ul-sectionUL: A Season to Remeber

Newsmakers of the Year: UL Ragin’ Cajuns

What a Season!
What a Game!

ul-sectionUL: A Season to Remeber

Newsmakers of the Year: UL Ragin’ Cajuns

What a Season!
What a Game!

Down by a point, no time outs left and all the way back at their own 18-yard-line with 30 seconds left.

Honestly, how many Ragin’ Cajun fans thought their UL football team was going to somehow pull out a victory that would end a Cinderella season?

Probably about the same number who thought, when the 2011 season began, the Cajuns would wind up with nine victories and hoisting a bowl championship trophy.
But as Cajun coach Mark Hudspeth would say, the believers never let go of the rope.

It might have been Brett Baer who toed through the now-legendary 50-yard field goal on the final play of the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, giving the Cajuns an unlikely 32-30 victory over San Diego State. But in a season that was full of near-miracles, it’s not a stretch to think that those believers lassoed that line-drive kick with their invisible ropes, and tugged it through the Mercedes-Benz Superdome uprights.

With the way the Cajuns’ 2011 season unfolded, and the way the drama built in UL’s first-ever Division I bowl appearance, nothing’s beyond the realm of possibility.
After all, 369 days before the New Orleans Bowl, the Cajuns didn’t have a coach after a 3-9 season that left the Cajun faithful once again swathed in disappointment. Then, prior to the season, one national publication ranked the UL program 120th out of 120 NCAA FBS programs.

Now the Cajuns rank among the country’s top three in single-season turnarounds, from 3-9 to 9-4, and it was indeed a happy holiday season for the squad and for nearly all of the bowl-record 42,841 fans who turned the Superdome into a raucous red sea on that Crescent City Saturday night.

But the only superlative that really matters was displayed on the Superdome scoreboard after the bowl-record throng had long since headed toward Bourbon Street.

Dan McDonald

2011 season Game-by-game

By Dan McDonald  Photos by Paul Angelle

Cajuns1

Sept. 3 – Oklahoma State 61, UL 34
Boone Pickens Stadium, Stillwater, Okla.
Few thought the Ragin’ Cajuns would be able to stay with the uber-offensive Cowboys, and that’s how it looked for a while as OSU raced out to a 34-10 halftime lead. But UL found a little offensive firepower in the second half, and the Cajuns also set a tone for the year when Bill Bentley and Jemarlous Moten both returned interceptions for touchdowns. Only Cotton Bowl-bound Kansas State scored more points than UL against the Cowboys — a team some believe should have been picked over Alabama for next week’s BCS title game against LSU.

Sept. 10 – UL 20, Kent State 12
Dix Stadium, Kent, Ohio
It was a non-conference game against a team few knew much about, but for many Cajun fans it was a huge measuring stick for the newly rebooted UL squad. After all, the Cajuns had exactly one non-conference road win since joining the Sun Belt in 2001. But behind a solid defense that held Kent to 10 first downs and had two fourth-quarter fourth-down stops — and got yet another TD interception return, this one from Lionel Stokes — the Cajuns never trailed after a 17-7 halftime lead. Not even an extended weather/lightning delay could dampen the spirits of Mark Hudspeth’s first win as Cajuns coach.

Sept. 17 – UL 38, Nicholls State 21
Cajun Field – Attendance: 28,741
The Cajuns weren’t as sharp at the start as most hoped or expected against an in-state and lower-division rival, with both teams scoring on each of their first two possessions. But Cordian Hagins burst in and got a hand on an NSU field goal attempt midway through the second quarter and Melvin White returned it 68 yards to give UL the lead for good. Bill Bentley then got the fourth “pick-six” in the Cajuns’ first three games, taking an interception back 41 yards for a score just after halftime. Blaine Gautier came off the bench to engineer two fourth-quarter scoring drives — and started the rest of the season.

