Ragin’ Cajuns Baseball Head Coach Matt Deggs: The Show Goes On

Ragin’ Cajuns Baseball Head Coach Matt Deggs: The Show Goes On

It was March 12, 2020. The Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns baseball team was coming off its best performance of the season in a 7-0 win over McNeese State in Lake Charles, La. The team’s 8-9 record didn’t look like much, but after starting the season with a 2-8 record, the team had won six of their next seven.

For first-year head coach Matt Deggs, that 2-8 start was simply not acceptable. And Deggs, known as one of the nation’s top hitting coaches, watched his team average just 3.4 runs per game and had been held to three runs or fewer on six occasions. Deggs fumed. “I think when you put your name on something, it’s personal,” Deggs said. “And it gets to the point where you have to decide failure is not an option. That’s just the way I’m wired.”

Then the Cajuns came alive. After defeating Virginia Tech 1-0, Louisiana averaged more than seven runs per game over the next six games. And that 7-0 win in the final game showed Deggs something. “I think everyone was starting to settle in and kind of started to find their groove. We had shaken things up, we had started to juggle our lineup, and we were shaking up the pitching staff a little bit. We were in the midst of those changes and they were paying off,” he said. “I felt like after all we had been through, we learned from it, dusted ourselves off and we were better for it,” Deggs said.

Fifteen games into the 2020 season, Deggs and the Cajuns were ready to make some noise. Then the season came to a screeching halt on March 12. “I’m throwing BP (batting practice). Bab (Associate Head Coach Anthony Babineaux) comes out and gives the word the NCAA is canceling postseason. That’s how it came down first. And shortly thereafter, the conferences started to fall.” They felt cheated. “You feel for the players, the fans, the city of Lafayette because we know what Cajun baseball means. Plus we were honoring coach (Tony Robichaux) and bringing that closure,” he said.

The Cajun baseball team was trying to learn to move on after the death of their beloved baseball coach, Tony Robichaux, back on July 3, 2019. Many of the players on the 2020 squad never got a chance to play for Coach Robe. But all had known him, as he had been part of the recruiting process that brought them to UL Lafayette in the first place.

Deggs was introduced as the Cajuns new baseball coach just two weeks later. He wasn’t a stranger, having been part of the staff from 2012-2014. The 2014 club went into the postseason as the consensus number one team in the nation. They lost only seven games during the regular season and were one game away from the College World Series in Omaha when their season ended with a pair of losses to Ole Miss in the NCAA Super Regional. It was the only time the team lost two games in a row all season.

But for Deggs, the story of how he became a Cajun is the one he likes to tell the most. Deggs was a mess. Coach Robe helped him turn his mess into a message. Deggs had gone “sideways.” Coach Robe helped him go “straight up.”

In 2010 Deggs was fired as an assistant coach at Texas A&M. Head Coach Rob Childress was Deggs’ good friend. But he couldn’t overlook Deggs’ issues with alcohol abuse. Deggs found himself unemployed and separated from the only thing he felt qualified to do. He did labor for nine dollars an hour. He later became, in his words, “the world’s worst pharmaceutical salesman.”

Meanwhile, Robichaux was left with an opening on his staff when assistant coach Mike Trahan left to go into private business a month after the 2012 season began. Tony knew of Deggs and Deggs heard about the opening. The two met and Deggs began to tell Robichaux about what had happened to him at A&M. “I don’t care where you’ve been,” Robichaux said to him. “I care about where you’re headed.” The two met for a couple of hours and Robe offered Deggs the job. It was quite a pay cut from the salary he had made at Texas A&M, but Deggs was all in. He spent most of the 2012 season on the road, scouting talent. The Cajuns had some young talent but needed to upgrade right away. Deggs found the players to bridge the gap. After failing to qualify for the Sun Belt Conference Tournament in 2012, the Cajuns made it into postseason play in 2013, making an NCAA Regional appearance in Baton Rouge, falling in the finals to LSU. That set the stage for the excellence of 2014.

Following that season, Deggs got his first Division I head coaching job at Sam Houston State, where he led the Bearkats to the 2017 Super Regional in Tallahassee. It was the first time a team from the Southland ever advanced that far. Deggs went on to win three regular season championships.

But then tragedy struck when Robichaux suffered a heart attack and succumbed after two surgeries. Deggs had lost his best friend. By this time, Deggs, who had become a devout Christian, got the call from UL Director of Athletics Bryan Maggard. After taking some time to accept God’s direction, he took the job. And on the day he was introduced as the Cajuns’ skipper, he made it clear about the role Tony Robichaux played in his life.

“The love of Cajun Nation pulled us back out of Texas to over here in Lafayette,” Deggs said. “Seven years ago, Coach (Robichaux) saved my life. And he saved my family. I’m here today to say ‘Thank you, Coach’. We’re here today to say ‘Thank you.’” The 2020 season began with an emotional pregame ceremony inside M. L. Tigue Moore Field at Russo Park. Robichaux’s name and his jersey number went on the outfield wall, joining Ron Guidry as the only two Cajuns to have their jersey retired. The next day, a statue of Robichaux outside Russo Park was dedicated. The raw emotion of the two days affected everyone, including the baseball team, which lost all three games to begin the season, scoring a grand total of three runs.

Once the season ended, the staff recruited remotely and signed players. And while not all of the newcomers were recruited in the spring, Deggs’ 2021 roster has 19 returning players and 22 newcomers. Only seven of the players ever took the field with Tony Robichaux as head coach. “The first day of practice fall 2020 was a great day. But even better is when we were cleared to go into our clubhouse. Now we got to experience the togetherness and camaraderie of a team.”

Deggs said the university is fortunate to have Associate Head Coach Babineaux, whose position is an administrative one. “That’s a Power Five position,” Deggs said. “That’s what you have at bigger schools. WE are very fortunate to have that position and even more fortunate to have Bab, who understands the ins and outs of how everything is done, but also how Coach Robe handles things. He has as much skin on the game here as anybody. It’s a huge advantage for our program.”

That will make the 2021 season even more unique, and Deggs feels the most resilient teams with the most mental tenacity, and the ability to respond, will have a great year. “It’s going to be one day at a time, let’s take what’s in front of us and make the most of it.”

Deggs’ personality is different from Robichaux. He is outwardly more intense, more business-like. But he and Robichaux share a trait that has served both well. They both hate losing more than they enjoy winning. “Oh yeah,” Deggs said. “Everyone will tell you that.”

In the meantime, Deggs drives to the ballpark every day. He passes right by the statue of the man he says saved his life and his family. “Every day I say a prayer. I pray for Colleen (Robichaux.) I pray for his family. And I pray a word of thanks. Thanks for what God has done in my life. And for the difference Coach made in mine.”