Jerry Baldwin, the first black head football coach at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, was fired in 2001 because he was “the wrong color” and not because the Ragin’ Cajuns notched only half a dozen wins in his three seasons, Baldwin’s attorney told a Baton Rouge state court jury Tuesday.
But a lawyer for the University of Louisiana system and UL-Lafayette pointed to Baldwin’s record of six wins and 27 losses from 1999 to 2001 and called it the worst record at the school in 115 years.
The long-awaited trial of Baldwin’s racial discrimination claim kicked off Tuesday with opening statements from each side. Testimony will begin Wednesday in state District Judge Todd Hernandez’s courtroom. The trial is expected to last a week.
UL-Lafayette has stated that Baldwin was fired because of his poor overall record, declining football attendance and revenue and lack of community support for the struggling football program that he inherited from coach Nelson Stokley.
New Orleans lawyer Karl Bernard, who played at UL-Lafayette and in the NFL for the Detroit Lions, represents Baldwin and told the East Baton Rouge Parish jury that the stated reasons for Baldwin’s firing were a “pretext” and a “lie.” The coach, he said, received positive evaluations until the day he was terminated.
“Coach Baldwin did everything they asked him to do. He did a good job. But he was the wrong color,” Bernard argued.
Stephen Oats, one of UL-Lafayette’s attorneys, flatly rejected the notion that former President Ray Authement, who hired and fired Baldwin, is a racist.
“He knew the skin color of Jerry Baldwin when he hired him. The plaintiff’s case does not make sense,” Oats argued.
While at UL-Lafayette, a Division I-A school, Baldwin — who also worked as an assistant coach at Louisiana Tech and LSU — failed to record a win against a team with a winning record and lost to several Division I-AA schools, Oats added.
“Ray Authement did not make the decision to terminate Jerry Baldwin because of the color of his skin,” he said. “He didn’t make a racist decision.
“Why are we here?” Oats asked. “Jerry Baldwin sees the world through a racist set of glasses.”
Bernard pointed out that Baldwin’s teams lost to several larger Division I-A programs, such as LSU, in “money games” that no one expected UL-Lafayette to win.
UL-Lafayette was 2-9 in 1999, 1-10 in 2000 and 3-8 in 2001.
Bernard argued, and Oats agreed, that Baldwin inherited a bad football team from Stokley, who died in 2010.
Stokley, with a record of 62-80-1 from 1986 to 1998, had seven winning seasons and two conference championships and is the program’s winningest coach, Oats said.
Stokley’s teams, however, were 1-10 and 2-9 in his final two seasons at UL-Lafayette, respectively.
Baldwin is now a pastor at New Living Word Ministries in Ruston and principal of New Living Word school, where he also coaches.
Bernard said Baldwin could not get another college coaching job after UL-Lafayette fired him.
“The way he was terminated ended his career as a college football coach,” he told the jury.
Oats argued Baldwin’s firing was not a “death sentence” and said Baldwin made no significant efforts to get another coaching job in the college ranks.
Baldwin is financially successful, and his ministry is a tremendous success, Oats said.
An East Baton Rouge Parish jury awarded Baldwin $2 million in 2007, but a state appeals court — citing jury selection, jury verdict form and expert witness issues — tossed the verdict in 2009 and ordered a new trial.
Hernandez ruled in 2011 that UL-Lafayette acted within contractual boundaries when it fired Baldwin. A state appeals court later overturned the judge, but the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that the school did not breach Baldwin’s contract.
Baldwin was terminated after the third year of a four-year contract but was paid for the entire four-year period, the university’s attorneys have said.