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Hudspeth amid declining attendance - Tough times are 'the true test of character' for players and

Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, Nov. 29, 2017

It’s in the tough times, UL coach Mark Hudspeth firmly believes, that a lot can be learned about those around you.

That goes for his Ragin’ Cajuns players.

It also goes, he suggested this week amid a season of dwindling attendance at home, for Cajun fans.

UL lost its regular-season finale 34-24 to Georgia Southern last Saturday at Cajun Field, where crowd size was announced to be just 12,993 — and in actual terms appeared to be even fewer than that.

That’s the smallest announced crowd the Cajuns have played in front of this season, at home or on the road, and the smallest announced crowd at Cajun Field since UL lost to Florida International in front of 13,041 in 2010 in the final home game of the Rickey Bustle coaching era.

It put average announced home attendance for UL this season at 15,751, which ranks eighth in the 12-team Sun Belt Conference going into a final slate of regular-season games — including the 5-6 Cajuns’ visit Saturday to 7-4 Appalachian State — this weekend.

FINAL: Georgia Southern 34, UL 24

That’s by far the lowest season average in the seven-year Hudspeth coaching era at UL, which includes a high of 29,171 during his first year in 2011 and a prior low of 20,224 last season.

It’s also the lowest the Cajuns have had at home since 2006, when they averaged 15,087 in the fifth of Bustle’s nine seasons at UL.

It is 5,000-plus more than in-state rival UL Monroe, which ranks last in the Sun Belt at only 9,928.

But things got so bad earlier this season that the Cajuns resorted to selling highly discounted $5 tickets for their Sept. 23 home loss to ULM, a game for which attendance was announced at a season-home-best 18,318.

All this from a program that had four games with announced crowds of more than 28,000 in 2011, including 32,823 against North Texas.

Part of the problem last Saturday, Hudspeth suggested, was that the game was played two days after Thanksgiving, at a time that some fans — including many students — typically have traveled out of town and attendance typically is adversely impacted.

“I hate playing home games on Thanksgiving (weekend),” he said.

But there’s much more to it, and for that Hudspeth — when asked — accepted much responsibility.

More: Georgia Southern puts a dent in UL's bowl aspirations

“On top of that,” he said, “winning puts people in the stands — and that’s my job, to get this football team consistently winning again like we did for four years in a row where we won nine straight.”

UL went 9-4 and won the New Orleans Bowl during each of Hudspeth’s first four seasons in charge.

“So that’s our goal,” Hudspeth said of returning to such winning ways.

“And when you win — anyplace in the country — when you’re winning consistently, the fans are gonna show up. And that’s my job, to do that.”

Asked if he had a message for fans not coming to games, Hudspeth readily offered one.

“I just hope they’ll continue to support these players,” he said. “Man, these guys — that’s their team. And these players are students here at the University of Louisiana. Man, they’re spilling their guts out every day at practice for their fans.

“We’ve got alumnus that went here, but these players are here now. They’re in school. They’re in classes and, man, working their rear ends off for ’em every day.

“And they’ve had to navigate through some tough waters, and they’ve done it, and held their head high,” added Hudspeth, whose Cajuns — 4-8 in 2015, and 6-7 in 2016 with a New Orleans Bowl loss to Southern Mississippi — will post a third-straight losing season if they do not beat Appalachian State and win a 2017 bowl. “And I’ve been really proud of this football team, because this past season — as the season has gone on — they’ve stuck together, they’ve still competed.”

Column: Cajuns' loss raises more questions

UL opened 1-3 this year including losses at Tulsa and Texas A&M and to ULM.

But the Cajuns got back to .500 three times at 3-3, 4-4 and 5-5, and can become bowl-eligible for the sixth time in seven seasons under Hudspeth if they beat Appalachian State and get to 6-6.

“We dug ourselves out of a hole, got back to 5-5, had some solid wins, and now we’ve got a chance, still, to get bowl-eligible a very good team on the road,” the Cajuns coach said. “And we’re 4-3 in the (Sun Belt) conference. It’s not like we’re last place in the conference.

“We’re 4-3 in the conference, and have been highly competitive in the conference. So we just want to finish strong.”

They also look to improve, Hudspeth suggested, beyond this season.

“Obviously, we want to be better,” he said.

“We set the bar at nine straight wins for four straight years, four straight bowl games.

“So … we want to get back to that as bad as anybody does,” Hudspeth added, “and we want to bring our fans along for the ride too — because those are some exciting times, and we know we’re really close to making that happen again, especially now since we’re gonna be back at full speed in the near future.”

Column: The Cajuns knew what was coming

As he spoke earlier this week, Hudspeth — who is under contract at more than $1 million per year through the end of 2020, and who missed out on a $10,000 attendance-based bonus this year — was looking not only at what can still be accomplished this year, but also beyond.

“We’ve got a lot of talent on this football team coming back, so that’s exciting,” he said. “So I just hope our fans will continue pulling for the Ragin’ Cajuns, pulling for their team.

“Because that’s what make championships, and bowl championships, in great years so rewarding — is when they’ve stuck with you through a tough time. That’s the rewarding time.

“For our team, it’s the same way,” Hudspeth added. “These kids are fighting and keep getting better, and when they do have that breakout season again like we had for four straight years — then it will all be worth it. So, I’m excited for these kids. Man, they’re working hard.”

The Cajuns have dealt with their share of adversity this season, including injuries sustained by their top three quarterbacks — Jordan Davis (knee ligament strain), Levi Lewis (ankle sprain) and Andre Nunez (concussion).

But Hudspeth suggested he appreciates how the three quarterbacks have rallied around each other and hopes that can serve as an example for others.

Including fans.

“That’s the thing I like to see — a group of guys that try to overcome adversity when things get a little bit difficult,” he said of his QBs.

“I mean, that’s the true test of character. You don’t find out the character — about a person, about a player, about a fan — when you win nine games every year.

“When you go through a difficult little stretch, then you find out your true character — and I’ve found out the true character of these players,” Hudspeth added, “because, man, they’re fighters, and they believe, and, man, I’m excited for them, because I’m excited about what they could still do.”

Related: Hudspeth says picking a UL quarterback is 'not easy' 

NUMBERS GAME

A look at UL’s average announced home attendance in seven seasons under coach Mark Hudspeth:

2011: 29,171

2012: 22,865

2013: 25,976

2014: 25,775

2015: 21,596

2016: 20,224

2017: 15,751

SUN BELT COMPARISON

Going into the final week of the 2017 regular season, a look at how UL ranks in average announced home attendance this season compared to other Sun Belt Conference programs:

1.  Appalachian State: 26,262

2.  Troy: 24,456

3.  Arkansas State: 23,019

4.  Texas State: 17,447

5.  South Alabama: 17,345

6.  Georgia State: 16,250

7.  New Mexico State: 16,232

8.  UL: 15,751

9.  Coastal Carolina: 14,761

10.  Georgia Southern: 12,884

11.  Idaho: 10,533

12.  UL Monroe: 9,928

Related: Cajuns will have seven-figure payday for Missouri game



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