When that dastardly lady named Katrina transformed my permanent residence in Metairie to a temporary residence in Lafayette and my insides had long since had their fill of the despair and destruction as depicted on television, the prospect of attending a college football game felt like a godsend.
Cajun Field would serve as the site for a 2005 pairing between Northwestern (La.) State and homestanding University of Louisiana-Lafayette, an ambivalent matchup personally because ULL happens to be my alma mater -- now 40 years removed -- but the (then) head coach at Northwestern, Scott Stoker, was a close friend who had helped me immensely through the years with my football recruiting information.
It proved to be a major mistake when I opted to stroll among the tailgaters since the entire area was belted by an India-like monsoon which turned the entire parking lot into a quagmire. After watching some of the partially-imbibed students engage in physical disagreements and others slide through the muck, I opted to ruin another pair of shoes and trudged toward the press box.
That watery adventure was the last time I set foot in Cajun Field â€“ until Homecoming 2011, this past Saturday, Oct. 15.
First, let's backtrack 10 months to a time when Louisiana-Lafayette officials pegged Mark Hudspeth, a former assistant at Mississippi State, as their new head football coach.
Hired on Dec. 13, 2010, this 42-year-old buzz-saw hit the rounds at full tilt before the ink had barely dried on his five-year contract. To this hyperactive hire, there was no hand he would not shake; no baby he would not kiss; no interview he would not grant; and no group he would not address.
"The smallest group was about 10 people," he said. "The largest was about 2,500. Sure ate a lot of chicken."
But his fiery style immediately endeared him to the Cajuns' faithful as if his last name ended in "eaux" or "ois." So smitten were the fans that a fundraising drive netted $500,000 towards improving the athletic facilities at UL, which already feature a $4.5 million indoor football practice field. On the eve of a home game this past weekend against North Texas, a pep rally-concert drew 12,000 fans, many on hand to hear the native of Louisville, Miss. raise their blood pressure. His appeal has translated into a surge at the turnstiles where the Cajuns are averaging a robust 29,420 fans through four home games.
Tim Rebowe, an LSU graduate and a former coach at Destrehan for eight years, coaches the safeties for the Ragin' Cajuns.
"In one word, to describe him (Hudspeth), it would be 'motivation'," said Rebowe. "Whether it's Little League, the Rotary Club or a hospital, he'll come and speak. And he's good at it. The man doesn't sleep."
Prior to kickoff against the Mean Green Saturday afternoon, the coaches and players gathered in a hotel meeting room across the street from Cajun Field for a motivational film. It included highlights of a 31-17 victory against Troy, interspersed with film of the players' grueling preseason workouts in which they scaled the stadium's steps, each burdened with a backpack containing 30 pounds of sand.
"People ask us how is it that we are 5-1, and how have we done that," Hudspeth bellows.
"Well, they don't know about all those days we got out here at 6:30 a.m.; they don't know the amount of work you have put it," he continues. "And today, you're going out there to play harder than you ever have in your life, harder than you ever thought possible."
Throughout the oratory, the players remain silent before boarding a bus for a short ride to the stadium where they disembark and walk single file through a red and white gauntlet of hugging, handshaking, high-fiving, backslapping fans.
"Thousands of people have always come to the stadium," said one press box observer. "Now they come to the games, too."
And that they did. A crowd of 32,823 (5th largest in stadium history) was on hand, despite a television conflict with LSU-Tennessee. UL prevailed 30-10 and improved to 6-1 and 4-1 and first place in the Sun Belt Conference as the new coach strives to drive his players toward a conference championship and a Superdome date in the New Orleans Bowl Dec. 17. But three conference road games and one home matchup against Louisiana-Monroe loom as does a visit to the University of Arizona. UL will face second-place Arkansas State (5-2, 3-0) in a key conference finale Nov. 12.
