Jim Gazzolo column: Coach Rob tie that binds ULL, McNeese

Published 12:00 pm Thursday, May 19, 2022

There are very few things McNeese State and Louisiana-Lafayette fans can agree upon.

One loves red, the other blue. One calls the Cajun school the University of Louisiana, the other still likes to refer to them as ULL, if not something worse.

But there is one thing they can agree on, and that’s the impact of Tony Robichaux on each school.

Email newsletter signup

Robichaux was a baseball coach for both universities, starting his career at McNeese before moving east on the interstate to Lafayette. He left his mark in both places as the winningest coach in the history of each program.

“He was awesome, years ahead of his time and the game,” said Todd Butler who started his coaching career as an assistant at McNeese for Robichaux.

“He made an impact on young men that was more than baseball. His players adored him.”

Butler is back at McNeese in an administrative role over athletics and links the past with the present. He will witness a changing of the guard, possibly as early as this weekend.

That’s because Robichaux’s record of 263 wins at McNeese over eight seasons is about to be passed by current Cowboys skipper Justin Hill, who is one victory away.

Hill, who respected Robichaux so much that he named the McNeese bullpen in his honor, knows what it means to get that record.

“It is special because of him,” Hill said. “Coach Robichaux has done so much for college baseball in this state and McNeese it’s amazing. I would not be in this chair if not for what coach Robichaux did here. He was such a mentor to me.”

Robichaux died on July 3, 2019 after suffering a heart attack two weeks earlier and while still winning games at Louisiana-Lafayette. His career record at the two schools stands at 1,173-765-2.

He was 57 years old.

“He’s a better man than he is a baseball coach and he’s a great baseball coach,” Barbe High baseball coach Glenn Cecchini said at the time of Robichaux’s death. “I have the utmost respect for him. I know everybody does. He’s an unbelievable human being.”

Cecchini was Robichaux’s roommate while at ULL.

At 24 years of age, Robichaux took over a struggling McNeese program in 1987. At the time there were no lights at the field, no fences and few stands. There was also little if any money for the program.

So Robichaux was part coach, part salesman. He developed the Pinch-Hitters Club to help raise funds for his program.

One story has it that he decided to sell the light standards to fans in an effort to help pay for them. After they were all sold once he resold them a second time and then finally a third.

“He did everything he could for McNeese,” Butler said. “He wanted to turn the program into a national power.”

Despite taking the Cowboys to two regionals and winning a record 41 games in his last season of 1994, Robichaux could never turn McNeese into a national baseball brand. Instead, he did that in Lafayette.

Still, he always keep the Cowboys close to his thoughts. Robichaux admitted he rooted for McNeese except on days when they were the Cajuns’ foe.

“I want them to do well,” Robichaux once said before a game against the Cowboys. “That school will always be a big part of me and my career.”

And he loved coming over to play McNeese or back to Lake Charles in general, making sure every trip included a stop at Darrell’s for one of its special sandwiches.

Hill knows the day is coming when he will pass the legendary coach on the McNeese win total, but his emotions will be mixed.

“I know the number, but I don’t know how I will feel at the time,” Hill said. “I’m sure I will have a lot of different thoughts, mostly about him. I just don’t know what to think.”

As for Hill passing him in the Cowboys record book, Robichaux likely would not have a problem with that.

“They have a good one in that guy,” Robichaux said of Hill. “I think he will win a lot of games there when it’s all over.”

Robichaux even got that right.

Jim Gazzolo is a freelance writer who covers McNeese State athletics for the American Press. Email him at jimgazzolo@yahoo.com