Baseball: Robichaux has a reason for 25 seasons as Cajuns coach + SBC T. - Troy Game - Photo Gallery
Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, May 25, 2019
It was mid-February and the UL baseball team had just finished playing its third outing in the first non-conference series of its 2019 season, against nationally ranked Texas on M.L. “Tigue” Moore Field at Russo Park.
Announced attendance over the weekend was more than 16,000, including 5,000-plus for each of the three games, and actual attendance was quite close to that.
“This is one of the greatest places,” UL coach Tony Robichaux said as he stood in The Tigue. “People always ask me, ‘Why’d you stay?’ ”
Robichaux’s answer, at the start of his 25th season as head coach of the Ragin’ Cajuns: “‘Why would you go anywhere else?’ You can get to Omaha from here. The conference is good. And people like this, showing up.’ … I’ve got people from the Longhorn Network, I’ve got other people telling me, ‘This is the best atmosphere I’ve ever been in.’”
After playing at McNeese State and UL in the early 1980s, the man from Crowley arrived at UL from McNeese, where he was head from 1987-94, for the 1995 season.
Since then, Robichaux has always figured, there's no reason to leave.
He made it to Omaha for the College World Series in 2000, and Robichaux has continued to firmly believe the mid-major Sun Belt Conference’s Cajuns could some day make their way back from Lafayette.
They’ve come close a couple times.
In 2014, when UL went 58-10 and was ranked No. 1 heading into the postseason, it made it to an NCAA Super Regional and beat Ole Miss in its opener, needing just one more victory to return. Instead, the Rebels rallied to win the last two games in the best-of-three series and eliminate the Cajuns on UL’s own home field.
In 2015, UL again made it to a Super Regional, but this time it dropped back-to-back games against LSU in Baton Rouge.
All in all, the Cajuns have played in eight more Regionals since that fateful 2000 run.
'IT'S GAME WEEK'
So as their 2019 season was about to get underway, expectations naturally were high and hopeful when — around 8 a.m. on the Monday before the Cajuns’ opener against Texas — Robichaux’s phone rang.
On the other end of the line was his eldest son, Justin, who like youngest son, Austin, played for Robichaux at UL.
Justin Robichaux greeted his father with these words: “‘Dad, it’s game week.’”
“I think he stills gets pumped up,” Robichaux said.
He never wants to show it, never wants anyone to know it.
“I tell this to the players all the time: ‘Practice day is for me. I’m gonna be all over you on practice time,’” he said. “Game day? The only thing I really try to do on game day is control the way they think.
“If I see them throttled up too much I’ve got to get them down. … The less coaching I do on game day, I think, the better we are. ”
Robichaux is not real big on co-dependency.
He prefers to keep the game a game. He prepares his players, then gets his most satisfaction watching them do what they’ve been taught. And he wants his players to enjoy themselves, as best they can, over the course of a 56-outing season, not make it a miserable experience.
The work, Robichaux figures, is done in practice; the games should be fun.
And his idea of a really good time is an opportunity to test his eyes and see if what he saw back in the fall matches what he’s watching in the spring.
THE MENTAL SIDE
It’s that kind of thinking that helped to draw pitcher Gunner Leger to UL.
A fifth-year senior in 2019, the product of Barbe High in Lake Charles was the Sun Belt Conference’s Pitcher of the Year in 2017.
“I came here because, obviously, of the tradition this place has, and Coach Robe, as a pitching coach, and the history he’s (had),” Leger said.
“He’s so big on the mental side of things. I don’t know if we own a radar gun. He’s not big on mechanics, or anything like that.”
Rather, it’s all about doing things by the book.
The one written by Robichaux.
“We have binders that are about that thick,” Leger said, spreading his hands, “with all kinds of stuff — reading hitters, how to approach a game, how to control a game, how to pitch in certain situations.
“And I always thought I knew how to do that. I thought that was my niche. You know, I never really threw hard. I had to change speeds and do different things — go in and out, and up and down.
“But he took that to a whole ’nother level for me,” Leger said. “He made me light years better. And he does that with everybody.”
Also a senior in 2019, starting first baseman/outfielder Daniel Lahare played only two seasons under Robichaux after transferring from Delgado Community College.
But as Robichaux prepared for season No. 25 at UL, Lahare already had learned a lot from the deeply religious coach who has a pocketful of parables, plenty of favorite sayings and — for a those around long enough to know — a penchant for repeating himself when there is a point to be made.
“He has a lot of wisdom,” Lahare 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 impart everything that he knows to all of his players.
“But the biggest thing he’s really imparted onto me,” Lahare added, “is being able to quickly adapt to every situation, but also being able to slow the game down at the same time.”
So when Opening Night rolled around this year, Robichaux — much like on any game night — was not too high, not too low, just taking it all in, slow and easy.
