41 Years of Cajun Football: The Road to New Orleans
I won't believe it till I see it.
This has been the sentiment around Lafayette regarding Cajun football for years. And even now, after a whirlwind inaugural season for new Head Coach Mark Hudspeth, after a flawless home record in front of record breaking crowds, after 4th quarter comebacks and dramatic upsets, there are still many skeptical Cajun fans so conditioned for disappointment, that they are not going to believe it till they see it.
Well ladies and gentlemen, its official, you can start believing it now. The Cajuns are going to New Orleans. For the first time in 41 long and painful years, the Cajuns are going bowling.
For longtime Cajun fans this year has been an absolute treat. The light at the end of a seemingly endless dark tunnel. For the new generation of Cajun fans, as well as those recently enlisted, this season has been a symbol of promise and a sign of things to come. It is possible. It is happening.
And while it seems those all to real memories of the painful seasons and disappointing results of years gone by are now a thing of the past, now is as good a time as ever to take a look back at the long and winding road that has brought us from there to here.
After a 9 – 3 season under Head Coach Russ Faulkinberry, things were looking very bright for the then USL Cajuns. This season would mark the last year the Cajuns would play at the old McNaspy Stadium. The new multimillion dollar Cajun Field facility was being built and optimism was high.
Elsewhere on campus, head basketball coach Beryll Shipley's team was gaining national recognition for their dominance on the court in front of raucous Blackham Coliseum crowds. Tiny USL was on the road to becoming the south's newest athletic powerhouse.
The Cajuns went on to lose the Grantland Rice Bowl against Tennessee State, who's powerful defensive line featured NFL star and the recently Geico reference Ed “Too Tall” Jones.
1973 marked a rough year for Cajun athletics. The basketball team received what would come to be known as the “death penalty” for major NCAA violations. Although the violations did not technically involve the football team, the shock waves from the enormous penalty were felt throughout the athletic department and throughout the city.
1973 was Falkinberry's last year as Cajun's head coach. The team finished 0 – 10 that year, their worse record in the Faulkinberry era.
When coach Nelson Stokely took over for the Cajuns in 1986, he inherited a team that in many ways had never recovered from the fallout of the 1973 death penalty. Although the Cajuns had some winning seasons since then, they had never managed to regain the promise and hope once shown under Falkinberry.
With Stokely at the helm, the Cajun football team began to find wins and future NFL stars. Although Stokely never managed to get the Cajuns to a bowl game, he did lead the school to the greatest upset in its history.
In what is still widely regarded as the greatest game to be ever be played at Cajun Field, the then 25th ranked Texas A&M Aggies fell to the Cajuns 29 – 22 after a dramatic 4th quarter interception return. Tales of the celebration that followed are still told and retold again at virtually every Cajun's home game when tailgaters of a certain age begin to reminisce about their glory days.
Legend has it that after rushing the field, a group of highly exuberant and slightly inebriated Cajun fans tore down the goal posts and headed out of the stadium. After carrying the large goalposts for some distance, the slowly sobering Cajun fans began to realize there wasn't much they could do with a goal post, and more or less left it in an unceremonious roadside location. The following day, the city awoke to discover their new authentic souvenir sculpture, and the school placed an ad for a new set of pipes.
(Note – This story has been told and retold to me countless times by several less than reliable narrators who have asked to be given both criminal immunity and full credit for their actions.)
In one of the worst hires in the history of Div – 1 college football, Jerry Baldwin became the head football coach for the Cajuns in 1999. Baldwin was let go after only three seasons with a combined record of 6 – 27. Baldwin's dismal tenure marked the low point for Cajun football. Rock bottom.
Inheriting one of the worst college football programs in the country, new head coach Ricky Bustle went to work on turning things around. Bustle returned a sense of excitement and pride to Cajun field, giving the team their first winning season in nearly a decade.
Bustle was the major factor in bringing many state-of-the-art athletic facilities to campus, and was responsible for delivering the school their first Sun Belt Championship in 2005. Although Bustle never managed to get the Cajuns to a bowl, its clear that without his hard work and belief in the school and the program, the Cajuns would never have been in the position they are right now.
When Dr. Savoie took over as President in 2008, he promised a commitment to help the school reach its athletic potential. Although not an official part of the team, Dr. Savoie's influence is felt everywhere. His vision and guidance has been instrumental in helping the Cajuns achieve their goals. Whether it be hiring the best personnel, helping grow the athletic budget, or simply being present for students, fans, and student athletes, Dr. Savoie has helped restore a sense of pride and enthusiasm for Cajun athletics not felt since the glory days of the early 70s.
Since taking over as head coach only a few months ago, Coach Hudspeth has taken Lafayette by storm. The man who seemingly pulled all the right strings has awoken the Sun Belt's sleeping giant and alerted the nation to the next big thing in college football. Part cheerleader, part fundraiser, part disciplinarian, Coach Hud as done more in his short time at UL than even the biggest Cajun supporter could have ever thought possible.