CoverWednesday, November 16, 2011

The Ragin’ Cajuns winning ways are attracting thousands of fair weather fans this season, but the real winners are the diehards who were Cajun long before Cajun was cool.   By Dan McDonald

Sandra Delhomme remembers sitting in the rain at Cajun Field, watching many USL and later UL football teams that had little hope of winning.
“And we were still there, out in the rain,” she says.

“I thought we were on a downhill train,” says longtime Ragin’ Cajun fan Bob Manuel. “I kept asking myself, what in the world are we doing?”
John Bordelon can tell you how many winning seasons the UL football squad has had (only 12) since he finished his playing career in one of the school’s best seasons 35 years ago.


“That’s the biggest disappointment,” Bordelon says. “We had gotten to 9-2 [in 1976], but where did we go from there?”

“When the crowds were so down, it was discouraging,” says Abbeville’s Kent Suire. “I’m an optimistic person, but it’s a shame it got to that point.”

Gerald “T-Boy” Hebert, a man fiercely proud of his Cajun heritage, struggled to brag about his favorite team. “It’s been a while since we provided a football season where people were proud to be a Cajun,” Hebert says.

For all these Cajun football fans, and many, many more, Christmas has come early. The smiles are back on their faces, and they’re still there even though they’ve filed out of Cajun Field for the final time this season.

“I’m so excited I can’t even sit still,” Manuel says. “I’m fixing to get spoiled.”

The Cajuns are winning — winning big — and life is good among the UL faithful.

Their gridiron heroes have more than doubled their win total from last year, won eight games for the first time in almost two decades, and they’re on their way to a first-ever Division I bowl game. Best of all, as Manuel alludes to, the success of the 2011 season doesn’t appear to be a flash in the gumbo pot.

“We’re going to look back in three years, five years, and say, wow, these last five years have been phenomenal,” Bordelon says. “And football is going to be a great part of it.”

It is a heady time for the Cajuns and first-year head coach Mark Hudspeth, the unquestioned catalyst for one of the nation’s biggest football turnarounds this season. UL finished 3-9 last year and was picked by most pundits to finish at or near the bottom of the Sun Belt Conference this season. One national magazine notably ranked UL 120th out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in its preseason edition.

“I hope Mark Hudsepth knows what he’s doing,” says one anonymous Sun Belt coach in Athlon Sports’ preseason edition. “He is taking over one of the worst teams in the nation.”

The Cajun faithful weren’t as pessimistic, but at the start of 2011 many were figuratively flipping their “WIN” button upside down to spell out “NIM” — no instant miracles.

“I had a feeling that they’d have a good season,” Delhomme says, “maybe a winning season.”

“I was hoping, really hoping, for 6-6,” Manuel says. “Who would have believed this?”

Hudspeth, for one.

“We knew they were out there,” says the unfailingly optimistic Cajun boss. “There were people that were ready to get excited about the Ragin’ Cajuns and this program. We knew they’d grab the rope and not let go and pull it with us … we just had to throw them the rope.”

Hudspeth’s got them all pulling in unison now, and he had them right from the start. His energy level and positive message were infectious in dozens of winter and spring preseason booster appearances. And since early September, his team has backed up all of that optimism.

“I knew he was the person that could bring us to this point,” Suire says. “He had the background, and as he hired assistants I saw the same thing in all of them.”

“You can’t believe what he’s done for the whole community,” stresses Sherie Burton, who was on the sidelines as a USL cheerleader the last time the Cajuns won nine games in that 1976 season. “It’s been such a good fit, with the character he has, and the team responding and showing the character they have.”

“I’m older and I’ve seen them come and go,” Hebert says, “and when I met this guy I knew he was special. The biggest impression he made on me was his energy level. I didn’t know exactly where he’d go with the program, but he sure lifted my spirits.”

The Cajun following desperately needed that spirit-lifting — some say they needed an exorcism — after watching their team post exactly one winning season since 1995. With the exception of the 6-5 team in 2005 that took a share of the Sun Belt title, the last time most UL fans had something to unabashedly cheer about was the 1993-95 run when the Cajuns had three straight winners and claimed two Big West Conference crowns.

coverstory1

Former coach Rickey Bustle, who took over in 2002 after the three-year debacle of Jerry Baldwin’s coaching stint, got the program back to respectability and made the team bowl-eligible four times in his nine years. But a 2010 slump to 3-9 including losses in seven of the last eight games — the three wins were by a combined nine points — made change necessary.

