Robichaux’s Road To 1,000 Wins Tougher Than Most – From the Bird’s Nest
(Photos by Brad Kemp and Buffy Massey/ragincajuns.com)
It was September, 1994 and Southwestern Louisiana Athletic Director Nelson Schexnayder needed a baseball coach. Mike Boulanger, who led the Cajuns to postseason play, including an NCAA Regional final in 1991, had resigned after the discovery of impropriety within his program. The USL baseball program needed a coach at a time when fall practice was about to begin. And, he needed to hire a coach who understood NCAA probation and the loss of a scholarship were on the horizon. Oh, and they had no money.
But Schexnayder had a couple of options.
One was 47 year old Joe Arnold who had just parted ways with the University of Florida. Arnold coached the Gators for eleven seasons. He won 434 games. He won two SEC titles and three SEC tournament titles. He had seven NCAA appearances and two College World Series appearances.
The other was a young coach from McNeese State named Tony Robichaux. He had just turned 33 years old but already had 263 wins in Division I, and, and two NCAA tournament appearances --one in which he coached the Cowboys to an NCAA tournament win over the Ragin’ Cajuns. Robichaux was from nearby Crowley and had pitched for the Cajuns. He had already been a head coach for eight seasons.
At the end of the day, Schexnayder made his decision, and despite the outstanding resume of Arnold, he chose the young McNeese coach. “I knew Coach Arnold could win, but I wondered how he would do at a program with such limited resources,” Schexnayder said. “ Coach Robichaux was already used to doing more with less.”
Yes he was.
THE McNEESE DAYS
Robichaux spent 1986 at Mcneese as a graduate assistant under Triny Rivera. Rivera left after the season and Robichaux was approached about coaching the team. There was one problem. He hadn’t finished his academic requirements. It would, therefore, be necessary to have someone else named head coach on paper while Robichaux, in reality, became a 24 year old head coach of a Division I university, the youngest in the nation. Nolan Viator, an assistant football coach was “named” to the position. He never attended a practice. The job belonged to Robichaux.
The job paid $9,000 a year. Robichaux and his wife Colleen were dating and would be married soon after. Robichaux won only 19 games in 47 tries his first season.
However, the next year his Cowboys were Southland Conference champions and in the NCAA tournament…and Robichaux was paid a full time salary. But by that time, he and Colleen were married. Daughter Ashley was three. Son Justin was a newborn. Things were very tight financially. And, on top of that, Tony was gone a good part of the time, leaving Colleen to tend to the kids while she was in school, finishing her degree. One can only imagine how difficult it was for her.
Because Robichaux’s job was more complicated than just coaching.
When Robichaux became the head coach, Cowboy Diamond was pretty much just that. A diamond. With a chain link fence. And a set of bleachers. There were high school ball parks that were more ornate. So, in addition to trying to build a program, Tony built a stadium. Boosters in the community formed the Lake Area Pinch Hitters to help raise money. And, before long, Cowboy Diamond was a ball park McNeese State could be proud of.
The next years were consistent: 35-18, 35-20, 34-18, 30-22. Then in 1993, it was back to the NCAA tournament where the Cowboys went 1-2 with a win over Maine. The following year was the best from a wins standpoint. The Cowboys won a school record 41 game (41-17). But that was the year Robichaux found out what life was really like in the Southland Conference.
“I called a few people and asked about our chances to get an NCAA at-large bid. I was told to go ahead and pick up the equipment. We had 41 wins and no shot.” Then the USL job came open. “They were in the Sun Belt and they were sending multiple teams to the (NCAA) tournament. That was one of the reasons I was so interested. That, and it was just 20 miles from home.”
THE EARLY YEARS AT USL
After accepting the job, Tony had to leave his family, which now included son Austin, behind. Colleen was under contract to the school where she was teaching. Tony moved into a dorm room on campus, where he lived during his first season. Although the Cajuns had some past success, Robichaux was really behind the eight ball. Besides the upcoming probation and loss of scholarship, the administration had stopped funding the program, except for coaches’ salaries and scholarships. Field maintenance? Raise the money. Recruiting budget? Raise the money. Bats and balls? Raise the money. Uniforms? Raise the money. Travel expenses? Raise the money. Pay teams to come and play? Raise the money. Improvements to the ball park? Raise the money. Increase the fan base? Win a lot of games, which, in return, would raise money.
Robichaux had one full time assistant, Joe Almaraz, who had just been hired by Boulanger before he resigned. Tony elected to honor Almaraz’ agreement with Boulanger for the 1995 season. He had a graduate assistant coach in Anthony Babineaux, who had just finished his playing career.
