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Ballad of the Bayou

Coach Michael Kline and Robert "Bobby" Boucher in a team huddle during the '99 Bourbon Bowl

The world was a much simpler place back in 1998. It was a time before such things as smartphones, the internet, and digital media were consumed by the millisecond. People were not obsessed with celebrities’ every utterance or consumed by addicting on-line videos. People gave more space to one another. Everything moved at a much slower pace. The media of the day were ruled by ancient scribes known as “newspaper reporters” who often took–get this–24 hours to produce the daily news. It was just a simpler time…

Likewise, the college sportscape of the time barely resembled its present day counterpart. Coaches seemed to run programs however they saw fit, often disregarding the rules until caught. Media members were more in the dark of the day-to-day operations within programs and only praised the end result. While a plethora of examples exist to validate this claim, look no further than the small town of Jackson’s Bayou, home of the South Central Louisiana State University Mud Dawgs. As a tale of redemption and success that was almost tarnished by dishonesty and cowardice, this story would surely unfold differently if it occurred today.

For sports buffs out there, you might recall the meteoric rise of the Mud Dawg football program in the fall of ’98. After a horrendous spring practice period and a deplorable recruiting class, the bar could not have been set any lower for Head Coach Michael Kline’s squad. SCLSU was the nation’s laughing stock.  The Mud Dawgs were riding the nation’s longest losing streak that dated back almost four seasons. Their cheerleading squad appeared at games and events openly intoxicated;  the home game attendance average was last in the country at six fans per game;  the program employed highly questionable characters from around the region, and supplied disease-infested swamp water for player consumption at games and practices. Long story short, the Mud Dawgs’ future looked bleak.

Coach Kline inherited a desolate program, which is one of the reasons he has managed to stay employed there; expectations were constantly ground-level. Before the ’98 campaign, Kline’s Mud Dawgs never won more than two games in a single season. His teams had constant themes of boneheaded mistakes and costly turnovers. Coach Kline looked as if he had completely lost control of the program along with his mind by the time.

Kline was highly regarded as an offensive mastermind when he accepted the SCLSU head coaching position after a long stint at the University of Louisiana as an assistant. But when he was passed over and subsequently fired by Hall of Fame Coach Red Beaulieu, Kline lost his old magic and part of his sanity. Soon, Kline would talk to himself on dislocated phone lines while wearing high heels.

“It was a very dark time in my life,” Kline recalled. “Not because of the mental stress and blow to my manhood, but all the other stuff. You know. It was the late ’70’s and Carter was still in office.”

Kline lost his mental capabilities to design and implement plays, his forte on legendary coach Chad Calvin’s staff. He tried everything to reverse it, including sitting and doing heavy breathing on footballs. But, Kline would have serious panic attacks anytime he tried to come up with new plays and concepts. At practices, the coach was often seen reading “Football Plays For Dummies” as a source of inspiration and a method to deal with his anxiety.

Coach Kline brushing up on his playbook before a Mud Dawg practice late Summer ’98

As Kline’s mental condition worsened, so did the Mud Dawgs’ on-field performance. It is tough to say if Kline’s staff hires were reflected by his lack of budget or lack of good judgment, but his coaches were not up to par with average D-1 staffs. Just look at his choice for his defensive coordinator:  Frances Boulanger, a local alligator wrestler and pepper farmer, who was known by his amicable nickname “Farmer Fran.” Boulanger could barely coach anyone–not so much for his lack of knowledge of the game, but rather because of his staunch Cajun accent making it almost impossible to communicate with his players. Nevertheless, the Mud Dawgs found difficulty cultivating any positive momentum to move the program forward until one fateful afternoon in early August.

While watching film of his team’s most recent loss, Kline was approached by a shy, 31-year-old water boy named Bobby Boucher for the position of the program’s water distribution engineer. After a brief chat with Kline and an agreement he would work for free, Boucher got the job.  Little did Kline know, but that would be the hire of his career.

Soon after an altercation between starting quarterback Gee Grenouille and the newly appointed water boy broke out one day at practice, Kline made quite a discovery about his new employee.

Bobby Boucher was a local home-schooled water boy who lived at home with his mother Helen Boucher. Due to a tragic situation involving his father dying in the desert of thirst while working for the Peace Corps, a bedtime fabrication authored by his mother, Boucher vowed to be the best water boy the world ever saw so that “no one else would go thirsty.”
His talents quickly earned him a position on UL’s staff under Bealieu. However, after 17 years of service to the Cougar program, Boucher was let go in the summer of ’98. Desperate for work, he applied at SCLSU.

Though a fan of professional wrestling, most notably Captain Insano, Boucher never participated in any organized sport due to his mother’s wishes. When he wasn’t at work hydrating college athletes, Boucher’s time was spent tending to the family donkey, fishing, and having his hair brushed, leaving little time for a social life outside the house.

