Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2024 reflect on relationships

by Russell Hedges
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By Brad Welborn, Northwestern State Assistant Sports Information Director; featured photo by Brett McCormick

NATCHITOCHES – Thursday afternoon’s introductory press conference for the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2024, presented by La Capitol Federal Credit Union, felt like a love letter to the state and its people.

The nine inductees on hand inside the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and Northwest Louisiana History Museum recounted the relationships and people that ushered their careers and the pride they feel to represent the place where they left their marks on the athletic world.

“It’s stunning,” a sentiment shared by every inductee and voiced by Distinguished Service in Sports Journalism Award winner Ron Higgins. “It was an emotional day when I got the call from (Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame Chairman) Doug Ireland. It was the anniversary of the day my dad died. He was the reason that I got into the business. I was helping him since I was seven years old. Looking over the shoulder of sport’s writers and how they wrote stories.”

The son of longtime sports information director Ace Higgins, the bug for writing and the “fun part of the unpredictability” of covering sports was cultivated at a young age. Similarly, it was the character traits instilled into New Iberia native and McNeese football great Kerry Joseph at a young age that propelled him to the Hall of Fame.

“My mom was an educator and taught me patience,” Joseph said. “My dad pushed me and my brothers to be competitive. We were never going to be outworked. He pushed us everyday to be the best and refuse to let the next man take our jobs.”

That patience and drive paid off for Jospeh after engineering a comeback win for the Cowboys early in his redshirt freshman season. He never looked back from earning the starting job, parlaying his success in Lake Charles into an equally as successful playing career in the NFL and the CFL and to his current role on the Chicago Bears’ coaching staff.

“My dad helped me build character and perseverance,” Joseph said. “I just kept working to be the best that I could be. Every time I was told I couldn’t do something, I wanted to prove them wrong. I’ve held on to the saying, ‘never say yes to can’t’. It’s propelled me to the man I am today.”

A multiple time WNBA champion and Olympic Gold winner, Seimone Augustus continued her Hall of Fame year of 2024 on Thursday. She enters the Louisiana Sports Hall following her Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame induction in April and prior to her October induction into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

“This is the best one,” she said. “Being honored by the people that I know and that I love and have watched me since I was knee high. This one means the most because it’s home.”

Augustus, much like Jospeh, got her drive, determination and refined her skill set thanks to her father. Helping her with the fundamentals, creating imaginary courts to hone her skills and teaching her how to deal with losses, something she did little of in her career.

He was part of the “village” of Baton Rouge that helped raise her and motivate her, either through cheers or boos, to build the mental fortitude that led to a statue outside LSU’s Pete Maravich Assembly Center. 

“The first time I saw my dad cry was when I made the 2008 Olympic Team in Beijing,” Augustus said. “That was the first goal I had as a basketball player — to be on the U.S. National Team. When I was a kid I told him I was going to be on that team one day. So when I got a chance to put the medal around his neck that was the moment we did what we said we were going to do.”

The fundamentals that helped define Augustus’ career are also what lay at the basis of coach Frank Monica’s philosophy and style for more than five decades years.

“I never got into coaching worried about awards,” Monica said. “I got into it to teach fundamentals and techniques. The game of football has changed a lot in my time but the values haven’t. Discipline is discipline and it all comes back to blocking and tackling. I try and teach these kids the importance of the little things. Make the little things matter and the big things will take care of themselves.”

That philosophy and work ethic has helped Monica to the most wins (284) by a head coach in River Parishes history and three state titles at three different schools. Monica also spent 12 years spent as an assistant at Tulane, where he credited the talent in the state and the emphasis put on recruiting local talent, that helped change the program.

That talent across the state that continues to produce some of the most elite athletes in the nation, were some of the same ones that left an impact on a Washington D.C. transplant in coach Perry Clark.

Clark helped resurrect a Green Wave program and took it to three NCAA Tournaments in four seasons and seven trips to the postseason in 11 seasons. 

“This state has the most unique people,” Clark said. “If you love people in Louisiana, they will love you back. They will give you their heart and soul and that’s what makes them and this so special. Ron (Higgins) befriended me and helped me understand how important basketball was in this state. 

“And I wouldn’t be here today if it were not for (1999 LA Sports Hall of Fame Inductee) Dale Brown. He helped raise the quality of the game in the state. Because of the culture and because of the people here, it made you raise your game to that next level.”

While Clark offered due credit to a coaching legend, the latest acclaimed coach to enter the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame had his own illustrious list of mentors and staples of the athletic community that impacted his career.

The recipient of this year’s Ambassador Award, coach Wilbert Ellis spent 30 years as the head coach of Grambling baseball and is recognized as one of the finest representatives of college baseball. 

A trusted advisor for countless coaches and administrators, Ellis reflected on those that he learned from and now join in the state’s most elite sports group.

“Eddie Robinson would say don’t cry,” Ellis joked. “It’s pretty hard not to but I think I’m alright. I’ve been honored to go into a few of these but when you think about it being your own state its something to be proud of.

“I knew I wanted to be a coach from the time I was nine. I just wanted to form a group and see what we could do to win some games. My dad said you might win ball games, but can you win lives. And thankfully through the grace of God we’ve been able to do that.”

Ellis offered credit to Fredrick Hobdy and Ralph Waldo Emerson Jones, two more pillars of Grambling for being mentors and guides through his career and life.

Tom Burnett, the Dave Dixon Sport’s Leadership Award winner, equally reflected on the people in his life going back to his time at Louisiana Tech that led him to his role as commissioner of the Southland Conference and on the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament committee.

“Louisiana is home to me,” Burnett said. “The Hall itself is special and even more so because of people like Jerry Pierce (2000 Distinguished Service Award Inductee). You think of people like Teddy Allen, Ro Brown and of course Dave Dixon, it’s truly an honor to be here. To be mentioned in the same breath as him, it’s overwhelming.”

It was Hall of Fame Louisiana Tech sports information director Keith Price that helped the “meandering student” into his path to commissioner, igniting a light bulb that exploded into a successful career. Craig Thompson introduced him to the sports world of New Orleans and Wright Waters, longtime Sun Belt commissioner, polished Burnett into a 20-year stint leading the Southland Conference.

Burnett’s connection to Pierce was one also felt by the other recipient of the Distinguished Service Award in Bobby Ardoin.

“I had a few choices for journalism school but when I visited Northwestern State and met Jerry Pierce, that’s where I wanted to go,” Ardoin said. “I met Rick Woodson about a year later or so and I knew that sport’s writing was what I wanted to do.”

Ardoin, a baseball player growing up, covered the gamut of sports while working at the Opelousas Daily World, including fellow 2024 inductee jockey Ray Sibille at nearby Evangeline Downs, all while teaching full time. 

“I never started out wanting to be a teacher,” Ardoin said. “I was working on my masters and wanted to get married, so it was kind of a survival tactic. But it was great to be with the kids everyday.”

One of the many athletes Ardoin has written about in his illustrious career, Sibille and his more than 4,000 career wins and $68 million won across the country in 35 years of racing on horseback, enter the Hall of Fame at the exact right time, without need of a photo finish.

“The call came at the right time for me,” Sibille said. “I thought there might be a chance I would get in a few years ago but then my grandkids wouldn’t have been able to come, some of them wouldn’t have even been born yet either. So to have them here with me now and get to experience all this with me is special.”

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