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Baseball: EXCLUSIVE – Shared love spurs $5M donation for UL stadium

Tim Buckley, April 26, 2016
-ron guidry.jpg_20020518.jpg

Ron Guidry is shown here being honored during a ceremony at Tigue Moore Field retiring his No. 3 Ragin’ Cajun jersey.(Photo: Advertiser file photo)

University of Louisiana at Lafayette baseball coach Tony Robichaux pulled up to M.L. “Tigue” Moore Field and saw Chris Russo’s vehicle in the stadium’s parking lot.

The two out-of-town teams playing at the diamond on that mid-June Sunday afternoon in 2013 were not cause for Russo to be present, but that didn’t matter.

“He was down the left-field line, sitting in his patio box,” Robichaux said. “That was the first Father’s Day that Sammy wasn’t here.”

Samuel Joseph Russo — “Sammy Joe,” as he was known — passed away earlier that same month, and his son Chris was taking time alone at the very spot the two had shared so many memories.

“I think that’s where (he) and his dad bonded,” Robichaux said.

“They were baseball fans. … Baseball meant a lot to them, and when Sammy passed I think (Chris) wanted to do something for the Russo family.”

The manifestation is a $5 million donation earmarked for major renovation of The Tigue, a project that is expected to cost in excess of $10 million and begin in earnest after UL’s 2016 season concludes.

Sammy Joe Russo’s passions were family, his Roman Catholic faith and his role as founder in 1986 and longtime president of Stabil Drill, which manufactures and markets drilling and stabilization tools for the oil and gas industry.

He also savored days at the ballpark, home of a Ragin’ Cajuns team recently ranked No. 6 in Collegiate Baseball’s national preseason poll.

Chris Russo and his wife, Mamie, made the decision to contribute funds with his father’s love for the game in mind, and he hopes it prompts others to donate too.

“Baseball has always been a shared passion between my father and I,” Russo said in response to questions from The Daily Advertiser about his motivation for the generous gift.

“We, Mamie and I, wanted to be a part of something,” Russo added, “and the opportunity to get a new stadium for Coach Robe (Robichaux), Bab (associate head coach Anthony Babineaux), the staff, the players and more importantly the fans struck us as that opportunity.”


Chris Russo calls his late father an “old-school” New York Yankees fan.

He remembers Sammy Russo and his brothers flying to Tampa for supper and baseball talk with Yankees legend Yogi Berra, a special evening facilitated by former UL and Yankees pitcher Ron Guidry.

And he fondly recalls how the advent of cable superstation TBS forged so much father-son banter about the Atlanta Braves, with the national cable network allowing the two to regularly watch the team on TV — further strengthening their relationship.

“We talked about the Braves, and the games, daily,” Russo said.

Cajuns coach Robichaux knows well just how much shared appreciation for the sport, and especially a particular team, can draw a father and his offspring tighter.

Theirs was the Houston Astros, and he’ll never forget listening to AM radio on the drive along Highway 90.

“We couldn’t wait for my dad to come home on Friday when he got off of work and put us in the station wagon,” said Robichaux, whose father owned a meat market.

“We’d spend the whole weekend in Houston — watch a game Friday night and a game Saturday, and then come back on Sunday with five boys in the station wagon. My mom didn’t like it, but we were a baseball family.”

So Robichaux understands just what following the Braves on TBS meant to Sammy and Chris Russo.

With the passing of time, however, the two eventually found themselves drifting away from the pro game and becoming closer to the program at their shared alma mater, UL.

Ditto for Chris Russo and his wife.

“Mamie and I for many years have attended spring training in Orlando and Tampa,” Russo said. “We would go to New York a couple of times a year to watch the Yankees play. Actually I watched baseball, she watched (shortstop Derek) Jeter.

“But several years ago we just didn’t enjoy professional baseball, as it was becoming an individual sport as opposed to a team sport.

“That is not what happens in college baseball. Without a doubt, college baseball is the last pure team sport,” Russo added. “As many lessons (as) these young men will learn under Robe (Robichaux), and the coaches, not many will be more valuable than the ‘team’ concept going forward in the real world.”

BOX NO. 14

Work is the real world for Russo, who grew up in the family business and lived it practically day in and day out.

There was an exception, though.

“When you are working with your father every day, it is always business,” Russo said.

“The only times business discussions were strictly forbidden were at the Sunday lunch table, and Box No. 14 down the third-base line at UL baseball. Those times I will always treasure.”

Ball-tossing too.

“When you are a young child and you are waiting on your dad to get home to play catch — you never know the actual meaning of it until you have a son sitting in the driveway waiting for you to get home,” Russo said.

“I now know that half the time my dad wanted to go inside and unwind, but he couldn’t let me down, just like I won’t let my son (Cole) down — which is probably the reason I cry every time I watch ‘Field of Dreams’ and how it ends. ‘You wanna have a catch?’ That means something.”

Robichaux knows that feeling, as well.

“I know our father (Ray) bonded with us a lot because we’d wait for him to come home from work every day at 5 from the butcher shop … with a brown paper bag full of baseballs,” he said.

It is that common experience for the son of a businessman and the son of a butcher that also tie Chris Russo and Tony Robichaux, further inspiring the hefty donation.

“I am a firm believer that without UL, Lafayette would not be what it is today,” said Russo, a Ragin’ Cajuns Athletic Foundation executive board member. “The oil and gas business comes and goes; the one constant is the university.

