Ch-ch-changes: Cowboys ready for spring debut

Jim Gazzolo, Special to the American Press

A lot has happened since McNeese State last took the football field for a game.

• The head coach left for Syracuse.

• The program was put on a one-year postseason ban for failing to meet the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate standards.

• A worldwide pandemic shut down almost everything.

• Not one but two hurricanes hit the campus, destroying parts of the football stadium.

• A new turf had to be installed.

• Fall season was moved to spring.

• 21 players left the program while 20 were added.

• A new athletic director as named.

• The Southland Conference imploded.

• Defensive coordinator Grady Brown left 10 days before the first game.

Enough …

Finally, Frank Wilson will get a chance to coach football. Finally, it is about the team.

McNeese will open the strangest of seasons Saturday night at Tarleton State in Stephenville, Texas. The usual summer heat that comes with college football openers will be replaced by a winter chill, and the normal 11-game schedule has been cut to seven.

Yet there will be football, and perhaps in many ways this will be the most important season ever at McNeese.

All in the program understand that this campaign, unlike any other, is bigger than football. This is about helping a town rebuild, raising hopes for many and giving fans a few hours to forget what they have been through.

“We know what this means to our community,” quarterback Cody Orgeron said. “I want to give back to Lake Charles.”

Orgeron is one of many players who could have left but didn’t despite all the Cowboys have been through. He knows that this team, maybe more than ever before, is linked with Southwest Louisiana.

“You know when you talk to people what McNeese football means to them,” Orgeron said. “They will tell you. You want to help. Playing hard is how we can give back.”

Wilson has learned this in his 13 months in Lake Charles.

“Letters pour in from people,” Wilson said. “You see people coming out and looking over fences to peer into our practices to be a part of it. McNeese is everything to them. There is a yearning; we have become the talk.”

There is no LSU, no Louisiana-Lafayette, no other programs to steal any interest from the Cowboys. But more than all that, this is a group of players who get what they mean when it comes to people picking up the pieces themselves.

“We understand what we are playing for,” Wilson said. “It is more than just a game.

“I look at the determination, the will of the people who have never flinched. You learn who a person is through adversity.”

What these players have been through, some of whom struggled to find places to sleep or to eat right after the hurricanes, is more adversity than most. Many saw their local housing wiped out while others who are from local areas had their parents’ homes damaged.

Wilson had to leave his home while also playing the role of parent to his freshman son who is on the team. It all got personal for these players.

“We just want to play football,” Orgeron said. “It really doesn’t matter who we play or where we play, we just want to play against somebody else.”

The spring season, particularly for McNeese, is an interesting combination of competition and working to learn a new system. Games matter, but there is also a lot of help coming in the fall as Wilson and his staff have worked to rebuild what the NCAA transfer portal has taken away.

The coach says “McNeese’s best days are ahead,” while at the same time makes sure everyone knows there is still a season to be played in the spring.

“This is a competitive season so it matters,” Wilson said.

McNeese was picked by coaches and sports information directors to finish fourth in the Southland, though nobody knows what to expect. With COVID-19, transfers and players opting out, it is anybody’s guess who should be the favorite.The McNeese State football team is making final preparations for its spring season opener Saturday at Tarleton State.

Kirk Meche / Special to the American PressMcNeese State will kick off its seven-game spring season Saturday at Tarleton State in Stephenville, Texas.

Kirk Meche / Special to the American PressMcNeese spring football depth chart

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