Sept. 24 – UL 36, Florida International 31
Alfonso Field at FIU Stadium, Miami, Fla.
FIU was unbeaten after wins over North Texas, Louisville and UCF and was getting AP Top 25 poll votes, but Blaine Gautier threw for three touchdowns and led the Cajuns to a huge road win over the preseason Sun Belt favorite. Gautier had TD throws of 41, 22 and 46 yards to Ladarius Green, Darryl Surgent and Javone Lawson, the latter coming early in the fourth quarter and giving UL a 36-24 lead. FIU scored shortly after and drove to the Cajun 17 late before Lionel Stokes’ interception clinched UL’s first conference win. Brett Baer pinned FIU inside its own 15 five times with punts and hit two field goals.
Cajuns2

Oct. 1 – UL 37, Florida Atlantic 34
Cajun Field – Attendance: 26,339
Brett Baer’s 26-yard field goal as time expired ended a wild game of momentum sweeps, with both teams holding double-figure leads and the Cajuns up 34-20 with 7:43 left. FAU, in coach Howard Schnellenberger’s last year, had two quick scores on drives of only six and five plays, tying the game on Graham Wilbert’s 12-yard toss to Xavier Stinson with 1:48 left. But Blaine Gautier completed seven passes in a late drive and Harry Peoples’ stadium-record-tying 12th reception set up Baer’s third field goal of the second half. Gautier was on fire, completing 26-of-33 passes for 329 yards and two scores.

Oct. 8 – UL 31, Troy 17
Cajun Field – Attendance: 29,775
Defending New Orleans Bowl champion Troy was a co-favorite to win the Sun Belt and had won or shared the title each of the previous four seasons, but the Cajuns led from the start and never looked back in a fifth straight win. Chris Masson, stepping in at quarterback when Blaine Gautier was injured in the opening drive, threw for 211 yards and two first-half scores including a one-yard toss to Larry Pettis to cap the game’s first drive. The biggest play came three seconds before halftime, though, when Melvin White picked off all-league QB Corey Robinson and returned his theft 89 yards for a score and a 24-3 halftime lead.

Oct. 15 – UL 30, North Texas 10
Cajun Field – Attendance: 32,823
The largest crowd ever to watch a Sun Belt game also watched the Cajuns become bowl-eligible by mid-October, thanks to a dominant second-half performance after the Mean Green had taken a 10-7 first-quarter lead. Le’Marcus Gibson’s field goal block set the Cajuns up for a go-ahead score midway through the second period, and UL held UNT to four first downs after halftime and held standout tailback Lance Dunbar to only 59 all-purpose yards. Meanwhile, Blaine Gautier had two of his four touchdown passes in the final quarter, with Ladarius Green on the receiving end of two of those scores. The six straight wins was a first since 1970 — the last year UL went to a bowl game.

Oct. 22 – Western Kentucky 42, UL 23
L. T. Smith Stadium, Bowling Green, Ky.
The six-game streak disintegrated in a big way when the Cajuns went on the road for the first time in almost a month. Led by tailback Bobby Rainey’s 206 rush yards and three touchdowns, Western Kentucky rolled up 507 offensive yards and rolled to an easy victory. The Cajuns never led and never got closer than four points after WKU marched to an opening score in only six plays. Since UL trailed all day, Blaine Gautier’s arm got a workout and he finished with a 419-yard passing game, the third-highest total in school history. His last TD pulled UL within 28-23 with 14:21 left, but an interception and a loss on downs ended UL’s final two drives. WKU won seven of eight to end the season, the only loss coming to LSU in Baton Rouge.
Cajuns3

Oct. 29 – UL 45, Middle Tennessee 20
Johnny Floyd Stadium, Murfreesboro, Tenn.
Many wondered how UL would react to falling out of the Sun Belt unbeaten ranks, but those questions were quickly answered as the Cajuns thoroughly whipped the homestanding Blue Raiders. UL’s 526 offensive yards included an unlikely 338 rushing, with true freshman Alonzo Harris carrying for 189 yards and two scores. The Cajuns led 14-0 after one quarter thanks to Devon Lewis-Buchanan’s 55-yard TD interception return and were in front 21-0 at halftime and 28-0 early in the third quarter. Blaine Gautier’s 80-yard option run on the third play after halftime sent many fans home early.

Nov. 5 – UL 36, UL Monroe 35
Cajun Field – Attendance: 28,176
Mark Hudspeth’s first goal was for his Cajuns to go unbeaten at home, but that didn’t look likely when in-state and Sun Belt rival UL Monroe led 35-24 with 3:08 left on Jyruss Edwards’ third TD of the second half. However, Blaine Gautier led a quick six-play drive and hit Darryl Surgent with a 16-yard scoring pass that made it 35-30 with 2:05 left, setting up the biggest play of the regular season. Brett Baer’s bounding onside kick was batted by Brad McGuire into Ladarius Green’s hands for a Cajun recovery, and Gautier hit two quick passes before Alonzo Harris scored from three yards out for the go-ahead score. A 24-point second quarter had given UL a 24-14 halftime lead before ULM’s third-period comeback.
Cajuns4

