Coach O & The Cajun People
Angelle Terrell is a Cajun who grew up in Lafayette (the capital of Cajun Louisiana), but who moved to Baton Rouge when she got married. For those outside of Louisiana, Baton Rouge, where I live, has a French name, and it’s in the southern part of the state (where the Cajuns are), but it is not a Cajun city. Sometimes it feels like Shreveport South.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing — it’s the capital of a state, the northern half of which is Anglo Protestant — but it does give you an idea of why a Cajun woman from a city only one hour to the west of Baton Rouge can feel like a cultural alien here. It’s a noticeably different culture. When I was a kid growing up in West Feliciana Parish, I knew that if we got on the ferry and crossed the Mississippi to Pointe Coupee Parish, we were in another country. That’s where Cajun Louisiana starts. People there spoke English with Cajun accents. They weren’t hostile or anything, but we knew that they were different. And I’m sure they said the same thing about us, because it was true. We were English and they were French.
In early 2012, two months after Julie and I moved to Louisiana, my friend James Fox-Smith took me over to the Café des Amis, a restaurant in the Cajun town of Breaux Bridge, for their zydeco breakfast. I wrote about it here. Café des Amis has since closed, and the zydeco breakfast moved to another place, but I can tell you that such an event would never, ever happen in English Louisiana. At the zydeco breakfast, after the cafe full of people finishes eating, the staff pushes the tables back to make a dance floor, and a zydeco band, which plays a form of music particular to French-speaking black folks (it marries Cajun melodies with African rhythms), takes the stage. And everybody dances. Everybody! Young people, old people, black people, white people — everybody. Take a look at this clip from a show at zydeco breakfast in 2010:
From that piece I wrote in 2012:
After we’d had about as much beer and dancing as a couple of middle-aged guys could stand, we went back out onto the Main Street, and tried to navigate to Poche’s (PO-shays), a Cajun meat market outside of town, where we intended to fill our cooler with boudin, chaurice, andouille, and all kinds of good things. On the way there, we stopped at a particular shop to see if the owner, an acquaintance of James’s, was there. He wasn’t, but we got to talking to the saleswoman. Turns out she’s from a town near to St. Francisville. She moved to Acadiana 20 years ago, she said, “and I’m not moving back.”
I asked her why it was so easy to find places like Cafe des Amis and its zydeco breakfast here in Acadiana, but 70 miles to the east, you don’t see these places. “It’s totally different over here,” she said.
How? I asked.
“These people, they live to eat, to drink, and to have fun. And to be Catholic,” she explained.
There is an entire worldview, an entire culture, in those two lines. The lady said that she’s not Cajun, but she’s been adopted by the Cajuns, and she doesn’t ever want to leave.
So, that’s the background to the Angelle Terrell piece. She writes about why she identifies so closely with Ed Orgeron, the head coach of the LSU Tigers. She recalls that when Orgeron was hired a few years back, there was a lot of skepticism that LSU had chosen a second-rate head coach. She recalls that people in her social circle in Baton Rouge made fun of Coach O’s gravelly voice, and his thick Cajun accent:
No one I encountered was happy about the decision; words like “embarrassing,” “humiliating,” “joke” were interwoven through the discussions. At times I felt the criticisms had less to do with his tenure at LSU or his overall resume. Conversations about Coach O were usually tinged with jabs at his accent, his overall demeanor, and his ability to represent LSU to the public.
And then she “met” the coach’s mother, Coco Orgeron:
After a neck-and-neck Auburn game in 2017, the local news interviewed a visibly glowing Mama Orgeron who goes by Coco. I was playing with my oldest son as his chunky 9-month-old body rolled on the floor and the t.v. played like white noise in the background. Suddenly my head sprung up to the sound of Coco’s voice – a quintessential Cajun accent choked with pride. It started low and slow, climbed to a peak with each roll of the tongue, and then glided back down again. The commentator asked her to give a message to LSU fans watching in French, which she did. Tears streamed down my face.
This is not that interview, but it does give you an idea of why people respond to Coco Orgeron. And she speaks a little French in it:
The memories come flooding back for Angelle Terrell, from her childhood in Cajun country. She began to feel that Coach O was somehow hers. A link to the childhood and the world she left behind in Lafayette. She writes:
Sometimes I hear Coach O’s gravelly voice on the radio and anticipate the French weather forecast will follow.
For the rest of the season in 2017 and 2018, I defended Coach O a little more ardently. I wouldn’t go into very much detail about why I liked him more than just his tenure on the sidelines, and I became more sensitive to his criticisms. The articulation that he sounded ignorant started to remind me of the stories my father would tell me about how Cajun French was strictly forbidden when my grandparents were growing up. Back then, speaking French was seen as a sign of ignorance and little economic means. Even in t.v. shows and movies today, the Cajun characters are usually toothless, half-witted swamp people.
At the same glittery party two years after his hire, and after the company was on the second or third chardonnay, LSU football came up. The same jabs were taken, some rightfully placed at the Florida loss. But the anticipated writhing at Orgeon’s press conferences came up. The conversation dominoed as it always did – O talking too fast, O being hard to understand, O sounding unintelligent, O not being suited to be head coach.
On this one night, I had had enough.
“I like the way he talks,” I asserted.
After a chortle, someone replied, “Really? He sounds so stupid.”
“He sounds like my grandfather. My grandfather wasn’t stupid,” I said with a smile.
BOOM! Read the whole thing. I love it so much. Almost as much as I love Coach O and his mama. If ever there was a man born to be head coach of the LSU Fighting Tigers, it’s Ed Orgeron. Again, you have to remember, when he took over, even people here in his home state made fun of him. And now, he could be acclaimed governor for life by divine right, and there wouldn’t be any dissent, except from some Tulane fans in uptown New Orleans, but you know how they are.
(Thanks to reader DW for sending that in.)