More than a half-century after inducting its first class of sports legends, the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame is realizing its fondest dreams and greatest aspirations.
In a Grand Opening on Friday night, June 28, the doors swing open on the stunning $23 million Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and Northwest Louisiana History Museum, a 27,500-square foot structure at 800 Front Street in the National Historic District of Natchitoches. The vision of a true museum home for the state’s all-time greats was outlined well before the state Hall of Fame was created in 1958.
The first formal discussion came in a 1950 writers’ meeting in Lake Charles, and although those plans didn’t immediately take off, a standard was advanced that still abides today in Hall of Fame selection philosophy.
“An organization with a membership so exclusive that nobody may immediately qualify to be tapped will open for business this weekend as a going concern,” wrote Otis Harris, sports editor of the Shreveport Journal, in a Dec. 11, 1950 column. “It is the Louisiana Hall of Fame – a hall of fame for the state’s greatest athletes, men or women, amateur or professional, living or dead.”
Selection would require 90 percent approval from the voting writers, with no more than two initial inductees, and just one in succeeding years, “if anyone qualifies,” offered Harris.
“The purpose,” he explained, “is to make the hall of fame mean something and limit the roll to athletes, past or present, who have become figures of national or international renown in the general sports pattern. Only the state’s immortals in the sphere of athletes will be enshrined.”
The three charter members of the Hall – LSU football All-American Gaynell Tinsley, boxing great Tony Canzoneri and baseball slugger Mel Ott – were elected eight years later, when the LSWA was formally created, and they were enshrined during the 1959 Ark-La-Tex Sports Award Banquet in Shreveport.
Three honorees were selected annually for several years and were inducted during the Shreveport banquet. Later inductions were held in different areas of the state, including Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
Several members of the Hall of Fame were inducted at LSU football games and televised basketball games, and others were taken into the shrine during the VFW Sports Awards Banquets in New Orleans.
In his 1950 column, Harris also foreshadowed the long-term future for the state’s sports shrine. “Until a home is found for the hall of fame, it will exist only on paper and in skeletonized form,” he wrote.
Although LSWA members presented plaques to 41 Hall of Fame honorees and conducted induction ceremonies for the shrine members each year, there was no permanent display, no location to develop, until 1971, when Natchitoches and Northwestern State embraced the concept. NSU’s Jerry Pierce, then the university PR man and now a vice president, made a compelling pitch to the LSWA membership with the support of Northwestern President Dr. Arnold Kilpatrick, himself a former championship basketball coach at Jonesboro-Hodge High School and then Northeast Louisiana on the college level. Pierce and LSWA president Jim McLain were tabbed Hall of Fame co-chairmen and served in that capacity for 19 years.
Portraits of a few of the members had been displayed in Shreveport for a brief period, but the establishment of exhibit cases for the Hall of Fame at NSU’s Prather Coliseum was the first formal version of the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. Football legend Y.A. Tittle was the first Natchitoches inductee in 1972.
When Pierce was promoted to university vice president in April 1990, he handed the Hall of Fame chairmanship to NSU sports information director Doug Ireland, who has steered the ship since. In September 2016, former LSU baseball standout and longtime successful business leader Ronnie Rantz was named President and CEO of the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame Foundation, which conducts the financial operations of the Hall. Alexandria businessman Greg O’Quin is the Foundation Board president.
From 2000-2002, the Hall of Fame induction activities shifted to Shreveport-Bossier City, due in large part to the support of then-mayors Keith Hightower and George Dement, administrative officers Ken Antee and now Bossier City Mayor Lorenz Walker, local businessman Jimmy Patterson and the Horseshoe Casino & Hotel. Hall of Fame member Joe Profit and Mitton Management Co. played important roles in the success of the three-year stint in Shreveport-Bossier.
The expansion of Hall of Fame induction activities drew attention from then-Gov. Mike Foster, then-Lt. Gov. and future Gov. Kathleen Blanco, then-Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, and other state officials. Their interest, along with leadership by Natchitoches Mayor Wayne McCullen, and former local legislators state Rep. Taylor Townsend and state Sen. Mike Smith, along with Rep. Billy Montgomery, combined with the continuing support provided by Northwestern State University, led to quantum leaps forward for the Hall.
The Hall of Fame was accepted into the Louisiana State Museum system in the 2003 state legislative session, setting the stage for the state and city of Natchitoches to collaborate with the LSWA to develop the long-awaited shrine.
In preparation for the beginning of planning, all of the artwork and memorabilia which was on display at Prather Coliseum was turned over to the state museum system after the 2005 induction celebration. Gov. Blanco was set to recommend state bond commission approval for a $7.6 million museum building in September 2005 – but the devastating strike of Hurricane Katrina in late August shelved the concept. Remarkably, Townsend and Montgomery spearheaded its quick return to the state budget agenda, with well over twice the level of financial commitment.
Today’s local and state government leaders have played crucial roles in advancing the project. Now-retired Mayor McCullen and city officials including current Mayor Lee Posey, local legislators like Sen. Gerald Long and former Rep. Rick Nowlin, as well as current Rep. Kenny Cox, have partnered with former Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Lt. Governors Landrieu Jay Dardenne along with current leaders and legislators around the state to help bring the museum to fruition.