Even in this dawn of the playoff era, Big Ten and Pac-12 schools still set their sights on going to the Rose Bowl.
Back in the day, it was the Sugar Bowl for the Southeastern Conference.
And for Louisiana-Lafayette, it’s the New Orleans Bowl.
Maybe it doesn’t carry the cachet of its older, storied peers, but it also refutes the notion that there are too many bowls.
“It’s a heck of a bowl game,” Ragin’ Cajuns senior wide receiver James Butler said after his team made history by winning the same bowl for the fourth straight year with their 16-3 victory against Nevada on Saturday. “We never get tired playing in it. It’s exciting each and every time, and it might have even gotten more exciting. New Orleans is such a great city; I bet the fans would choose to come here 100 times if they could.”
Well, we’ll have to see about that. But clearly the UL-Lafayette fans love to make the two-hour trip down I-10 on the Saturday before Christmas.
Maybe their numbers weren’t quite as large as last year, when they dominated the record crowd of 54,728 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for their 24-21 victory against Tulane.
Blame that on the 10 a.m. start necessitated by the fact that the Saints are at home Sunday and time was needed to turn around the field.
UL-Lafayette fans prefer to spend gameday getting themselves pumped up before getting around to watching football. Maybe some of them were still wandering around in the French Quarter after reveling the night before.
Whatever. The four years UL-Lafayette has played in the New Orleans Bowl also happen to be the best attended in the bowl’s 14-year history.
“They love coming here, and we love having them,” bowl chairman Billy Ferrante said. “They look on this as their bowl.”
Indeed they do.
“It’s a great trip,” said Garland Rodriguez of Lafayette, who has been to all four of the Cajuns’ appearances in the bowl. “It’s a great bowl game. It’s great for the city of Lafayette. It’s great for the school. It’s great for the athletic department, and it’s great for our culture.”
The culture part is important for a school that identifies with its surroundings as much as any college in the country.
“The people are passionate about our football team,” Athletic Director Scott Farmer said. “We have a unique culture, and our team has a unique nickname. It’s a very special relationship.”
It makes one wonder why the school’s football program was so underachieving for so long. The four New Orleans Bowls are the only ones in its time in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
But since Mark Hudspeth arrived in 2011 and promised and delivered a New Orleans Bowl in that first season, the Cajuns have been enjoying success that was hard to come by in the past. They’ve also made Hudspeth the Sun Belt Conference’s first $1 million coach and appear to have kept him for next season.
Farmer points out that’s important in ways that might not be obvious, such as fundraising and maintaining academic success simply because of the familiarity factor.
Hudspeth and the Cajuns may feel a little limited by being in the Sun Belt. When your league is 3-30 against other FBS teams, there’s little chance of sending your champion to the College Football Playoff bowl guaranteed for a Group of Five team.
The Cajuns did themselves in by losing games to Ole Miss and Boise State that would have gotten them in the conversation, but those disappointments were forgotten Saturday as the Cajuns celebrated their victory.
“This is our championship,” said Butler, who prepped at Hahnville and will graduate next spring with a degree in criminal justice. “We beat a great team today, on paper and in real life.
“This was my last game — I had to go out with a win.”