Tech grad authors book on legendary coach

By Wesley Harris

Christopher Kennedy grew up in the shadow of Tech’s football stadium knowing it bore the name of a legendary coach but unfamiliar with the man behind the name.

“I grew up in Ruston, and Dad works at Tech,” Kennedy says. “I went to all the tailgates, played on the field after games, rolled down the hills in front of the fieldhouse. I practiced cross country and track around there and always wondered why the stadium was named after Joe Aillet. No one seemed to know much about him until my mom told me one day to talk to Cynthia Aillet Murry, his daughter.”

That talk told Kennedy, a Tech history grad who has written a book on Aillet, about a young Joe traveling from New York City to Louisiana as part of an “orphan train” of children looking for new homes.

The public is invited to hear Kennedy speak about Aillet at the Lincoln Parish Museum on Friday, Sept. 30 at 7 p.m. His book will be available for purchase.

Kennedy said, “The Sisters of Charity, an order of nuns started by St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, ran orphan trains that carried young children to church parishes across the country with congregations interested in adoption.” When Joe arrived at the Youngsville station on the orphan train from New York, Father Johanni Roguet, the priest at St. Ann’s Catholic Church, claimed the child. Since the priest could not legally adopt Joe, he handed over the responsibilities of raising the baby to a widow named Eliza Aillet. From these two individuals, Joseph Fuourka was renamed Joseph Roguet Aillet. 

Kennedy’s research for the book took him to the archives of schools Aillet attended–Holy Cross of New Orleans, St. Edward’s in Austin, Texas and Louisiana-Lafayette—as well as the universities where he coached, Northwestern State and Louisiana Tech. 

Kennedy answered some questions from Lincoln Parish Journal about the journey through Aillet’s life and writing of the book.

LPJ: Other than being an orphan train child, what aspect of Aillet’s life did you find most interesting?

Kennedy: That he was able to always keep cool. He was cool under pressure and was referred to, in different variations, as “The Smooth One’ or as a smooth man. It was said in a tone of respect but never to his face.

LPJ:  Aillet’s reputation as a quiet, soft-spoken man doesn’t seem to match the image we have today of a college football coach. How did he interact with players? And did he really quote Shakespeare on the practice field?

Kennedy: He always treated players the same. He respected them, gently corrected them when needed, and threw in some sly humor on occasion. He was very similar to his friend Tom Landry, the coach of the Dallas Cowboys. They both dressed well for games and kept their composure. He liked to quote Shakespeare. His favorite line was from Hamlet: ‘To thine own self be true.’ Pat Garrett, a running back at Tech in the late ‘50’s (son of L.J. “Hoss” Garrett, legendary Ruston High football coach) told me he recalled Aillet trying to teach the winged T formation to the offense. Attempting to get the team to understand the concept, Aillet explained, ‘A sweep is a sweep, is a sweep, is a sweep,’ alluding to the Gertrude Stein poem ‘A Rose is a Rose.’  

LPJ:  You suggest in the book that Joe Aillet was an “underappreciated figure,” due to his efforts outside of football. Explain that.

Kennedy: One important area was his involvement in founding the first and only Catholic church in Ruston, St. Thomas Aquinas. There were very few Catholics in the area, but he had the foresight to help organize with the community and petition the bishop to establish a church.

He was concerned about his athletes’ academics, careers, life choices, and faith. The coaching staff counseled athletes in these areas. They provided tutoring if needed. Athletes were encouraged to attend church. Practices were scheduled around athletes’ academic schedule, such as labs. Scholarships lasted until the athlete graduated, not for a certain number of years. 

LPJ: Coach Aillet was very active on the home front during World War II. Did you explore that period?

Kennedy: Yes, Aillet provided entertainment by being part of the USO—United Services Organization. He would show game film at the Ruston USO and narrate it to servicemen. He was a first lieutenant in the State Home Guard, a special military unit in WWII to protect the home front; home guards were unique as they were controlled by governors, unlike the National Guard which can be federalized. He wrote letters to the 22 Tech football players serving overseas. They traded letters back and forth, one giving constant updates on sports and other campus activity while the others spoke what little they could about military life. Coach Aillet’s scholarship system remained in place. All 22 Tech football players in military service retained their scholarships for the duration of the war.

LPJ: There seems to have been a great deal of tragedy in the Aillet family. He lost a son and grandson while working at Tech and he suffered a long bout with cancer. How did those experiences affect him and his wife Ruby?

Kennedy: Losing Richard “Dickie” Aillet at such a young age was devastating for the family and made him very melancholy. They were involved in a serious car accident one year prior to Dickie’s untimely passing. Joe Aillet’s faith helped him during his illness. It was very hard on Ruby. Cynthia, Aillet’s daughter, served as his caregiver. Friends supported him—one frequent visitor was Eddie Robinson, legendary coach at Grambling.

LPJ: How do you hope the book is received by the Louisiana Tech family?

Kennedy: I hope it satisfies everyone because it contains a little bit of everything. Football fans will love learning Tech football history. His faith will appeal to local parishioners of the church he helped found and a larger audience of believers. His background as an orphan train rider, the opportunity presented to him, and what he made of it, is a heartwarming and incredible story that shines a positive light on early adoption efforts. It is a pro-life message. His care for his athletes outside of sports proves athletics is more than a game. It builds people when they have coaches like Joe Aillet. Also, his story occupies multiple layers of Louisiana Tech history. I hope the Bulldog family will find these and other aspects of his life inspiring; he’s provided the foundation for much of what we have today which continues to point to a bright future.

Kennedy will speak at the Lincoln Parish Museum, 609 N. Vienna, Friday, Sept. 30 at 7 p.m. Free admission.

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