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Football: Inside The Birdcage - Almost Bowling, Part III

The Voice of the Ragin' Cajuns digs deep into football history

By Jay Walker, Special to RaginCajuns.com   5/11/2020 4:03:00 PM

This one might have hurt the most.

The 2008 football season gave hope to the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns. There were more bowl possibilities than ever before. And, although the New Orleans Bowl was the only guaranteed bowl tie-in, the Sun Belt Conference had auxiliary agreements with a couple of other bowls including the Independence Bowl in Shreveport. The Independence Bowl was contracted to the Big 12 Conference and Southeastern Conferences, but those leagues had trouble having enough teams to satisfy the contract.

QB Michael Desormeaux was a dynamic signal caller for the Ragin' Cajuns during the 2008 season.

The Ragin' Cajuns had a team that was fun to watch. Quarterback Michael Desormeaux was named the Sun Belt’s Offensive Player of the Year, while running back Tyrell Fenroy was named Player of the Year (and had his number 32 jersey retired prior to the start of the final game). 

Fenroy was the first running back in Cajuns’ history to rush for 1,000 yards in a season… and he did it four times.

The Cajuns, as always, played a difficult non-conference schedule and started 1-3. But one-possession losses to Illinois and Kansas State showed promise. That promise manifested itself in the next four games. Fenroy rushed for a school-record 297 yards in a win over ULM. Jason Chery scored five first-half touchdowns in a mauling of North Texas. 

The Cajuns followed that with home wins over Arkansas State and FIU. At 5-3, Louisiana was 4-0 in conference play and needed just one more win to get to six. But a surprising Homecoming loss to UTEP was followed by road losses at Florida Atlantic and Troy.

Now, the Ragin' Cajuns had one more chance to get to six wins.

Because of the four-game winning streak, athletic director David Walker was getting phone calls from several bowls.  The bowl which seemed to be most attracted to the Cajuns was the Texas Bowl in Houston. 

It appeared the Big 12 would be unable to fill that slot. And, there was also an auxiliary tie with the Independence Bowl. There was, however, competition. Florida Atlantic and Arkansas State were also looking for a place to land.

On the Monday before the final game, an article appeared quoting the Independence Bowl as saying they wouldn’t have to take a 6-6 Sun Belt team.

That ran contrary to what many of us believed.

I remember that I called David Walker that morning on his private number. I asked him what his definition of bowl eligible was, and he said 6-6. I suggested he do some research and quoted the article. Commissioner Wright Waters was asked about the article, and he said the Sun Belt had a contract.

Tyrell Fenroy takes a step into the end zone for Louisiana.

But before any of that could take place, the Cajuns had to take care of their business. And, they did, getting their sixth win of the year in a back-and-forth game with Middle Tennessee, 42-28.

As it turned out, the Independence Bowl had found a loophole. 

At that time, according to the NCAA, the definition of bowl eligible was 7-5. Teams with a 6-6 record could be placed in bowls as long as all 7-5 teams had been accommodated. They stated the Independence Bowl did not have to take a 6-6 team, because that was technically not “bowl eligible.”

The “contract” Waters said he had was actually a memorandum of understanding, commonly referred to as a MOU. David Walker, who handled contracts at the University for more than 30 years, told me the MOU would never hold up in court. The Independence Bowl had two at-large spots and offered one to Louisiana Tech. When pressed about inviting either Louisiana or Arkansas State, they were pretty indignant. It was suggested (mostly by Cajun fans) that Louisiana Tech was pressuring the bowl to invite anyone other than a Sun Belt team, especially the Ragin' Cajuns.  The Independence Bowl and Tech denied that was the case. After their final game, Florida Atlantic accepted a bid to the Motor City Bowl.

football fans FIU 2008
The Cajun Field crowd watches closely as Tyrell Fenroy approaches the goal line.

But no worries. The Texas Bowl had made it clear they would have a spot available for the Ragin' Cajuns. They called every day during the week prior to the final game. They called after the Saturday win. They called Sunday morning. 

David Walker kept head coach Rickey Bustle informed throughout the week. Bustle called a team meeting for Sunday afternoon. Bowl bids would be finalized by 5 p.m. The Texas Bowl called again and said they’d be getting back to Walker in an hour. The team was poised to celebrate.

But the call didn’t come right away. Finally, the phone rang in Walker’s office. He was told the bowl had decided they wanted a school with a similar record to Rice, who had gone 9-3. They decided to invite Western Michigan, another team with a 9-3 record, instead.

A stunned Walker only said “Thank you.” He then told Bustle what happened.

The Independence Bowl invited 6-6 Northern Illinois.

The Cajuns were left out. Walker and Bustle broke the news to the heartbroken squad.

Arkansas State was also left home at 6-6.

cajun field crowd 2008
"Wear Red" at Cajun Field was the move for the students.

The following summer at the annual Athletic Directors’ meetings, a representative of the Independence Bowl was on hand. Again, they had an auxiliary agreement. Their spokesperson got up and talked about how excited they were for the chance to invite a Sun Belt school. 

Florida International athletic director Rich Garcia asked why the bowl didn’t invite a Sun Belt school when they had the chance. The reply was that Louisiana Tech was adamant about not playing a Sun Belt school.

David Walker stood up and clapped. “Thank you,” he said. “Finally someone with enough guts to tell the truth.”

Walker then told Louisiana Tech, who was competing in the Western Athletic Conference at the time, that the Cajuns would no longer play Tech in any sport until they agreed to a home-and-home series in football with the first game at Cajun Field. He retired before the agreement was finally made. But the two teams played a two-game series.

And, the first game was at Cajun Field.

Jay Walker Signature