Editor's note: This is the eighth story in a series on the 2018 inductees to the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. Formal induction ceremonies are Saturday in Natchitoches.
Many successful coaches started as football minds who become great leaders.
Lewis Cook was a great leader who eventually became one of the best high school football coaches Louisiana has ever produced.
The composure the 2018 Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame inductee has displayed on the sideline of high school football games over the past four decades is now legendary.
And so is his record, winning tradition and, perhaps most of all, the respect he’s gained from his players, friends, colleagues and foes alike.
“Lewis Cook was a natural leader,” said his lifelong friend Ronald Prejean of Rayne. “He wasn’t loud, nothing fancy about him, but he always had a presence about him.”
Prejean remembers Cook’s leadership qualities being displayed long before he ever imagined coaching in a game — one of the things that helped Cook reach the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame as a member of the Class of 2018 that will be enshrined Saturday in Natchitoches.
Prejean said he can recall their days at Rayne High School when Cook, even in the ninth grade, had a knack for making people around him feel comfortable because of his genuineness.
“People respected him," Prejean said. "He always had a kind word for people, whether you were a standout athlete or a member of the chorus."
But don’t confuse his calm demeanor and composure for a lack of fire to compete.
Like in his younger coaching days, Cook still dabbled in playing softball even after breaking his leg. He couldn't stay away, telling his wife he was just doing it for fun.
"She said, ‘You don’t ever do anything for fun. You always have to win,’ ” he said with a laugh.
Underneath his calm exterior is an intensity many overlook.
“The drive to win and be the best, I think it’s always been there,” Cook said. “That’s how my dad was.”
In Cook’s mind, he’s a nice combination of each of his parents — Lewis Sr. and Josie.
On one hand, there was his father’s high standards. But his mother didn't sweat the details.
The result was an even-tempered young coach who just didn’t accept losing.
In 33 years as a head coach, Cook has led his teams to 31 playoff appearances, reaching the semifinals 18 times and state final 12 times. He's won four state championships and his career playoff record is 75-27.
His career record of 344-82 puts Cook as Louisiana's third-winningest active coach behind John Curtis' J.T. Curtis and St. Thomas More’s Jim Hightower.
Cook is No. 5 overall, just one win behind Don Shows. He needs 23 more wins to jump into third ahead of Haynesville legend Red Franklin.
For the past two decades, few have witnessed the true greatness behind Cook’s success more than defensive coordinator James McCleary.
“He’s a man of integrity and his leadership is about sacrifice,” McCleary said. “He’s willing to put his own interest behind what’s important and what’s best for everybody."
McCleary met Cook in the early 1990s in Cook's second stint as a Louisiana-Lafayette assistant coach.
By that time, Cook had already turned Crowley High School from a perennial loser into the Class 3A state champions in 1989.
After serving as the Ragin’ Cajuns’ offensive coordinator from 1992-95, Cook returned to Acadia Parish to coach his three sons — Lewis III, Jeff and Stu — at Notre Dame of Crowley.
During his two-plus decades there, Cook has a record of 244-37 with three state titles. He was the first coach to take two different teams to the Superdome Classic.
Over the years, McCleary said many confused Cook’s lack of outward emotion.
That hidden emotion, however, rarely results in anger.
“I do think he is an emotional coach,” McCleary said. “He does a good job of keeping it inside. He’s mentally ready and prepared to do the right things.”