The first year was tough. In addition to raising money, Robichaux also needed to send a message as to what he expected from his team. He told them that there was someone in the group that would help him make an example. After fall practice began, Tony called for a voluntary workout. Not everyone showed up. Those who chose to do something else were gone by Tuesday. Robichaux had sent the message: To succeed you were going to have to do more than what you were told to do. It was your responsibility to work hard, both in and out of the classroom. You had to be willing to give more. Robichaux also made it clear attending all classes would not be an optional activity. There were going to be consequences for those who missed class. And, through all of that, Robichaux had to find time to get to Lake Charles to spend time with Colleen and the kids.
And then, Robichaux and his staff, after setting new rules, new goals and doing as much fundraising as they could do to balance the budget, needed to take a team that they did not recruit, motivate them to play knowing they were going to be on NCAA probation, knowing they probably would not be eligible for post-season play and play with one less scholarship, which, after being divided, would mean five to seven fewer players who were getting financial aid.
Amazingly, Robichaux’s first team would have qualified for the six team Sun Belt tournament had they not been on probation. They finished 21-24 on the season.
When the season was over, Robichaux brought in Wade Simoneaux as his full time assistant. Simoneaux had been extremely successful as a high school and American Legion coach. In addition, while at Episcopal HS in Baton Rouge, he spearheaded a fund raising campaign that raised $1.3 million dollars to build a new stadium.
He could coach. He had recruiting contacts. He could fund raise.
By late in the 1996 season, the Cajuns had a brand new scoreboard in left-center field. The scoreboard had advertising panels that could generate recurring revenue. The team had a losing record again, but played well enough on the weekend to finish in third place in the Sun Belt. After 1996, the playing field became even as the Cajuns got that scholarship back.
FOUR YEARS TO OMAHA
The winning began. And the improvements continued. New foul poles were donated that could generate advertising dollars. Box seats were built down the left and right field line which generated more recurring revenue. Winning helped by the program being able to increase ticket prices. People started to come to games. Tony got sponsors to pay for baseballs which enabled fans to keep the foul balls as a souvenir which spawned even better attendance. He also organized grade checks to keep track of the team’s progress in the classroom. Study halls were mandatory. The team was disciplined, and the team bus took players to church on Sunday mornings, if the players were so inclined.
After winning 46 total games the first two years, the Cajuns averaged 43 wins per season over the next four. In 1997 they won a conference championship. In 1998 they won a tournament championship. In 1999, in the first year of a new regional/super regional format, the Cajuns won the Houston Regional and got within one game of the College World Series.
The next season, as the University of Louisiana, they were in Omaha.
In six seasons, Robichaux and his staff had taken the program from probation to paradise.
With no budget.
By the time 2000 came around, attendance had tripled. The Cajuns were averaging nearly 1,900 fans per game. And, anticipation was high for 2001 despite losing several key players.
But it would be during that off-season that the community found out how serious Robichaux was about doing the right thing on and off the field.
One of the reasons for optimism for 2001 was the return of left hander Justin Gabriel, who was the starting pitcher in the Cajuns’ first game at the College World Series. But, in the offseason, Gabriel entertained some friends who had a large amount of marijuana. All were arrested.
Robichaux acted quickly. He immediately suspended Gabriel for the entire 2001 season. The fact the charges were dropped three weeks later was irrelevant as far as Robichaux was concerned. Gabriel had made a bad decision by letting the illegal substance into his apartment. By doing so, he embarrassed the team and the university. Gabriel had the option of transferring out or remaining, but not only would he not play, but Robichaux also had a list of other things that had to be done if Gabriel were allowed back on the team, including academic performance. Gabriel, to the surprise of most, accepted the suspension and the terms of reinstatement. But again, the Cajuns’ coach had made a statement. Get arrested, get suspended for an entire year. No questions asked. No mitigating circumstances.
Partially because of so many new players and partially because of Gabriel’s absence, the Cajuns failed to qualify for the Sun Belt tournament that UL was hosting. Robichaux made no excuses nor did he allow his players any slack. Robichaux thanked his seniors for their contributions and then let his returning players know they’d see the tournament. They’d be doing field maintenance, picking up trash and doing every other menial task necessary to make the tournament run smoothly. And, they got to see the other teams continue to play. Robichaux was serious about performance and serious about winning.
