LAFAYETTE, La. — Michael Desormeaux stepped to the podium at his introductory news conference as the head coach at Louisiana and channeled his Cajun roots. In his typical self-deprecating fashion, he deflected attention and delivered a one-liner straight to a constituency he understands fluently.
“All right, so I’ll keep this short,” he said. “I heard they got Jambalaya Shoppe and beer back there, and that’s what everybody’s here for.”
Desormeaux comes from Cajun central casting, as his family genealogy — handwritten, he points out — traces back to the late 1700s here, when his first family member from France settled in the Acadiana region. His great-grandfather worked in the salt mines, his grandfather grew up as a Golden Gloves boxer and later became a fire chief, and his father played football at LSU.
Desormeaux, 37, is a native of nearby New Iberia and a former quarterback at Louisiana. He drives a pickup truck, loves to both crab and hunt duck. He’s quick to point out that gumbo in the Lafayette area is more root-based Cajun style, much different than the tomato-based in New Orleans. He also owns a camp he and his brothers built by hand, of course.
“This is the only job that I’m worried about, that I care about, that I want,” he told ESPN this spring. “I really feel that way. I do feel like this place is unique.”
So when athletic director Bryan Maggard needed a successor for Billy Napier, by far the most successful coach in modern school history, he doubled down on both the school’s smashing recent success of consecutive conference titles and the idea of maximizing local resources.
Both Desormeaux’s familiarity with the region and the blueprint for winning that Napier unfurled made the choice obvious. Maggard interviewed players from every corner of the roster — from the punter to the quarterback to the defense — and their overwhelming choice was Desormeaux, the tight ends coach and co-offensive coordinator. The players didn’t just love him; they knew via his outsized personality that he loved them.
“He had unbelievable rapport with the players,” Maggard said. “He’d recruited about one-third of last year’s roster. That stood out along with the relationships he has with the Louisiana high school football coaches.
“He’s someone who understands this culture, because this culture is him. He’s very proud of where he came from.”
With veteran quarterback Levi Lewis (35-7 as a starter) out of eligibility and seven key players diving into the portal for Power 5 opportunities, Desormeaux’s debut 2-3 debut in 2022 hasn’t quite matched the dominance of Napier’s final three years (33-5). On Wednesday night, the Ragin’ Cajuns get a close-up when they play at Marshall (3-2) on ESPN2.
In a state where there are more NFL draft prospects per capita than any other, there’s a confidence that hiring a coach who knows the state as well as anyone is going to help restore Louisiana back to the levels where Napier brought the Cajuns.
“I don’t think it’s realistic to expect that we’re going to be ranked in the Top 25 every year,” said Lewis Cook, the head coach at Notre Dame High School of Acadia Parish, and a former assistant at Louisiana. “I think it’s one of those deals where you build it for a couple of years to be in the spot where we were …
“It may take a year or two, but Mike is going to get those experienced guys in there like we had last year. Will it happen again? I think it will.”
Few know the local culture better than Tim Leger, the program’s offensive coordinator, recruiting coordinator and former star at nearby Acadiana High School. His son, Gunner, was an All-America baseball player at the school.
The best way he can illustrate Desormeaux’s Cajun bona fides is what he does to indoctrinate new members of the staff — don waders and learn to catch crawfish.
Just as Desormeaux buys his own sacks of crawfish to prepare them his preferred way, he’s also particular about curating the roster in the proper fashion. The state of Louisiana had 71 NFL players on opening-day rosters, which means one out of nearly 70,000 people in the state ends up on an NFL roster. No state is a close second.
With LSU the only Power 5 option in the state, there are plenty of raw but talented players scattered throughout Louisiana’s boot.
“This is a developmental place,” Leger said. “There’s big, there’s long and there’s athletic all over this state. A lot of them are underdeveloped. We’re going to get the guys with size and length and speed; the tools are there. We just have to develop the kid. He’s done a great job of fitting that.”
Desormeaux knows coaching staffs at the local high schools are often taxed, as he tells the story of one recruit actually leading the defensive line drills pre-game because that staff didn’t have a coach. Most schools in the rural areas have just three or four coaches on the staff.
