Legendary UL baseball coach Tony Robichaux dies
Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, July 3, 2019
Click here for the photo gallery of Coach Robichaux through the years.
Tony Robichaux, who spent 25 seasons coaching the University of Louisiana at Lafayette baseball team, died Wednesday morning with his family and loved ones at his side at Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans. He was 57.
Robichaux took the Ragin’ Cajuns on their only trip to the College World Series. He won more than 1,000 career games.
He was a molder of men, a deeply religious person who took more satisfaction in preparing college-aged kids for life — faith, fatherhood, fortitude — than he did in low ERAs and high batting averages.
“When I look at my most-successful former players,” Robichaux said in a 2008 interview with ultoday.com, “I ask, ‘Are they off drugs and alcohol? How’s their marriage? How are their kids?’
“Life’s personal and professional challenges are the real game, not baseball.
“I tell players that life is like a table, with four legs: athletic, academic, spiritual & social,” Robichaux added at the time. “If we just let them play baseball, we have a one-legged table, one that can’t handle burdens. We don’t send out one-legged tables from our program.”
Robichaux — a married father of three whose two sons, Justin and Austin, both played for the Cajuns — was hospitalized at Lafayette General Medical Center with a heart attack on June 23.
One day later, after he underwent open-heart surgery, UL said Robichaux was “expected to make a full and complete recovery.”
But later in the same week it was announced Robichaux had been transferred to Ochsner Health Center in New Orleans “to initiate the advancement of his recovery.”
He underwent a second surgery, and on Sunday the school reported that Robichaux was in critical condition at Ochsner.
A gathering of family members, friends and current and former players gathered to pray and recite a rosary for him Tuesday night.
'Just a great man'
Born and raised near Crowley, where he made his home, the butcher’s son was keen on teaching his players how to overcome the odds stacked against them.
“We want guys who drink out of the water hose, not the guy whose mommy brings him a Powerade after the third inning,” he famously said in 2015.
Robichaux — who began his college coaching career at his alma mater, McNeese State — valued grit over talent and work ethic over skill.
“If you can get your kids tough,” he said in 2017, “then you have an advantage.
“I don’t care what mental weakness a kid has, what lack of ability he has, if he’s been taught how to throw down ... he’s gonna make it.”
Season after season at UL, most with more success than others, Cajun players bought into his message.
“He has a lot of wisdom,” outfielder/first baseman Daniel Lahare, a senior in 2019, said back in February. “It’s unbelievable.
“Talking to him every day, he always has something new to talk about. And a lot of times it’s hard to soak it all in, because he knows so much, and he tries to teach everything that he knows to all of his players.”
Current UL associate head coach Anthony Babineaux was a member Robichaux’s Cajuns staff from the get-go.
“He’s just a great man,” Babineaux said in 2015, “and he teaches more than baseball.”
A long list of former assistant coaches under Robichaux who have gone on to head positions of their own know that well.
Among the ex-Robichaux assistants who’ve held top jobs in college:
» Todd Butler, who worked under Robichaux at McNeese State and was at Wichita State from 2014 until this year;
» Matt Deggs, now at Sam Houston State;
» Jason Gonzales, longtime coach at Texas A&M-Kingsville;
» Brad Holland, an ex-McNeese assistant previously at UL Monroe;
» Jim Ricklefsen, a former McNeese assistant who later became head coach of the Cowboys;
» Wade Simoneaux, previously at Louisiana Tech; and
» John Szefc, at Virginia Tech now following five seasons at Maryland.
“He is a man that believes in second chances,” Deggs told CollegeBaseballInsider.com in 2015, “and he gave me a second chance when nobody else would.
“Coach Robe was my boss but became so much more than that: mentor, friend, confidant, big brother. … He and (wife) Colleen became like family when we needed it most.
“Coach Robe is the finest Christian leader of men that I have ever been blessed to work with,” added Deggs, now the head coach at Sam Houston State in Texas. “I learned too many life lessons from Coach Robe to even begin to list them. Great man!”
