Dec. 27, 2017

By John Heisler

The Mannings—Archie, Olivia, Peyton, Eli and Cooper—may qualify as the first family of football in the state of Louisiana.

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who led the Saints to an emotional Super Bowl victory post-Hurricane Katrina, may rate second on that list.

Somewhere along there likely comes former University of Notre Dame tight end and linebacker Rod West, a New Orleans product who played on the 1988 Irish national title team, currently serves as a trustee at his alma mater (and for many years was on the LSU Board of Supervisors) and probably has as good a handle on what a Notre Dame-LSU football game means as anyone.

West majored in American studies at Notre Dame, then returned home to attend Tulane, where he received his law degree (1993) and MBA (2005). He spent six years practicing law in his hometown before joining Entergy of New Orleans as its senior regulatory counsel. West later transitioned into directorship roles with Entergy’s regulatory affairs and distribution operations, the position he held on Aug. 28, 2005, when Katrina hit the Gulf Coast.

The chaotic days, weeks and months that followed in Katrina’s wake posed an immense challenge for Entergy, the gas and electric utility company that serves a half-million residents. West’s poised leadership came to the forefront, as he directed some 1,800 utility workers who worked feverishly to restore power and purge the city of dangerous floodwaters.

Hours before Katrina’s landfall, West was faced with a dilemma: he could join his wife (former LSU basketball player Madeline Doucet) and 11-year-old daughter Simone in their evacuation spot or he could remain on the frontlines. He opted to stay and fight, hunkering down for weeks in a vacated Hyatt Hotel with no electricity or water supply and inconsistent cell-phone reception.

By mid-September, Entergy had restored all utility service–sparking the city’s long rebuilding phase. West was promoted in late 2006, becoming president and CEO for Entergy (a $6 billion operation) and elevating his status as a key figure in New Orleans’ return from devastation.

“I could not find a more relevant role in a purpose-driven life than being a part of the rebirth of my hometown,” says West, who in 1996 became the youngest person and first African-American to be voted president of Notre Dame’s National Alumni Board.

A product of a prestigious Catholic high school (Brother Martin) in New Orleans, West is a former chairman of the LSU Board of Supervisors (the equivalent of trustees at the Baton Rouge institution) and taught a Tulane law course in business/legal aspects of sport.

Somewhere in between all of that West remains an ardent football fan. That will only be magnified Jan. 1 when the two institutions with which he is joined at the hip square off.

“Let’s frame up some context,” he says. “I spent from 2000-2012 on LSU’s Board of Supervisors, their board of trustees, and served as chairman in the 2006-07 time frame. I was chair of the board when Notre Dame played LSU in the Sugar Bowl (after the 2006 season) and my wife was an LSU women’s basketball player and in the SEC (Southeastern Conference) Hall of Fame. So my affinity for LSU goes back to my childhood.

“As I have witnessed the LSU program’s evolution dating back to the Bill Arnsparger days as a potential recruit, there was never a time when I was not an LSU fan. So for me to have served that university in the way I did was an honor because I was a Louisiana kid long before I came to South Bend.

“When I think about the fan bases and what football means, we might describe it differently at Notre Dame in the context of our Catholic mission, but for both schools the football program is the front porch to the institution and it’s a part of the ethos of the fan base.

“For Notre Dame it’s grounded in that Irish Catholic ethos. And for LSU there’s a strong connection to the south Louisiana, French Cajun influence that has very similar ties to that same Catholic identity Notre Dame has. It feeds that longstanding joke, ‘When Notre Dame plays LSU, who is God rooting for? He’s rooting for the team with the greatest number of Catholics.’ And the truth of the matter, that’s LSU.”

West qualifies as an expert on the culture of both institutions and their football programs. He also knows a little about what the 2017 season has meant to the Irish and the Tigers.

“When I think about the rivalry I don’t think about the two teams as much as I think about what the football programs mean to those fans. Having played the game, I am far more clinical about the programs–now 30 years since I’ve played–than I’ve ever been.

“For both teams, that elusive 10th win is all about validating expectations about the direction of the program. That’s how I see this bowl game. There was a period when both teams thought they had a shot to make a run. LSU gave up the ghost earlier in the season. When I look at the game, here is the thing that binds these two teams – so goes the quarterback, so goes the season.

“When Notre Dame is playing its A game it’s on par with any team we play. I actually believe this team is better than the one in 2012 in terms of pure ability, including on defense. The offensive line is better and more consistent. I’m enthusiastic about the young men because for us (Notre Dame) it’s a chance to be better and get better.

“When you think about enthusiasm and fan base, the Citrus Bowl got it right. You’ve got two fans bases where football is very much religion.”

West has seen firsthand where football fits both in Baton Rouge and South Bend.

“At LSU we would have a board meeting and talk about public health care and the fate of the flagship institution in the state and you’d hear crickets,” he says. “But if we had a meeting that talked about changing the ticket policy for LSU football there’d be news cameras lined up along the wall.

“My experience as a Notre Dame trustee was a little different. When (Notre Dame president) Father John (Jenkins) said that if we get to the point where we have to pay players we’re out—he meant it.”

West will be president of the Sugar Bowl beginning in January and he’s been a Sugar Bowl board member for since 1995.

“I think the fans at LSU respect Notre Dame and Notre Dame’s tradition,” he says. “The two programs respect each other and between (LSU) Coach O (Orgeron) and (Notre Dame) Coach (Brian) Kelly, they are working their butts off to meet expectations. Notre Dame is different with no conference affiliation, while LSU is like, if not the king, a popular duke in the nation’s premier football conference. So there’s some of that in play. Those fans of each program have a tremendous respect for each other and they both align around that Catholic identity.”

He also understands the motivation provided any time a team faces a Southeastern Conference opponent.

“No matter whether LSU is having an up year or down year, from Notre Dame’s perspective LSU is a perennial SEC competitor. So for the Notre Dame fans LSU is a benchmark. Our aspirations are to be up there in the conversation—and LSU has been up there because they’ve historically fielded some of the most talented teams in the country. For Notre Dame this is a benchmark against a league that has set the standards for what national champions are about. Notre Dame is looking for that validation.”

West remembers his freshman football season at Notre Dame in 1986 when he made the trip to Baton Rouge for a late-season assignment against LSU (a 21-19 win by the Tigers).

“I had a few things thrown at me when I got off the bus, and I still joke with some of the players on that team–one of whom is LSU deputy athletics director Verge Ausberry who was a linebacker on that team and now is number two in the athletic department. He was a year ahead of me out of New Iberia. We talk about the LSU fandom.

“That was just another night in Tiger Stadium. I just happened to be wearing the wrong uniform.”

Blue and gold. Purple and gold.

West absolutely knows what this one is all about.