Tony Robichaux, the highly regarded leader of the UL Ragin' Cajuns' baseball program for more than two decades and the all-time winningest coach in program history, has died after suffering a heart attack June 23.

He was 57 years old.

Robichaux, who attended two universities as a student-athlete and later led both baseball programs to heights never seen before, died at Oschner Medical Center in New Orleans after multiple heart surgeries.

He underwent open-heart surgery at Lafayette General Hospital a day after his heart attack then moved to Oschner General Health Center in New Orleans a few days later. He had another procedure there and was listed in critical condition. 

A prayer vigil was held Tuesday night at Russo Park featuring a rosary and then Jacob Aranza of Our Savior’s Church praying on his knees near home plate to, “Heal our coach and bring him back home.”

It wasn't to be. Instead, this man of faith entered his home on high after 57 years of intense influence on earth.

Robichaux is the all-time winningest coach at both McNeese State and UL.

He coached the Cajuns since 1995 and had 1,177 career victories. 

The Crowley native left to coach at UL after being McNeese State’s head coach from 1987-94. Robichaux played for the Cajuns from 1982-84.

During his successful tenure as UL’s baseball coach, Robichaux led the Cajuns to the one College World Series in 2000, to a No. 1 national ranking in 2014, 12 NCAA regionals, 18 winning seasons and four NCAA super regionals.

During that stretch, Robichaux coached 29 All-Americans, 90 All-Sun Belt performers and 55 All-Louisiana performers. He was the Sun Belt Coach of the Year four times and the All-Louisiana Coach of the Year six times. He was also the ABCA South Central Region Coach of the Year on four occasions.

“He’s a better man than he is a baseball coach and he’s a great baseball coach,” said his UL roommate and longtime Barbe High baseball coach Glenn Cecchini.

“I have the utmost respect for him. I know everybody does. He’s an unbelievable human being.”

Former UL player and longtime friend of Robichaux, Ken Meyers, called Robichaux "a prophet in his own town."

"He sees guys (other coaches) for five or 10 minutes and yet he makes a significant impact on them," Meyers said at a prayer vigil July 2. "They walk about thinking, ‘How does this guy live that kind of lifestyle?’ He’s very public with his beliefs, morals and values.”

LSU coach Paul Mainieri also had high praise for Robichaux.

"We visited before the (Wally Pontiff) game (in April) and I’ve always had such great respect for Tony," Mainieri said. "He’s a man of great faith. He cares about the right things. He’s a great molder of young men."

Robichaux took over a Ragin’ Cajun baseball program in 1995 that had just been hit with two years of probation by the NCAA for recruiting infractions under Mike Boulanger.

After enduring losing seasons of 21-24 and 25-33 in his first seasons, Robichaux had the Cajuns back on top with a 43-17, 22-5 Sun Belt Conference championship season in 1997.

And the rest is history.

Father’s Day 2015: UL-Lafayette’s Tony Robichaux strives to teach his team to be better men, not just better ballplayers _lowres

Advocate file photo by HILARY SCHEINUK -- University of Louisiana at Lafayette baseball coach Tony Robichaux speaks to his team before a super regional game last season at M.L. "Tigue" Moore Field in Lafayette.

Three years later, the Cajuns finished third nationally in the College World Series in Omaha.

“He’s an icon,” Arkansas State coach Tommy Raffo said. “If you think of Sun Belt baseball, you think of Tony Robichaux. As coaches, we look up to him. When he speaks, we listen. He has so much patience and time for all of us as coaches. He’s all about improving and getting better.

“He always is willing to help to make programs better. When I think of Tony, I think of first-class. Those are the things in my mind when I think of him.”

South Alabama coach Mark Calvi said he’d rank Robichaux's standing as No. 1 within the Sun Belt Conference in any sport.

“He’s been a guy that I’ve admired from afar and from up close in how he conducted himself and how his team conducted itself,” Calvi said. “He conducts himself with dignity and grace and class and composure. His teams are a reflection of all of those qualities. And honestly I’ve tried to model this program after him, because in my opinion, he’s the gold standard of the Sun Belt.

“That’s not only as a coach but as a person. He’s the gold standard person in the league. I hope the league understands how fortunate it is to have him involved for so long.”

McNeese State baseball coach Justin Hill said Robichaux was a legend both in Lake Charles and Lafayette long before he passed away.

“I’m sitting in this chair because a 24-year-old coach had the vision and built a program (in the 1980s),” said Hill, who was recruited by Robichaux, later played at LSU and has coached against the Cajuns at SLU, ULM and now at McNeese State. “ He’s an absolute legend here and he’s become a legend at UL, as well.

“I’ve gotten a full dose of Robe over the years. His program (at UL) has accomplished so much over the years that Robe doesn’t have to come play us here, but he continues to do that because he’s always been about the greater good. He’s a fierce competitor. It’s not fun sitting in the other dugout competing against him. But it’s an honor.”

In addition to building programs, current Virginia Tech head coach John Szefc said the Crowley native is also responsible for building coaching careers as well.

Father’s Day 2015: UL-Lafayette’s Tony Robichaux strives to teach his team to be better men, not just better ballplayers _lowres

Louisiana-Lafayette head baseball coach Tony Robichaux, right, talks to his son Justin, left, while he holds his daughter Evelyn before the start of the Arkansas State game at Tigue More Field Saturday March 28, 2015 in Lafayette, La. Photo by Brad Kemp/RagnCajuns.com

Szefc coached Marist, which participated in the 2000 NCAA regionals in Lafayette during Robichaux’s Omaha season, and apparently made quite an impression on Robichaux.