Robichaux, also a frequent motivational speaker, was as comfortable talking to a church full of wisdom-seekers as he was a locker room loaded with shortstops and southpaws.
Many of his quippy quotes, some of them repeated often in different variations, can be found on a Twitter page that in 20016 and ’17 was dedicated to so-called “Robe-isms.”
» “When a monkey jumps on your back, don’t let it become King Kong. Make sure it stays your little pet monkey.”
» “We teach our kids to use the game of baseball, not the game use them.”
» “In high school you hang a breaker and you buckle the batter’s knees. Do it in college and you buckle a squirrel in the pine trees.”
» “Be a hiker, not a camper.”
» “You can’t sharpen iron with plastic.”
» “This isn’t easy. Whoever told you it was, knock on their door. When they open it, punch ’em in the jaw.”
Yet what came out of Robichaux’s mouth often was as predictable as it was quirky and unconventional.
“Nowhere in the Bible does it say how to be a great baseball player,” Robichaux said more than once. “But it’s pretty clear what kind of man you should become.”
UL head coach Tony Robichaux meets on the hill with pitcher Hogan Harris (30) on April 15, 2017. (Photo: Buddy Delahoussaye/The Advertiser)
In 2015, as he approached his 1,000th win, which came early that season against Alabama, son Austin — who went on to pitch at the AAA level in the Los Angeles Angels organization — accurately foreshadowed what would happen.
At the time it came, only 50 other coaches had 1,000 NCAA Division I baseball wins.
“He doesn’t like the spotlight. It’s gonna be ‘them’ winning, not him,” Austin Robichaux told The Daily Advertiser then. “But deep down, 1,000 wins — not many people can say they’ve got that. … The number itself is gonna mean more than he actually shows.
“He’s not gonna take any of the credit. And he deserves some of it. But he’s just good at giving everything to God.”
Successful career and family
Coaching Justin and Austin at UL meant so much to Robichaux because of all the time he missed with them as they worked their way up to the college ranks.
Both boys played at Notre Dame High, where Robichaux’s twin Tim — two among a family of five brothers — was the longtime head coach.
“When you miss 21 games of your son’s senior year, that’s not an easy thing,” Robichaux said according to RaginCajuns.com in 2007. “(Justin) pitched for a state championship and his father wasn’t there.
“In Little League, there were a lot of times when he played games and I wasn’t there.”
Instead, the effort and energy devoted to building his other family — the UL baseball team — often took time away from those at home.
The results of his labor were seen on the field and off.
It came at a cost, but Robichaux — who doubled as UL’s pitching coach — managed to turn the mid-major Cajuns into a bona fide college baseball heavyweight for many of the last 25 years.
UL coach Tony Robichaux walks through the outfield of under-renovation Russo Park at M.L. "Tigue" Moore Field. (Photo: LEE CELANO/THE ADVERTISER)
Fifty-eight of Robichaux’s Cajuns were selected in the Major League Baseball Draft, including five who made it to the big leagues.
He coached 29 All-Americans at UL.
He produced six Sun Belt Conference Pitchers of the Year, mostly recently Gunner Leger in 2017 and Colten Schmidt in 2018, and two Sun Belt Players of the Year, Blake Trahan in 2015 and Jace Conrad and in 2014.
He was named SBC Coach of the Year four times and All-Louisiana Coach of the Year six times, and he had nine 40-win seasons with the Cajuns.
Four times, UL won the Sun Belt Tournament under Robichaux. Seven times the Cajuns were regular-season champs, most recently in 2018.
Robichaux took UL to 12 NCAA Regionals, the last in 2016, and four Super Regionals, and to Omaha, Nebraska, for the College World Series in 2000.
His 2000 team went 2-2 in Omaha, including wins over San Jose State and Clemson.
Robichaux produced 1,177-767-2 career record — seventh-best among active college coaches at the time of his passing — including a school-best 912-589-2 at UL.
It’s a resume chock-full of accomplishments.
But what’s missing seemed to haunt Robichaux most.
“The only one thing that’s lacking is a national championship,” he said earlier this year.
