord gave me the best one there is. I take a lot of inspiration from music and lyrics. Lori and I love Texas country music. Cody Johnson sings a song called ‘With You I Am,’ and my favorite line in it says ‘I’m the same old boy but a whole lot better when you’re holding my hand.’ That’s exactly how I feel about her.
“Our kids make sacrifices every day so I can do this. These are two really special ones. They have their own interests and passions. I admire Rayleigh’s courage in everything she does. I admire her independence. I admire the way she goes about things. I admire Callen’s energy. I admire his passions. Callen has 800 passions in life, but he attacks every single one of them. There are things to be learned from the gifts the Lord gave me. Those three are among the best gifts.”
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