Cover Story

Attitude Adjustment

On the heels of several disappointing seasons, is this the year the Ragin’ Cajuns football program lives up to expectations?

photo by Terri Fensel

At 6 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 30, Rickey Bustle will lead a football team onto the field for the 31st straight year. He’ll do so for the seventh season as head coach of UL Lafayette’s Ragin’ Cajuns, undoubtedly with the same marked enthusiasm that seems to underscore his every endeavor.

And for yet another fall, Cajun fans will hope for the best but prepare for the worst.

Since 1996, the Cajuns have had just one winning season. In 2005, they rallied for five consecutive wins at the end to finish 6-5. Even the most ardent fans have now realized that success in college football is more than talented athletes, the money to recruit and train them, and modern facilities. It’s more than a friendly schedule, too, though if friends are responsible for the usual slate of Cajun opponents, who needs enemies?

Winning is attitude, an unwavering belief that you will succeed regardless of odds and obstacles. It’s why LSU wins BCS Championships even sometimes with less talent than its opponents. It’s why the Giants are defending a Super Bowl title, why little Tampa Bay continues to whip up on the mighty Red Sox and Yankees, and why Tiger Woods seldom loses a tournament. He might get beat, but he won’t lose.

Cajun sports have tasted the attitude, but they haven’t shared it with football. Softball is a national power every season, baseball knew the feeling for a year, and basketball has had its moments. But the Cajun football program hasn’t played in a bowl game in 38 years and has had only three seasons where its finished more than two games over .500 since becoming Division 1-A in 1982.

Winning is attitude. So, unfortunately, is losing. It rips into fans, players and coaches alike and does so unmercifully. It does so despite increased budgets (UL has submitted a budget of $10 million for 2008-09, less than several Sun Belt schools but more than the usual Cajun proposal), talented athletes and keeping-up-with-the-Joneses facilities.

Never mind figuring out how to get Tyrell Fenroy the football or which scheme will best fit the defensive personnel. Never mind having to face five of your first six opponents on the road. Rickey Bustle’s biggest challenge as head football coach at UL in year seven is so much simpler than that — and so much harder.

“There are new challenges every year,” says Bustle. “Heck, there are new challenges every week, and they’re all different. But it’s the kids that make it fun. I’m proud of a lot of things we’ve done in this program, and I really believe the young players rub off on me and maybe we rub off on each other sometimes. I really love to leave this office each day and get away from paperwork and all the things that go with it and get on that field with them.”

Listen to Bustle talk for a while and you wonder why the Cajuns haven’t had success yet. Perhaps the biggest reason is the perennially brutal early schedule this program has to confront. In Bustle’s first six seasons, he was saddled with early road games at LSU (twice), Texas A&M (twice), Minnesota, Oklahoma State, South Carolina, Texas and Kansas State. This season, the Cajuns play road games at Southern Mississippi, Illinois and Kansas State among their first four. Pre-Bustle, the Cajuns’ early season schedule included road trips to Texas, Arizona State, Texas Tech, Washington State, Arkansas and Pittsburgh.

A winning attitude is great unless it’s beaten out of you on an annual basis.

UL head coach Rickey Bustle, leading the Cajuns for the seventh season, takes his squad to Hattiesburg, Miss., for the Aug. 30 season opener against USM.

photo by Terri Fensel

“Five of the first six on the road? That’s tough, that’s tough for anybody. Again, I wish we had that luxury of picking some people we wanted to play and getting those people on a home-and-home basis,” says Bustle. “But that’s what we do, and we’ve just gotta ride that wave.” (That’s probably what Robert Shaw said near the end of Jaws.)

Still, Bustle offers no excuses for the road his team must travel. It is what it is, he figures, so make the best of it. After all, for every heavily-favored Oklahoma, there’s a Boise State waiting to make a statement, and for every pompous Michigan, there’s an Appalachian State lurking nearby.