In came Hudspeth. Bordelon, now president and CEO of Home Bank, was a four-year USL letterman in the ’70s and was part of a program that went 0-10 in his 1973 freshman season — and was 9-2 by the time he finished. Last December, he was part of the selection committee that handed Hudspeth the reins.

“There’s a lot of similarities,” Bordelon says, comparing USL’s quick turnaround four decades ago to the even-quicker turnaround this season.  “With Coach Hud and with Augie (former Cajun coach Augie Tammariello, who began “Operation Turnaround” when hired in 1974), they worked on getting the guys in great shape, and they put an emphasis on defending the house. In 1976, we had the best home record we’ve ever had (7-0).”

This year’s team went 5-0 at Cajun Field, and the fans took notice. UL’s total attendance in those five games was 145,854 for an average of 29,171 per game, far and away a school record and an average of 6,000 more than anyone else in the Sun Belt.

“Fans don’t have any idea how much that helps us,” says senior multi-purpose back Brad McGuire. “Seeing all those people there, it gets us going. Nobody else in the conference has that — what we have when we walk into the stadium now.”

“It’s so much more fun to have everybody excited,” says Delhomme. She and her husband, Duane, have been regulars on the Cajun Field tailgating scene for years, her love of UL football sparked as a student in the late ’70s and early ’80s. After their marriage, it only grew.

“Duane’s family have been supporters forever,” she says, “and he and I would go with friends to the games when we were in college. It seems like we’ve always tailgated with a camper, but this year we’ve had so many more people wanting to join us. We really went all out this year; we had a pit made with a bar on one side and a TV on the other, and of course we had the red hearse out there.”


This year, though, the on-site symbol of the Delhomme Funeral Home family symbolized visiting teams leaving Cajun Field. Nov. 5’s pulsating 36-35 comeback win over state rival UL Monroe gave the Cajuns only their fourth perfect home season since moving into Cajun Field in 1971.

Kent Suire remembers that 1971 opening day, when USL moved into its brand-new home, and he hasn’t missed very many home games since.

“I was a Boy Scout for that first game,” he says, “and we were working as ushers, showing people where to sit in the upper deck. “

Forty years later, he’s still ushering people for home Saturdays, but now the 31-year oilfield veteran and member of the Weatherford International staff guides people toward his tailgating area.

“We’re there six hours before the game,” Suire says, “whether we’re cooking or not. We’ve got a group of about 10 couples that normally show up and tailgate with us, and there’s a lot more smiles on their faces when they show up now.”

Roots run even deeper for T-Boy Hebert and Bob Manuel, who cut their teeth on Cajun football at McNaspy Stadium on the main campus. Hebert attended his first USL game at age 10 at the team’s old home.

“I saw all the boys wearing ties and the girls wearing semi-formals, and I’d never been around that,” says Hebert, who owns the oil service company Patriot Services Corp., based in Kenner. “I was a kid from Jeanerette, and it was country come to town, and here comes the band playing the fight song right in front of us and the team taking the field with the cannon going off. That made an impression.

coverstory2“A cousin of mine had attended USL, and the two of us visited at LSU. Something there just didn’t make the impression like the Cajun mystique had, what moved me to embrace the university. From that day on, I was a Ragin’ Cajun.”

Hebert has to sometimes temper his enthusiasm, because he is involved governmentally with higher education on a statewide level (serving on the Board of Supervisors for the UL System). Manuel has no such restrictions, and his excitement overflows every time somebody mentions the school.

“I get carried away when I talk about UL sports,” Manuel says. “When I went to school here [1962-66], I came back as a 22-year-old ex-Marine as a freshman. We’d sit in those bleachers at McNaspy and we’d get dressed up, coat and tie. That’s where I met my wife [Lucretia] at that stadium … we went to a football game and this gal was sitting right behind me.”
Manuel’s seats are now on Cajun Field’s 50-yard-line, five rows down from the top of the lower West section. “I’ve been there since the stadium was built,” he says, “those same seats. But it’s a lot more fun now. [Former USL coach] Russ Faulkinberry must be jumping up and down in his grave, he’s so happy.”

