It was as good a sign as any that things have changed in Thibodaux, Louisiana: The first words spoken by the Nicholls State football coach regarded satisfaction and the need to avoid it.
Satisfaction was a foreign concept around Thibodaux in those lean decades before Tim Rebowe’s 2015 arrival. Nicholls experienced exactly four winning seasons in the quarter-century before Rebowe got there. He inherited a Colonels program in the midst of a particularly ignominious 18-game losing streak, during which they were outscored by an average of 30.9 points per game.
The last night of the pre-Rebowe era was a fitting disaster: A 62-3 shellacking at the hands of rival Southeastern, at home no less, to clinch an 0-12 season. Rebowe was in town that night, but opted to stay at the hotel instead of going out to watch the game. The next day, Nicholls State announced him as its 10th head football coach.
What does a man tell his friends and colleagues when he takes on such a daunting challenge? The truth: There was nowhere to go but up.
“You can come in and try to change the mind-set a little bit, change the culture,” Rebowe said. “It had to be changed. Everybody was negative. Nicholls around the state, around the conference, was not really well respected.”
What has transpired since is a testament to the power of optimism, and Rebowe — a spry 56-year-old whose bright white crew cut makes him easy to pick out in a crowd of young players — is filled to the brim with the stuff.
On that team that had lost 18 straight games, he saw some good players who simply lacked the cohesive elements that make a strong unit, so he set to work implementing a sense of camaraderie and trust. On the recruiting trail, Rebowe sold a dream of what the program could be and found some key buyers. He assembled a coaching staff that reinforced his positive mind-set.
Four years later, Nicholls is on the heels of back-to-back winning seasons — the first time that could be said of the Nicholls program since it was a member of the now-defunct Gulf Star conference in the mid-80s. Rebowe’s team hosted its first playoff game in program history in 2017, then did it again in 2018. The Colonels were the unanimous pick to repeat as Southland Conference champions this season in the league’s preseason poll.
Rebowe’s team had nowhere to go but up, and he successfully illuminated the path to the ladder. Now the trick is keeping the eyes focused on the top rung.
ONE OF US
It takes only a few seconds and a discerning ear to figure out why Rebowe is a good fit in Thibodaux. His accent immediately points to some South Louisiana roots. That is important in a place like Thibodaux.
“You’ve got to be able to speak the language,” Rebowe said.
Trace Bayou Lafourche out of Thibodaux and hang a left at Raceland to hop on Highway 90 eastbound. Drive through Des Allemands and Boutte, then take 310 north to Norco, Louisiana — a roughly 45-mile trip to Rebowe’s hometown.
That’s where he and his brother, Rusty Rebowe — who earned All-American status as a Nicholls State linebacker in the ’70s — first developed a love for football. And in all of Rebowe’s years coaching, he has rarely strayed very far from that starting point.
His first football coaching job was as the head coach at Harry Hurst Middle School. That led to jobs at Destrehan High School, Nicholls State (as an assistant on Darren Barbier’s staff), University of Louisiana Monroe and University of Louisiana Lafayette. Remarkably, he has never left the state in a coaching career that now spans more than three decades.
The by-product of all that time spent mostly in place is a fortified network of relationships.
“These [high school coaches] trusted me and said, ‘Hey, he’s one of us,’” Rebowe said. “Then you go back and recruit those schools. I built all those relationships, even in the years I was at ULM and ULL, you kept that relationship and you treated people the right way.
“And they don’t forget that. So it was easy when I got the head coaching job. These guys wanted Nicholls to recruit their school, recruit their players and have a place for them to play.”
Those relationships are part of the reason behind this drastic turnaround of the Nicholls State program these last four years.
Because of the poor track record and reputation of the Colonels program, Rebowe had to work hard to sell Nicholls as a desirable place to be. But there was trust in his vision from people he has gotten to know during his years mining the state’s football talent.
His earliest classes included some foundational players to build around, including quarterback Chase Fourcade, the 2018 Southland Conference Player of the Year, and All-American defensive lineman Sully Laiche; both players were part of Rebowe’s second signing class and now figure to be instrumental in Nicholls’ 2019 success as seniors.
Rebowe has used Louisiana’s vast pool of football talent to build up his program; all but six players on Nicholls’ current roster attended a Louisiana high school.
“I think it matters,” said Nicholls State Athletic Director Matt Roan. “He understands our community, our region and everything inside of that. When he goes to high schools, the high school coaches appreciate him, they know he cares about the place and their student athletes.”
That Rebowe is a product of South Louisiana is not lost on the community he lives in, either.
Donny Rouse, CEO of Rouses Markets and a Thibodaux resident, felt the excitement in the community when Rebowe took the job. Not only excitement, but comfort in having a local man lead the football team out of the dark place it was in.
