Later that evening, amid the euphoria of Southeastern Louisiana’s first Southland Conference championship, senior offensive linemen Gasten Gabriel, Marshall Paris and Geremy Wilson phoned an ally 700 miles away to share in the accomplishment.
With SLU applying the finishing touches on a perfect 7-0 run through the league with a 52-27 home victory over Nicholls State on a crisp Thursday evening, the trio’s attention turned to their former head coach, Mike Lucas, and the times they talked about enjoying such moments together.
Lucas was far away from the epicenter of SLU’s celebration that night, working on the final details of a defensive game plan for Indiana State’s season finale two days later against Southern Illinois.
For the first time since his dismal after the 2011 season, Lucas was able to feel like a small part of the program again — one where he spent a total of seven seasons, five as head coach.
“They said they remembered when they were freshmen and I told them their class would be the first at Southeastern to win the Southland Conference and get in the national playoffs,” Lucas said. “We played those guys as youngsters, and they went through some hard times. To see those guys be so successful and so dominating in the line was rewarding for me.”
More than two years since his departure, Lucas returns to Strawberry Stadium for the first time Saturday, when the first-year defensive coordinator at Northwestern State will encounter No. 11 Southeastern Louisiana at 3 p.m.
It was Lucas’ desire to have the narrative veer as far away from him and squarely onto the players for both teams. That’s consistent with his character. The 55-year-old remains unassuming and adamant about casting a shining light on the players.
But this is different, and deep down Lucas realizes it. For the first time in a coaching career that has spanned 35 years and included countless road trips, this will be different because for seven years it was home.
Lucas’ wife, Wendy, owned her own business in town. Their son, Torin, played for the Lions baseball team and, as a family, they forged lifelong friendships at First Baptist Church in Ponchatoula.
Lucas spent two years as defensive coordinator, took over on an interim basis for the last three games of the 2006 season, promoted to head coach a month later.
As it turned out, five seasons wasn’t enough time for Lucas to get SLU turned around. He finished with an on-field record of 19-40 (13 wins were vacated because of NCAA sanctions), highlighted by a 6-5 mark in 2009 that yielded state coach of the year honors.
Lucas produced a 3-8 record in what proved to be his final season, including a 31-14 victory over Nicholls State in the River Bell Classic. Two days later, Lucas was let go with a year remaining on his contract.
“It wasn’t just difficult to leave because of the football part,” he said, “but because of the family and the friendships we built there.”
Lucas said he and his wife placed a large amount of their belongings in storage, moved into a two-bedroom apartment in Katy, Texas, near family and sought divine intervention. For the first time in his coaching odyssey, Lucas wasn’t involved in college coaching and, at the urging of a friend at Houston Christian High School, he took over the school’s seventh- and eighth-grade program and led it to a 9-0 record.
“That was a lot of fun,” Lucas said. “I had a great time.”
Lucas returned to his college roots for a season at Indiana State before heeding the call of Northwestern State coach Jay Thomas to join his staff as defensive coordinator and get back into the Southland, where he has been a fixture for 26 years of his career.
The first four weeks of the season took Northwestern to Baylor and Louisiana Tech, the latter where the Demons won 30-27, but Oct. 4 represented something entirely unparalleled in Lucas’ career.
Lucas praised the job his successor, Ron Roberts, has done in raising the profile of SLU’s program to a level he envisioned. When he looked at film this week of the Lions’ fast-paced offense, Lucas saw the names of players he once recruited but is now entrusted with trying to stop.
Lucas will coach from the sideline on Strawberry Stadium’s artificial turf field, which was replaced after he left. He’ll be locked in for the duration of a game that’s expected to be dripping with intensity and passion until his own raw emotions take over afterward.
“I’m going to hug the necks of some people that mean a lot to us,” Lucas said. “It will be emotional. I gave it everything I had while I was there. I’ve got no regrets.”