Charles Dickens’ classic A Tale of Two Cities could be transposed to the long-suffering football programs at UL Lafayette and Tulane.
For a long time, two Louisiana college football programs shared their turmoil, their suffering at a noteworthy lack of success. The football fortunes at UL and Tulane, just like the people and places in Dickens’ masterpiece A Tale of Two Cities, were intertwined — mostly due to their consistent mediocrity.
The Ragin’ Cajuns went almost two decades without a seven-win season. Only one coach in the last half-century ended his career with a winning record (Russ Faulkinberry barely cleared that bar at 66-62). Rickey Bustle took over a program from the disaster that was Jerry Baldwin and managed a 41-65 record — and even that’s the fourth-highest win total of any coach in UL history.
The Green Wave has been even more anemic.
Tulane hasn’t had a winner since 2002 and has gone 31-79 since that time including three poundings to open this season. The Wave has 11 wins in the last five seasons, three of them over the state’s FCS contingent.
This is not a recent development. Over the last 30 years, other than the shocking 12-0 perfect season in 1998, Tulane is 103-233 and had four winning seasons. The Wave went one 15-year streak without a winner in that time, and is well on its way to a 10th straight losing mark this year after a 39-0 embarrassment against an Ole Miss team that may not win an SEC game this year.
When UL and Tulane began talks to rekindle their series — they haven’t met since 2000 prior to this month’s clash that highlights Cajun Homecoming activities — both teams and programs were typically struggling. Even worse, both had disassociated and disengaged fan bases. There was no shortage of great and available seating at Cajun Field, and the Superdome was cavernously empty for Wave home games.
The tale of two teams, both going nowhere fast.
That is, until some of the folks in Martin Hall on University Avenue and on Reinhardt Drive decided something had to change.
UL put the Ragin’ Cajuns Athletic Foundation in place, a vehicle to raise sorely lacking contributions and outside funding for the athletic program. Money began going into facility upgrades, including the Leon Moncla Practice Facility that remains one-of-a-kind in the Sun Belt Conference.
But more than anything else, then-athletic director David Walker and AD-in-waiting Scott Farmer went looking and found a young, vibrant and excited coach to change the course, the texture, the very fiber of the football program. Mark Hudspeth has never known anything but success throughout his gridiron career, and Farmer was all but praying that the Deep South product (born in Montgomery, raised in Louisville, Miss.) could catch lightning in a bottle.
The rest is history. The Cajuns had the nation’s biggest turnaround last season, winning nine games and making a first-ever trip to a Division I bowl game. And, in storybook style, Hudspeth led UL to a comeback 32-30 win over San Diego State in that R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl.
The fact that the culmination of the 2011 success came on the Green Wave’s home turf wasn’t lost on supporters of both programs. Two weeks before the Cajuns celebrated that win and turned the French Quarter into a sea of red for bowl week, the Wave hired its own messiah, one the Tulane faithful hoped would pull the program from the ranks of college football’s trash pile.
The Wave didn’t have to go far. Curtis Johnson is a New Orleans native, a graduate of St. Charles High and for the last six seasons served as the Saints’ wide receivers coach. He has a Super Bowl ring to go with his BCS national title ring from his stint on the University of Miami staff. He went to nine bowl games in 15 collegiate coaching seasons before he became one of Sean Payton’s first hires with the Saints.
From all accounts, he is a person of class and integrity. But the task he faces is herculean, and any hopes of overnight success like Hudspeth’s memorable first Cajun season have already been dashed. Tulane hasn’t been competitive since the fourth quarter of its season opener against Rutgers, and Johnson’s labors became even greater last month when Devon Walker suffered a fractured spine against Tulsa and threw the program into even more anguish.
One season does not a program make, but the feeling among the faithful is that if UL hasn’t turned the corner football-wise, the Cajuns are at least peeking around the edge. So far, the Green Wave faithful — a group that shrinks by the day — hasn’t seen any such hope.