What it was, was football

by John Mikell

Photo by Robin May

On what is still one of the best-selling comedy albums of all time, Andy Griffith portrays a country preacher trying to describe a curious activity he had inadvertently witnessed. There were “convicts running up and down blowing whistles” on a “purty little cow pasture with drawed lines.” Two “bunches of men” were involved in “the awfulest fight I ever seen” over a “funny lookin punkin.” Later he concluded he had watched a contest to “take that punkin and run from one end of that cow pasture to the other without getting knocked down or steppin in somethin.” Feel better? If not, consider Griffith recorded “What it Was, Was football” in 1953.

In today’s college game, getting knocked down or stepping in something is no longer a laughing matter. Unfortunately for UL fans their “bunch of men” spent considerable time over the past season picking themselves up and wiping their shoes. The question is why?

The record-setting four-year honeymoon of Mark Hudspeth is over. It was certainly fun while it lasted: four nine-win seasons, four bowl wins, lots of fun and good times, especially in the Big Easy. And who among Cajun fans can ever feel anything but gratitude for the way Hud swept them off their feet and rescued a program that averaged 3.6 wins over the 13 years before they met. But time passes and college coaches wear out their welcome quicker than relatives over the holidays. After five years (and this is subject to change based on decisions agonized over by administrators like Joe Alleva) Hudspeth ranks 28th in tenure among 125 major college coaches. As an energy and emotion type, Hudspeth’s staying power may tend to wear thin at a faster rate than more schematic coaches. The habitual slow starts the 2015 Ragin' Cajuns experienced could indicate his legendary pregame stemwinders are losing some effectiveness. The Cajuns trailed at the half in nine games, rallying to win one.

Photo by Brad Kemp/UL Ragin' Cajuns

The lack of a signature win has also cooled both fans’ ardor and Hudspeth’s career advancement. Nothing grabs the attention of Alleva-types more than a big win. UL under Hudspeth has faced eight opponents from Power Five conferences in addition to Boise State. In nine contests the Cajuns went 0-9, the average score was 45-23. They covered the spread three times.

A big win requires a big time opponent, so the plea from Sun Belt Commissioner Karl Benson for conference teams to avoid scheduling too many Power Five teams to improve their brand should be denied. In the first place some schools need the revenue, especially ULM given Louisiana’s huge cuts in higher education. Even though their schedule, in part, cost Todd Berry his job, the Warhawks fought the good fight and have a history of success against the likes of Arkansas and Alabama.

Give AD Scott Farmer credit. He scheduled a winnable game at Kentucky this year and has a home game with Boise State opening the 2016 schedule. Boise State never got to where it is by playing peer schools. But the most compelling reason for scheduling up is to benefit the fans. The last Power Five team to play at Cajun Field was Oklahoma State in 2010, Rickey Bustle’s last year. UL should seek big name games even if it requires a two away for one at home arrangement. Or maybe a home and home with UL hosting in New Orleans? Thousands of Cajun fans prefer games in the Dome over games at home anyway. UL can schedule only so many games against the likes of Akron, especially if the Cajuns lose, before season ticket sales reflect fan displeasure with an unattractive home schedule.

The NCAA charges that a former UL assistant coach masterminded a scheme to rig ACT scores for recruits was on the order of “steppin in somethin.” The charges became public a day after the Cajuns’ most impressive win of the season against Texas State. They finished the remaining schedule 2-5.

The investigation that began with player interviews in Lafayette in December 2013 had to distract the coaching staff and administration — one would guess to a far greater degree than the players’ distraction caused by the opening of the Athletic Performance Center that Hudspeth claimed led to the Akron loss. In response to the charges, UL vacated the nine wins in the 2011 season, gave up six scholarships over the next two years and reduced off-campus recruiting and on-campus visits. A final disposition of the case has yet to be made. More punishments could come. Two prominent basketball coaches, Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim and Larry Brown of SMU, are currently serving suspensions as a result of NCAA charges including, among others, academic fraud and failure to ensure staff is in compliance.

There is a reason the former UL assistant risked so much: his career, his boss’ reputation and his employer’s image. It’s the same reason UL was “knocked down” so much this year: recruiting, the lifeblood of any football program.

The decline in 2015 is not so much about the players on the current roster as about the players who aren’t. This from the 26-man 2011 recruiting class: Justin Hamilton, Octravian Anderson, Alonzo Harris, Mykhael Quave, Jamal Robinson, Chris Prater, Christian Ringo, Sean Thomas, Trae Thomas, Dominique Tovell, Harry Peoples, Larry Pettis, Jake Molbert, Montrel Carter and Effrem Reed. Sitting out the year after transferring was Terrance Broadway. That’s a good “bunch of men” not just in talent but numbers. Sixteen played extensively as seniors.

In contrast, the 2012 media guide listed 18 freshman “newcomers,” 10 of whom remain on the current roster. Of the 12 “newcomers” in 2013 with potential eligibility in 2015, seven were on the roster for the Troy game. The 2014 media guide included 22 “newcomers” all with potential eligibility in 2015. Twelve were on the roster for this year’s final game. Of the 2015 26-man signing class, 18 are on the most current roster.

Only the most recent of the four recruiting classes since 2011 has a chance to match Hudspeth’s first class in numbers. A total of 31 recruits from the past four classes were not available for at least part of the 2015 season. That’s a “bunch of men” missing. Before the season, Hudspeth admitted UL “had a lot of guys who didn’t live up to expectations.” He was talking about recent dismissals, but it applies to recent recruiting as well. Whether you’re holding that rope or carrying that “punkin,” UL and Hudspeth need a good recruiting year now.