“Having met Coach (Robichaux) through my father 20 years ago — it has allowed me to better understand him, his philosophies, beliefs and what his goals in being the coach are. And it is not baseball alone.”


Without at least a firm commitment for roughly half of the financing in place, the hiring of architects (Abell � Crozier � Davis Architects locally, and The DLR Group nationally) and a general contractor (The Lemoine Company) for stadium renovation would not have happened yet.

But the project is proceeding in large part because booster Russo is stepping up for Robichaux, who is hailed by those who know him and his program as a molder of young men.

“(UL president) Dr. (Joseph) Savoie had said once they did the (university’s athletic facilities) masterplan … that anybody’s project … can start when you find funding,” said Robichaux, whose Cajuns have played in three straight NCAA Tournaments, back-to-back NCAA Super Regionals and the 2000 College World Series among 11 postseason appearances since he took over in 1995.

“So what Chris and Mamie Russo did for us by coming in at the end of last season and sitting down and giving us $5 million: It allowed us to start.

“So we’ll be ever-indebted to them,” Robichaux added, “because they sort of started that first domino for us to get going.”

Russo’s donation, which according to Cajuns athletic director Scott Farmer is the biggest ever made to the UL athletic department, will be spread out in $1 million payments over five years.

Russo said his father “methodically reinvested in his company and grew it as best he good,” even when the oil and gas industry wasn’t in good shape.

“Over the next several years he was able to retain several key employees by offering them a small percentage of the company to help in taking it to the next level,” Russo said.

Son Chris was one of those employees, enabling him to learn how to treat the people you trust and depend on to follow your vision.

“His belief has always been in people and, more importantly, putting them in a place where they could succeed,” Russo said. “His plan worked, not without headaches, as he had envisioned, and the company, soared … ultimately leading into Superior Energy to acquire the company.”

Beyond what he learned from his father about business, Chris Russo also benefited financially.

That allowed him to invest in other businesses and joint ventures, including Russo Exploration, along with real estate, and ultimately led to the stadium donation.

“Being the largest donor was never in consideration,” Russo said. “It was, ‘What can we do to make a difference?’

“We have been very fortunate in several businesses that allowed us to be a part of this project. The size of the donation has never (been), nor will it ever be, about recognition. It is about giving back, and in particular to a sport and people we are passionate about.

“I am certain, like me, he doesn’t want to be singled out,” Russo added. “But for all he has done for our program — Coach Robe deserves this stadium.”


What Robichaux does want is for others to follow Russo’s lead, in whatever amount they can.

Many already have.

Still more donors, however, are much-needed for a project that will include complete reconstruction of the stadium’s grandstand seating area, a connecting of the stands that run down the first- and third-baselines to create a new concession area, 10 new revenue-generating suites, a club-level room behind home plate and a new press box.

All that should be in place in time for the 2017 season.

This year, the stadium gets new lights.

“We’re ever-indebted … because, let’s face it: With the oil industry, and where everything is (in the local economy), you don’t know where the capital campaign will end up,” Robichaux said. “Nobody can put their finger on that.

“So having him step up with the $5 million gift really has spurred other people, (and) we wouldn’t be talking about suites and carpet and tile and everything else if it (wasn’t) for Chris and Mamie Russo.”

Russo really does want his money to serve as a catalyst.

“That is exactly the intent of our donation,” he said. “We think people will now see that the dream of a new stadium is a reality and step up and contribute as well.

“We need more donors to finalize this project. … In addition,” Russo added, “in a year or so after completion, baseball will be self-sufficient, which will allow Coach (Robichaux) and others to concentrate on teaching as opposed to being fundraisers.”

Robichaux is grateful for that.

He, however, sees any and all donations now paying dividends far, far down the road.

“No matter what upgrades I can get done out here, I can’t put the lights or the suites or the scoreboard in my briefcase when I leave,” the Cajun coach said. “The university benefits. It’s here for the life of the university. That’s what so great about that (Russo) gift.”


UL has not yet announced what The (renovated) Tigue will be named in seasons to come.

But with baseball program’s fundraising effort including naming-rights opportunities for numerous parts and pieces of the stadium being tied to various levels of giving — everything from dugouts to the locker room and the press box could be named — it seems reasonable to suspect “Russo” will claim a significant place of prominence.

“When (Chris Russo) lost Sammy it was a jolt to all of us,” Robichaux said, “and I think what he wanted to do was maybe perpetuate the Russo name.”

“I am hoping he shed a tear of joy,” Russo added with reference to his father, “in seeing our family name associated with UL in the past, present and future with this stadium.”

Whatever the stadium is called, Russo hopes Cajun fans and other spectators are the biggest beneficiaries of the rebuilt facility.

“Making game day a better experience for all is the intent,” he said, “and I know that is what Coach (Robichaux) is concentrating on accomplishing.

“The current facility is just old. It was embarrassing a couple of years ago when LSU came to town and there were so many bulbs in the scoreboard broken that it was hard to tell the score.”

Russo said fans “always want the best out of our sports teams,” and suggested those supporters deserve the same.

The same goes for potential future Cajuns.

“Waiting in line for two innings to get a hot dog, standing in urine while using the bathroom, having to rent lights to be on TV are just a couple of reasons (renovation is needed),” he said. “This should not be acceptable.

“Per Coach, just showing the plans to recruits has made a difference. Imagine when the actual stadium is in place. It will be a difference-maker. UL baseball will be a perennial Top 25 team for years to come.”