Nov. 12 – Arkansas State 30, UL 21
ASU Stadium, Jonesboro, Ark.
Both UL and Arkansas State had virtually locked up bowl berths, but it was the Red Wolves who claimed the battle for the Sun Belt title. The Cajuns had a five-turnover day — three times ASU intercepted quarterback Blaine Gautier — and found itself down 17-0 midway through the second quarter after ASU quarterback Ryan Aplin threw for two early scores. UL cut the margin to 20-7 at halftime and then took a 21-20 lead on Gautier’s scoring pass to Darryl Surgent and Alonzo Harris’ four-yard run in the third quarter, but couldn’t come up with defensive stops on the Wolves’ two scoring possessions in the final 17 minutes.

Nov. 26 – Arizona 45, UL 37
Arizona Stadium, Tucson, Ariz.
The Cajuns had received an invitation to the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl to start their final regular-season week, and ended that week in a shootout with the Pac-12 Wildcats. The teams combined for more than 900 offensive yards — and over 500 in the second half — but Arizona’s 21-point spurt late in the second and early in the third quarters proved too much to overcome as the teams swapped scores four times in the second half. Jemarlous Moten’s 41-yard interception return was UL’s seventh such score of the season, tying an NCAA Division I record (one that Southern Miss broke in its Conference USA title game).

 Cajuns5
 Head coach Mark Hudspeth, left, hoists the champions’ trophy with UL
President Joe Savoie
.

T-Joe Enjoys the ‘Front Porch’
UL’s president understands the value a successful athletic program brings to the university.

By Dan McDonald  Photo by Robin May

Nothing warms the hearts of university athletic backers quite like their president putting his weight behind the program.

For Dr. E. Joseph Savoie — “T-Joe” to friends — supporting athletics is a no-brainer. He doesn’t need advisers to tell him how important his athletic program can be to the university in general.

All it took was a morning’s worth of watching ESPN two weeks ago — yes, he’s a university president who watches ESPN — two days before UL played in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl.

“Every 30 minutes, there was a game promo running,” Savoie says. “That’s publicity we couldn’t buy. Across America, people saw our name in that bowl game, and that’s something we wouldn’t have otherwise.”

Savoie knows the New Orleans Bowl’s national broadcast amounted to a four-hour infomercial about the university, and it obviously didn’t hurt that the Ragin’ Cajuns football team made its first-ever Division I bowl trip a memorable one with a last-second 32-30 victory over San Diego State.

“That game gave people an opportunity to look at the university that we’ve never had before,” he says. “The same goes for students and faculty we’re recruiting; if they take a look at us there, maybe they take a second look. And I think we’ve got our community, the Acadiana community and the state community maybe seeing us in a new light.”

During that broadcast, there was a quick video clip taken at the “graduation” ceremony held one day before the game in New Orleans, where five members of the Cajun squad earned their degrees and went through a full procession with caps and gowns. Savoie was there to hand out the diplomas and decree them as “the university’s newest alumni.”

Savoie was on hand for most of the New Orleans Bowl activities, even though he had to make the two-hour haul back and forth several times because of other university obligations during the week. But it was a labor of love.

“One of the fun things was keeping up on what people in both places were saying about us,” he says. “That’s one of the great advantages that an athletic program brings. It lets people engage and get involved, and it’s even better when people really get involved and take advantage of that.”

Savoie’s been involved with athletics for many years on the university level, notably during his time with the Alumni Association and the Union Program Council and later as UL’s vice president for university advancement.

Savoie served as state Commissioner of Higher Education for 12 years before returning to his alma mater and succeeding longtime UL President Dr. Ray Authement in July 2008.

“I was happy with that job and what we were trying to accomplish,” he says of his commissioner role. “But it’s hard to resist your alma mater.”

Savoie is fond of referring to athletics as the “front porch” of a university — the place where most get their first contact with the school. The week of the New Orleans Bowl and throughout the successful 2011 football season that front porch was a busy place and most of the people on that front porch were smiling.

“It’s part of the educational experience, and it’s a great vehicle,” he says. “It’s about supporting the students and the university. I go to plays, to musical events, to everything I can to support our students. Athletics isn’t any different, but it may be more broadly received. You can certainly get more enthusiastic and yell a little more than you can at a play.”

Savoie saw the enthusiasm that the bowl invitation and appearance brought to the city, the area and the university community, and knows that enthusiasm will translate into increased interest — and revenue — in the program. He’s a big proponent of the Ragin’ Cajuns Athletic Foundation, the main fundraising arm for the athletic department, and what that program has done in the area of upgraded facilities and salaries.