A few years later, Robichaux invited Szefc to join UL’s staff for a six-year stint.

“He hired a guy from New York years later when I didn’t have any experience with that area at the time,” Szefc said. “Now I was able to work on a national stage. Tony gave me that opportunity. I had some success at Marist, but that was regional.

“That doesn’t happen very often. As I look back on that now 17 years ago, I was very fortunate that whole chain of events took place and none of that takes place without Tony Robichaux.”

Szefc said the lessons learned from Robichaux were both many and long-lasting.

“I still use them today and I probably always will,” he said.

Topping that list is the unique way Robichaux handled his players.

“I learned a lot about national recruiting and dealing with fundraising, donor stuff and player personnel stuff — how to handle guys,” Szefc said. “How to develop relationships with players. Tony was always really good at being close with his players but it wasn’t a buddy-buddy thing. He was their coach. Some coaches get too close to their players.

“He treated the players like good, solid men. He demanded a lot from them and good coaches do that.

Johnson: Somewhere along the way, the Ragin’ Cajuns decided they weren’t in a rebuilding mood _lowres

RaginCajuns.com photo by BRAD KEMP -- Louisiana-Lafayette coach Tony Robichaux is congratulated by volunteer coach Daniel Freeman after he reached his 1,000th victory by defeating Alabama 6-5 at Hoover Met Stadium on Feb. 28.

He was a demanding guy, but in a good way. He pushed guys. He didn’t let them settle. There was a high standard.”

Szefc was the head coach at Maryland for five years and has been head coach at Virginia Tech for the past two, but said he’ll never forget his time under the program Robichaux built.

“I’ve said it for years,” Szefc said. “Lafayette is a baseball place. There’s a high standard of success with that program. You always knew that every single day you went to work. Obviously Tony set that and everybody else did the best they could to maintain that.

“Whatever your role was in the program, you knew what the standard was and you just felt like you had to live up to it. You had no choice, really. But it wasn’t a threatening thing. It was a good thing. You wouldn’t want to do anything that would let the guy down.”

Southeastern head baseball coach Matt Riser said he still tries to replicate the model Robichaux used in building UL’s program with his program in Hammond.

Behind the scenes: A look at Paul Mainieri, Tony Robichaux's offices and what makes them tick _lowres

Advocate photo by BRAD KEMP -- Fans frequently feel the need to tell Robichaux that his team is in their prayers, and he often receives Catholic rosaries in the mail. The note came from Sister Mary Tarcisius of the Sacred Heart along with a medal of St. Michael the Archangel. Robichaux, a deeply faithful man, keeps these mementos in his office.

“He’s truly the ultimate package,” Riser said. “Off the field, he’s about as humble and down-to-earth as they come. He’s always willing to share and do anything to make our game better. But at the same time, when you get in between the lines, he’s the biggest competitor you’re going to find.

“In all honestly, that’s what I try to instill in our student-athletes. It’s hard to find that personality who is both the ultimate competitor but also the humble, laid-back guy who is always ready to service every person he’s around. There’s not enough good things I can say about him. He’s been a mentor not only as players, but to coaches as well.”

But the aspect of Robichaux’s coaching career that will mean the most to those closest to it was the impact he had on his players.

“He’s such a strong Christian man,” Cecchini said earlier this week. “He teaches so many lessons about life. Really his winning on the field is just a byproduct of him doing things right and teaching these guys life lessons through baseball – molding young men. I have the utmost respect for him. I know everybody does.

“He’s an unbelievable human being. What he’s done to mold good Christian young men has been incredible.”

One of those players was pitcher Kraig Schambough of Carencro.

“He broadened my horizons and taught me what life was really about,” Schambough said. “It was so much more than baseball.”

Former UL All-American second baseman Jace Conrad of Lafayette High said last week that Robichaux’s influence still impacts his life on a daily basis.

“There are times in the business I’m in, it’s extremely competitive, so you fail a lot,” Conrad said. “Whenever things aren’t going my way, besides my wife and my family, the one person I think about is Coach Robe. If I give up or I get down on myself, I know Coach Robe will get pissed off at me. That’s something that sticks with me on a daily basis.

“Not only do I want to make my wife and my family proud, but I want to make Coach Robe proud.”

UL director of athletics Bryan Maggard has only witnessed Robichaux’s last two seasons. But Robichaux will have a lasting impression on him.

“I’ve always said that first and foremost he’s a developer of young men and then he coaches baseball second," Maggard said.

“Every time I just watch him whether he’s speaking publicly or speaking to our staff, or one-on-one conversation with his student-athletes, what I love about Tony is his consistency,” Maggard said Tuesday. “He’s a guy who develops young people first and then he coaches baseball. The amount of wisdom he has never ceases to amaze me.”

Robichaux is survived by his wife, Colleen Dailey, of Iota; three children, Ashley, Justin and Austin; and eight grandchildren, Lon Paul, Ava, Silvia, Liam and Olivia — the children of Ashley and her husband Lon Moody — and Evelyn and Roslyn, the daughters of Justin and his wife Leigh Ann. Austin is married to former UL volleyball player Sara Mossakowski.

Robichaux's sons both have played for the Ragin’ Cajuns (Justin from 2007-10 and Austin from 2012-14).

Email Kevin Foote at kfoote@theadvocate.com.