“We just have to take one game at a time,” says second-year defensive coordinator Kevin Fouquier. “Everybody in this conference is facing the same thing. But the beauty of it is that we’ve faced this before when we didn’t even have a conference, when we were playing as an independent and not really playing for anything. So if we can learn from our non-conference games and get some things corrected, we could still win a conference championship and be in New Orleans.”

“Defensively,” says Bustle, “we lost Rodney Hardaway, who was a heck of a pass rusher, but I think we have a couple of [defensive] ends who are going to surpass him. I think Hall Davis has gotten much bigger, and he’s probably the most athletic defensive end we’ve had. He’s 268 instead of the 240 he was last season. Having the linebacker corps back is a strength, and we’ve got most of the secondary back that played a lot last year. You know, I think the last couple of games of last season, we really played good defense.”

Offensively, the 2008 Cajuns should be effective, and if the passing game improves to merely average, they could be among the Sun Belt’s most explosive. Led by senior running back Tyrell Fenroy, UL has finished as one of the Top Ten rushing teams in two of the last three seasons. Fenroy, a three-time All Sun Belt performer and less than 780 yards from the SBC career record, will certainly be offensive coordinator Ron Hudson’s weapon of choice. But Hudson is the Cajuns’ third OC in three years; Bustle is hoping the combination of Hudson and passing coordinator Jorge Munoz can improve a passing offense that ranked 115th in the country in 2007.

“I hired Jorge to change our passing game because we’ve kind of gone from one extreme to the other,” says Bustle. “Two years ago, we were probably throwing the ball a little too deep all the time, and last year, I think we got way too short. With what Jorge has brought, along with some things I wanted to put in, I think it’s a good mixture of a short, medium range and take-some-shots passing game, and I think that’s going to improve our offense.”

“We’ve tweaked our running game,” Bustle continues, “but I think the biggest one will come from our passing game to help get people off of us.”

If the airways are to open up the Cajun ground game, it will be due to quarterback Michael Desormeaux’s development as a pocket passer. The New Iberia senior ran for almost 1,200 yards in ’07 but only threw for 1,400, and the offense desperately needs more production from the lefty’s arm this year.

Others will have to step forward as well, and fans are already looking toward freshmen like Houston’s Yobes Walker to make a splash. The running back was recruited by both Alabama and Texas A&M but delayed his signing decision for so long that the bigger schools backed off. The delay was to UL’s benefit, and Walker, who ran for 2,174 yards and 17 touchdowns for Brazoswood High School, became a Cajun.

Bustle, however, has been around long enough to temper his enthusiasm with at least a pinch of reality.

“Everybody’s going to sign some good stock,” he says. “But they’re going to come out here and play at a completely new level, and some guys will jump out early and some will jump out there later. I think it’s exciting for [chat rooms], fans and newspapers because that’s what the people get to know. They don’t get to know them like we do. They don’t go to recruit them, and they don’t do research on them. People have expectations, and that’s good, but this is another level.”

It’s also a level — or at least a season — where artificial surfaces now rule in football. The Cajuns will play only one game this year on natural grass (Florida Atlantic). UL joined the herd this off-season and installed Pro Grass Synthetic Turf, a sand-cushioned surface that’s reportedly easier on the knees, ankles and certainly, the eyes. The new Cajun Field gets its debut Sept. 20 vs. Kent State — and most people can’t wait.

“I think the new surface is good,” says the head coach. “Our kids have been on it, and they really like it. I think [the new field] is good for recruiting, and I think it shows commitment and excitement. Obviously it’s pleasing to the eye, and it seems to me that it’s a really good turf.”

Well, yeah, unless you’re a former offensive lineman maybe. “I don’t like it personally, because I’m a fat guy and you never have mud,” laments defensive line coach Gerald Broussard, who played OL for the Cajuns in the 1980s. “But I think this is totally different from the old Astroturf and the injuries that came with it. Now everybody’s got it, and grass is no longer the norm. But now that I’m on the defensive side, the guys run a little bit better so I like it. When I was an O-line guy, I didn’t want ’em to run better; I wanted it to be mud.”