FAMILY, 500 AND A WEEKEND IN BATON ROUGE
If you know anything about Tony Robichaux, you know there are, in fact, some things more important than baseball: God and family. Tony is the oldest of five boys (his twin brother Timmy was born right after Tony). His devotion to his parents and siblings as well as his wife and children (and now, grandchildren) are pretty well documented.
Early in his tenure at UL, his next-to-youngest brother Jody passed away. In March of 2002, Tony won his 500th career game on a cold blustery day at M. L. “Tigue” Moore Field against Texas Pan American. After the game I went down to interview him. We talked about the game and then I mentioned the 500th win. He said that day was Jody’s birthday. He said Jody’s initials were written inside of his cap and was therefore reminded of his brother on a daily basis. He said he missed him and, with tears in his eyes and his voice cracking said, “this is a helluva day to get number 500.”
The Cajuns had a bounce back season in 2002 and wound up in the NCAA Regional in Baton Rouge where they lost on the final day to LSU in a regional so intense and so contentious the teams would not play again during the term of former LSU Coach Smoke Laval. The Cajuns fell behind on the final day and the game was broken open when Matt Heath hit a three run homer for the Tigers. As he rounded second he pointed. The Cajuns’ players thought he was pointing at the Louisiana dugout. That, combined with a couple of other incidents early in the tournament, made for a pretty volatile time. Both benches had been warned before the game about their behavior. The next time Heath came up, lefty Donnie Bair drilled him in the ribs with a fast ball. Bair was ejected, along with Robichaux and the Cajuns’ coach missed the final game of the regional. Afterward he was asked if he ordered Bair to throw at Laird. His response was direct.
“No,” he said. “I didn’t have to.”
Wade Simoneaux left after the 2002 season to be the head coach at Louisiana Tech. When I found out Sim was leaving, I asked Tony if he was going to call John Szefc. Szefc was the head coach at Marist and he piloted the Red Foxes into the NCAA regional at “The Tigue” in 2000. Szefc’s demeanor and the the way he ran his program reminded me a lot of Robe. Hence the question.
“I already have,” Tony told me.
Szefc, of course, was going to have a different hitting system and it was going to take players time to adjust. Also, his personality was totally different from the wisecracking Simoneaux, whom the players loved.
There was a learning curve in 2003. And, it wasn’t pleasant…especially for Robichaux.
"MY HAND ISN'T WORTH SHAKING"
In a recent press luncheon, Robichaux told the media 2015 wasn’t about 1,000 wins. “The wins belong to the players,” he said. “Only the losses are mine.” That philosophy was never more evident than it was in the first half of the 2003 season.
The Cajuns struggled mightily to score runs. They won their first game, then lost six straight and scored only 13 runs in those losses. The Cajuns won three of their next four, then went into a tailspin. Houston swept them in a three game series where the Cajuns scored a grand total of three runs. They got popped at Tulane then lost three straight at home. But for Robichaux, the last straw was the trip to Nicholls State. The Colonels pounded the Cajuns 15-5.
I interview Robe before and after each game. It’s customary for him to walk up, shake hands and we talk. That night we were in a commercial break. He walked up and I extended my hand. He just shook his head. “You don’t want to shake hands with me. My hand isn’t worth shaking.” That’s the day I learned Tony gave every win to the players and took responsibility for every loss. The Cajuns were 4-15.
They would lose twice more before finally beating Illinois-Chicago to salvage one game of a three game series at home. Postgame I extended my hand. He shook his head. This continued for another eight games with the Cajuns finally winning a weekend series. And then, the team went on a tear.winning fifteen of their next 18 games and went into the final weekend with a chance to win the conference title. After starting 7-21 the Cajuns finished 30-30. And Tony started shaking my hand again.
BAB'S NEW JOB...AND "DEAUX" TAKES CHARGE IN THE CLASSROOM
At that time, the Cajuns had one full time assistant, a restricted earnings coach and a volunteer coach. The restricted earnings coach was Anthony Babineaux. Tony supplemented Bab’s income with money from his summer camps, but he wasn’t making much money even with that. In 2000, Bab added field maintenance to his duties and was able to get that salary in addition to what he was making. But that meant he was spending a lot of time during the spring taking care of, not only Tigue Moore, but Lamson Park as well. That cut into his ability to recruit during the springtime. He was making more money, but basically working two jobs. That finally ended in 2006.
Meanwhile, the new volunteer coach, Chris Domingue was asked to do one thing: get the academics in order. Domingue designed a computer program that enabled him to keep track of every player’s progress. And, he held each and every player responsible for his academic progress. The goal was graduation. Robichaux, in fact, put it at the top of the agreement the players would sign.