UL (then USL) has not participated in a bowl game since 1970 when the Cajuns were edged 26-25 in Baton Rouge's Grantland Rice Bowl by Tennessee State, an opponent whose roster included future Saints quarterback "Jefferson Street" Joe Gilliam and Dallas Cowboys standout defensive end Ed "Too Tall" Jones.
During the span of the last four decades since that bowl appearance, UL has enjoyed and endured checkered coaching successes â€“ from the late Russ Faulkinberry to Augie Tamariello to Sam Robertson to Nelson Stokely to Jerry Baldwin and to (most-recently) Rickey Bustle whose recruits still form a nucleus on the 2011 team.
In addition to an infectious personality, Hudspeth brings with him strong recruiting ties to Mississippi. (The Cajuns signed 14 prospects from his home state in February, including Mr. Football, running back Qyendarius Griffin, 5-foot-11, 225 pounds, from Batesville).
Many college observers and coaches have always looked favorably at UL as an ideal location, one adjacent to rich talent reserves such as Acadiana, Carencro, Crowley, Notre Dame, St. Thomas More, Breaux Bridge and New Iberia-Westgate, etc, all within minutes of campus.
"When you start winning, people (recruits) start to inquire," said Rebowe. "Coach Bustle (now an assistant at Tulane) left us with a strong base. Coach Hudspeth has strong ties in Alabama and Mississippi. These people here (ULL fans) are starving for a winner."
UL already has secured an unheard-of 16 early commitments and had 75 players who made make unofficial visits to the North Texas game. Offensive guard Dominick Bilich (6-3, 285) of Rummel and cornerback Dominick Jones (5-11, 185) of St. Augustine have tendered early pledges, as have a pair of three-star rated quarterbacks.
The 2011 roster also features New Orleans-area flavor, including starting junior quarterback Blaine Gautier, a dart-throwing, accurate left-hander from Lutcher, junior starting wide receiver Javone Lawson of Helen Cox, starting junior guard Leonardo Bates of Higgins and starting senior noseguard Derreck Dean of McDonogh 35. Coaches are also high on sophomore redshirt wideout James Butler of Hahnville who has an injured knee.
The incoming freshmen include defensive end Kevon Foster of Warren Easton, wide receiver Jamal Robinson of Salmen, offensive lineman Greg Seine of Mandeville and cornerback Sean Thomas of St. Augustine. Graduation will take away senior tight end Ladarius Green (6-6, 235) of Pensacola, Fla., who could rate as a possible first-round draft pick next year.
Troy Wingerter, a Rummel and ULL graduate who coached tight ends and served as ULL's recruiting coordinator for 10 years, has returned as director of football operations. The mention of Hudspeth makes him think of "Juice, as in loose and all jacked up," said Wingerter. "He allows music during practice and it's loud. The seniors pick out the songs." Rest assured that none of those selections include any cuts from 'Bing Crosby's Greatest Hits'.
Wingerter likes to also emphasize the school's academic upside -- that ULL is rated No. 8 nationally in computer science and in the Top 100 in business and its engineering department excels. The football team's GPAs also bear high marks. "Coach 'Hud' wants us to be the best we can be. He cares about how we represent the school. He speaks to the heart," said Wingerter.
"At that pep rally Friday, he had Purple and Gold (LSU) fans yelling 'Go Cajuns'.
"We have ethnic groups and racial diversity on this campus, but in the end, we're all Cajuns. And that's one of the reasons I love it here. I left and came back but I never want to leave again."
Those long-beleaguered Cajun fans hope that this first-year coaching ball of fire, already a hot coaching commodity, shares the same sentiments.
Notes: ULL is ranked No. 32 in the first BCS poll. . . Arizona, ULL's final opponent, has former Tulane assistant Frank Scelfo and former Brother Martin quarterback Garret Chachere on its staff. . . The apex of ULL football took place in 1996 when the Cajuns stunned national power Texas A&M, 29-22, setting off a celebration so intense that the goal posts were ripped from their foundations and carried from the stadium.
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