Ragin’ Cajun Surprise: Near Berth in College World Series
Tony Robichaux, head baseball coach at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, explains the unlikely season and his deeply held beliefs.
The University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s baseball team nearly made the College World Series this year — despite losing eight players from 2014’s starting lineup. While head coach Tony Robichaux did not want this season to be a rebuilding one, even he was surprised at how far his team went: the Baton Rouge Super Regional against top-ranked Louisiana State University.
What matters more to Robichaux than winning seasons, however, is the effort his players put into the game and, even more importantly, who they are as young men. The five-time Sun Belt Conference coach of the year emphasizes that outward actions are not enough for a boy to become a man; an inner transformation is needed.
This inside-out mentality is what drives Robichaux’s coaching, which places God’s glory above human glory and eternal wisdom above passing fads. The winningest baseball coach in the history of UL-Lafayette knows that even the longest and best baseball career will fly away like a homerun into the stands, while God’s word endures forever.
Robichaux spoke with Register correspondent Trent Beattie just before the College World Series was getting under way in Omaha, Neb. After more than a week of competition, Virginia and Vanderbilt will open their best-of-three series for the national championship today.
You almost made the College World Series this year. What do you think of that and of the season overall?
Our guys did a great job coming back from losing eight players in the 2014 Major League Baseball Draft. Six of those eight players were juniors, so with all the young players left or coming in as freshman, we had a lot of catching up to do.
A lot of people wouldn’t have been surprised if this past season had turned into a rebuilding one. However, our major desire was not to let that happen. We didn’t want to throw away this year in the hope of doing well next year. I do have to be honest, though, and say that I did not expect we’d finish just two games from going to Omaha.
At the season’s midpoint we were 15-13. From then on, we just took off and played way beyond what was expected of us. We made it through a tough Houston Regional, beating Rice twice and Houston once. Then it was on to the Baton Rouge Super Regional against top-ranked LSU, where we lost by one run in the first game and three in the second game.
I’ve heard that your rivalry with LSU can be pretty intense.
Our programs have the highest respect for each other. Paul Mainieri is one of the best coaches in the nation, so you know you’re in for a challenge whenever you go up against him. It was an honor to take what could have turned into a rebuilding season and instead play very well against LSU at their home stadium for the greater part of the two games.
With that said, Lafayette is only about 50 minutes away from Baton Rouge, so with our fans and their fans mixing together in a stadium with a capacity of 10,000-plus, things can get heated. It’s one of the most intense rivalries in college baseball.
You and Mainieri both have more than 1,000 career coaching wins. Do you find that most coaches who have a lot of wins don’t actually aim for winning per se, but are “process coaches” who emphasize preparation and execution?
You have to master the fundamentals in order to be good at anything. You can’t place the wins before the work; you have to work from the inside out to get where you want to be. The victories only come after you’ve done the right things first. Winning is a by-product of doing a little bit right each day.
However, I don’t think coaches should be judged on victories, but on how their players are doing in life five or 10 years after leaving college. Did the boys who entered your school become men who put God first, family second and themselves last? Are they leaders who take what you’ve given them and given that to others? Those are the standards that matter.
I don’t want to produce a bunch of players with only athletic courage, because that comes easily to young men. What I want to do is produce virtuous men who have moral courage. That’s the real test of a man: whether he has the strength to say and do the right things out of inner conviction when others are expecting him to lower his standards and go the easy route of the world.
Do you have a tough time getting that message across to your players?
Players today are inundated with lies from the culture at large, like never before. There have always been false philosophies of happiness, but the intensity with which those philosophies are being pushed on young people today is unreal. They’re told over and over, through all kinds of media, that if you drink this, eat this, wear this, drive this or do this, you’ll be a man.
Because of these false messages, so many kids think they can walk in and be successful at something without any work. They want a shortcut or quick fix to everything, not realizing that the way to get the most out of life is to give the most of yourself.
This is why it’s important for coaches to be transformational ones rather than transactional ones. A transactional coach gives something to get an outward result, while a transformational coach wants not just a visible result, but an actual change on the inside of the players he works with.
