Mistrial declared in racial discrimination trial of ex-UL-Lafayette coach _lowres

Photograph by Arthur D. LauckPicture shot on 8-12-99 DIGITAL CAMERA IMAGEUSL head football coach Jerry Baldwin. Keyword Coach

The state's top court has put an end to nearly two decades of litigation involving the University of Louisiana at Lafayette's first black head football coach, agreeing with lower courts that he was fired in 2001 due to his 6-27 record and not his skin color.

Under Jerry Baldwin, UL's football team was 2-9 in 1999, 1-10 in 2000 and 3-8 in 2001. He was let go after the third year of his four-year contract but was paid for the final year of the contract.

Former UL President Ray Authement, who was White, hired and fired Baldwin. Authement died in April.

Baldwin claimed in a 2003 lawsuit that the university’s stated reasons for his termination were a pretext and a lie to cover up racial discrimination.

UL said Baldwin was fired because of his poor overall record, a decline in football attendance and a drop in revenue, along with lackluster community support for the struggling football program that he inherited in 1999 from coach Nelson Stokley. He died in 2010.

State District Judge Tim Kelley, of Baton Rouge, dismissed Baldwin's lawsuit in 2018 following a five-day judge trial. The state 1st Circuit Court of Appeal affirmed Kelley's decision earlier this year.

A unanimous Louisiana Supreme Court denied Baldwin's appeal Wednesday without issuing written reasons.

"The courts have recognized that the University of Louisiana fired Jerry Baldwin as head football coach due to his 6-and-27 record on the field, not the color of his skin," one of the school's attorneys, Lawrence Marino, said Friday.

"The University is proud of its leadership in diversity, over many decades and continuing today, in athletics as well as academics and administration," he added.

Baldwin's attorney, former Catholic High School, UL and NFL running back Karl Bernard, said he disagrees with the Supreme Court's decision but is thankful for the opportunity to represent Baldwin.

"I have represented many clients over the years but I have never met a more honorable man than Coach Jerry Baldwin," he said. "I can honestly say that I am a better man and Louisiana is a better place because of men and women like Coach Baldwin."

The Baton Rouge-based 1st Circuit had stated in February that Baldwin's firing was motivated not by race but by his 6-27 record and a drop in attendance and revenue that threatened the future of the Ragin' Cajuns' program.

"The trial court found that Baldwin failed to show that race was the true reason for his termination; rather, ULL terminated Baldwin because of his losing record, as well as declining attendance and income that was jeopardizing ULL's Division 1A status," Circuit Judge Toni Higginbotham wrote.

Bernard had acknowledged to Kelley that Authement was not a racist, but Bernard alleged that race “played a role” in Authement's firing decision.

Higginbotham, however, said "no witness, other than Baldwin himself, indicated that they had seen or heard of any kind of racial issue while Baldwin was head coach."

Baldwin's case had many twists and turns over the years.

In 2007, an East Baton Rouge Parish jury found that school officials breached Baldwin's contract and awarded him $2 million. Jurors also decided race played a role in his firing but wasn't the sole reason for him losing his job.

The 1st Circuit threw out that verdict two years later — citing jury selection, verdict form and expert witness issues — and ordered a new trial.

Then-state District Judge Todd Hernandez ruled in 2011 that UL acted within its contractual rights in firing Baldwin. The 1st Circuit later overturned the judge, but the state Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that the university did not violate Baldwin's contract.

A second East Baton Rouge Parish jury deadlocked in 2016 on the issue of whether Baldwin was fired because he is black, setting the stage for the third trial that Kelley presided over.

Baldwin, who worked as an assistant coach at Louisiana Tech and LSU before going to UL, is a pastor at New Living Word Ministries in Ruston.

Email Joe Gyan Jr. at jgyan@theadvocate.com.