Ernie Duplechin was holding the plane.
It was during a McNeese road trip to Arkansas State in the mid 1970's. Not only was it late in the season but it was also at night. That meant that the Cowboys had to worry about fog settling in around Lake Charles. It wasn't uncommon in those days for the team to be forced to fly into Houston and then bus back home.
McNeese's then-head coach Jack Doland didn't want to chance it that night in Jonesboro.
"He (Doland) was the type of coach that wanted the team to get on the bus as soon as possible so the team could beat the fog," former longtime McNeese SID Louis Bonnette recalled. "But the former sports editor of the American Press, Frank Adams, was dictating his story over the phone and he was running a little behind.
"By the time he was done the buses had left. We were able to get a policeman to drive us to the airport but halfway there there was a robbery he had to go to, so we went with him to the robbery."
The detour made Bonnette even later to the airport. Once they arrived, Bonnette didn't think the plane would still be there. Yet there it was.
"I see that plane is still on the deck and hasn't left yet," Bonnette continued. "The guys at the counter said that Coach Doland left his credit card and that I could get on a plane tomorrow. Ernie, though, was standing by the door to the plane. He wouldn't let Jack take the plane until we got on. Ernie would always do the right thing by you."
The former McNeese assistant football coach, head coach and athletic director was remembered for that and much more after passing away on Christmas Eve at the age of 88.
"Coach Dupe influenced the lives of thousands of players from high school and college," said McNeese President Dr. Daryl Burckel who played for Duplechin. "We came there as kids and he built us into men and he did that through football."
"Coach Dupe was the best there was," said former McNeese free safety Tim Harris who played from 1975-79. "He was the most influential man in my life second only to my father. He meant the world to me."
Duplechin joined the McNeese staff as a grad assistant under Les DeVall in 1965. He transitioned to assistant coach under Jim Clark and then Doland.
Duplechin made a name for himself not only as a dynamic assistant but also one of the Cowboys' most prolific recruiters, signing some of the best players in schoool history, such as All-American Rusty Guilbeau, Super Bowl champion Keith Ortego and New Orleans Saint Buford Jordan.
Duplechin also took great pleasure in recruiting the Acadiana area, in particular poaching players from the backyard of that old I-10 rival UL-Lafayette (then known as USL). In addition to Guilbeau (Sunset), Ortego (Eunice) and Jordan (Iota), there were other Acadiana stars that became starters for the Cowboys such as Robert Davenport (Sacred Heart of Ville Platte) and Tommy Tate (Port Barre).
"My parents loved Coach Duplechin," remembered Davenport who played from 1978-80. "My older brother had signed with him. My senior year I had offers from USL, Southeastern, Northeast, and Nicholls. My daddy sat me down one day and told me that I didn't have a choice in the matter. Coach Dupe was recruiting me so ‘I didn't need to worry about those other places.'"
Dupelchin also found diamonds in the rough, undersized but hard-working prospects like Burckel.
There weren't many coaches who were looking to sign the 5-foot-9 Archbishop Rummel star in the spring of 1977. Except for Duplechin.
"They flew me up over the Christmas holidays," remembered Burckel. "I brought with me a bundle of film canisters for them to watch. The next morning we go to breakfast and Coach Doland says to me ‘We really like the way you play but you are a little too short.' I had already been passed over because of my size. I asked the coach "If my eyes were an inch higher would that make it better?' He said, ‘Okay son, if Ernie thinks that much of you then there is a scholarship for you."
Duplechin also endeared himself to his players and the community for fully embracing the I-10 rivalry with UL-Lafayette (then known as USL).
"Everytime we would play USL he would always make this passionate speech," Burckel said. "He would come out and wear a shirt saying that it was butt kicking time. He would say ‘All of you kids from the Acadiana area, USL passed on you. They didn't think you were good enough for a scholarship.' He would get those guys so revved up and ready to play."
"He took that personally because of where he was from," former free safety Tim Harris said. "He did such a masterful job of recruiting right in their backyard. We knew how much it meant to him. He wanted to beat them every year very badly. During my years there, we never lost to USL. That is a badge that I gladly wear to this day."
A week before the start of the 1979 season, Duplechin went from beloved assistant coach and recruiter to head coach when Doland became the university's new president.
The transition was an extremely easy process.
"We were kind of surprised," Davenport said. "Coach Doland was a good guy but we were glad that they gave it to Coach Dupe. He was a great man, a great leader and we just wanted to follow him. It was very easy."
"It was one of those storybook things," Harris said. "There was no guess who it was going to be. The stars aligned for it. We all loved Coach Dupe and that made it easy."
That love was rooted in his personal approach to coaching, connecting with his players through his faith and just developing real relationships with his players.
"I can still see him right now standing by the door before our first home game that season against Southeastern," said former defensive tackle John Miller who played for McNeese from 1976-79. "He said, ‘I am going to stand by this door after the game, and when you walk through the door I want you to look me in the eye and tell me that you played your hardest, if you do that then win or lose I couldn't ask for anything more.' "
McNeese went 11-0 that regular season before losing in the Independence Bowl to Syracuse and future Pro Football Hall of Famer Art Monk.
Duplechin's three-year run as head coach remains one of the greatest in Cowboys history, going 28-6-1, back-to-back Southland Conference championships (1979-80), and a pair of appearances in the Independence Bowl.