Football: Ragin' Cajun coaches mourn loss of UL assistant Looney
Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, August 5, 2020
Rob Sale’s office in the UL football facility is adjacent to the one that belonged to D.J. Looney, the 31-year-old Ragin’ Cajuns assistant football coach who died Saturday following a heart attack that happened during a team workout at Cajun Field.
So is Michael Desormeaux’s.
From their respective perches, both Cajun coaches got an inside perspective as to how Looney — a former Mississippi State offensive lineman and a full-time UL assistant who worked with the o-line — touched so many.
“He has players coming in and out of his (office) every day,” Sale said. “Not just o-linemen; DBs, d-line, kickers from Australia.”
For the first six months or so they worked together, Sale — UL’s offensive coordinator who worked side-by-side with Looney as its offensive line coach as well — wondered what the trick was for connecting with all of those who walked through the door.
“You got candy?” Sale joked.
In time, Sale figured out how Looney did it.
So did Desormeaux, the former Cajuns quarterback who now works as UL’s tight ends coach.
“When we had time in our office, I’d hear him on his phone every day,” Desormeaux said of Looney, who was single and had no children of his own.
“He was constantly in touch with people, and not just recruits, but people that he’d coached, people he played for, people he played with, family members.
“Everything he did he did it with a personal touch to it,” Desormeaux added Tuesday. “Looking back on it, you realize just how special it is — because he just had this uncanny ability to stay close with everyone he’s ever developed a relationship with. That’s a unique thing.”
UL head coach Billy Napier — who talked to Looney regularly during games, when he was the lone full-time Cajun assistant watching from the press box — shared similar sentiments Wednesday.
“D.J.’s a fine example of what it means to be ‘a giver,’” said Napier, who got everything from down and distance from Looney to a game-day review of the media area food spread. “I think he was always thinking of others before himself.
“He had a unique ability to sense when someone needed to be encouraged, when someone needed to laugh.
“Very positive. Great energy. Always smiling. Very bright,” added Napier, whose Cajuns open preseason camp Friday. “A very intelligent guy that understood not only the big picture game of football, but more importantly the human element part of football.”
UL assistant Looney remembered:'He always cared about you,' former Mississippi State teammate says
'WE DID EVERYTHING TOGETHER'
Looney’s relationship with Sale, both of whom were headed into their third season at UL, was as tight as any two assistants on the Cajun staff.
“We did everything together,” Sale said. “It starts with coaching the o-line together.”
But it hardly ended there.
“When there was down time,” Sale said, “you’d go in his office and put your feet up.”
The two former college o-linemen walked together, at lunchtime during the spring and in the morning during the season.
At least once every other week, if not each week, Looney — also an ex-assistant at East Mississippi Community College, Central Arkansas and his alma mater Mississippi State, and a one-time graduate assistant at Georgia — was at the Sale home for dinner.
“My kids call him Uncle Looney,” said Sale, a former LSU center and guard from Monroe and a married father of two young sons who previously coached offensive lines at McNeese, Georgia, UL Monroe and Arizona State.
When the two left work they often found themselves talking on the phone during their respective drives home.
“There’s never a down second,” Sale said.
“You’re planning the next thing. There’s obviously players that have things they need to correct … and you’re talking about them and the plan of action we’re gonna take and how we’re gonna develop that person.”
GoFundMe account created
A GoFundMe account to help Looney’s immediate family cover funeral, burial and death expenses, with any remaining funds going to the family, has been established at https://www.gofundme.com/f/memorial-fund-for-funeral-expense
Yet from the food they liked to the movies they watched to the music they enjoyed to their favorite game — blackjack — to their coaching philosophy, Sale and Looney almost always were in sync.
“We had the same views on things in life, just anything and everything, from political to how to handle a player’s situation,” Sale said.
“We were never, ever on opposite ends of the spectrum.”
Colleagues were amazed by how the two clicked.
“It was a special thing to get to witness every day,” Desormeaux said, “because they complemented each other so well, and they made sure they always deflected the praise to the other one.
“The running joke whenever we had recruits on (campus) — Rob would say he’s D.J.’s assistant, D.J. would say he’s Rob’s assistant. … They coached kids, and they reached kids, in different ways, and it complemented each other so seamlessly that you just got the best of both worlds.
“They were really good about when one of them got on a kid, the other one came behind him,” Desormeaux added. “They were just so synchronized in everything they did, it was like watching the right hand and the left hand.”
The Cajuns, who went 11-3 last season with a LendingTree Bowl win over Miami (Ohio), were the beneficiaries.
