By Kevin Foote
Written for the LSWA
Many successful coaches in his sport are football minds who become great leaders.
Lewis Cook was a great leader who eventually became one of the best high school football coaches the state has ever produced.
The composure the 2018 Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame inductee has displayed on the sidelines of high school football games over the last four decades is now legendary.
And so are his record, his winning tradition and perhaps most of all the respect he’s gained from his players, friends, colleagues and foes alike.
“Lewie Cook was a natural leader,” said his lifelong friend Ronald Prejean from Rayne. “He wasn’t loud, nothing fancy about him, but he always had a presence about him.”
Cook officially joins the state Hall of Fame Saturday, June 30, at the induction dinner and ceremony at the Natchitoches Events Center, a football field away from the five-year-old Hall of Fame Museum at 800 Front Street.
As Prejean remembers, Cook’s leadership qualities were being displayed long before he ever imagined coaching in a game.
“I can remember on the school grounds at Rayne High School when Lewie was in the ninth grade,” Prejean said. “If trouble broke out, all it took was for Lewie to walk out and say, ‘Enough,’ or that little nod he does and that was it. He broke it up. It’s just this special knack he’s got to make people feel comfortable. It’s because he’s so genuine.
“People respected him. He always had a kind word for people, whether you were a standout athlete or a member of the chorus, whether you lived in town or lived in the country, Lewie always had good things to say about you and always had time to talk to people.”
Don’t confuse his calm demeanor and composure for a lack of fire to compete, however.
Still in his younger coaching days, Cook still dabbled in playing softball. Even after breaking his leg, Cook couldn’t stay away.
“I remember telling my wife (Faye), ‘I think I’m going to go play softball again,’ and she said, ‘I don’t think that’s a good idea,’ ” Cook laughed. “I said, ‘It’s just an employee league. They just do it for fun.’
She said, ‘You don’t ever do anything for fun. You always have to win.’ ”
Sure enough, in his first at-bat of this new just-for-fun league, Cook finds himself motoring into second base.
“The next thing I know,” Cook remembers, “I’m diving head-first into second. As I’m shaking myself off, I look at Faye on the sideline and she’s shaking her head. I go, “I’m an idiot.’ ”
Indeed, underneath his calm exterior is an intensity many overlook.
“The drive to win and be the best, I think it’s always been there,” Cook said. “That’s how my dad was.”
In Cook’s mind, he’s a nice combination of each of his parents – Lewis Sr. and Josie.
On one hand, there was his father’s high standards.
“That’s how my dad was. He told me one time when I was playing high school basketball. He said, ‘You’ve got to make a decision.’ I said, ‘What’s that?’ He said, ‘You either have to get better or get off the team. That’s embarrassing.’ ”
His mother, meanwhile, didn’t sweat the details.
“And with mom, it was, ‘Don’t worry about that stuff.’ My momma never took herself too seriously about anything. I remember she would get on my sisters, who would stay in front of the mirror for an hour to get ready for school, and she would tell them, ‘Nobody cares what y’all look like.’ Don’t worry about the little things.
“It put me in the middle. Maybe I’ve got a little of both sides, which probably isn’t all bad.”
The result was an even-tempered young coach who just didn’t accept losing.
In his 33 years as a head coach, Cook has led his teams to 31 playoff appearances, reaching the semifinals 18 times, the state finals 12 times and won four state championships. His career playoff record is 75-27.
Only J.T. Curtis has more state runners-up appearances than Cook in Louisiana prep football history.
His career record of 344-82 puts Cook as the third-winningest active coach ever behind Curtis and St. Thomas More’s Jim Hightower, as well as the No. 5 overall.
Cook is only one win behind Don Shows in fourth place and 22 behind third-place Red Franklin of Haynesville.
“He’s the consummate professional,” said Larry Dauterive, a longtime coach and former coaching mentor to Cook. “He’s got such a big heart and such a caring personality. That translates ions for the kids he’s coaching. They’re just drawn to him. He’s got that charisma about him.”
Dauterive detected a very young Cook had what it took to be successful.
“My advice to him was, ‘Be organized, have a plan and always do the right things to honor the kids,’ Dauterive said. “That’s what the same things Coach Faize Mahfouz taught me. Lewie’s thirst for knowledge was unparalleled. He would call me in the middle of the night. I just couldn’t do anything but to honor his passion.”
For the last two decades, few have witnessed the true greatness behind Cook’s success more than defensive coordinator James McCleary.
“He’s a man of integrity and his leadership is about sacrifice,” McCleary said. “He’s willing to put his own interest behind what’s important and what’s best for everybody else.”
McCleary first met Cook as a young graduate assistant in Cook’s second stint on the UL Lafayette coaching staff as offensive coordinator in the 1990s.
Instead of looking at McCleary as a nuisance, Cook immediately took him under his wing.
“It only took a couple of days to recognize how special he was,” McCleary said. “The next day, he remembers your name. ‘How you’re doing? What can I do to help you? What you want to learn today?’ It was all about what I needed.”
By that time, Cook had already turned Crowley High from a perennial loser into the Class 3A state champions in 1989.
Then after playing a big role in the progress of future NFL standouts Jake Delhomme and Brandon Stokley as the Ragin’ Cajuns’ offensive coordinator from 1992-95, Cook returned to Acadia Parish to coach his three sons – Lewis III Jeff and Stu – for the Notre Dame Pioneers.
During his two decades at Notre Dame, Cook has a spectacular record of 244-37, including three state titles. When he took the Pios to the Dome first time, Cook became the first coach to take two different teams to the Superdome Classic in the Dome era.
Over the years, McCleary feels many confuse Cook’s lack of outward emotion.
“I do think he is an emotional coach,” he said. “He does a good job of keeping it inside. He’s mentally ready and prepared to do the right things.”
That hidden emotion, however, rarely results in anger.
“Maybe once a month, he’ll toss a hat, but he doesn’t really get angry,” Lewis Cook III said. “He doesn’t really yell. I’m on the head-sets with me, and I’m telling you in an entire season, he’ll raise his voice three times or less.
“It’s not really in his personality to get all angry and yell and scream. My dad’s a competitor. He wants to win. But he’s not going to lose his composure. He’s always planning on how he’s going to overcome whatever obstacles he has. The guys who yell and scream lose the ability to reason, because they’re too caught up emotionally.”
Cook’s composure is also made easier to achieve because of his preparation.
”He’s so methodical,” his eldest son said. “He scripts out every play of every practice. That’s just not common. He’s got an above-and-beyond work ethic.”
In many cases, a prolific high school football coach with those high leadership skills is scooped up by the collegiate level.
After four seasons as Rayne High’s head coach, Cook did dabble in the college game as an assistant at his alma mater from 1981-84, and later spent four more seasons with the Ragin’ Cajuns a decade later.
But Cook’s mind always drifted back to the high school game.
“I kind of look at it as I guess I was always meant to be a high school coach,” Cook said. “I’ve always felt more comfortable compared to the eight years I had in college, although there’s the lure of college football. There’s always that temptation there.
“This wouldn’t have happened, if I had made that jump. Maybe the good Lord put me in the right place. Not that you’re in it for these honors, but it is nice to be recognized.”