The RCAF made it possible for the school to offer a competitive salary package to bring coach Mark Hudspeth aboard, and it’s the RCAF that will now supplement that package more after his team’s success in his first season. With the incentives Hudspeth has reached and figures to reach, nearly half of his salary package will be paid by the RCAF. Reports of a new contract indicate the RCAF will be adding significantly more money to that package in the near future.

Savoie was quick to point out that no additional state money is in play for salaries or in any other athletic areas.

“It’s not just important to have the RCAF; it’s absolutely essential,” he says. “The state regulates the amount of money that can go into athletics, and over the past years we’ve seen the state budget cuts. The only way we’ve been able to make progress in athletics is through donations to the RCAF.

“Anyone who’s thought about it, please donate, and for those who have, thank you because you’re part of this success.”

UL Director of Athletics Scott Farmer boasted that the number of RCAF donors is up 90 percent over last year’s end-of-year figures, and total donations are up 44 percent. Those figures came before all of the new RCAF members that joined up during the crunch of New Orleans Bowl ticket purchases (RCAF members got first shot at the best bowl tickets), with at least some of the 18,800 game tickets sold locally going to new RCAF members.

“That 18,000 blew the bowl people out of the water,” Savoie says. “We sold more than a lot of other better-known and larger bowls. We had people calling from other bowl games asking if our numbers were real. Because of that sale, we covered all the costs of the team, the band, the staff. It’s an expensive proposition to go to a bowl game, but our tickets sales let us cover that.

“Most schools lose money on bowl games, but we didn’t lose money on this bowl.”


Cajuns6Rusty Whitt, All In
The blood running down Whitt’s face at the New Orleans Bowl was a symbol for all the blood, sweat and tears that went into the 2011 season.
By Paul Angelle Jr. Photo by Nicholas Angelle


“I believe that when well-prepared athletes play as a team with vigor and focus they are less likely to get hurt,” explains UL’s head strength and conditioning coach Rusty Whitt. “The sense of urgency that Mark Hudspeth brought in here before the season forced the players to get prepared to play. That meant fully recovering from nagging injuries among other things.”

Whitt came to Lafayette during the 2010 football season, after getting a tip from UL head basketball coach Bob Marlin that there was a position open.

“I was at Rice University when he called me up to notify me of the opening at UL,” recalls Whitt. “He knew me from Sam Houston State; we arrived on campus at roughly the same time. I trained his basketball team and got to know him really well.”

Whitt had added to his résumé since those days at Sam Houston State. He enlisted in the U.S. Army and served two tours in Iraq.

“It was a couple of years after 9/11, and I just figured [service] was now or never, given my age,” says Whitt. “My military time changed my viewpoint of what people are capable of doing. The mindset that we were taught during my training was that nothing was going to prevent us from accomplishing our goals, and anyone who has been in the military will understand this.

“It was a big eye opener,” adds Whitt. “I would not have progressed like I have as a coach without that experience. I see things now in a different light.”

Different would be an excellent description of Whitt’s methods for training, motivating and preparing his athletes. At the 2011 R&L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, Whitt’s face was colored with his own blood from a pre-game head butt with a Cajun player. The player, unlike Whitt, donned a shiny, black helmet.

“Greg Stewart, our defensive coordinator, has set the tone of our defense’s demeanor and aggressiveness,” says Whitt. “He has a permanent scar on his forehead from head-butting a player years ago.

“The kids today see how much you care, and they can tell if you’re all in,” Whitt says. “I head-butted one of the younger players in the tunnel before we ran out onto the field. The blood running down my face was a symbol for all of the blood, sweat and tears that we all gave for this season. It was fitting, it was perfect and I wasn’t going to clean it up; I’d do it again in the exact same situation.”

“He’s a crazy man,” says Jay Walker, the voice of the Cajuns on ESPN 1420/KPEL. “He’s one of those people that will do whatever it takes to motivate his guys, and if that means head-butting a player wearing a helmet and leaving the blood all over his face during a football game, that’s what he’s going to do.”

According to Walker, this wasn’t Whitt’s first head-butt; he participated in one earlier in the season during the Cajuns’ Sun Belt Conference opener at Florida International.

“We had reached a point in the game where we needed to make a statement,” says Whitt. “Tyrell Gaddies was in my face, and I couldn’t think of a better way to be a part of that statement, so I head-butted him.”

