Since Billy Napier arrived in Lafayette for the 2018 football season, he’s helped take the UL football program to exciting new levels.
The Ragin’ Cajuns broke a school record with 11 wins in 2019 and then followed it up with a 10-win season a year ago.
The program got ranked in the Top 25 for the first time since World War II and even finished last season ranked No. 15 in the final AP poll.
Prior to last week’s loss at Texas, the Cajuns were ranked in a major preseason poll for the first time in school history.
There’s one thing Napier and his program haven’t managed to do yet — attract fans to Cajun Field.
Napier has gotten attention from numerous power five schools from the SEC to the Big 12, but for some reason, just hasn’t been able to win over the football fans of the Acadiana area.
Folks, it’s time.
Naturally last season doesn’t count. The announced attendance for every home game last season because of the pandemic was 5,585.
Prior to that, the largest home crowd in the Napier era was 28,866 in his first game against Grambling in 2018. Only that was really due to the visiting team’s support.
The second-largest crowd that year was 18,131 against New Mexico State. In the 12 non-pandemic home games with Napier, nine of the crowds were under 20,000.
In UL’s 11-3 season in 2019, the largest crowd was 21,063 against Texas State.
Earlier this week, UL announced free general admission parking across the street from Cajun Field in an effort to attract fans.
“I’ll tell you this about our administration,” Napier said. “They work around the clock and take tremendous pride in creating an experience for the fans on game day. We’ve come a long way. One of the topics of discussion with fans in our conversations in the community has been the parking issue, right?
“So our administration is listening. We’ve eliminated that burden. It’s free parking.”
The last season that saw every home game over 20,000 was in 2014 with a high of 36,170 against Southern, but again, the opponent boosted that crowd.
The last time a UL home crowd eclipsed 30,000 to watch the Cajuns play was 30,028 against New Mexico State on Nov. 2, 2013.
Could 21 wins over the last two seasons, national rankings and a loyal head coach do it?
Saturday's game may tell.
“So we’ve got a football game at 6 p.m. in Acadiana Saturday night,” Napier said. “Free parking. So come on, let’s fill this place up.”
UL’s athletic department also increased the incentive by not requiring vaccinations to enter the stadium.
“I feel very comfortable with the decisions we’ve made,” UL director of athletics Bryan Maggard said.
“Understand, though, that we didn’t make these decisions alone. There’s cooperation with the university and local health officials.
“With that said, we want people to be responsible. If you have symptoms, please stay home. But if you’re feeling good, we certainly encourage you to come to the game.”
Maggard and his staff are counting on this area’s fans finally being ready for football after the trying pandemic season of 2020.
“I sure hope so,” Maggard said. “We’ll get a better gauge after Saturday’s game.
“It’s my hope that our fans miss it after being away from it last year. We’re hoping they’re ready to participate in sports again.”
Certainly many across the country are still battling COVID issues, but tailgating spots at Cajun Field are over 80% full and RV spots over 50% full at last count.
There’s also plenty of support in the financial community. In June, Our Lady of Lourdes announced a 15-year, $15 million commitment to the athletic department.
On Thursday, UL announced a seven-figure gift from MacLaff, Inc. to help with the proposed renovation of Cajun Field.
Speaking of McDonald’s, the worldwide leader in the burger industry is offering a McDonald’s Family 4-Pack for UL home games with four general admission tickets for just $50.
The question is, can anything really tip the scale?
Some understandably remain in a wait-and-see mode.
“I’m excited to see how the fans are going to support us during the season,” senior linebacker Ferrod Gardner said.
“Just to see if they really come out and we have packed games. Like you said, they have high expectations, so let’s see them come and show up.
“I think it would be good to see the people out there. come out and support us. We thrive off that support, so it’ll be good to see how this season goes.”