When the altercation between Boucher and Grenouille broke out, Kline didn’t know how to handle it. Kline was met with a unique dilemma. Should he fire the guy who just interrupted practice and speared his quarterback? Should he suspend his players for antagonizing? Should he call his grandma and ask her how she dealt with things of this nature? Kline’s mind raced with how the different scenarios would play out.

In the end, Kline decided, of all things, to give Boucher a try-out for the team. Despite being listed at 5-10 weighing 176 pounds, Kline thought Boucher would thrive as the team’s middle linebacker. Boy, was he right!

“I was just overwhelmed with the energy this kid played with,” Kline said. “You could see the fire in his eyes that very second he tackled Gee…and Casey too. I immediately offered him a starting spot on the team.”

Though they lost the first game of the year on a fumble return for a touchdown, the Mud Dawg defense looked considerably better thanks to Boucher, who finished with two dozen tackles, an interception, and set the then-record for sacks in a game.

America now had a new star on its hands. After injuring all three of Central Kentucky’s quarterbacks in SCLSU’s dramatic victory the following week, Boucher was quickly turning into a fan favorite across the country. From SportsCenter to the front page of the sports section, Boucher was being talked about by everyone. Making unprecedented plays and rewriting record books, Boucher was a force of energy on the field and rarely decreased his intensity. In fact during the Mud Dawgs game with Louisville, Boucher actually threw a ball carrier into the stands. Who does that?

Support for the Mud Dawgs had never been better and the team began selling out every home game as Boucher eventually led SCLSU to a 10-1 record and its first-ever bowl berth.

The stage was set: a New Year’s Day contest with the UL Cougars and their coach in the inaugural Bourbon Bowl Classic. Due to overwhelming support and the revamped defense, it appeared Kline and his program were finally on the upswing until fate reared its ugly head once again.

While celebrating the school’s Bourbon Bowl berth at a pep rally, Beaulieu surprised the pro-Mud Dawg crowd with a shocking revelation: their beloved Bobby Boucher was a cheater. After personally investigating the matter while managing the nation’s No. 4 program, Coach Beaulieu informed the crowd of Boucher’s false transcript from South Lafayette High School of Cherokee Plains, LA, and Boucher’s certain ineligibility for the upcoming bowl game.

“We just felt betrayed,” linebacker Lyle Robideaux said. “We finally thought we were winners.”

Kline had managed to ride the storm until this point. He oversaw a program with a never-ending list of NCAA violations. Now to top it all off, he personally forced a fake transcript so that Boucher could suit up on game days. Since Boucher was home schooled his entire life, he never officially graduated from high school and would be considered academically ineligible for NCAA participation. But Kline, the man who couldn’t draw up a simple passing pattern, thought he could outsmart one of the largest governing body in the world of sports in order to save his program. Good luck getting away with that one, Coach…

But in a rare example of compassion and responsiveness, the NCAA allowed Boucher permission to play in the Bourbon Bowl if he passed the GED exam. Since Boucher’s college grades were excellent, the NCAA was willing to grant his eligibility based on the circumstances.

In today’s world, it would take weeks, months, or years for the NCAA to conclude an investigation and present a ruling on the matter (Do the recent Miami, UNC, and Louisville scandals ring any bells?). In Boucher’s case, however, they were willing to push everything else aside and give instant responses to SCLSU’s compliance officer, a position ironically enough held by Kline.

But as one cloud cleared up, another dark one rolled in. The day Boucher discovered he passed the Louisiana High School Equivalency Examination and was eligible for the Bourbon Bowl, his mother took ill.

After days of testing, doctors couldn’t figure out what was ailing Ms. Boucher as she lay motionless in her hospital bed. As game day neared, Boucher determined he simply would not play if his mother wasn’t well and was quoted as saying, “She’s the only person who cares if I live or die. She’s my whole world.”

“It was like getting hit by a car and resuscitated back to life only to be stabbed by the paramedic,” Grenouille said. “After going through so much for him to be eligible, not having him going into the game was a huge disadvantage for us.”

Boucher looked as if he would be watching the Bourbon Bowl on a hospital TV, especially when a small rally led by Boucher’s now-wife, Victoria Vallencourt, couldn’t muster his spirits. TV crews and reporters were nowhere to be found, claiming the subject matter was too personal. Nowadays, they report when Tim Tebow farts or if LeBron passive-aggressively subtweets his teammates.

However, when Boucher awoke on New Year’s Day 1999, he was relieved to see his mother in full spirits. After a heart-to-heart in which she informed her son of the truth behind his father’s departure and her over-protective ways, Ms. Boucher allowed Boucher full permission to play in the game. Boucher had to find a way to the game quick.