Shortly after the “statement,” Cajun quarterback Blaine Gautier hit Ladarius Green for a 41-yard touchdown pass on 4th and 1. The game was never really in doubt from that point forward.

Whitt says the New Orleans Bowl was the perfect place to make a similar statement.

After the 2010 season, the football team experienced a coaching change, and Hudspeth was introduced as the new head coach. There was a lot of excitement in and around the athletic complex, and Whitt was no exception.

“I have always wanted to work with a coach who understands the importance of strength and conditioning,” says Whitt. “Hudspeth definitely gets it, but he gets so much more. He understands the emotional peaks during competition and knows when to take advantage of them. He trusts me and I like his approach. I’d say we work very well together.”

Walker tells the story of one of the first working strategy meetings between Hudspeth and Whitt, a meeting where the decision was made about what kind of strength and conditioning program Whitt would create for the football players.

“Hudspeth explained to Whitt that he wanted to put his players through the toughest conditioning program within reason,” recalls Walker. “Whitt suggested that they implement the toughest conditioning program without regard to reason. The rest is history.

“I can’t imagine anyone in the country worked harder than those guys this past offseason,” adds Walker. “During the workouts, Whitt was the most hated person on campus. Now, those guys love him. They’d run through a wall for him; I would if he told me to.”

About 40,000 Cajun fans saw Whitt’s message in person, as images of his bloody face repeatedly came up on the monitors. The ESPN broadcasters commented on Whitt’s face for the many thousands more who watched it on television — a bloody face that must have looked pretty awesome in 3-D.

“I’ve heard that what I did was stupid,” says Whitt. “Someone said that Tom Landry never had blood on his face. This is a different time, and these kids grew up in a different era. These players want to know if we are with them.”


Cajuns7The Survivor
Former Cajun lineman Troy Wingerter rode out three coaching changes and numerous staff assignments to arrive at the New Orleans Bowl, and it all began with a fateful phone call from a bar in the French Quarter.
By Dan McDonald Photo By Michelle Mahfouz
 

Troy Wingerter will never forget the night of Dec. 17, the night he watched Brett Baer get set to pound through the most historic field goal in UL football history.

“I wanted to get on my knees,” Wingerter says, but that gets more difficult by the year for a 42-year-old guy who survived four years of pounding in the Ragin’ Cajun offensive line. Instead, he squatted down and prayed right up until he heard the “thud” of Baer’s foot meeting the ball. It was a noise he could easily hear, since he was almost square on the 40-yard line, a few feet back from the sideline in what was an eerily quiet Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Wingerter looked up in time to see the line-drive kick sneak inside the left upright, giving UL a stunning 32-30 victory over San Diego State, and while the team and the other coaches sprinted onto the field to celebrate winning the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, the barrel-chested Wingerter started sobbing.

Many in the Cajun Nation knew the UL team’s appearance in the bowl game was important to Wingerter, the Metairie native who adopted the Cajun program as his own more than two decades ago. But few knew how important.

“I have a bad attitude when it comes to fighting for recognition of my university,” he says. “I always have a chip on my shoulder, and there have been so many woulda, coulda, shoulda moments that we’ve had here.”

Some of the sting of those moments went away at the final horn of UL’s first-ever Division I bowl game, but Wingerter couldn’t help but think back to a Sunday August afternoon, one that followed a sleepless night 15 years earlier. A bartender friend had just slapped a handful of quarters down in front of him, and pointed at the pay phone in Johnny White’s French Quarter bar.

“He told me to get on with it and find a coaching job, or to just shut up,” Wingerter says.

As it turns out, Wingerter only needed one quarter. His first phone call was to then-Cajun head coach Nelson Stokley, begging for some way to find happiness in his life.
The all-time SLII/SLI/USL/UL football team, selected at the end of the university’s first 100 years of collegiate play, is an impressive unit. Troy Wingerter’s name is on that team, one of the offensive linemen stemming from his award-winning four-year career from 1988-91. He was good enough to spend some time in NFL camps, before noted pro coach Jack Pardee gave him some advice.

“He said I had to carry my butt home and finish school,” Wingerter says, which is what he did in earning his education degree in 1993.

From there, he worked a series of jobs — at a bakery, as a banquet captain and a bouncer in Colorado and in Yellowstone, before returning to his New Orleans home and hooking on with a management company that owned several Crescent City restaurants and bars.

“I was really fortunate there,” he says. “I moved up the corporate latter pretty good, got to do some traveling and ran some clubs on Bourbon Street. But when you do that, you’re constantly replacing club management and you’re there every day, all day.”

