Football: Chaos reigned behind the scenes before the Cajuns wound up in the First Responder Bowl
Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, Dec. 24, 2020
In the hours before No. 17 UL was invited to play UTSA in the First Responder Bowl on Saturday in Dallas, chaos reigned.
The Ragin’ Cajuns knew what they wanted but weren’t sure where they’d go for a bowl. Behind the scenes, athletic director Bryan Maggard revealed what was happening was unlike any bowl season.
With college football, and the country, still battling the COVID-19 pandemic, kinks came in droves.
It started Dec. 17, when UL’s Sun Belt Championship game at Coastal Carolina – which had been set for two days later – was canceled due to COVID-19 issues in the Chanticleers’ program. The Cajuns , whose only regular-season loss came to Coastal Carolina in mid-October, were livid. They immediately called for the title game to be rescheduled.
“Given the dynamic, with so many teams opting out, so many bowl games cancelling … I felt like it might be feasible to pair us up in a bowl game,” coach Billy Napier said later.
“I think most people would have wanted to watch that. … I think there was an opportunity there to at least have a conversation about it, and I think we created that conversation.”
Maggard fully supported Napier’s plea.
“But as time progressed from the championship game day,” Maggard said, “we started to realize that it’s probably going to be unlikely.”
For a long time UL thought it was headed to Montgomery, Alabama for the Camellia Bowl and a Christmas Day meeting with a MAC team, perhaps Buffalo.
The Cajuns held out hope for a New Year’s Six game, probably the Peach Bowl, as the highest-rated Group of Five champion, something that could have happened if UL had beaten Coastal and Tulsa had upset Cincinnati in the American Athletic Conference title game.
They also thought the Cure Bowl in Orlando, perhaps for a matchup with Marshall, was possible if Coastal went elsewhere. But Sun Belt commissioner Keith Gill hinted at another possibility Dec. 14, when asked if Coastal and UL would go to the Cure and Camellia bowls if not a New Year’s Six.
“I think there’s certainly a great chance that that could happen because we’re contracted there,” he said then, “but I certainly think there’s some other scenarios that could put either one … in a bowl that’s outside of our contracts.”
At one point, the Military Bowl in Washington, D.C., was possible for UL. By the night before Selection Sunday for bowl games, Maggard said he had a “decent idea” Montgomery was out. Marshall ended up there, matched against Buffalo. It soon became evident, too, the Cure Bowl would take Coastal Carolina and Liberty.
The Military Bowl option fizzled as it and several others, including the Independence Bowl in Shreveport and the Birmingham Bowl, were canceled due to a COVID-induced dearth of available teams.
Where did that leave the Cajuns?
Because ESPN Events owns and operates so many of the bowls, the network orchestrates so much of what happens nowadays.
Cure, Camellia, New Orleans, LendingTree and the new Myrtle Beach Bowl in the case of the Sun Belt – have contractual agreements with individual conferences to supply them with teams, but ESPN has wide latitude to rearrange as it sees fit.
It’s “the people at ESPN,” Napier said, “who pair up these matchups.”
“I think there was certainly maneuvering due to all the opt-opts and vacancies within the bowls and their contracts within the various leagues,” Maggard said.
“But certainly ESPN plays a key role in aligning the matchups.”
Once College Football Playoff bowls were filled, dominos fell.
“That allowed ESPN to go to work with the bowls they own,” Maggard said. “Ultimately they made the decision as to where to place us.”
For the longest while, Napier – kept apprised by his athletic director – wasn’t sure where that would be. The problem was Maggard himself wasn’t sure until sometime last Sunday.
“The last couple year’s it’s been pretty simple in that the Sun Belt schools stayed within the five bowls we’re aligned with,” Maggard said. “This year … fluidity was the key word.
“You would hear one thing that’s a possibility, then that was taken off the list for various reasons. Then you might hear something else, then that was taken off because there was a chance that particular bowl may get canceled.
“I learned very quickly in this process to not get locked in on anything I heard,” Maggard added, “but just to kind of keep a running list of possibilities.”
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Maggard said he constantly reminded Napier that “nothing is set in stone.”
“To be honest … Commissioner Gill did a fantastic job of keeping us aware of all the potential options,” Maggard said, “but I know he – really no different than us – was getting a lot of different input from ESPN.”
Maggard ultimately had little say in the matter.
“The way this works, in any league .. is that athletic directors communicate with the commissioners, and the commissioners are the ones who are in contact with either bowl directors if they’re not ESPN-own,” Maggard said.
“We’re not all out there jockeying or trying to negotiate with bowls. It’s a pretty structured process and the communication chain is pretty direct.”
Once the Cajuns learned they were headed to Dallas to play UTSA, the news frankly was received – starting center Shane Vallot suggested – with disappointment.
“It wasn’t (like) … any other year, where it so was so exciting, because of what happened to us (with the Coastal Carolina cancellation),” Vallot said.
“It’s nothing against the bowl. It’s just what happened last week.”