It’s not like the Cajun football team has turned into an overnight juggernaut. This year’s 8-3 record has been fraught with peril, and a couple of unlikely victories. Last Saturday’s 30-21 loss at Arkansas State also eliminated UL from the Sun Belt championship race, meaning Hudspeth’s second goal ­— after winning every home game — will go unrealized this season. But of the team’s other two preseason goals — getting to a bowl game and winning a bowl game — one will happen and the other is still out there.

The opening 61-34 loss at Oklahoma State doesn’t look that bad now, since OSU ranks second in the most recent BCS standings, but the Cajuns didn’t have an offensive touchdown in that game until the final 8:14. Still, Hudspeth saw something in his team that others didn’t.

“I told the team in the locker room up there right after the game that I was somewhat excited,” he says. “We’d gotten beat by a team that’s now No. 2 in the nation, but we went down fighting. I saw the fight in them, and I could tell we had something special.”

UL did get a road win at Kent State the next week, but didn’t put struggling Nicholls State away until a fourth-quarter pick-six insured a 38-21 home-opener win.

The following week, UL opened league play at consensus preseason favorite Florida International and escaped with a 36-31 win. The Cajuns also survived a week later with a last-play Brett Baer field goal beating winless Florida Atlantic 37-34, but UL then dominated defending league champ and co-favorite Troy worse than the 31-17 final score. The next week it took control of the Sun Belt race with a 30-10 win over North Texas.

Those three wins were all at home — fortuitous timing, as it turned out, because the home victories galvanized the fan base even more.

“I just didn’t think it would be this good, this quick,” Delhomme says.

When UL went back on the road, though, it hit an unexpected bump in a 42-23 loss at Western Kentucky — a game every Cajun player and coach would love to have a re-do.

“We didn’t do what we do,” says free safety Lionel Stokes, the team’s top tackler in the secondary and part of the “pick-six” gang that has a nation-leading six interception returns for touchdowns. “We didn’t play well anywhere, and they took it to us. We made a vow that we weren’t going to let that happen again.”

But it almost happened two weeks later, in the season’s final home game. After the Cajuns dominated a decent Middle Tennessee team 45-20 on the road, UL came home to face state rival UL Monroe and found itself down 14-0 in the first quarter. A rally gave the hosts a 24-14 halftime lead, but ULM posted 21 unanswered points and got what appeared to be a clinching touchdown with 3:08 left for a 35-24 lead.

“I was thinking on the sidelines, there’s no way I’m going to lose to Monroe in my last game at Cajun Field,” McGuire says.

coverstory3He was part of a miracle finish, getting a key kickoff return to set up a Cajun score with 2:05 left, and then batting an on-side kick into teammate Ladarius Green’s hands to set the stage for a final score and a pulsating 36-35 win.

“I’m always the optimist,” Burton says. “I believe to the bitter end. Once you’re a Ragin’ Cajun, it’s in your blood, and you have to be dedicated to the team. But to win one like that … ”

UL does have one game remaining in the regular season, and it’s 1,300 miles away in Tuscson, Ariz., where the Cajuns will face Arizona after this week’s open date. It was a quirky bit of scheduling when announced, but it couldn’t have worked out better.

Last weekend’s game at Arkansas State wrapped up the Sun Belt season, and the Cajuns have only the Arizona game before beginning preparations for their first-ever Division I bowl appearance. A win over Arizona would tie for the most wins in the program’s 110-year history, and mark the first nine-win season since that storied 1976 campaign.

“My first year was the 9-2 season,” says Burton, who was a member of the varsity cheerleader squad as a freshman and eventually became captain in her final two years. “I was coming from a school [Carencro High] that rarely ever won a football game, so that was so great. We were setting attendance records, and I was cheering in front of those big crowds. Coach Augie and Coach Sam (Robertson), the team, it was like a big family back then.”

Burton, now director of business communications for C. H. Fenstermaker & Associates, never lost touch (“I made a lot of road trips as a grown-up person,” she laughs) but admitted it wasn’t easy at times.

“There were some rough years in between,” she says. “But it hasn’t been all suffering. We knew there would be really good times ahead if we stuck it out.”

Those good times will now manifest themselves in college football’s bonus round, and the Cajuns likely won’t have to go far for their bowl celebration — another plus for the fan base.

It’s a poorly kept secret that UL will be invited to the Dec. 17 R&L Carriers New Orleans Bowl in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, facing off against a representative from Conference USA (Southern Mississippi, Tulsa and SMU are among possible opponents).