Broussard is at the UL complex for the third time in his career and knows about mud at Cajun Field. An outstanding offensive lineman under Nelson Stokley, he coached for a couple of years as a graduate assistant before leaving for West Alabama. That lasted all of one season before Broussard returned to Lafayette, where he stayed for 13 more years before Jerry Baldwin blew into town. Baldwin blew out three years later but Broussard was long gone by then, beginning a road trip that took him to four schools in nine years.

“I was up in Nacogdoches, wasn’t going to coach at Stephen F. Austin again and was actually trying to get into scouting,” he says. “I was tired of moving my family around to places I didn’t want to be. There was only one place I wanted to be and had already expressed that to Kevin [Fouquier] back in November. Well, Kevin called, and then coach Bustle called, and the only real concern I really had wasn’t coaching defense, it was that we were starting spring ball in about two days. You never want to feel like you’re never prepared to teach the players exactly what you want, but I explained it to the defensive linemen that I was going to bring a different perspective to the, since I’d been on offense for 24 years.

“Athletes aren’t necessarily better than they were 25 years ago, but they’re better trained,” adds Broussard. “We’re able to do more things with them with the year-round training, the supplement industry and the evolution of the weight room that really comes into play.”

Cajun fans are hoping sooner than later. Chances are, fans at every school in the Belt are hoping the same thing, and that’s not the only thing they have in common. Life in the SBC is no trip down the yellow brick road and probably never will be. In the last six years, the league’s eight football schools have combined for just 10 winning seasons and are 0-54 against Top 25 teams.

In the meantime, coaches like Rickey Bustle, Kevin Fouquier and Gerald Broussard will keep plugging away, eyes blurred from watching too much film, stomachs churning from too much fast food, hearts aching from too many losses.

“When the enthusiasm is gone, it’s probably time to change what you’re doing,” says Bustle.

But not today.

Had Brett Favre become a Ragin’ Cajun in 1987, he may not have had a reputation to tarnish.

When the Cajuns open their season in Hattiesburg, they’ll face a Golden Eagle program rich in tradition. Of course, it’s easier to build a legacy when you have players like Brett Favre in your alumni ranks. Two decades ago, Favre began his run as one of the most proficient quarterbacks of all time, culminating with more than a decade of honors and accolades with the Green Bay Packers.

But Favre’s recent history is as goofy as it is glorious. You certainly know his on-again, off-again retirement that eventually forced a trade to the New York Jets, which, if nothing else, at least gets him closer to the media circus he’s managed to orchestrate.

But here’s something you may not know. Twenty years ago, Brett Favre wanted to become a Ragin’ Cajun. Had he succeeded, it’s likely you would have never heard from him again.

“Favre’s father, Irv, was the head coach at Hancock North Central High School in Kiln,” says UL defensive line coach Gerald Broussard, who was a graduate assistant coach under Nelson Stokley in the late 1980s. “Hancock ran the option, and Favre was the quarterback, and basically they weren’t very good. They were, like, 2-8 that season, and Brett only threw the ball about five times a game. He had committed to Delta State, and Southern Miss and [the Cajuns] were the only major schools even looking at him, and we wanted him for defense.”

USM wouldn’t commit to Favre early, so Irv told Broussard, who was recruiting that region for UL, that Brett was “ready to become a Ragin’ Cajun.” Outside of Kiln, a small community near Diamondhead in southern Mississippi, nobody knew who Brett Favre was in 1987, and apparently — from a recruiter’s standpoint — nobody cared much. Coaches knew that Favre could throw it a mile, but even UL had a lineman who could hurl the football a hundred yards, and he wasn’t considered much of a quarterback either. Like USM, the Cajuns passed early on Irv’s son.

