Imagine a pristine locker room overflowing with cherished sports gear belonging to some of the state’s top athletes and coaches. A veritable treasure trove of memorabilia awaits visitors to the new Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame Museum in Natchitoches. The $12.6 million facility under construction on Front Street in the beautiful Historic District is slated to open next summer amidst much fanfare. “It’s the stuff of legends that will be showcased in a spectacular museum,” exclaims Lisa Babin, the president and chief executive officer of the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame Foundation.
The Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame itself will occupy the first floor of the 28,000-square-foot museum building, which should be completed by the end of this year. It will then take another six months to install and complete the finishing touches on the exhibits. The second floor will showcase the sports memorabilia. In addition, half of the second floor will be the Northwest Louisiana Regional History Museum, which will focus on the state’s cultural heritage.
Many of the Hall of Fame inductees recently had the opportunity to tour the two-story building’s construction already completed. “I think it’s a beautiful state-of-the-art building as good or better as any museum in the country. I think it will be a big tourist attraction,” notes Billy Allgood, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1999. Allgood, a standout coach who coached 30 years of baseball and 26 years of basketball at Louisiana College in Pineville, says he plans to be at the museum’s grand opening.
Architecturally, the design of the building, which was crafted by Trahan Architects of Baton Rouge, will reflect historical components blended with contemporary features. The museum site overlooks a beautiful view of Cane River Lake meandering through the heart of Natchitoches. Outside, the museum’s exterior walls are clad in wood planks, indicating a throwback reference to the rich timber legacy of the region. Inside, Trahan Architects have developed a conceptual design reflective of the flow of the river. The dynamic flow of the river is depicted by the construction of the stone panels along the museum’s walls. Each stone, which weighs between 6,000 to 9,000 pounds, is designed to resemble the Cane River flowing. Construction of the museum began late in 2008, with site demolition and preparation, and continued through 2009 with utility relocation and drainage work along with the pilings and foundation work. In June 2010, the construction of the actual building began. The Louisiana State Museum system is spearheading the construction.
Members of the Louisiana Sports Writers Association began planning a Hall of Fame to honor the state’s outstanding athletes and coaches as far back as 1951, but the first election to the hall was not held until 1958. “We have currently 293 sports figures, along with 52 Distinguished Service in Sports Journalism recipients and 11 Dave Dixon Louisiana Sports Leadership Award winners, for a total of 356 Hall of Fame members since the Hall was formed in 1958,” says Doug Ireland, chairman of the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame.
The sports memorabilia showcased in the new museum will permit a glimpse into the lives of the state’s legendary athletes and coaches. Thinc Design of New York City is developing the exhibitions in the museum. Sports represented in the Hall of Fame will include football, basketball, baseball, softball, track and field, horseracing, hunting, fishing, tennis, golf, boxing, motor sports and water sports. “It will showcase the best of the best,” Ireland adds.
Mark Guidry, one of 22 jockeys in the history of thoroughbred racing in the United States with more than 5,000 wins and a 2012 Hall of Fame inductee, says he feels privileged beyond words to be included in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and believes the museum will become a destination attraction. “It was very humbling and such an honor to be inducted into the Sports Hall of Fame this year. I mean I dreamed about riding in the Kentucky Derby, but being inducted into my home state’s Sports Hall of Fame was my ultimate goal,” Guidry remarks with enthusiasm.
Kim Mulkey, a Louisiana Tech University basketball great and 1990 Hall of Fame inductee, echoes his sentiments. “Louisiana has such a rich history in sports and geographically, it is one of the smallest states in the country. The Sports Hall of Fame museum will be a first-class facility, and I feel blessed and honored to be a part of it,” notes Mulkey, who as the head girls basketball coach for the last 13 years led Baylor University to win the national championship last year.
Coach J. T. Curtis of New Orleans, a 2012 Hall of Fame inductee who has led his high school football team to a record 23 state championship titles, agrees. “Louisiana has such a tremendous history of outstanding sports performers, not just in a particular sport, but administrators, officials, coaches as well as athletes. I think the museum will honor their memories and what they did. It will be a fitting tribute to them all,” Curtis notes, adding it is a “humbling experience” to be included.
A football coach for 42 years so far and who last year became the second U.S. high school football coach to win 500 games, Curtis says the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame Museum will not be just about honoring people who can light up scoreboards with winning points. “Nearly everyone in the Hall of Fame will tell you it is about so much more than that. It is about hard work and dedication as athletes, and as a coach imparting intrinsic values on to the team to carry them throughout life,” Curtis says, adding that many of his team members have gone on to play on National Football League teams.
When a visitor looks through the exhibits and reads some slice of life histories about the sports figures in the Hall of Fame, Babin notes the common thread of hard work, drive and focus will be notable among the inductees. “With all the sports and historical components in the museum, it will become another reason for people to come to Natchitoches,” she adds.
Some of the interesting memorabilia included in the exhibit will be: a Baltimore Colts jersey worn by LSU star Bert Jones, autographed shoes worn by New Orleans Saints Bobby Hebert, a Sports Illustrated Cover with Cotton Nash, track shoes worn by Slats Hardin when he set the world record in the 400-meter hurdles in 1934 in Sweden, a Team USA warm-up jacket worn by Kathy Johnson, baseballs signed by Mel Ott, College World Series programs from Coach Skip Bertman and items representative of the 2007 Louisiana State University football national championship and the New Orleans Saints Super Bowl XIV title.
Funding for the construction of the new museum building was approved last fall by the state bond commission after passing through the state Legislature. But an additional $1.1 million was needed to complete the exhibitions. There are still exhibit naming opportunities available in the museum. According to Babin, a month-long push in September is under way to match a $250,000 challenge grant supporting the museum. A philanthropic foundation based in Louisiana provided the challenge grant. Every monetary gift to the Foundation for the museum will be matched, up to a maximum of $250,000.
“There has been $367,000 of the almost $1.1 million originally needed that has been already secured. The Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame Foundation is committed to raising the remaining $718,050 required to complete the exhibit plan. We are thrilled by the generous support provided with this challenge grant which has the potential of raising $500,000 of the $718,050 needed,” says Babin. “This grant allows any gift to be instantly doubled, speeding us on our path of achieving our private funding goal.”
Gifts of any amount may be made in a secure online transaction by visiting the museum’s website at www.LaSportsHall.com and clicking on the Support the Foundation button. Donors may scroll to “online payment” and select “museum exhibits” for the gift type. For additional information, contact Babin at (318) 485-0166.
According to Robert Wheat, interim director of the Louisiana State Museum System, the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame will operate the same hours and days as the state museums in New Orleans. The museum will be open Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00am to 4:40pm, and will be closed on Mondays and state holidays. Admission for adults will be $6.00 and for students, senior citizens and active military admission will be $5.00. Children 12 and under will be admitted free. School groups with reservations will be admitted free.