This inside-out mentality has been written on from an athlete’s perspective by Thomas Wurtz of Varsity Catholic in the book Compete Inside, which I endorsed with comments on the back cover.
How has your Catholic faith helped you coach?
It has helped in so many ways, you can’t count them all. One of the things I tell my players is: If you read the Bible cover to cover, there’s no mention of how to be a great baseball player, but you will find countless teachings on how to be a great man. God’s standards are so different than those of the culture today.
Another thing I ask my players is: If you’re getting your SUV or truck washed before going on a date, and then you see a mud puddle in the road, what do you do? They all know, in that case, you avoid the puddle. Then I ask: If you don’t have anyone to impress, have been off-roading in that same vehicle and then see a mud puddle, what do you do? They all know you drive right through it. Why? Because you’ve been desensitized to filth, so when you encounter more filth, you don’t even see it for what it is.
The same concept is true morally: When you’re swimming in filth, you end up not seeing it for what it is. That’s why any music played during practice or as walk-up songs in games, or any movies to be shown on the team bus, must be approved before running. If we are going to be a quality baseball program, we have to be so in every aspect. A little dirt here and little dirt there is not going to fly, because, before you know it, we’ll be a mess.
Being a complete mess is the extreme, but even if you do your best to avoid filth all week, there will be negative things you encounter in our world. That’s why it’s so refreshing to go to Mass on Sunday, especially after having gone to confession, if necessary. God forgiving you through the priest and then giving his own body and blood to you through the priest — you can’t get any better than that. That’s the ultimate in life.
Father Bryce Sibley is the chaplain at Our Lady of Wisdom Church and Catholic Student Center in Lafayette. Do you get to attend his Masses?
Father has said Mass for the team during the week, and Catholics on the team have gone to his Sunday Masses. However, on the road, those same players — along with their parents, boosters and my assistant coach — get on the team bus and go to Mass wherever we can. We love Father Sibley, who has a busy ministry on campus — the same campus he was a student on in the 1980s.
The UL campus ministry is a helpful reminder that what the world glorifies should not be given much attention and that the glory of God is all-important. Any young person searching for true glory should look at the cross of Christ to see the supreme example of self-sacrifice. That’s what true glory is about.
We’re so quick to avoid crosses, but we don’t realize they’re gifts from God. The whole point of humiliations is to become humble, so that we can learn something and live by God’s standards, not our own. When arrogance prevails, we shut ourselves off from the truth and become slaves to the lies of the world. That’s why I tell my players that the letters in the word “ego” stand for “edging God out.”
‘What we’ve done for Christ through others will be what has lasting importance.’
Do you find it difficult to be humble when fans tell you how great you are?
Sometimes when I go to speaking engagements, they do what seems like a 30-minute intro about me being the winningest coach in school history, going to the College World Series in 2000, and other things. I just want them to say who I am and then let me talk about something other than myself. I don’t like it when people walk up to me, all nervous, as if they are about to meet an important person. I’m not perfect, but I do know what’s important in life, so I like to share that with others.
I’ve been blessed to have the opportunity to spend a lot of time with my own sons, Justin and Austin, who both played on my teams. Because of my job, I had missed a good number of their high-school games, but when they got to college, we were around each other a lot, so we were able to make up for what we had missed. Now Justin is married with one child, and Austin was one of our players drafted last year.
Baseball is so similar to life in general. There are many challenges: The ball can bounce the wrong way, the umpire can make a bad call, the weather can be awful, but you shouldn’t get caught up in what’s out of your hands. Despite all the seeming unfairness, God has things under control, in baseball and in all of life.
This was brought home to the team in a captivating way a couple years ago, when Rich Donnelly told us his “Chicken Runs at Midnight” story. You know for certain when you hear it that God is with us even after great losses and that the body of Christ is still united, even after the deaths of loved ones. In the final analysis, what we’ve done for Christ through others will be what has lasting importance.
Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.