“To watch it happen was beautiful, and it was something that obviously paid off for us on the field,” Desormeaux said. “But it’s something that you knew paid off with the kids, too, in the relationships they developed with those two guys.”
Napier was a witness as well.
“Those guys are like long-lost brothers,” the Cajuns head coach said while speaking publicly about Looney’s passing for the first time.
“Initially, when we first got together, they just hit it off from the jump. I think their personalities complement each other. Certainly their strengths and weaknesses complement each other.
“They made each other better, and certainly their backgrounds … both being SEC players, both having experience coaching in the SEC … made for an incredible duo.
“One of the people that this will be most difficult on will be Coach Sale,” Napier added. “I think our players sense that, certainly our staff senses that, and they’ve done a great job of trying to be there for Coach Sale.”
A SPECIAL LINE
Sale’s and Looney’s Cajun offensive line last season was a particularly special one.
Two members of it, Robert Hunt and first team All-American Kevin Dotson, were selected in the 2020 NFL Draft, with Hunt going to the Miami Dolphins in the second round and Dotson to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the third round.
Guard O’Cyrus Torrence was a Freshman All-American.
Blocking for running backs Elijah Mitchell, Trey Ragas and seventh-round Miami Dolphins draft pick Raymond Calais Jr. along with quarterback Levi Lewis, the line helped UL break school records for total offense with 6,918 yards, total touchdowns (69), most rushing yards (3,604), most rushing touchdowns (42) and most passing touchdowns (27).
In 2018, all five starters on the line for a Cure Bowl offense that produced 5,940 total yards opened all 14 games.
“This comes back to the old quote that ‘You can accomplish great things when no one cares who gets the credit,’” Desormeaux said. “The combination of (Looney) and Rob Sale … you know, I don’t know I’ve seen two people who weren’t related that were more on the same page and more in tune … than those two guys were.”
Yet Sale wasn’t sure at first if the relationship would even work.
“O-line is a territorial position,” Sale said.
“Coach Napier came here and said he wanted to do two o-line coaches; ‘What do you think about that?’ … And I’m thinking, ‘I don’t need no help. I’ve coached it at Georgia by myself. I’ve coached it at McNeese by myself. All these places, by myself. I’ve been perfectly fine.’
“I kind of took it as a shot to my ego, you know?” Sale added. “But I couldn’t have asked for a better fit and a better person to do it with.”
HE 'NEVER HAD A BAD DAY'
Looney and Sale always had each other’s back.
Not that Sale often needed to defend his fellow o-line coach.
Because even when Looney got on a player, Sale said, “You can’t be mad at him for more than five minutes.”
It’s just how Looney was, from the recruiting trail to the practice field to game day.
“He was just the kind of guy that never had a bad day,” Desormeaux said.
“There are maybe some (other) people like that. But the special thing was he never let anyone else have a bad day.
“He had this type of persona that everyone who knew him felt like they had a special relationship with him,” Desormeaux added. “And that’s a rarity, I think, that you just can’t find in people.”
After he died, Looney’s mother and father traveled from their home in Birmingham, Alabama — where he played at Oak Mountain High — to Lafayette.
They spent part of their time in town visiting the office where their son once sat — the same place that spurred so many memories for Sale and Desormeaux, from how he recruited players to how he nurtured those under his watch as a conduit to older Cajun coaches.
“Recruiting is building relationships,” Desormeaux said, “and that’s what he did better than anyone I think I’ve ever met.
“His personality made it just such a natural fit for him. He loved what he did, and it showed. … But it wasn’t just the football. It was the relational part of it. He absolutely loved coaching these kids, and that’s what you hope every coach gets into it for.”
Yet Looney was as comfortable in a recruit’s home — he worked much of Mississippi, parts of central Louisiana including Alexandria and Acadia Parish including Crowley and Rayne for UL — as he was working the floor at a donor function.
“There are just so many voids that are going to be left with him gone,” Desormeaux said. “Part of it, for sure, was his daily joy. That’s something I know we’ll all miss.”
Sale, who like Napier was among those leading the mourning at a private service for the Cajun team and Looney’s parents last Monday, knows that perhaps as well as anyone Looney left behind at UL.
It may be why Sale said that on Tuesday he “caught myself going through my phone and getting ready to call a man that I had just spoke about at a memorial service.”
“I know Coach Looney, if he was here, would sit there and say, ‘I learned so much from Rob Sale’ … when it’s totally, totally the opposite,” the Cajuns’ offensive coordinator said. “It’s, ‘I learned so much from Coach Looney.’
“Ohhhh, I’m gonna miss him,” Sale added, his voice breaking. “Gonna miss him.”