Baseball: Cajuns' Robichaux was 'fierce competitor,' but helped LSU before 2000 national title game
Glenn Guilbeau, Lafayette Daily Advertiser, July 4, 2019
UL baseball coach Tony Robichaux (right) and LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri (center) are shown with the umpires during the 2017 Wally Pontiff Jr. Classic. (Photo: Advertiser file photo)
BATON ROUGE — The Ragin' Cajuns and LSU's Tigers were strange bedfellows to say the least when the NCAA decided to have the two rival baseball programs share the same hotel at the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska, in 2000.
The Cajuns were a rising program under fifth-year coach Tony Robichaux, and at their first CWS, having upset South Carolina on the road in the Super Regional, 7-1 and 3-2, after losing the opener, 6-3, to become the first and last Sun Belt Conference team to reach Omaha. LSU was after its fifth national championship in 10 years under coach Skip Bertman.
Both teams and fan bases often crossed paths in the lobby on the way to and from games or practices and meals, but there were no incidents. They never met on the field because they were in different brackets.
"I do remember bumping into Tony a few times," Bertman said Wednesday. "In fact, he helped me."
Robichaux died Wednesday at the age of 57 after two heart surgeries.
"This is so sad," Bertman said, "We lost a great one. And not just a great coach in Louisiana, but a great coach in the country. He was a great coach and a great man. He touched a lot of young people's lives."
And even though his team had just been eliminated in Omaha with a 19-9 loss to Stanford in the semifinals of the 2000 CWS, Robichaux did not mind helping Bertman.
"Not a lot of coaches would've done that," Bertman said. "Their fans probably wouldn't have liked it. I know they were all over us whenever we played there."
Had the Cajuns beat Stanford and then beat it in again, they would have met LSU in the national championship game on Saturday, June 17. Stanford had beaten the Cajuns, 6-4, in the opener before ULL defeated San Jose State, 6-3, and, 5-4, in the losers' bracket to advance.
Former LSU head coach Skip Bertman led the Tigers to the College World Series in 1986. (Photo: Copyright 2000 The Times Shreveport)
"We were going to play Stanford for the championship, and he didn't mind sharing some things about that team," Bertman said. "He was very helpful. He had picked up a lot of things that he didn't mind sharing with me."
LSU beat Stanford, 6-5, to win the national championship.
"Getting ULL to Omaha in 2000 was something I consider a tremendous feat," Bertman said. "He really rebuilt that program into a great program."
The Cajuns almost reached Omaha again in 2014 when they hosted a Super Regional for the first time and took the opener over Ole Miss, 9-5, before losing the next two, 5-2 and 10-4. The Cajuns still finished 58-10.
"That was a great team," Bertman said. "That team nearly went to Omaha. He was an incredible coach. His teams were always very competitive. I'm so sorry for his family and his players. He was a great one. He did a fantastic job rebuilding McNeese State (1987-94). Then he built up ULL."
LSU coach Paul Mainieri and Robichaux brought back regular-season games between the schools in 2008 after a brief period when the two teams did not play.
"I will always cherish those match-ups between the Cajuns and Tigers," Mainieri said Wednesday. "Tony lived a life of profound significance, and he will be missed by all of us."
Robichaux had many intense battles with South Alabama coach Steve Kittrell from 1995 through 2011 when Kittrell retired. The two schools dominated the Sun Belt over much of that time.
"We were enemies on the field, but we had great respect for one another," Kittrell said Wednesday. "He was a fierce competitor, and I can't think of a more fierce rivalry than what we had. We had to be escorted out of their place one time. When we stepped between the lines in Lafayette, we knew it was game on. We had some great, hard-fought games, but Tony and I remained friends."
Robichaux presented Kittrell with a rod and reel during his retirement season in 2011. Prior to that, Robichaux and his family stayed at Kittrell's home in the Mobile, Alabama, area, while several Cajuns players stayed in the South Alabama team's clubhouse after evacuating Lafayette from a hurricane.
"I'm so sad. He was too young," Kittrell said. "College baseball lost one of the really good ones on and off the field."