Russ Faulkinberry, winningest football coach in school history, helped guide Ragin’ Cajuns to Division I status
LAFAYETTE – Russ Faulkinberry was a big man, in more ways than one. He was also someone the then-USL athletic department and football program badly needed when he joined the staff as head football coach in 1961.
Then known as the Bulldogs, the squad had gone 19-28-1 over the five seasons prior to Faulkinberry’s arrival, and when the Murfreesboro, Tenn., native and former Vanderbilt standout arrived, he knew something had to change.
Faulkinberry put his first USL team through training and workouts unheard of prior to him taking over the program.
“If anyone has ever seen the movie, ‘The Junction Boys,’ they would understand what those initial USL players came to understand about Coach Faulkinberry,” said Jim Doyle, one of his legion of former players. “He was a tough, no-nonsense, demanding taskmaster.”
Many players left the program, but Faulkinberry and his depleted squad stayed the course in an initial 2-8 season. A couple of years later the Bulldogs went 5-4 in 1964 and 7-3 along with a 4-1 Gulf States Conference mark in 1965. From 1964 through 1971, the squad – now known as the Ragin’ Cajuns through the efforts of Faulkinberry and then-sports information director Bob Henderson – never had a losing season.
Many of his former players credit that first year for setting the foundation for that success. Faulkinberry himself, in an interview many years later, said he was more proud of the men – and he distinctly referred to them as “men” – who were on his first USL team.
“What I tried to do was take a group of selfish, immature boys,” he said years later, “and through a series of unselfish acts, make men out of them.”
“The stories of those days have taken on legendary status,” Doyle said. “Let’s just say the biblical phrase ‘many are called but few are chosen’ would have fit right into his style of coaching. He had a philosophy of football that always had the same theme running through it, that hard work would overcome any lack of talent.”
Faulkinberry, who passed away in 2005 at age 77, served as head coach for 10 seasons and compiled a 66-63-2 record, including those lean early years and a struggling 0-10 mark in his final season in 1973. Even so, he remains the career coaching leader in victories in UL history, and his teams were always a factor in the Gulf States Conference during the height of his career.
The Cajuns won GSC titles in 1965, 1969 and 1970, and that 1970 team remains cemented in Cajun football lore. After a 9-2 regular season that included a sweep of the GSC (the only losses that year were a 16-14 opening-game loss at Southern Mississippi and a 50-38 loss to a highly-regarded Tampa team), the squad was invited to NCAA postseason play.
That hadn’t happened since the war years when the school played in the Oil Bowl, and the Cajuns didn’t have to go far for that historic game. USL was invited to the Grantland Rice Bowl in Baton Rouge, at the time one of the premier college division bowls in the country.
In that game, a physically-outmanned Cajun team lost to highly-regarded Tennessee State 26-25, coming back from an early 14-0 deficit to take a 25-14 lead before TSU scored twice in a 2:50 span in the fourth quarter.
Faulkinberry was the GSC and Louisiana Coach of the Year in 1970, and was named coach of the Lafayette Daily Advertiser’s Quarter-Century team (1950-75). The nine regular-season wins set a school record and it would be 2019, a half-century later, before a Cajun squad would win more games in a single season.
The son of a coach (his father was head coach at Middle Tennessee State for eight years before passing away in 1933), Faulkinberry was his team’s captain at Vanderbilt and played 40 games as a four-year letterman. He earned All-SEC honors as a senior in 1950 and played in the Senior Bowl before one year of high school coaching. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War and coached at Southeastern Louisiana, Iowa State, Texas A&M and Nebraska before taking the head job at USL in 1961.
“He came by his love of football quite naturally,” Doyle said, “with his father at Middle Tennessee even though he passed away when Russ was only five.”
It wasn’t just his coaching that helped Faulkinberry leave his mark. He oversaw the transition from the Gulf States Conference to the more competitive Southland Conference, as well as spearheading the drive that resulted in construction of Cajun Field by the start of the 1971 season. He also served as USL’s assistant athletic director.
Faulkinberry coached one year with the Jacksonville Sharks of the World Football League before 15 years of work in the medical field, serving as an administrator for hospital drug and alcohol treatment programs. Those later years also included serving as a private coach for players, a group that included UL and NFL stars Jake Delhomme and Brandon Stokley.
“Coach was a complex person, tough as nails on the outside but a more complete person on the inside,” Doyle said. “He was a gourmet cook and loved cooking for others, and he was blessed with two daughters (Lee and Mary) that were the light of his life. But more than anything else, he had a profound influence in the lives of many young men in football and helping them break the bondage of substance abuse. A lot of people cite his influence as a critical part of their development.”
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