Doug Ireland is the Town Talk’s 2012 Central Louisiana Sportsman of the Year, but he is not an athlete or coach — at least not in the sense that we are accustomed to seeing either an athlete or coach honored annually in this space.
His main job is as the sports information director for Northwestern State University — a position he has adroitly handled for 23 years — and his other job is as the chairman of the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and executive director of the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame Foundation.
He has been a “coach” and “major player” in all his positions, and although this honor is more for a body of work over many years than just this year, the long-awaited opening of the 27,500-square foot Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame Museum on Front Street finally will happen this summer, which makes it fitting to honor this year the point man who has led the journey to this Promised Land.
“There are so many heroes that are unsung in this who have truly done the heavy lifting,” said Ireland, ticking off one name after another with sweet praise for each, covering governors, lieutenant governors, state senators and representatives, mayors, administrators and faculty members at Northwestern State, CEOs, state museum personnel, sports writers, private donors and his personal secretaries.
“Doug can deflect all he wants, but he has put in so many hours on this behind the scenes that most people never knew about,” said LSU basketball SID Kent Lowe, longtime treasurer and former president of the Louisiana Sportswriters Association, as well as one of the hosts of the annual tape-delayed telecasts of the annual induction banquet. “The Hall of Fame is virtually built on his back.”
A former award-winning sportswriter for The Town Talk, Ireland may be short in stature but he is a giant in his profession, as well as his mostly pro-bono occupation with the Hall. He took the job as NSU’s sports information director in January 1989, and when Jerry Pierce, the shrine’s original director and awards banquet emcee for many years, was promoted to a university vice president in April 1991, Ireland obliged Pierce’s request to take over as the Hall’s director. He has directed the Hall since.
His title changed to chairman a few years ago when Lisa Babin was hired as the CEO and president of the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame Foundation.
“When Jerry Pierce stepped aside, I don’t know who else would’ve taken it,” said Lowe. “People don’t know how much work it entails to do both of his jobs.”
Other than for one year, 2008, when he received a $6,000 stipend — thanks to a $250,000 appropriation for the LSHOF from the state — Ireland has worked his Hall of Fame job without pay.
“The reality is there are hundreds of people who have been very significant and dozens who have played pivotal roles,” said Ireland, downplaying his “volunteer” service. “It’s about not only people in the hall of Fame but people who celebrate the Hall of Fame and who embrace excellence — in this case, sports excellence.”
Ireland said the bulk of his Hall-related work this past year has been, with cooperation from the Hall of Fame committee, “pushing toward completion of the exhibit plan from a content perspective.” He estimates about 75 percent of that work has been done.
To be truthful, his work never seems done. In addition to his standard duties as the SID at NSU, Ireland does three morning sports reports for Demon Sports Network stations in Natchitoches, Many and Leesville, and he has been doing the Natchitoches report since February 1989.
NSU basketball coach Mike McConathy, a former winner of the Cenla Sportsman of the Year award, is impressed with the wealth of knowledge Ireland has about Northwestern State sports.
“It allows him to better equip his coaches to know where you are and where you have been,” said McConathy. “When we’ve got a team or an athlete reaching a milestone, he’s on top of those things. He knows the athletes, their passion, their drive. I think those are things that separate a really, really good SID from one not so good.”
Matt Bonnette, the son of Louis Bonnette, who earlier this year retired after a long, illustrious career as the SID at McNeese State, succeeded his father in that job after working as an assistant on Ireland’s SID staff at NSU for nine years.
“I never worked with my Dad, other than being an intern for a short period, but being able to work with Doug for nine years, and see his work ethic, his dedication and professionalism — all that is how I can envision my Dad worked.”
Ireland, seemingly born with a sunny disposition, may not be a coach of athletes, but he has done his own sort of coaching over many years at his job.
“He taught me so much how to do this job — how to work with coaches, how to work with the media. Plus, Doug is a tremendous writer. I picked up a lot, just seeing how he’d write a story. Honestly, probably everything I do now is based on ‘how would Doug do this?’ I really believe I am where I am because of him.”
It’s also because of Ireland, said Lowe, that many people who have had any shred of interest or investment — financial or otherwise — in the LSHOF didn’t lose hope that it would become a reality.
“When Katrina hit, I was among those ready to forget about hoping,” said Lowe, referring to fears that exhibits and memorabilia that had been temporarily stored in the French Quarter might be ruined, not to mention so many other worries about the fate of people and cities and financing. “But it’s because of Doug, who kept telling us we’re going to have a building someday, that kept the hope alive.
“There were probably times if Doug Ireland was not around, it would probably still be at (NSU’s) Prather Coliseum (where the Hall had a makeshift home for about three decades) or stuck in the basement of the Cabildo or wherever. But it’s going to happen, and it’s because of Doug Ireland.”
The museum to honor the state’s legendary sports heroes is happening largely because of a guy who was briefly a wingback — or “running guard,” as the position was called at Jonesboro-Hodge High School in the late 1970s — and he purposely never touched the ball when played for LSHOF coach Don Shows. He offered that he was “much more accomplished” as a designated hitter at J-Hodge, and blames bad knees for curtailing his “White Shadow” basketball career.
Beyond that, in his professional career centered on sports, he’s been a loyal worker to the core.
“A lot of people are always wondering what it’d be like at a next job, but Doug’s not looking for a next job,” said McConathy. “Every day he is wholly about making Northwestern the best it can possibly be, and he’s made a huge difference with guys at our university over time.”
Unbelievable work ethic?
Able to inspire and raise people up?
Someone whose name resonates in the sports world in Louisiana and beyond?
Doesn’t boast, despite extraordinary accomplishments?
Sounds like a worthy Sportsman of the Year, even if he’s not like the rest.