SPOTLIGHT: Coaching life was much more important for Tony Robichaux

TOP SHELF LEADERS:  Tony Robichaux (in red, at right) and his LSU counterpart, Paul Maineri (in purple and gold) went through ground rules with umpires before one of the many contests between the Ragin’ Cajuns of UL Lafayette and the Tigers. Robichaux led the Cajuns to the College World Series and later,  to a No. 1 national ranking.

By DAN MCDONALD, Written for the LSWA

They go on and on, the “Robeisms” that are so famous to those who ever spent any time with Tony Robichaux.

“Work while you wait.”  “Let the way you live your life define who you are.”  “Glorify what’s important.”  “Tough times allow you to show who you are.”  “The real world doesn’t fix things for you.”  “Too many people sit down when it’s time to stand up.”  “Nothing is good or bad, it’s how you respond that makes it good or bad.”

Notice that none of these are tied directly to baseball, the sport to which Robichaux gave so much and the sport that gave him so much in return. There are obviously many that are baseball-specific – “This is a team sport until you hang a breaking ball with the bases loaded.”  “We want guys that drink out of the hose, not the guy whose mommy is bringing him a Powerade in the third inning.”  “Baseball is a game that will humble you if you don’t give it the respect it deserves.”

But the infinitely more important “Robeisms” had little to do with the game, and instead were aimed at helping people become the best version of themselves. For Robichaux, baseball was only the vehicle, something that could be used to lead, motivate, impact and inspire. To put it in familiar terms, it should be used to help people find their way around the bases before they’re called home.

“What you do should never be who you are,” the long-time coach was fond of saying, and no one ever epitomized that more. Anyone who thought of Tony Robichaux as only a baseball coach – albeit the most successful one in Louisiana history – was so regrettably mistaken.

Robichaux was called home much too early, felled by a heart attack on June 23, 2019, with further complications leading to his passing 11 days later at the young age of 57. His far-reaching baseball accomplishments earned him selection to the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in his first year on the ballot.

He is among 12 people in the LSHOF Class of 2022 to be honored Thursday, Friday and Saturday in Natchitoches. For participation opportunities and more information, visit LaSportsHall.com or call 318-238-4255.

The “Robeisms” remain, along with a book that Robichaux was working on prior to his untimely death. Fortunately, his son Justin – who played for his father, spent time in the professional ranks and now fittingly serves as pitching coach for Louisiana’s national-power softball team – did not let the book’s ideals die with him.

“I had the unique perspective to pull from my father’s lifework to complete his story and journey,” the younger Robichaux said upon the completion and publishing of “The Real Game: Overcoming Life’s Personal and Professional Challenges.”

The book is not about baseball. Nowhere in it will you find proper bunting techniques or how to grip the curveball, even though Robichaux was renowned nationwide for his ability to develop pitchers. There’s plenty of baseball in it, but the game is once again a vehicle, a metaphor for life, a symbol for how to become a servant leader.

“Life’s personal and professional challenges are the real game, not baseball,” Robichaux said in one form or another on a regular basis. “It is a game, and the game should not be anyone’s identity.”

Statements like this would sound trite coming out of most mouths. For Robichaux, it was who he was.

“I’ve never met a man with more integrity,” said longtime UL radio announcer Jay Walker. “I never met a man with higher principles. His job, he said, was to take boys and make them men, and to take men and make them better husbands and father, and he did that. Every person who was ever in that program is better now because he touched them.”

It wasn’t just the hundreds of players that he mentored, 29 of whom earned All-America status and 60 who were drafted into professional baseball. Two men, both who served as assistant coaches and who went on to success as collegiate head coaches, are prime examples of what Robichaux meant to others.

John Szefc brought a Marist team to an NCAA regional at UL’s M. L. “Tigue” Moore Field in 2000, the year that Robichaux’s Ragin’ Cajuns reached the game’s summit at the College World Series. Robichaux never forgot how hard Szefc’s team played and the character he and his players showed, and three years later he invited Szefc to join his staff as his top assistant.

“He hired a guy from New York years later when I had no experience with that area,” said Szefc, now the head coach at Virginia Tech. “I was able to work on a national stage, and Tony game me that opportunity. As I look back, I was so very fortunate that chain of events took place, and none of that takes place without Tony Robichaux.”

Not by surprise, Robichaux’s book is also not a baseball book. It’s a guide, a manual, and an instruction book for how to become a Hall of Fame man even without a 33-year coaching career and 1,177 wins.

“He was a much better man than he was a baseball coach, and make no mistake, he was a great baseball coach,” said Glenn Cecchini, his former UL roommate and now iconic prep baseball coach at Barbe High in Lake Charles. “He taught so many lessons about life. His winning on the field was just a by-product of him doing things right and teaching guys life lessons through baseball, really molding young men.”

“He would see guys for maybe five, 10 minutes, and yet he would make a significant impact on them,” said former Cajun catcher and long-time friend Ken Meyers. “They’d walk away thinking, ‘How does he live that kind of lifestyle?’  But that was who he was. He was very public with his beliefs, his morals, his values.”

The Crowley native was the seventh-winningest active coach in NCAA baseball at the time of his death. He still ranks in the top 40 all-time among Division I coaches, and only a handful of those had all their wins in their home state. His Cajun teams made 12 NCAA Regional and four Super Regional appearances along with the 2000 College World Series.

He’s the winningest coach – in any sport – in both UL and McNeese history, ironically after spending time at both schools as a pitcher during his playing career. His UL teams won 914 games along with seven Sun Belt Conference regular-season titles and four Sun Belt Tournament titles. That came on the heels of great success with the Cowboys:  263 wins in eight seasons (1987-94), the school’s first Southland Conference regular-season (1988) and tournament (1993) crowns (NCAA appearances both years), 37 All-Southland players, 13 MLB Draft picks, and a school-record 41 wins in 1994.

Those numbers were the main reason Robichaux was a “triple crown” Hall of Fame honoree in 2021-22. He was inducted into the UL Athletic Hall of Fame last fall, and into the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in January, before now earning his home state’s greatest athletic honor.

Photo courtesy UL Lafayette Athletics