Wednesday was another in a series of tough days for Paul Mainieri in the past year.
In that time, the LSU baseball coach lost his best friend from high school; his father, Demie; and on Wednesday came the news that UL baseball coach and friend Tony Robichaux had died from a June 23 heart attack and subsequent surgeries.
“It’s almost impossible to believe that I’m sitting here staring at a picture of Tony,” Mainieri said from his Alex Box Stadium office.
“Not long ago, I was going across the field to catch up and talk with him about our families … talk about the ups and downs of what we do as coaches and sharing experiences. And now, he’s gone.”
The death of the 57-year-old Ragin’ Cajuns coach left Mainieri lamenting the loss of yet another person he truly liked personally and admired as a competitor.
“I didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye to him, and that leaves you with an empty feeling,” Mainieri said. “It shows you how precious life is. ... There are no guarantees of tomorrow.
"Unfortunately, it happens to people you feel good about and like a lot. We have to enjoy each day with them and let them know that.”
When LSU lost to UL 6-5 in the Wally Pontiff Jr. Classic on April 16, little did Mainieri know it would be the last time he and Robichaux would face each other in a series that was shelved for four years after the teams had a nasty dustup in the 2002 NCAA Baton Rouge regional.
When Mainieri was hired at LSU in June 2006, one of the first things he did was to reach out to Robichaux to get the Tigers and Cajuns together on the diamond again.
At the time, Mainieri didn’t know that it would turn into a friendship the two enjoyed for 13 years.
“Tony and I made an agreement,” Mainieri said, noting he didn’t even know at the time how the bad blood started. “We were going to play with great sportsmanship, and the two teams were going to mutually respect each other and treat each other with class.
“I didn’t know him when I came to LSU, but I called and told him I thought it was ridiculous our schools weren’t playing. So, I’m proud of the fact we were able to get together and reinstate the series.”
Former LSU coach Skip Bertman fondly remembered playing against Robichaux when he was building the program at McNeese State in the late 1980s and liked what he saw from the opposing dugout.
“I noted to myself that he was a very good, young coach,” Bertman said. “He had great instincts; he moved the runners at the right time, he removed pitchers at the right time. Those instincts got even better with time and he wound up getting the job at UL.
“He took a team to Omaha, which I consider a tremendous feat,” he added. “He also won 58 games in a season, which I think is another tremendous feat.”
More importantly, Bertman said Robichaux should be remembered for what he did to help his players off the field as well as for what they did on it.
“Every day, he touched a lot of lives,” Bertman said. “He had an impact on a lot of players. Not all of them necessarily made the big leagues, but Tony had a lot to do with what they became later in their lives.
“He’s one of the great coaches, not just from our state, but in the game of baseball.”
Bertman recalled how one of his own LSU players, current Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco, got his first head coaching job at McNeese State in 1998. Robichaux coached at McNeese from 1987 to 1994.
“There was another coach there after Tony left, and later, Mike went there,” Bertman said. “Mike talked about how Tony had built the program up so much that other guys now wanted to coach there.”
Now-retired Southern University coach Roger Cador, who led the Jaguars for more than 30 years, went against Robichaux many times over the years and was always impressed with how he approached the game — whether it was at McNeese or at UL.
“Tony was a very kind, professional guy,” Cador recalled Wednesday. “On many occasions, we talked about how we could make baseball better. It wasn’t just about the schools we were at, it was about every school in this state.”
Cador said the last time he and Robichaux visited, they were the guest speakers at a youth baseball event a couple of years ago in Franklin.
“We were trying to get young people involved in baseball and educate the parents on how to support the coaches and the sport," Cador said. "Tony was always a kind person and it was fun to be in his presence.”
Playing against Robichaux’s teams was always a challenge, he said.
“They were always competitive,” Cador said. “They were aggressive; they were going to steal bases. They always had good pitchers and played good defense. They always were a tough, tough team to play … they were fundamentally sound.”
That sentiment was echoed by University of New Orleans coach Blake Dean, who went against Robichaux’s teams when he was a star player at LSU and later after taking over at UNO — a Sun Belt Conference rival of UL.
“I would define his teams as very blue-collar,” Dean said. “They were always a scrappy bunch of guys who were ready to take it out on the world.
"They played with a lot of passion and energy. But at the same time, they played the game the right way and always had a lot of fight and charisma to them.”
Like Bertman, Mainieri said he’ll remember how Robichaux impacted young lives.
“Tony and I shared a common goal in life: To help young people find their way through life and be successful,” Mainieri said. “He did what he was supposed to do and I hope I’m doing that. I know he succeeded in that at a very high level.”