Where to Now, Cajuns? – From the Bird’s Nest
The Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns have completed their sixth season under Mark Hudspeth by participating in their fifth bowl game in the last six seasons. And, like it is after every season in every sport with a fan base, the fans have opinions as to where the program is and where they believe it is headed.
I'm no different in that regard.
I'm also not a knee-jerk kind of guy. And, when getting ready to write a piece like this, I always take a step or two away from the situation because, like the new basketball court at the Cajundome, things are clearer when you step back a bit.
While social media was active after the 28-21 loss Saturday night, I've learned it is simply not indicative of the fan base. Only a small part of the fan base is that vocal about the program. The rest are fans who just want the Cajuns to win. They are more likely to attend a game if the program is winning. And, they speak the loudest, not through their words, but their actions.
The attendance for the New Orleans Bowl was the smallest the Cajuns have had in terms of their own ticket sales. There are many reasons why. Those who want to analyze usually pick one of those reasons and run with it. But in this case it was multi-faceted: To wit:
IT'S THE ECONOMY, STUPID: The oil industry, which so many here rely on for their income, is still down. Really down. And, that has a ripple effect on everyone. As recently as two years ago, more people were simply able to afford the weekend in New Orleans. I talked to many fans who simply couldn't afford the $750-$1,000 it takes for a family of four to go to the game and spend one or two nights in New Orleans.
THE FLOOD--Let's understand there are still hundreds of people who have yet to return to their homes after the devastating rains of early August. Most of them did not have flood insurance and they've had a ridiculous expense as a result. That, too, has had a ripple effect.
4-8; 4-6--Let's face it. Everyone loves a winner. But last year's collapse in the second half of the season and the Cajuns' 4-6 record toward the end of this season simply had a great many fans disinterested (and in some cases, angry). By the time Thanksgiving rolled around, a great many fans figured they might as well make other plans for the weekend of December 17th because there wasn't going to be a bowl game. 36-16 will get folks to Cajun Field and New Orleans. 8-14 not so much.
THE NOVEMBER INCIDENT--Many fans were angry over the locker room video that was leaked to social media. Coach Mark Hudspeth's initial reaction made things worse. Much worse. Hudspeth has apologized for all of it and I believe it was heartfelt. The shame is there are some who will never forgive. After all, we're more than a year removed from Hudspeth's comment about distractions with the opening of the Athletic Performance Center. Last month's incident compounded the situation.
The economy will hopefully improve. People affected by the flood should be back in their homes soon. Time heals most wounds as long as they are allowed to heal without bumping into something and re-opening them.
That leaves one thing: Just win, baby.
And the way you win is to recruit well.
It is obvious there were a couple of years where the Cajuns haven't recruited well enough. The good news is there were as many as fifteen freshmen or redshirt freshman who either saw significant action or would have had it not been for injury. I bring that up because those are the ones that have signed since the APC became a reality, either through construction or the finished product. There are fans who use the APC as a reason to criticize, when, in fact, those players who were drawn to the facility haven't been on campus very long.
When looking at personnel, the Cajuns are good enough to win games at most positions. The defense made great strides this year thanks to a blend of youth, experience and the addition of some junior college players. The Cajuns have very good young talent at wide receiver. There are some promising running backs as well, although none of them are named Elijah McGuire.
But there have, in the last two years, been some glaring weaknesses: Blaine Gautier and Terrance Broadway aren't around any more. And, the Cajuns have missed them the past two years. The part of this that's most disconcerting to me is I don't think the Cajuns' quarterback of the future is currently on campus. The staff simply hasn't recruited well enough at this position, which would be fine if it weren't the most important position on the team. Will the Cajuns have to go the graduate transfer route again? Can a new signee come in and be "the guy?" Either way, the Cajuns have to find a quarterback who can get it done...next season.
The other area is the offensive line. The past two seasons have not been good up front. The days of Quave, Quave, Huval, et al have come and gone and there haven't been any who have come in and have been able to fill those shoes. The Cajuns started two redshirt freshmen this year and they've got a chance to be very good. But this is a line that has allowed an alarming number of sacks and quarterback hurries the past two years. The staff has to admit they've not done a great job in recruiting this position and they've got to get better in a hurry. Mark Hudspeth has said he does not believe the Cajuns need to go into the JUCO ranks to shore things up. Here's hoping he's right.
Making this more critical are the sanctions in place as the result of the NCAA violations. Fans look at the vacating of wins. The loss of scholarships is even more critical. There is always a margin of error in recruiting. The margin is much smaller when you have fewer opportunities.
The reaction of the fan base has gone from one extreme (fire this guy right now) to the other (five bowls in six years...there's not a thing wrong).
The answer is somewhere in between.
You don't go from no bowl games in 40 years to four straight bowl victories and 36 wins unless you do a lot of things right. Those 36 wins have led to records in season tickets sold and enabled the administration to construct the crown jewel of facilities in the new Athletic Performance Center. Mark Hudspeth and his staff deserve a ton of credit for getting all that done. Without Hudspeth and the success on the field, none of that happens.
We should never forget those facts.
But greater success leads to greater expectations. What was once the dream has, for many, become the standard for expectations. And, while the coaches and team need to be commended for their focus in winning three of their last four in order to get bowl-eligible, 6-6 is not, and should not be, the goal or the standard for this program.
Success doesn't get anyone a lifetime contract. However, what it should get someone is time to fix things that have malfunctioned. Those who are screaming for a change are not being fair to the man and the staff that have done things fans were only dreaming of not too long ago.
The wheels haven't fallen off of this thing. But there are positions that must be addressed quickly. And, in addition to recruiting, Hudspeth has some more repairing of relationships to do.
There will be a new AD coming in soon. When that happens, the clock will start ticking a little more rapidly.