Despite an undefeated season, UL found itself in the Bourbon Bowl. Most analysts claim a weak conference schedule and the dominance of the ACC and Big12 as the reason why the Cougars didn’t get a national championship bid. Despite the letdown, UL did not come out flat. The team wanted to prove to the nation that they deserved a national championship.

Without the presence of Boucher on the Mud Dawg defense, the Cougars mounted a quick lead. Totally dominating both sides of the ball and limiting SCLSU to only 45 first half yards, the Cougars looked like they had it all wrapped up going into the half with a 27-0 lead. It just wasn’t the Mud Dawgs’ day.

Then all of a sudden, as if it was directly from a climactic scene of a movie, Boucher arrived via fan-boat at halftime and delivered a riveting speech to rally his teammates and coaches. Despite being down by multiple scores against a team of superior talent, the Mud Dawgs came out fighting in the second half thanks to Boucher.

After a successful defensive series in which Boucher forced a fumble for a touchdown, the Mud Dawgs looked to be back in business, but were forced into a three-and-out for their first series of the half. Even though they had Boucher in their corner to stifle the Cougar assault, the Mud Dawg offense couldn’t even manage to get a first down.

Fearing Boucher’s playmaking ability, Beaulieu went with a radical game plan in the second half in order to neutralize the water boy. Instead of running plays, the Cougars knelt the ball three times and punted each offensive series, knowing full well the Mud Dawg offense wasn’t a threat to force a comeback. All seemed lost for SCLSU, even with its star player. So lost in fact that Kline tried to actually leave the game while it was still being played.

But due to Boucher’s persistence and naive confidence in his head coach, Kline agreed to stay on the sideline. On their next series in the waning minutes of the third quarter, the Mud Dawgs offense came to life after an exhilarating 80-yard double-reverse went the distance.

Beaulieu quickly abandoned his keep-away game plan but saw no success trying to bang Boucher around with a beefy ground attack.

After adding a field goal midway thru the final stanza and continuing to keep the Cougars from producing any second half points, the Mud Dawgs saw themselves down 10 points with under a minute to play. But, Crazy Coach Kline and his players weren’t ready to call it quits. They had gone too far to just lie down when the game was in reach.

With the ball on the Cougar 28 yard line, the Mud Dawgs capitalized on a fake field goal bootleg, in which Boucher was the lead blocker cutting the deficit to 24-27.

Mud Dawg DC “Farmer Fran” elated during SCLSU’s fourth quarter comeback during the ’99 Bourbon Bowl

Kicker Derrick Wallace delivered a perfect onside kick that was recovered by, who else, Boucher with . The Mud Dawgs captured all of the momentum until one Cougar, Daniel Meanie, blindsided Boucher after the play was dead, knocking the water boy out cold.

No one really knows for sure how Boucher rebounded from that vicious hit. But legend has it that Boucher drank magical ice water from an Alaskan medicine man, and its powers quickly awoke the unconscious linebacker and sprung him to his feet. Call me crazy, but I just don’t buy that. It is more likely the Mud Dawgs had some of Michael Jordan’s Secret Stuff the Toon Squad used for their second half rally against the MonStars in 1996.

Regardless, a reinvigorated Boucher led his team on the field for the last play of the game. After a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty put the Mud Dawgs into field goal range, the Mud Dawgs offense took the field to win the game on the last play from scrimmage with a dozen seconds left in regulation.

We all know how this story ends. The player who never played a down of offense all season gets put in with seconds left to throw a flawless halfback pass to a wide-open Gee Grenouille. I’m not sure what the Cougars called defensively, but my guess it was not the prevent D.

Victorious, Boucher was named Bourbon Bowl MVP and the Mud Dawgs celebrated their first of four straight bowl wins. Boucher was on record saying, “Coach Kline got his manhood back. I love mamma.”

In a storybook ending, Bobby decided to return to school and led his team to three more bowl victories. All of this occurred after he married the love of his life, Victoria.

It’s hard to say how this story would have played out if it occurred today, but it certainly would be different. In modern athletic departments, it is hard to image Kline or Boucher being a hero. With a putrid 5-72 coaching record and inept managing of a program, Kline would have been fired long before Boucher’s arrival. The man basically served gator piss to his players to keep them hydrated. Boucher, on the other hand, would certainly be dismissed from his duties if he assaulted an athlete on scholarship like he did on his first day as team waterboy.

But with the absence of meddling media members, this lovely and terrific story was able to come to fruition. Maybe we should learn a lesson from our past years. Or maybe learn to give people their space more often. Or maybe we should just say,”Just forget it. It’s just sports.”

Boucher all smiles after capturing SCLSU’s first bowl win

Clark Brooks
Clark Brooks
Former two-time football state champion at Lexington Catholic High School. Graduated with Journalism and Marketing B.A.s from the University of Kentucky. Featured in six different publications. Humungous football fan, avid basketball fan, and sports business and advertising professional. BBN

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