“You want to, and will, graduate.”
FINALLY, MORE FINANCIAL HELP
The Cajuns won a championship in 2005 with their best hitting team (for average) in school history. Every player in the lineup batted .300 or better. The Cajuns were back in an NCAA Regional. Later that summer, David Walker took over as the interim athletic director and started to find ways to give more financial support to the program. By the time 2006 rolled around, Bab was able to give up that second job and the staff had more time to coach and, more importantly, to recruit. Fund raising was still a big part of the job, but now with increased funding, the recurring revenue, increased attendance and a contract with Louisville Slugger, money wasn’t nearly as tight.
The Cajuns won a title again in 2007 and came within one game of winning an NCAA regional. But, beginning in 2007, something else happened that excited Robichaux, even more than winning games.
There was another Robichaux in uniform.
ROBICHAUX, ROBICHAUX AND ROBICHAUX
One of the downsides about the profession is the lack of family time, especially when the season is in progress. Tony’s two boys were very good baseball players. But he saw very few of their games. You miss a lot when you have the time commitments that baseball coaches have. But Tony was rewarded in the fall of 2006 when his oldest son Justin joined the ball club. Robe talked more than once about how blessed he was to be able to go to work every day and see his eldest son. For seven of the next eight years, Robe would have that luxury, first with Justin, then beginning in the fall of 2011, youngest son Austin. There were a couple of years with no postseason, (2008-09) but then the 2010 club, of which Justin was a co-captain, put on a late charge and won seventeen of their last eighteen conference games to win another title. The Cajuns won a game in the NCAA tournament as Zach Osborne turned in a performance for the ages with a 1-0 shutout over Rice.
But then came a couple of tough seasons. In 2011, the Cajuns finished 31-27 and didn’t win a game in the league tournament. In 2012, the Cajuns didn’t even make the conference tournament as Louisiana struggled to a 23-30 record and finished dead last in the Sun Belt. It was Louisiana’s first losing season since 1996, Robichaux’s second season.
The rumors began. Had Robichaux lost his fire? Had the game passed him by? Had he and Babineaux been together too long? Robichaux paid no attention to any personal criticism. He was devoting all his energy to making the Cajuns better. That fire some fans had questioned burned hotter than ever.
In the middle of the 2012 season, assistant coach Mike Trahan left to enter private business. Robichaux immediately hired Matt Deggs, former hitting coach at Texas A&M who was, at the time, out of coaching. Deggs arrived and suggested the Cajuns not change anything from a hitting philosophy until after the season. In the meantime, he and Babineaux recruited relentlessly and added a bushel of new players for 2013. The new hitting system was installed. The coaching staff designed the fall as a time to compete. The squad was broken into two groups. They competed in everything, including academics.
The Cajuns won 43 games the next season and led the nation in home runs and slugging percentage. Son Austin was the team's top pitcher. And, in the offseason, the Cajuns lost only one position player, as right fielder Dex Kjerstad chose to turn pro. Yet the Cajuns continued to recruit. Robichaux felt the 4.40 team ERA was unacceptable. They added more pitching, including Carson Baranik, who would go on to be the league’s pitcher of the year in 2014.
By the end of the season, the Cajuns were the consensus #1 team in America. They were a number six national seed. They won a regional and hosted a super regional and fell one game short of the College World Series. The Cajuns won 58 games and didn’t lose two games in a row until the final two games of the season. Again, the Cajuns were among the national leaders in offense. The team ERA was nearly a full run lower than the previous year.
And, no one was questioning Robichaux’s fire, his baseball knowledge or his relationship with his coaches.
Six juniors were drafted and signed professionally, including son Austin, who was drafted by the California Angels. The Cajuns lost their three starting pitchers, four of their top five bullpen arms and six everyday players. There would be plenty of retooling for the 2015 season.
Win number 1,000 came in the tenth game of the 2015 season against the University of Alabama. After the game, Robichaux and his coaches had a quiet dinner together to celebrate. It was back to business the next day when win number 1,001 was notched, again against the Crimson Tide.
Tony Robichaux had done what only seventeen other active coaches had done. And, one of only 51 in history. The difference was the road he had to take and the obstacles he had to overcome to get there. Few, if any coaches, had accomplished it that way.
But Robichaux was still a bit uncomfortable with all the attention.
“It’s not about me. It’s never been about me. Some call this my program. It isn’t. It’s the University’s program and I’m fortunate enough that they hired me to manage it. We’re supposed to glorify God, not glorify man. God gets all the glory. I don’t want it.”