That bid to the New Orleans Bowl could come as soon as this week, which would give UL a month to prepare for the bowl with only the non-conference outing at Arizona thrown in. That’s the huge benefit for teams playing in bowl games that most followers don’t consider — playing in a postseason bowl adds several weeks of available practice time, in effect giving teams a jump-start on both spring practice and the following season. Bowl participation allows good teams the extra workout time to remain a step ahead of their peers.

Most fans, though, aren’t thinking about that right now. Instead, they’re making their plans to inundate the Crescent City with Cajun culture, and make the Superdome their own for the first time since UL’s football series with Tulane lapsed in 2000.

“We already have our reservations made for New Orleans,” Delhomme says, as do many other Cajun fans, even though the invitation’s not official yet.

“I never questioned that this could happen,” Bordelon says. “I questioned, would it happen. I didn’t know if we were ever going to commit to it. I hadn’t seen a plan in the last 34 years since I graduated, and I was skeptical if we had the desire to improve. Now there is a plan. We’re not there yet, but this is something to build on.”

“I moan and groan, but I never give up,” Hebert says. “And now I’m leaning back with my feet on the desk, smiling, and I’m enjoying my Mello Joy a lot more these days.”

“It just makes all of those years of sticking with it mean something,” Burton says. “It makes it all worth it.”

coverstory4Bleeding Red and White
The late Hardy Edmiston teaches all of us a thing or two about what it means to love a football team.

 Ragin’ Cajuns fans may be reveling in their team’s success this year, but there are many who weren’t able to hang on long enough to be a part of the revelry.

Hardy Edmiston is among that group, with the vermilion-and-white bleeding Edmiston passing away in 2008 after an extended illness. But Edmiston did get his last wish, and he got it in a big way in what was his final football season.

Grandson Drew Edmiston was a kicker for the Cajuns from 2006-08, and Hardy got to see him play almost every game in those three years. He traveled by charter jet to Drew’s final road game at Troy in late November of 2008, and he watched the final game of that season on television, a Dec. 3 Wednesday night when UL took a 42-28 win over Middle Tennessee. He died two days later.

“He was a trooper,” says son David Edmiston, who was named UL’s director of alumni affairs earlier this year after a distinguished business career. “He was a guy who always put on his boots. He said he was going to be a part of it all the way through. He said once that all he ever wanted was for God to give him the strength to see his grandson play.”

The elder Edmiston attended then-SLI from 1948-52, lettering in baseball and football as a manager and trainer and also serving as student intramural director and ROTC athletic director before graduating and joining the U.S. Air Force. He returned home and entered the oil industry, eventually founding Cree Oil Co. and serving as co-owner of Workover Equipment Rentals.

But work was only a sidelight to Edmiston’s other loves.

“He loved his family, he loved his church and he loved his university,” David says of his father. “He bled vermilion and white.”

Edmiston was one of UL’s best-known and best-loved supporters dating back decades. “We had some years that we weren’t too proud of,” David recalls, “but Dad would never talk bad about the university, no matter how bad it was.”

If possible, his involvement and support grew even greater when then-coach Rickey Bustle signed Drew to a scholarship in 2004. He red-shirted one year and saw little action the following one, but from 2006-08 he became a standout and still ranks sixth on UL’s all-time point production list (192 points). Nine of those points came in UL’s upset 31-28 win at Houston in 2006, including a 51-yard field goal.

“We scored a last-minute touchdown and won,” David says, “and after the game Mrs. Authement [Barbara, wife of then-UL president Dr. Ray Authement] came up and hugged my dad. She said she remembered Dad saying that he wanted to see Drew play ‘just one game, and now look at where we are.’”

Edmiston’s health, fragile for years, was failing even more throughout Drew’s senior season in 2008, but that didn’t stop him from attending every game possible. “That last game at Troy, he could barely get around,” David says. “The AD and president at Troy were so kind … they let him have a special seat in their box because he had such a hard time. But he wasn’t going to miss it.”

A few days later, he had a bright red Ragin’ Cajun blanket over him when he died, and before his funeral services, incoming president Dr. Joseph Savoie took a UL-themed tie from around his own neck and put it on Edmiston, letting him be buried with it.

“Everything that’s going on now, it’s exciting, but it’s also a little bittersweet,” David says. “Dad would have been 83 this year, and that’s asking a lot, and I don’t know how he would have handled this. I don’t know if he would have been able to contain himself.” — DM

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