That led to a lot of long nights, which led to a lot of early mornings. Wingerter was leaving his clubs just before sunup and frequenting other clubs to wind down. He knew it as a downward spiral, but he also knew what he wanted to do — coach football at his adopted school.

While he watched a Saints preseason game from Johnny White’s bar, he worked up the nerve to use the pay phone.

“I called coach Stokley,” he says, “and I told him I hated my life and I would do anything to get back there. He was worried about me — for one thing, he knew exactly where Johnny White’s was, right across the street from Pat O’Brien’s.”

That call came in August of 1996, after the Cajuns had three straight winning seasons from 1993-95. Stokley didn’t have anything available on the full-time staff at that late date, so Wingerter came back as a poorly paid unofficial graduate assistant and also did odd jobs to make ends meet.

“I was a hanger-on,” he says. “Ironically, the first game I was on the sideline was Texas A&M [UL’s 29-22 upset over the Aggies early in 1996]. That spring one of the offensive [graduate assistants] left and I took that spot.”

He stayed there for three years, carrying over to Jerry Baldwin’s first staff, and the next year he became Baldwin’s video coordinator. In 2001, after UL assistant coach Mark McQuillan tragically passed away the previous December, Baldwin hired Wingerter as full-time defensive line coach.

When Baldwin’s time as head coach came to an ignominious end, Wingerter was one of the few staffers retained by Rickey Bustle when he took over the program after the 2001 season. Wingerter served as recruiting coordinator, tight ends coach and eventually assistant head coach.

Again, he was a survivor when Bustle was let go last December, and Mark Hudspeth named Wingerter as director of football operations. It wasn’t on-field coaching, but he was still in the game and still with his beloved alma mater.

“I’m logistics,” he says of his current post. “Everything that has to do with the team itself, I’m involved. I don’t have anything to do with what happens between the lines, but everything else.”

It’s a position he’s come to relish, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that he’s working for the dynamic and charismatic Hudspeth. The fact that the Cajuns have been a shocking success in Hudspeth’s first season has been a bonus.

“The man never fails to impress me,” Wingerter says of Hudspeth. “Saturday night [of the bowl game], he made the transition from being a 12-year-old boy, in the most excited and happiest moment of his life, and he composed himself in one second and shook [San Diego State coach] Rocky Long’s hand and got up on that podium to accept the trophy.”

Composure was something Wingerter struggled to keep all of bowl week. He’d been looking forward to the trip home for nearly two months, ever since it became apparent that the Cajuns were the leading contender for a New Orleans Bowl berth.

“I’d played in the ‘Dome a bunch as a child, three times in high school and three more times in college,” Wingerter says. “But to watch our kids walk in there, and start flipping their phones up and seeing their faces, it was awe inspiring. When Bill Bentley, ‘Mr. Confident,’ says this is the greatest day of my life — that was emotional for me.”

Wingerter had plenty of detailing and organizing to keep him busy all week, but every time he looked up he saw something that reminded him of home and family.
“My dad announced games at Rummel, and everywhere I saw memories of him,” he says. “The Tuesday night players party, going to the D-Day Museum, going to visit the kids at the zoo and the hospital, everything was just the way it was supposed to be.”

Even the game itself went perfectly, although not perfectly played.

“If we’d played that flawless game and won like 42-10, the guys could have given Coach Hud the Gatorade bath and had fun on the sidelines,” he says. “But it couldn’t have ended more appropriately. This is the way this team was supposed to finish the season; it couldn’t have been more appropriate for the type of team we are.”

And when it did end, while Baer, game Most Valuable Player Blaine Gautier, record-setting receivers Javone Lawson, Darryl Surgent and Ladarius Green, and all the rest of the red-jerseyed Cajun players and staffers were celebrating, Wingerter already had his post-game plans made, whether the Cajuns had won or not.

After taking care of the night’s remaining logistics, he changed into jeans and left the hotel on foot, taking a roundabout path down Royal Street to avoid much of the Cajun Nation’s Bourbon Street celebration. Family and coaching friends would soon join him, but at that moment he needed to get to Johnny White’s.

He needed a drink, and he needed to see that pay phone still hanging on the wall at the end of the bar.

Later Wingerter would make his way across the street to Jimani for one of its legendary late-night burgers, knowing this time that the emptiness in the pit of his stomach was only hunger.

­­­­­— Additional reporting by Emily Henagan




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