NATCHITOCHES – Delayed but not denied, the 2020 Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame induction class finally took center stage Saturday night inside the Natchitoches Events Center.
And despite the two years between induction ceremonies, little changed during the 61st induction ceremony.
The 11-person induction class lived up to its billing of a diverse class, but the themes that permeated their presentations and induction speeches were generally similar.
From family members or coaches or teammates or co-workers – and of course, their Louisiana roots — the feelings of gratitude remained as consistent as they were ahead of the COVID-19 pandemic, which twice delayed the group’s official induction into the state’s sports shrine.
“When you’ve lived in New Jersey and come back to Louisiana, you’re hit by that heat and humidity,” said two-time NBA Finals participant and former national college basketball Player of the Year Kerry Kittles, a product of New Orleans’ St. Augustine High School. “That thread, the perseverance and character in my roots – playing in all those tournaments in the southern part of the state – really propelled me through the challenges later on in my career and in life. Those experiences shaped me throughout my life and are why I am here being honored.”
Whether it was the self-professed “city boy” from New Orleans like Kittles or the sweet, smooth shooting small-town girl from Shady Grove in Angela Turner-Johnson, those Louisiana roots run deep.
Turner-Johnson, the 1981 Final Four Most Valuable Player, made sure to shout out her small community as she became the eighth member of the Louisiana Tech Lady Techsters dynasty to be inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame.
“Growing up in Shady Grove, it was such a small community, but we had a sense of family,” Turner-Johnson said “If someone did something wrong, our parents knew before we got home because everybody cared about everybody. Mr. Edward Mason, our principal, instilled in us to be the best we can be. He wanted us to not let our humble beginnings get in the way of us dreaming big.”
The members of the long-awaited Class of 2020 dreamed big and delivered even bigger for the Sportsman’s Paradise.
From Turner-Johnson who helped deliver consecutive national championships to Kittles and Charles “Peanut” Tillman, who was part of two Super Bowl teams, the talent honed all across the Bayou State represented their state – whether a natural home or an adopted one – to the fullest.
“I’m in love with my university,” said Tillman, who played from 1999-02 at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette before becoming a second-round draft pick of the Chicago Bears and the 2013 NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year. “I got a little sport coat customed designed (in Ragin’ Cajuns colors). They gave me an opportunity to showcase my talents. I wasn’t highly recruited. Like Lou (Dunbar) said, I wasn’t on their list. Well, I got on UL’s list and had an amazing four years. Now, I’m trying to be an ambassador for THE University of Louisiana.”
Tillman, a Chicago native who played his high school football in Copperas Cove, Texas, built on his four seasons in a Ragin’ Cajuns uniform to produce a 13-year NFL career in which he forced 44 fumbles. His propensity for punching the ball loose earned that move the moniker of the “Peanut Punch.” Those roots were firmly planted in the Lafayette soil.
“We played Wofford College in 1999, and they ran the triple option,” Tillman said. “I had about 20 tackles, and one of our coaches said to me, ‘You know, if you just punched the ball, you would have forced about 15 fumbles.’ Like Phil (Robertson) said, we all have talents. That one worked out for me.”
So did Tillman’s attention to detail.
“When he came in, he told me he was going to the NFL,” team chaplain Eric Treuil said. “You know how many guys tell me they’re going to the NFL? Well, he had a plan to get his degree in three-and-a-half years and spend that last half a year training for the NFL. He had a lot of drive, a lot of foresight. We won six games in his four years. A guy who was able to endure and work through losing seasons but keep a champion’s mind-set? That’s special.”
In high school and college, Phil Robertson’s talents were on the gridiron, but his lifelong passion was hunting.
Inducted into the Hall as an outdoorsman, Robertson turned the fire that started at 11 years old into the world-renowned Duck Commander brand that launched the A&E reality series “Duck Dynasty.”
“I told my Ma, ‘I’m not going to school today. I’m going duck hunting,’” Robertson recalled. “She said, ‘Go get us some.’ I walk to Little Lake, and I’m poaching. I see three green-winged teal and a pintailed hen flying together. They come right at me, and I empty my gun. Boom. Boom. Boom. I got two of them. I stripped naked, jumped in the water got my ducks, put my clothes back on and jogged home.
“I ran in the door and told my Pa, who was sitting by the header, ‘Paw, I’ve struck’ He said you got a teal and a pintail, tell your mom to cook them and we’ll eat. I’ve been chasing them ever since.”