Late in the recruiting period, however, a scholarship opened up in Hattiesburg, and USM offered it to Favre. He played defense in practice until an injury sent a backup QB to the sidelines, and Favre was moved to the USM scout team as quarterback. “I think once they saw him throw those deep sideline routes,” muses Broussard, “where the ball would actually rise, they said, ‘Whoa, we may have something here.’”

Longtime Cajun fans will remember 1987 as Stokley’s second season at the university, and he’d pretty much decided to build his offense around Brian Mitchell, a second-year quarterback from Plaquemine. He figured Mitchell could do a decent enough job with the offense and didn’t think twice about passing on an iffy option freshman QB seemingly more suited to strong safety.

The rest you know. Favre played four years in Hattiesburg, a meaningless season in Atlanta and 16 more in Green Bay, where he set a ton of NFL records. Mitchell, meanwhile, whose potential precluded Favre from even setting foot on the Lafayette campus, single-handedly rewrote the Cajun record book while becoming the most potent offensive weapon in school history, and still holds three NFL records (kickoff return yardage, punt return yardage, special team touchdowns) established during his 15 years in the league.

“So when people hear we turned down Brett Favre,” laughs Broussard, “I say ‘No, no, we saved him. If we’d signed Brett Favre, you’d probably have never heard from him again.’”

Like any good magic trick, football forecasts are for entertainment purposes only.

It doesn’t take a magician to make some things disappear quickly. Barry Bonds. Friends of former Sen. John Edwards. Football forecasts.

But that doesn’t seem to stop any prognosticators. That’s because however accurate or silly, forecasts are fun to read. All fans have an opinion on how good or bad their favorite team will be, and with the availability of the World Wide Web, anyone can now make their predictions available for public consumption.

Oh, joy.

We can’t begin to list them all, but we can give you a random sample of 2008 Sun Belt Conference predictions, enough to convince you that football forecasts should always be listed under the heading, “For Entertainment Purposes Only.”

The SBC competes as an eight-team league; Florida International isn’t eligible for official conference play until next season, and South Alabama is set to join the fun in 2012. Assuming the 2008 champion is bowl-eligible (six wins), that school will represent the Belt in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl Dec. 21 against a Conference-USA opponent. The SBC also has three other bowl tie-ins for the next two years — as a contingency partner with the St. Petersburg Bowl, the Bowl and the PetroSun Independence Bowl. If the contracted teams to those games aren’t eligible, the Sun Belt is next in line.

Who that might be is anyone’s guess. The league’s coaches, for example, predicted, in order, Florida Atlantic, Troy, Louisiana-Monroe and Arkansas State as their top four with UL picked sixth. chose Florida Atlantic, Troy and the Cajuns while went with FAU, Troy, ULM and UL. Jeff Frank tabbed Troy and ULM with the Cajuns tied for last.

ESPN picks FAU first and UL fifth, but with a postscript. Its writer says Bustle is under pressure and must beat Louisiana-Monroe to save his job.

For an SBC team to make it to the post-season, it must win at least half of its schedule. Success in at least a few of the non-conference matchups is therefore crucial, and difficult. It’s not so bad beating up on one another if the non-conference slate is doable, but it’s not. In the coming season, SBC teams will face Ohio State, LSU, Texas, Auburn, Illinois, Virginia Tech, Iowa, Minnesota, Arkansas, Maryland, Michigan State and Alabama. Throw in Ole Miss, Oklahoma State, Kansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Kansas State, Texas A&M and Mississippi State and you start to get an idea why winning seasons in the Sun Belt are so rare. Since 2002, SBC schools have had only nine.

Is there hope for the future? Absolutely. Four years from now, the Belt should be a 10-team league, and more games against one another translates into fewer road games against elite opponents which, in turn, should mean better win-loss records.

In the meantime, take your best guess at how teams in the Sun Belt will fare this season. Or, do what many forecasters appear to do on an annual basis — use a dartboard.