The closest Robichaux’s Cajuns to returning to Omaha came in 2014, when they finished 58-10 and ended the regular season ranked No. 1 in the nation but dropped a UL-hosted best-of-three Super Regional to Ole Miss 2-1.
Yet that 2014 team epitomized what made Robichaux most-proud of players on the diamond.
“They’re grinders,” he said before playing Ole Miss, “and they understand not to have an ego — because ego stands for Edging God Out.’”
Before falling to the Rebels, Robichaux gave perspective to just how important returning to the College World Series — and winning it all — would have been to him.
“We walked out of there (in 2000) and the big thing I wanted to do,” he said in 2014, “was to try not to be a one-year wonder, and get back.
“I’ve always made a vow that I won’t go there to sit in the bleachers as a fan. The only time I’m gonna go is to be in that dugout.”
It didn’t work out.
One year after losing to Ole Miss, UL dropped two to LSU in Baton Rouge in a 2015 Super Regional.
In 2016, the Cajuns hosted a Regional won by Arizona.
Since then, UL has gone three straight years without getting to a Regional – including a 28-31 record that marked its first losing campaign since 2012.
A great legacy
Robichaux’s life, however, hardly was all about numbers.
His biggest legacy may be the character of the players he produced.
But not to be forgotten is the $18.5 million renovation of M.L. “Tigue” Moore Field at Russo Park that he oversaw.
Plans for making the stadium one of the best in college baseball started as a sketch and notes Robichaux penned on a napkin.
As the old grandstand at The Tigue was demolished to make way for the shiny new one that stands there now, the Cajuns coach gave perspective to it all.
“It’s the story we tell our players all the time, about trying to be good leaders and building something,” he said beneath the bang of breaking concrete as seats were being torn down. “It takes 30 years to build character — and in one day it can be floored.”
But by 2017, with much of the reno work done, Robichaux was able to beam he fielded a ceremonial first pitch from his father, the butcher at the family-owned meat market, before one game early in the season.
Life had come full circle from the time the Notre Dame High graduate and twin Tim left father Ray and his late mother Sylvia in Crowley, first to play a season at Wharton County Junior College, then two at McNeese before transferring.
After sitting out at UL, a redshirt year in which he also coached the junior-varsity team, Robichaux played his final college season for the Cajuns.
He returned to McNeese as an assistant coach, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in health and physical education in 1986, and took over as head coach for eight seasons starting in 1987.
In 1988, his first permanent season in charge at McNeese, he was named Southland Conference Coach of the Year.
UL head baseball coach Tony Robichaux is shown in the dugout during a game at Russo Park in March 2018. (Photo: SCOTT CLAUSE/USA TODAY Network)
After leading the Cowboys to 41 wins and its first-ever national ranking in 1994, UL hired Robichaux away.
He left with a 262-177 record.
Again, though, the numbers are not what mattered most in Robichaux’s life.
The boys he turned into men were.
“We had a student who left here. His wife was having a baby, and the umbilical cord was wrapped around its neck,” Robichaux recalled in his 2008 interview with ultoday.com. “He called back and told me that he understood what we say all the time, that life’s challenges are much larger than baseball.
“Another player called me crying, because his mother had a stroke. We’re preparing them for life, not baseball.
“I tell the players all the time, go home and ask your parents how a curve ball helps their marriage,” Robichaux added. “Baseball in itself isn’t important, but the lessons in baseball are important in their lives.”
It’s why the coach whose relationship with God was personal but not private never stopped preaching.
On the same weekend he suffered his attack, Robichaux – grandfather to nine – and the Cajuns hosted a father-son camp at UL.
Until the very end, he coached. He offered testimony. And he cared. He really cared. Because without that, none of it meant anything.
“That’s the most important ingredient, care,” Robichaux told ultoday.com in 2008. “You can’t write a check with your mouth that your body can’t cash. If you say it and don't believe it, people will know.
“The day I walk out of coaching, nobody will be able to say that I didn’t care. The athletes won’t say I didn’t care. You don’t care about them because they pitch 90, or hit it out of the park. You care about them.”