More than eight decades after he arrived on the scene, his fingerprints remain all over the LSU athletic program.
A case could be made that in the 118-year history of Tigers sports no one — Doc Fenton, Billy Cannon, Pistol Pete, or even the Kingfish, Huey Long — left a deeper imprint on the program, which owns a Southeastern Conference-best 43 national titles, than Thomas Pinckney “Skipper” Heard.
LSU could not have evolved into the potent football entity it has become without Heard, a force behind three expansions of Tiger Stadium (1931, 1936 and 1954) when it grew from 12,000 seats to 67,500.
Heard was athletic director when the Tigers became a charter member of the Southeastern Conference (1933); when LSU hooked up with 50,000-watt clear-channel WWL-AM (1942), giving the Tigers a national broadcast platform; and when LSU became one of the first teams to fly to football games (1939).
He even coached the LSU golf team to a national championship in 1947.
Heard was also an early pioneer in the establishment of legal and above-board athletic grants-in-aid. He is described in New Orleans Times-Picayune columnist Peter Finney’s book “The Fighting Tigers” as “a man who might well be considered the father of the tremendous sports plant on today’s Baton Rouge campus.”
He’s an overdue but logical choice for induction in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, which will officially take place on June 25 in Natchitoches.
Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne will speak about his impact, and grandson Will Wilton will accept the honor on behalf of a man who shaped the destiny of LSU sports.
A prime example is relayed from Finney’s tome in which he writes, “The first addition to the stands in Tiger Stadium reflected the shrewd business sense of LSU’s graduate (student) manager.”
Heard learned LSU president James M. Smith had earmarked $250,000 for dorms. Armed with that knowledge, Heard proceeded to sell Smith on the idea that Smith could have his dormitories in the stadium by raising the stands on both sides and extending them to each goal line.”
Heard explained that for $250,000, “the president got his dormitories, and we increased the seating capacity.”
But what Heard will forever be remembered for is his invention of “Saturday Night in Tiger Stadium,” which changed the landscape of fall evenings in Louisiana and gave LSU its signature sports persona.
The revolutionary change to night football came in 1931 when Heard was serving as “graduate manager,” which meant he was given the responsibilities of running the athletic program.
In the vernacular of today, Heard was thinking outside the box, although Loyola of New Orleans played on Friday night for several years before LSU.
But the concept of “after dinner” games was popularized at LSU. There were several reasons Heard experimented with such a radical notion.
First and foremost was the shift changes of Baton Rouge refinery workers. Many couldn’t attend afternoon games, but they could in the evening and getting off work at 7 p.m. allowed laborers enough time to make 8 p.m. kickoffs.
Competition for fans also played a role. Tulane, then in its football heyday, was playing on Saturday afternoons. A late Tigers kickoff would allow more fans to take in the Green Wave and then motor to LSU.
The move extended LSU’s reach because an estimated 80 percent of Tigers crowds in those days came from within a 30-mile radius of Baton Rouge.
For the Depression-era sum of $7,500, Heard took a gamble and installed lights, though success wasn’t immediate.
Rains swept across Louisiana in the first week of October 1931 and just 6,000 fans were scattered in the 22,000-seat stadium when the Tigers beat Spring Hill 35-0 in the first game under the lights on Oct. 3.
But the precedent had been set and Heard had changed the setting of LSU football.
Heard later became LSU’s second official athletic director but in reality continued as its first, and began building further on an enviable and long-lasting program.
The late Dan Hardesty, who covered LSU athletics for the Baton Rouge State-Times for six decades, described Heard’s tenure as “outstanding.”
But not every story has a fairytale ending. After more than two decades, Heard was forced out in 1954 — largely because of his persuasion of the state legislature to again enlarge Tiger Stadium by more than 20,000 seats by enclosing the south end to bring capacity to 67,500.
It was a good idea, but not when LSU President Troy Middleton wanted a badly needed new library to come first. Both projects eventually came to fruition, but when Heard’s idea prevailed, his fate as athletic director was probably sealed.
Still, Heard, who died in 1980, got off the last word, or least the most memorable, on the subject.
Four years later, when LSU filled the expanded stadium for the first time with the top-ranked Tigers facing unbeaten Ole Miss, Heard was in the press box he built, watching the fans squeeze into the stands.
“I wonder,” he said low, but loud enough for those around him to hear, “how many people are at the library tonight?”