Remembering Jacob Byler: A Legacy of Impact and Tireless Dedication

by: William Weathers // Contributor

Linden Bercegeay was a lifelong friend of the Jacob Byler family, having grown up in a high school coaching family of his own.

Bercegeay was a student and defensive end at Cathedral-Carmel in Lafayette where he played for his father, also named Linden, and Byler, the school’s defensive coordinator until 1981 when he took over and led the team to an 9-3 record and appearance in the Class 2A state playoffs. 

The influence of his father and Byler, who spent more than four decades in education, proved pivotal, molding Bercegeay to become a high school coach for 30 years, including 14 under Byler at Erath High School. 

Bercegeay coached at other schools in the Acadiana area, Opelousas Catholic and Comeaux, but often found himself reaching out to Byler to catch up, share ideas, and talk football. 

They were connected by more than football, a friendship and a respect that ran deep, that when Byler required assistance to attend his oldest granddaughter’s wedding, Bercegeay brought him to the church and subsequent reception on June 1.

They shared a beer afterward, a moment of reflection on their time together, a time that proved fleeting after the news of Byler’s passing more than a month later on Wednesday, July 3rd.

“We had a last beer together which was the way to end a life-long relationship,” Bercegeay said. “I was proud to have brought him to his granddaughter’s wedding.”

With a portion of his family out of the country, funeral arrangements for Byler, 83, include visitation at Vincent Funeral Home in hometown of Kaplan next Tuesday and Wednesday. He will be laid to rest on Wednesday following a mass which is scheduled for 11 am.

“His legacy will never be forgotten,” Derrick Fourroux, who played quarterback for Byler from 2001-2004 and signed with McNeese State.

Byler’s son, Tommy, confirmed the passing of his father on Thursday, the catalyst of an outpouring of emotion on social media from former players and coaches, and the ardent fan base of Erath in Vermilion Parish. 

Byler remains the most successful coach in the history of Erath High with a 113-116 record and 10 state playoff appearances. The Bobcats won a district championship in 1998 and were the league’s runner-up in 2007.

“He was a great mentor for all of the coaches at Erath High School,” Bercegeay said. “He had high expectations just like his athletes, and his coaches who did not want to disappoint him. His discipline and respect for others was an example for all of us.”

Byler coached for two years at St. Paul’s in Covington before moving to Cathedral-Carmel. He spent 14 years at the Lafayette school, coaching football, boys’ basketball, cross country, track and golf. 

Byler was a long-time defensive coordinator until Bercegeay’s father, who became the school’s principal, resulting in the elevation of Byler to head coach in 1981.

Cathedral went 9-3, losing only to St. Martinville and twice to E.D. White, and reached the state quarterfinals. Byler the District 8-2A Coach of the Year in the final season of the school which merged with Fatima to become St. Thomas More. 

“As athletes, we never wanted to let coach Byler down,” Bercegeay said. “He was an old-school coach, a fierce competitor with a great sense of humor and a big heart for the people he worked with. He was the same for all the years that I later got to work with him at Erath.”

Byler was the first football coach at St. Thomas More, which opened in 1982, where he spent four years. One of his first hires was Danny Broussard to coach the school’s freshman football team along with his duties with the freshman basketball team.  

Broussard, a fresh-faced 21-year-old with limited knowledge of football, managed to survive a bumpy 0-8 football season and succeeded his older brother Rickey as STM’s head basketball coach a year later. Entering his 43rd season this fall, Broussard’s built one of the state’s top programs with six state championships and ranks in the top 10 among the nation’s active winningest coaches with a 1,130-349 record.

“He said ‘rook’ (rookie), I’d like you to coach freshman football and basketball, and I heard you played baseball,” Broussard said of Byler. “I told him I’ll do anything you want, but the only thing I knew about football is when it’s fourth down you’ve got to punt. He started laughing.”

“He wasn’t able to get me any (coaching) help, but I didn’t hold that against him,” Broussard said. “I was the ant poison guy, and he said to see how many rocks we could pick up (off the practice field) before practice. I was in way over my head. Not only did we not win a game; we didn’t score a single point. I was the worst football coach in STM history. People say you fail your way out of the next position.”

Despite the inauspicious showing in football, Byler endorsed Broussard to take over the basketball program when his brother departed to become an assistant at then, USL, once the school year had begun.

“Jake was a great guy to work for,” Broussard said. “They didn’t have to give me the job. I thought they may bring in a more experienced guy, but Jake went to bat for me. He told our principal that he knew I was young, but that I could handle it. He was instrumental in me keeping that job and 42 years later, I’m still here. It’s because of Jake Byler going to bat for me.”

When Byler took over Erath’s football program in 1987 and assumed the athletic director’s duties, he brought on Bercegeay to coach strong safeties. Bercegeay later transitioned to working with the offensive line and also assisted with the girls’ track program.

Byler coached the Lady Bobcats to six district tiles, and a finish as high as third in the Class 3A state meet.

“Even though coach Byler was an old-school coach, he was much more innovative than he gets credit for,” Bercegeay said. “As a DC (at Cathedral-Carmel), his multiple defenses and stunts set him apart for those years. At Erath, he instituted a run-and-shoot offense with the veer and a 4-2-5 defense before most schools did in the Acadiana area.”

Byler provided a sensed stability for an Erath program which had been through four different coaches over a seven-year period that resulted in a 20-50 record and no postseason appearances. The Bobcats developed a sense of toughness, reminiscent of Byler’s competitiveness, and took on a blue-collar mentality that was representative of the rural community of more than 2,000 residents.

Erath played in its first state playoff game in 17 years, the first of what became more of a common occurrence under Byler, with nine additional trips to the playoffs. He was voted Vermilion Parish Coach of the Year in 1998 and ’02 and served as a coach in the 1993 Louisiana High School Athletic Association’s All-Star game.

“He instilled the values of hard work, and perseverance and teamwork,” said Fourroux, a four-year starter at McNeese who currently works in Lafayette as a registered nurse. “Traits that not only shaped us as players, but as individuals. It was easy to play for him. He was one of the best coaches I ever played for. You just went out and had fun.”

Byler was inducted into Erath High’s Hall of Fame in 1990, symbolic of his dedication and impact on a school and community, which reciprocated its affection for the long-time coach and educator following his passing this week.

“Without coach Jacob Byler my whole life would be different,” said Bercegeay, who is now retired. “I would have never met my wife, have kids or made lifelong friends and memories. Jake was a huge influence in my life, and for that, I’ll be forever grateful.”