Bébé, King Of The Cajuns
Days before the national championship, Sports Illustrated canonizes LSU head football coach Ed Orgeron — but in this case, it’s not false hagiography. It’s all true. Excerpts:
Ed Orgeron used to sack oysters, shovel shrimp and guzzle beers here. His grandfather operated a bayou ferry, and his mother grew up trapping and skinning muskrats. He comes from a long line of hunters and fishers, tug boat operators and oil field workers, gumbo-makers and jambalaya-cookers. Most know him on the bayou, not as Coach O, but as Bébé, a French word meaning baby, a nickname handed down from his father.
On Monday night about 50 miles north in New Orleans, Bébé will lead his home-state’s flagship, LSU, into the national championship game against a perennial powerhouse, Clemson. For many in the college football industry, this is an unfathomable outcome, that a one-time bar-brawling drinker who flopped in his one head-coaching stint would captain a team to a 14–0 record and an SEC championship. For those here on the bayou, this is what they always expected, that their barrel-chested, gravelly-voiced Cajun brother would lead the Tigers to the promised land.
“They made fun of him, (Paul) Finebaum and them, and he’s making them pay for it now,” says Dean Blanchard, a 61-year-old seafood tycoon from the bayou. “Look at the successful Cajuns we have here. They don’t have a clue of what the Cajuns are capable of. What I want to come from this is respect for the Cajun culture.”
Monday’s game is about more than some championship ring. It’s about a subsection of people, like their native son Bébé, persecuted and neglected, their accents mocked and their intelligence questioned. The Cajuns are accustomed to this. After all, these are the ancestors of the French-speaking Acadians who the British forced from their Nova Scotia home in the mid-1700s. They were sent fleeing to French-settled Louisiana, establishing a base on the bayou and later developing a reputation as experts at the seafood and oil field industries, not-so-easily blending into American life.
In fact, it took more than 200 years—and a lawsuit—for the U.S. government to recognize them as a national ethnic group in 1980, and in the early 20th century attempts were made by American teachers to suppress their language. But the Cajuns are an enduring and passionate people, bonded by their ancestral ties and their rich, unique culture—food and festival at its core. They are an emotional people, too, unafraid to cry tears of joy and grief, a welcoming breed to outsiders but also terribly defensive of their own stock. “Cajuns are hard workers,” says Henry LaFont, a 65-year-old attorney raised on the bayou. “They’ll give you the shirt off their backs, but don’t cross them.”
The story talks about the really hard times that have befallen the people of South Lafourche. The economy is nosediving. Oil industry going down, seafood industry in steep decline. The place is depopulating, and they know that they’re one big hurricane away from devastation.
This is one reason they see Ed Orgeron as a beacon of hope. He’s been flat on his back, and come back hard. Earlier in his life and career, he was drunk at a bar in Baton Rouge, and head-butted a bartender. He lost his coaching job. Couldn’t get hired. But then, Nicholls State University, in Thibodaux, a Lafourche Parish town, called to offer him a position. And that’s where the comeback started. He owed that to his network of friends who argued that Bébé deserved a second chance. More:
Back he went to the bayou. There, on a front-yard swing with his father, the two discussed his future. Well, Big Ed told his son, maybe we should try something else other than coaching. And then… “the phone rings,” Orgeron recalls. “We have a loud ringer. You could hear the phone from inside.” On the other line was Rick Rhoades, the coach at Nicholls State, the regional college in Thibodaux, a short drive from Larose. He offered Bébé a job.
A day later, Orgeron was back on the practice field as a volunteer assistant. “He was very candid about what happened at Miami,” says Rhoades, 72, retired now and living in Alabama. “He’d basically lost his career. I like to think we were able to crack the door and get his career back. He’s taken it and run with it.” Rhoades, not from the area, was connected to Orgeron through the Cajun community. One member led the charge: LaFont, the attorney from Larose and an old beer-drinking buddy with the coach. He remembers encouraging Rhoades to hire Orgeron during a meeting in the coach’s office. By the time LaFont made it to Orgeron’s home that day, Rhoades had called with the news. Orgeron swung open the door and wrapped his burly arms about LaFont screaming, “HANK, I GOTTA JOB!” To this day, the coach hasn’t forgotten about it. LaFont hasn’t either. “What if Coach Rhoades hadn’t been in his office that day?” he says. “What if he didn’t want to see me? The cards fell right.”
The Cajuns, in no real surprise, had Orgeron’s back. “They really are remarkable people,” says Rhoades. “They either love you or hate you. There’s not much in between. There was some orchestration that got Ed to us. A lot of people were involved. He’s a local guy that had fallen on hard times. One thing about Cajun people, if one of them has a hard time, they rally. It’s been fun to watch him over the years develop. Don’t let that down-home Cajun banter fool you—he’s smart as a whip.”
One more, about how hard Orgeron grew up:
Edward Sr. held various jobs through the years, depending on the season and the economy. When the oil industry dipped, he turned to tug-boating, and back and forth he went. He retired as a supervisor of the Lafourche Telephone Co. Coco estimates the family earned about $3,000 a year during Bébé’s childhood. “Sometimes we had no money,” she says, “but, baby, we had some good times.” There were bad times, too. Coco got her name from her brother Wiley, who she delivered cocoa to while he lay bedridden, a victim of bone cancer. Coco’s mother lost three children, including twins, and of her husband’s 13 siblings, two drowned and another two burned to death. Life on the bayou could be dangerous. Sports were always an outlet.
Junior was hell-bent on proving everyone wrong. He’d shoot hoops on a dirt court in the yard late into the night, and when Coco would ask why, he’d tell her, “Can’t make the layup, can’t be on the team.” He was obsessed and not just with football and basketball. Junior threw the shot put and discus and played baseball. He didn’t let injury get in the way of practice or play. While in secondary school, he broke his leg while falling off a boat. Days later, he played front-yard football in a full-length leg cast that the doctor re-casted three different times, Coco says. “He never stopped. Never, never,” Coco shakes her head. “Let’s say you’re not the best at something. Well guess what that boy is going to do? Practice, practice and guess what? He will beat you eventually. He just had that heart about him.”
Read it all. What a superb piece of journalism. The author is Ross Dellenger.
Somebody sent me a link yesterday to a 2019 USA Today story about the 50 worst US cities in which to live. Five of them were in Louisiana — none were Cajun towns, incidentally. Poverty, crime, joblessness are the main reasons. My state could use some hope. Thanks, Bébé. South Lafourche needs you. We all need you.