It’s a matter of knowing the local terrain to find players like junior receiver Peter LeBlanc, who played wingback in a Wing T at Catholic-New Iberia. He’s blossomed into a solid receiver for the Cajuns, just needing time and opportunity. Robert Hunt came from Berkville, Texas, and redshirted for a year before becoming the No. 39 overall pick in the 2020 NFL draft. Find and develop has been the Louisiana way.
“What really helps here, in this part of the country, you have really talented players that are developmental players,” Desormeaux said. “There’s a lot of good players who come in here, and they need more reps and time. The proximity we have to good players certainly helps.”
So does the familiarity. Along with the deep family ties, Desormeaux also has been a high school star, high school coach and local recruiter. He appreciates how much the area is about relationships, community and the endless festivals celebrating things like boudin.
He’s tied enough to the area that he jokes that he’s supposed to be a distant relative of the famous horse jockey with the same last name, Kent Desormeaux. They pronounce the names different, as the coach’s pronunciation is more a hard z at the end of the first syllable — “DEZ” — while the jockey’s is more on the lines of traditional Cajun phonetic.
“Everyone else says Desormeaux,” he said, stressing the SORE in the pronunciation. “You have to assume that we’re wrong.”
Beneath the self-deprecating humor is a fiery temperament, something else the area is known for. After all, no other school uses a pepper for an apostrophe in their logo, like the one on Ragin’ Cajuns. But it’s balanced with the players knowing Desormeaux will love them just as hard. And that makes him relatable to the team and beyond.
“It binds the community that one of their own is here,” defensive coordinator LaMar Morgan said. “I knew he was going to be the head coach here. I just didn’t know it was going to be in this cycle. He’s an elite person, and he really knows the community and the players. That’s what makes his special.”
That proximity to talent and ability to develop it, in the wake of Napier’s departure after the 2021 season, has benefited others as much as Louisiana in 2022. Three transfers ended up with Napier at Florida, including offensive guard O’Cyrus Torrence, the Gators’ top NFL prospect not named Anthony Richardson. The top two tailbacks ended up at TCU and Florida, while other talented players transfers went to LSU and Kansas.
The seven players transferring up showcase the current fragility of operating at a high level in the Group of 5. The talent drain, in part, has helped lead to a three-game losing streak to Rice, Louisiana-Monroe and South Alabama. There are growing pains breaking in a new quarterback with Lewis gone, as they’ve been playing both Chandler Fields and Ben Wooldridge. (Fields won’t play against Marshall because of a hamstring injury, giving Wooldridge his first career start).
Factor in the four new offensive linemen, and Louisiana is No. 114 in total offense in the country. The defense has been stout under Morgan, as they are third nationally in forced turnovers (14) and No. 36 nationally in scoring defense (20.4). Some balance will come. Just don’t expect any portal excuses from Desormeaux.
“That’s the world we live in,” Desormeaux said. “Everyone is losing players everywhere. Everyone has lost players in the transfer portal. Everyone goes through the same things. For us, you’re never going to hear anyone make an excuse about where we’re at. For some of the young guys, it means opportunities, that’s how I see it.”
While the start has been slow, the blueprint remains. Maggard chose to promote internally because he’d felt Napier left behind a solid way of doing things, an Alabama-lite model where the quality control coaches are paid $18,000 instead of $80,000. Going outside meant risking that by blowing it all up.
Louisiana has long been one of the most financially committed schools in the Sun Belt, long the envy of its rivals. Desormeaux also raves about the alignment, as school president Dr. E. Joseph Savoie — naturally, he goes by “T-Joe” — have seen the value in strong athletics and the returns from supporting football.
“There’s a lot of similarities between [Desormeaux] and Billy Napier,” Maggard said. “If you were setting out to get Napier 2.0, you got it. He’s extremely genuine, very humble and very intelligent. I’m telling you, he loves this place.
“He’s going to give everything he has to not only maintain the success, but elevate it.”
And there will certainly be beer and jambalaya to celebrate when that day comes. Expect a quick news conference before everyone dives in.