Rebowe is Rouse’s neighbor, which gives him an up-close and personal glimpse at the way the community and its football coach have embraced each other.
“The whole atmosphere about Nicholls football has turned around,” Rouse said. “People are tailgating before the games, people are going to the games, they’re traveling to away games. It’s exciting to have that in Thibodaux.”
One can learn something about a person by taking stock of the things they surround themselves with. Rebowe’s office in Barker Hall on Nicholls State’s campus is sparse when it comes to trinkets and personal mementos, but it speaks to the type of character he has been trying to establish in his program.
The white board to the side of his desk is filled with reminders and motivational one-liners in neat, block handwriting. Framed news clippings hang on the walls to commemorate big wins and pride in the program. A sword — like the one in the Colonels’ logo — with gold inlay on the black pommel and sheath hangs above his desk.
“One day it was shipped to my house,” Rebowe said. “It was anonymous, I couldn’t find who it was from, but it has to be a big supporter.”
On top of the filing cabinet near the doorway is a miniature boxing bag, meant to symbolize the fighting spirit Rebowe wants to see in his football teams. “All we’re going to do is keep punching. At the end of the fight, at the end of the game, we’re going to see who’s standing,” Rebowe said, adding that Nicholls State brings boxing gloves to games.
One wall is dominated by posters of the slogans Rebowe and the football program generate each year to establish a sort of guiding principle, distilling the larger idea he is always trying to evoke.
The first year was “All In,” followed by “Earn It in Year 2” and “Count Me in in Year 3.” Rebowe is particularly proud of the slogan they coined last year, “One Way.” Hanging next to the sword on the wall is a One Way sign, and Rebowe wore a shirt with the campaign logo on it as he conducted an interview for this story.
“If we are all moving in the same direction, if we’re all together on the same page, there’s no way we can be stopped,” Rebowe explained. “Inside of that arrow are a bunch of little arrows — different sizes, different shapes, different speeds, different colors. That embodies our team. If we were all moving in the same direction, we can’t be stopped.
“But if you miss class, or you’re late for weights or you get in trouble and those little arrows start going the other way, you’re dividing it. Then we’re going to have trouble.”
The 2019 slogan? “Right Now” — urging players to be present in the moment.
Rebowe’s process of turning the Colonels’ program around centered on reshaping the culture whose roots dug deep as decades of losing seasons piled up. Going up against that, he committed himself to approaching this mission with overflowing optimism.
He told the players he cared about them, then he devoted himself to proving it. The glass was always half full, even as Nicholls lost its first five games with Rebowe as coach, extending the losing streak to 23 games.
Despite those early losses, Rebowe saw the perspective he was trying to cultivate take hold immediately, and Nicholls has been reaping the benefits ever since. It is positivity that is backed by trust.
“It wasn’t always rainbows and butterflies and saying it’s was all going to be perfect, that wasn’t it,” Rebowe said. “But it was a positive atmosphere, a trusting atmosphere, and those guys felt it right away.”
ROOM TO GROW
The first 20 years of Rebowe’s college coaching experience were spent as an assistant coach. Twice he applied for the Nicholls State job — once in 1998 and again in 2010 — and twice he was turned down. Each time he met with rejection, he chose to believe that it had happened for a reason.
Throughout those years spent waiting for his opportunity, Rebowe paid close attention to the coaches he worked under. He identified things they did that he would incorporate into his own program, and also things he would not do. While he waited, he learned.
What came of that is a coach who knows exactly what he wants his program to be. And perhaps because he is older and more mature, he is also in a position where he knows how to make that vision a reality.
And just what can Nicholls be? That is what Rebowe intends to find out.
“He dreams big,” Roan said. “He thinks that special things can be accomplished here, that we’re just scratching the surface of what it is we’re trying to do.”
In the last two seasons under Rebowe, Nicholls has won 17 of its 25 games. It clinched its first playoff victory in more than 30 years. There is legitimate excitement about the football program in the community, and the community is starting to show it by supporting the program financially. Construction is expected to begin soon on a new end zone facility at Guidry Stadium on campus.
From the beginning, Rebowe believed in the Nicholls State football program, and now the community is coming around too. This is the fruit of the optimism Rebowe worked so hard to establish at the start, when there was no room for it.
And here’s the thing about a glass-half-full type like Rebowe: There is always room for more.
If Nicholls is starting to get respect around the state, Rebowe wants it nationally, annually. He does not want this to be a flash in the pan, but sustained success that will make people want to come to Thibodaux and play football. He wants his program to keep looking for a new top rung of the ladder once it has reached a previously unreachable height.
“Why not here?” Rebowe said. “Why not Thibodaux, Louisiana; why can’t it be done?”
Satisfaction? No, remember: That is a foreign concept here.