While some fans may have been shaking their heads early on in the season, the players and coaches held on, solidifying a program.

Special thanks to our freelance photographers, who joined Photo Editor Robin May in covering the 2012 New Orleans Bowl for IND Monthly: Paul Angelle, Buddy Delahoussaye, Jay Faugot, Travis Gauthier and John Mosier.

They weren’t a one-year flash in the pan, and boy, is the New Orleans Bowl happy about that.

UL’s Ragin’ Cajuns made the quantum leap from successful team to successful program in one sterling December afternoon, the 43-34 bowl victory over a Conference USA title-contending East Carolina saying volumes about where the Cajun program stands.

Prior to last year, UL hadn’t had a winning football season since 2005. Before this season, the Cajuns hadn’t had back-to-back winners since the mid-1990s. Only three times in 111 years had UL won nine games in a season, and never had the Cajuns come within earshot of 18 wins in two consecutive years.

Not long after 2011’s New Orleans Bowl win over San Diego State, coach Mark Hudspeth talked about the importance of showing consistency as a program, and not resting on the laurels of one successful season.

The 9-4 mark last year was ground-breaking, with the first-ever bowl trip and more fans turning out to watch the Cajuns than ever before — 29,171 per game, far and away the highest in the Sun Belt Conference and double the actual in-stadium totals of much of the league.

But, with apologies to those involved in 2011, that one was easy.

In that storied season, virtually everything went right. The Cajuns had no serious injuries, were successful with every surprise move and trick play, and seemingly got every lucky bounce when they most needed it. Everything Hudspeth touched turned to gumbo-flavored gold, and the Cajun faithful ate it up.

This year was different.

Opening-day tailback starter Montrel Carter didn’t make it through the first game before an injury shelved him for the season. In game four, the Cajuns lost returning quarterback and bowl Most Valuable Player Blaine Gautier with a throwing-hand fracture. Harry Peoples and Javone Lawson, two-thirds of one of the nation’s best receiving trios, missed significant injury time.

The linebacker corps played short-handed much of the season. Players were suspended for various violations of team rules. The squad laid eggs on national television on back-to-back Tuesday nights.

Entering November, the Cajuns were 4-3 overall and 2-2 in the Sun Belt, and two teams they trailed in the league standings were coming up in short order — including UL Monroe, whom Cajun fans have long ridiculed in most every sport. In between those key league games was Florida, the nation’s sixth-ranked team.

Things were unraveling at the seams. No one was getting on the bus. In Hud-speak, fans were letting go of the rope.

So what did the Cajuns do? They embarrassed ULM on its home field, pulled off a near-miracle rally in the closing minutes to top Western Kentucky, and popped South Alabama and Florida Atlantic for good measure to close the regular season. They almost made it five in a row, with Florida’s SEC East-champion Gators needing a blocked punt and TD return in the final 15 seconds to rally for a win.

The 9-4 records may have been the same, but 2012 was a far, far better coaching job than 2011. The staff and players had to work for this one. The 43-34 bowl win over East Carolina was lagniappe; unlike the previous year, the 2012 Cajuns didn’t need a bowl game to cement their legacy.

Not that the New Orleans Bowl was going to look elsewhere, of course. The Cajun Nation helped the bowl shatter its previous attendance record by a huge margin last year. Prospects were for more this year, and the prospectors were right: 48,828 were on hand at the Superdome, more than established bowls like the Sun Bowl and Outback Bowl drew last year. That’s also 18,000 more than any sans-Cajun New Orleans Bowl.

It’s little wonder the sponsoring Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation made UL the nation’s first at-large bowl selection this year, and both laughed all the way to the bank at the league’s other bowl tie-ins. The Beach Boys would have still performed on bowl eve at Champions Square if UL hadn’t been in the next day’s game, but it wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun.

And if the Cajuns can get six wins and become bowl-eligible again next year, they’ll probably get invited back to the Crescent City (note to UL fans: as soon as the bowl schedule’s out, book your room at the Marriott).

Bowl eligibility won’t be easy again. Arkansas and Kansas State are on the 2013 schedule, and UL will play only five home games. Some Cajun coaches privately confide that 2014 is “the” year for the Cajuns to accomplish even greater things.

But don’t put anything past this group, now that UL indeed has a program — and not just a team.

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