Sure, he very much looked forward to it. But he wasn’t about to wear it on his sleeve.
“I do (get excited),” Robichaux said at the time, “but I have to watch what I do because they take on my demeanor most of the time.
“I’m not a real big jump person, and not a real big emotional person. … I really believe in trying to stay even-keeled.”
Even if the opponent is a college baseball blueblood like Texas, which incidentally went 27-27 in 2019, Robichaux refuses to be awed by what he faces.
“I don’t care what kind of plane you came in here on,” he said. “I really don’t care how nice your shoes are.
“I mean, when (the umpire) says ‘Play ball,’ it’s me and you for nine innings. It ain’t about your shoes or your plane anymore.
“Now if I can get our players to play with that mentality,” Robichaux added, “we can do some damage.”
A ROUGH SEASON
As it turned out, however, UL didn’t do nearly enough damage in 2019.
For much of the season, the feeling was more like a train wreck than all steam ahead on the railroad to Omaha.
Injuries hampered UL’s pitching staff, with a handful of Cajun arms — Leger’s among — either too hurt to be fully effective or too injured to throw at all. Bats came around late, but most of the year it was a real struggle at the plate for UL.
The Cajuns opened 1-7, with the only win during that stretch coming in its third game against Texas.
That prompted a game of catchup they never could win.
UL rallied with a five-game win streak to get to 6-7, and later made it to 10-11, but it didn’t get to .500 until early April.
A mid-April win over nationally ranked LSU put them at .500 a second time, this time at 20-20.
But a seven-game losing streak followed, and UL never would make it above .500 during the year.
It went into the Sun Belt Tournament last week as the No. 8 seed at 27-29, and after beating Appalachian State but losing to Georgia Southern on Wednesday and Troy on Thursday it finished 28-31 — the Cajuns’ first losing season since 2012.
'WE'VE ALL GOT CRITICS'
Before getting started this season, Robichaux understood the reality.
Over time, he’s experienced the ups, the downs and more of the in-betweens than most ever do.
“You know how it is,” he said when asked back in February about his long stay at UL. “There’s an old saying: 'If you don’t want any critics, then don’t do anything,' right?
“So, you know, being 25 years, or whatever it is, on the front end of your career, they hope you don’t leave; on the back end of your career, they say you’ve been here too long.
“So, you know, we’ve all got critics,” he added then. “And winning and losing brings the critics out. But … our plan is to grow boys to men.”
Always has been, always will be.
“That will never tire me out,” Robichaux said. “Our biggest purpose is to make sure we teach them how to use the game, not let the game use them.”
It’s a Robe-ism, one of many.
As for the wins and losses, Robichaux is proud of his program’s long-term record, replete with the Regional and Super Regional appearances and that one trip to the College World Series.
What’s missing is obvious.
“The only one thing that’s lacking is a national championship,” the Cajuns coach said, reiterating something he’s suggested when passing milestone after milestone along the way. “So, to be quite honest with you, that’s what we’re chasing.”
The pursuit proved fruitless this season.
For a third straight year, Robichaux admittedly will spend Memorial Day in a sour mood as the Cajuns do not hear their name when the NCAA Tournament field is unveiled.
Yet, he knows what it takes to get what he wants.
“There’s gonna be a process that you’re gonna have to go through to get to that (title) level,” Robichaux said as the season was about to get to begin. “And some people, at the end of the year, are left standing national champions, mainly because they went through the process that it took to get to that point.
“And sometimes it can be pretty. Sometimes the process can be ugly.”
'WE RAN THE FANS OUT'
The Cajuns didn’t win any beauty contests this year, and Robichaux knows it.
The consequence has been that the critics raised their collective voice, so much so that some of them stopped showing up at a stadium that just a few years ago received an $18.5-million face lift.
“We ran the fans out of here at one time,” Robichaux said shortly before heading to Conway, South Carolina, for the SBC tourney.
“And I know it was tough to look at. … I appreciate the fans that did stay. We really do. And I understand the ones that left. I’d probably leave, too, because we played some bad baseball.
“Maybe,” Robichaux added, “we upped beer sales through it all; I don’t know. … You’d have to drink some of that away that we did out there some nights.”
Rather than drown sorrows himself, though, what the sage coach did instead was focus on the positives.
Even through the toughest of times this year, he said, “they stayed on the process, they stayed the course.”
Which, as Robichaux is reminded year after year throughout the 25 he’s been at UL, from the ones that eventually led to Omaha in 2000 to the latest that started with 16,000-plus over a weekend with Texas at The Tigue, is an absolute requisite.
Through the good, through the bad, and, yes, even through the ugly.
Click here for the 2019 SBC Tournament Photo Gallery vs. Troy.