The chase led him away from the Louisiana Tech football team where he started ahead of future Louisiana and Pro Football Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw.
“I didn’t beat him out,” Bradshaw said. “He quit. He always knew his passion was hunting and my passion was football. He focused on hunting, and that’s how I got the starting job. He always was a really sweet guy.”
Robertson may have been sweet, but few in the world of sports were more saccharine than Minden’s “Sweet” Lou Dunbar, an All-American at the University of Houston who became basketball’s Clown Prince with the Harlem Globetrotters.
Despite his All-American credentials at Houston, Dunbar spent one season playing professionally in Switzerland before starting his four-decade career with the Globetrotters as a player and an executive.
“I’ve been to over 90 countries,” Dunbar said. “Coming out of Minden, Louisiana, who would have thought that? I met Pope John Paul II, the 75th pope. We gave him a jersey with the No. 75. I’ll touch y’all later. I’ve been anointed.”
Aside from his connection to the very top of the Catholic church, Dunbar long had been putting smiles on people’s faces, something that only grew with his time with the Globetrotters.
“He took a cowboy hat from this guy, and the guy ran him around the gym about 20 times,” said current Globetrotter Hi-Lite Bruton. “I was a rookie, and I was laughing so hard. Everyone in the crowd, we were on the floor dying.”
Former Grambling middle linebacker Ronnie Coleman had a face down moment that has lived on for the eight-time Mr. Olympia.
The one-time long-shot bodybuilder walked on to legendary coach Eddie Robinson’s team in 1983 and worked his way up the depth chart to become a starter in 1986. His climb to the top of the bodybuilding world took a similar tact, one that bodybuilding journalist Peter McGough called a “Rocky-type” story.
Even Hollywood couldn’t script something like Coleman’s career, which started with a win in his first competition – the Mr. Texas event. From its humble beginnings where Coleman took advantage of a free gym membership in order to compete in Mr. Texas to become the first eight-time Mr. Olympia champion, Coleman relied on a simple credo – and multiple battle cries that echoed throughout gyms across the Metroplex.
“Knowledge is power,” Coleman said. “The more you have, the better off you’ll be. I learned from some of the best guys out there. Brian Dobson taught me a lot, but Brian could only take me so far. The next guy who got me my first Mr. Olympia was Chad Nichols. He knew exactly what I needed to do to get to that next level. Find yourself someone knowledgeable, and they can take you to the top.”
The top is where most of Mackie Freeze’s Richwood High School football teams ended up.
After starting the Richwood program with a $350 budget, Freeze captured four straight state championships from 1961-64, continuing the success he began as an undefeated pitcher for Ralph Waldo Emerson Jones’ Grambling State teams during his college career.
At 94 years old, Freeze became the oldest living inductee in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, doing so with his trademark positivity.
“To be invited to this beautiful presentation makes my day, and I wouldn’t want to be in any other place on the globe than right here, right now,” Freeze said.
Freeze recalled how farmers near the Richwood campus cleared the land to build not only a football stadium but a practice field and a baseball stadium. What did they want in return?
“They wanted to win,” Freeze said.
Freeze did just that but he poured into his players much more than simple Xs and Os.
“Thank about what we did then,” said Charlie Smith, who played for Freeze and then at Grambling. “We did so much with so little. He’s such a great guy, a great motivator. He’s a guy who cares about his kids. That’s what it’s all about.”
While Freeze racked up state titles on the football field, Kittles led his St. Aug Purple Knights to a state basketball championship before becoming the National Player of the Year at Villanova University.
Kittles was the Big East Player of the Year as a junior and could have gone to the NBA before deciding to return to Villanova after a conversation with his parents.
“I really wanted to graduate from college,” said Kittles, who averaged 14 points per game in an eight-year NBA career. “I was really enjoying the college experience, and I knew the NBA wasn’t going anywhere. My parents encouraged me to graduate and make that a priority.”
That Kittles was level-headed enough to think that decision through did not surprise his high school coach, Bernard Griffith.
“Kerry’s and old man in a young man’s body,” Griffith said. “He always had an older person’s mentality. I’d say, ‘Kerry, what would you like to do? He’d say, can we go fishing, just sit around and fish?’ He wasn’t going to run the streets. It all paid off or him. He did well in the pros. This is a great award for him.”
