By Wesley Harris
(Claiborne Parish Library Historian)
“A scholar and a gentleman.”
“A deadly competitor.”
“A very fine man.”
The superlatives used to describe Joe Aillet reveal a man highly respected not only as an athletic coach but as a human being.
Pronounced “Eye-A,” the legendary coach led the Haynesville Golden Tornadoes for five years, from 1931 through 1935. While his time in Claiborne Parish was brief, his nearly 50-year career in north Louisiana athletics touched people in many communities and all walks of life, belying his humble beginnings.
Aillet came to Louisiana from New York as a child on an “orphan train.”
The Orphan Train Movement was a supervised welfare program that transported orphaned and homeless children from crowded Eastern U. S. cities to foster homes mostly in the rural Midwest and South. The orphan trains operated between 1854 and 1929, relocating about 200,000 orphaned, abandoned, abused, or homeless children.
Aillet was dropped at the Youngsville train station near Lafayette. Left alone with no family to adopt him, Aillet was taken in by the Reverend Johanni Roguet, a Catholic priest. The boy was later adopted by Mary Aillet, a widowed housekeeper at the church rectory.
Aillet became a sports enthusiast and played football at St. Edwards College in Austin before transferring and graduating from the Southwestern Louisiana Institute (now Louisiana-Lafayette) in 1927. Aillet’s first job was as a teacher and coach at Haynesville. While at Haynesville, he acquired his master’s from LSU, writing his thesis on the history of education in Claiborne Parish.
Aillet saw sports as a tool to develop youth but also a way to entertain. In 1934 he arranged for the Celtics, a well-known traveling basketball team that had once been in the American Basketball League, to visit Haynesville. While the game against Southern Arkansas was ultimately cancelled (the Celtics played Centenary in Shreveport instead) Aillet’s purpose was to entertain Claiborne residents with high-quality basketball play they might otherwise never see.
When he left Haynesville after the 1935 season, Aillet had amassed 33 wins to 7 losses and 5 ties as a head coach. The Golden Tornadoes won seven championships during Aillet’s time as an assistant and head coach. Among Haynesville coaches who served five or more years, his winning percentage (.790) is second only to legendary coach “Red” Franklin.
Aillet became an assistant coach at Northwestern State in 1936, doubling the size of the football team staff.
On the eve of World War II in 1940, Louisiana Tech hired Aillet as its head football coach. Back in 1934 when Tech was seeking a coach and director of athletics, Aillet’s name had been mentioned as one of only a couple of high school coaches who would be able to handle the position.
“Joe Aillet has produced consistently good football team at Haynesville high school,” the Monroe Morning World article opined. “There’s no denying that Aillet knows his business, and enjoys the confidence of school officials, fans, coaches and sports writers alike throughout this territory.”
One of Aillet’s first acts at Tech was to impose some academic requirements for players on scholarships. Aillet recalled later. “We lost 21 boys off the squad because of that, but we were going in the right direction.” In his 26 years at Tech, Aillet compiled a 152-86-8 record with 12 won or shared conference championships.
He was Gulf States Conference Coach of Year four times. Also Tech’s golf coach, his teams won eleven Gulf States Conference championship in 16 years.
Active in the community, Aillet led Ruston’s Home Guard unit during World War II. When the conflict brought troops to the Ruston area, he volunteered at the local USO, showing and narrating films of big-time college games for soldiers, sailors, and marines stationed at Tech and a nearby POW camp.
Leo Sanford, a former Tech player who enjoyed great success in the NFL said, Aillet “was one of the greatest coaches of all time…I’d classify him as the All-American coach. He was the type person you felt a little better just being around him.”
Aillet’s honors include induction into the National College Football Hall of Fame, the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, and Tech’s Athletic Hall of Fame.
In 1967, Aillet resigned as head football coach, retaining his position as athletic director. He died of cancer on December 28, 1971, at age 67. After his death, Tech’s football stadium was named in his honor. A former Louisiana Tech student has penned an excellent biography on the man who once led the Golden Tornado. “Louisiana Tech’s Joe Aillet” by Christopher Kennedy is available at amazon.com.