LAFAYETTE — The most emotional moment of Louisiana-Lafayette’s December trip to the New Orleans Bowl didn’t come at the game, at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome or in any of the many events leading up to the Ragin’ Cajuns’ fifth trip to the Crescent City contest.
It came when head coach Mark Hudspeth lifted the “interim” tag from defensive coordinator Mike Lucas' title, after he had helped turn the team's defense from disastrous to respectable.
That got the week’s biggest roar from the Cajuns defenders, and it brought a 39-year coaching veteran to tears. There’s still a catch in his voice when he remembers the second week of December.
“It had always been one of my goals, since I started coaching in my 20s, to be a defensive coordinator at a perennial bowl team,” he said this week. “When I got the chance, and we made it to the bowl game and all that was happening, it was very emotional for me.”
Many didn’t understand the significance. After all, Lucas had been around the block more than once. When the New Jersey native began coaching collegiately, Jimmy Carter was president, Edwin Edwards was governor and UL-Lafayette was in the Southland Conference.
Lucas also had reached a pinnacle of the coaching profession, holding the head coach's job at Southeastern Louisiana from 2007-11, not long after the Lions restarted the program.
But all those earlier stops — William and Mary, Liberty, UTEP, Eastern New Mexico, Sam Houston State, SLU, Indiana State, Northwestern State — weren't at the Football Bowl Subdivision level. When the Cajuns made the short drive down Interstate 10 to the New Orleans Bowl in December, it was Lucas’ first bowl trip.
“Thirty-something years in (Division) I-AA, and a lot of good defenses, a lot of good football teams, a lot of good players,” Lucas said. “Sometimes people don’t think that guys at I-AA or Division II can coach, so I was thankful for the opportunity.”
That opportunity came amid a whirlwind 2016 season, when Hudspeth fired coordinator Melvin Smith after an ugly, season-opening, 45-10 home loss to Boise State that wasn’t as close as the score. He tapped Lucas as interim coordinator and named safeties coach Charlie Harbison co-coordinator, a title he still holds.
“Sometimes you have to make a change, in the interest of your program,” Hudspeth said. "It was very hard to do, but we were fortunate that we had someone of Mike’s background and experience.”
Despite installing a new defense on the fly, UL-Lafayette showed gradual improvement. The Cajuns allowed only 109 points in the final half of the regular season (18.2 per game) and ended the year 23rd nationally in rush defense and 43rd in total defense.
“You could see that we were getting better,” said senior linebacker T.J. Posey, who has been in Lucas’ position group for three years. “Guys were in the right positions, and it was like we were playing with a lot more confidence.”
That confidence will be needed for the rugged schedule that awaits the Cajuns this season, but when UL-Lafayette opens Sept. 2 against Southeastern, the defense will have the advantage of experience. Unlike last year’s tumultuous changes, the Cajuns' defensive scheme and philosophy has been steady through spring, summer and preseason workouts.
“We want to be the No. 1 swarm team in America,” Lucas said. “We want to be running to the football. My mentality is to attack, get tackles for losses, put people behind the sticks and do it from multiple fronts and in a lot of different ways.”
“We knew his mentality,” Posey said. “He likes to get after people, and he’s intense. He’s passionate about what he does, and the new guys are getting his vibe because he’s intense. Even before we started camp, you would have thought we were already in camp, with the way he came at us. This year, he’s been able to start from the basics, from the ground level, do things we couldn’t work on last year because it was a quick transition.”
Lucas said his excitement may be ramped up, but his philosophy hasn’t changed much from the 1970s, when he was a student assistant coach at William and Mary. The depth chart shows a 4-3 alignment, but the Cajuns were in a three-man front 60.5 percent of the time last year.
“I’ve been running defenses since 1985, and the base of what I do really hasn’t changed,” he said. “You learn from year to year and cultivate things, and offenses have changed, so you have to morph into different things. A lot of what we do is dictated by down and distance and personnel offensively.
"But with (Harbison and fellow assistants Levorn Harbin and Marquase Lovings), we’ve got a good room there. We throw a lot of ideas on the board. I really like what we’re doing defensively.”