Kittles’ mother hails from Opelousas, the same hometown of longtime Tennessee athletic administrator Joan Cronan, who was named the recipient of the Dave Dixon Sports Leadership Award.
Cronan, who graduated from LSU before coaching three sports at Northwestern State for one year, turned the Lady Vols into a national powerhouse alongside coach Pat Summitt before eventually taking the reins of the entire Tennessee athletic department.
“It’s so much fun (to be in Natchitoches),” said Cronan, a self-described Cajun with orange blood. “Over 50 years ago, my husband came here to Natchitoches to get his master’s degree, and I became the volleyball coach, the basketball coach and the tennis coach. It’s a very special place, and we’ve always loved it.”
Alongside Summitt, Cronan helped make Tennessee – and other universities – special places for female student-athletes, something that dated to 12-year-old Joan wanting to play baseball but being turned away.
“It’s like Barbara Mandrell, who said she was country before being country was cool,” Cronan said. “I was a tomboy before it was cool for women to be in sports. I knew when I was 12 years old and told I couldn’t play baseball that I wanted to be in a business that helped women learn to compete.”
Robin Fambrough of The Advocate in Baton Rouge faced similar challenges when breaking into the sports writing field in the early 1980s.
“We were mostly limited in the things we could do,” said Fambrough, one of two Distinguished Service Award in Journalism awardees. “Women sports were becoming a thing, and women covered women’s sports. Gradually more things opened up. You had to explain to people that you did know football, or they figured it out. When they needed somebody to go here or there, I said, ‘I can do that.’ One thing led to another, and there you have it.”
Fambrough earned five Louisiana Sports Writers Association Prep Writer of the Year awards in her career, one that has established her as a trailblazer and a beacon among state sports writers, especially those on the high school beats.
“When Robin walks through the door, you know you’re at the biggest game,” Advocate Sports Editor Perryn Keys said. “We are all, to a degree, replaceable in our jobs. She’s not replaceable. She’s absolutely the one person who is irreplaceable.”
Ask the LSU Athletic Communications staff the same question, and they likely would say the same thing about Kent Lowe, the second Distinguished Service Award honoree.
Lowe has spent 33 years on the LSU staff after beginning his journalism career as a stringer for the Shreveport Times. Lowe, the key figure in bringing the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame’s induction ceremony to live television, also worked at Louisiana Downs in its halcyon days as well as helping the Shreveport Captains become one of the first minor-league baseball teams to focus on television broadcasts.
Since arriving at LSU, he has become as synonymous with Tigers basketball as Shaquille O’Neal and Dale Brown.
“He’s the most tireless worker I’ve ever known,” said former LSU sports information director Herb Vincent, who is now with the Southeastern Conference. “He’s worked more hours than anyone I’ve been associated with. He’s the ultimate multi-tasked. He can do it all and do it all at a high level.
“He is to LSU what Walter Cronkite was to the moon landing.”
Lowe is universally respected and liked across the college basketball landscape and holds a special affinity for the Hall of Fame.
“To me, (Natchitoches) is a very special city,” Lowe said. “When the Hall of Fame came back here in 2003, there was a certain renaissance feeling for the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and its future. This is our Cooperstown. This is our Canton as far as I’m concerned.”
While Lowe has been an ardent supporter of the Hall of Fame, national sportscaster Tim Brando has been equally as passionate about his home state.
As such, the Shreveport native who helped create ESPN’s iconic “College Gameday” was presented with the first Louisiana Sports Ambassador Award, honoring a Louisianan who extols the virtue of his or her home state.
Brando followed in the footsteps of his late father, Hub Brando, taking his pride for his home state to a network level, including hosting his national radio show from his home, lovingly nicknamed “Chateau Brando.”
Brando’s rise to the top was not direct.
“Dale Brown championed me,” Brando said. “Tigervision was the platform I had to send my tapes. I sent them everywhere. I got rejected everywhere. I was told I didn’t sound Southern enough to get the San Antonio Spurts job. It all started January 5, 1985, calling a Virginia-Duke game with Dickie V(itale). It was basically an on-air audition that went well. The calls kept coming. Within a year, I was doing CFA Primetime, and then in 1987 we started College Gameday.”
Not long after that began, Brando became broadcast partners with former Oklahoma running back Spencer Tillman and the two formed a deep friendship that continues more than quarter century later.
“I put broadcasters in categories,” Spencer Tillman said. “Tim, my friend, you don’t fit into a category. You create one. No one cares more than you.”