New Orleans Bowl notebook: Unique award for MVP

Advocate staff photo by DERICK HINGLE -- A detailed view of the helmet that will be given to the MVP of the 2012 New Orleans Bowl
Advocate staff photo by DERICK HINGLE -- A detailed view of the helmet that will be given to the MVP of the 2012 New Orleans Bowl

NEW ORLEANS — This year’s New Orleans Bowl MVP won’t get a traditional plaque or trophy. Instead, he will receive a one-of-a-kind helmet designed by New Orleans artist Tuna Seither, a 1989 Louisiana-Lafayette graduate.

The hand-painted helmet, done in various mediums including metallic paint, acrylics and glitter covered by a high-end UV varnish, depicts the bowl logo, the Superdome, a traditional Crescent City lamppost and the logos of both teams. The key component is the face shield, which has large “MVP” letters painted across it to obscure the inside.

Bowl executive director Billy Ferrante said he wanted something different, and he and Seither brainstormed the helmet idea.

“He wanted to do a helmet,” Seither said. “What I did was come up with a concept. The shield is really what makes it stand out.”

ULL coach Mark Hudspeth was admiring the award after Thursday’s news conference.

“That’s the type of thing that you keep on a shelf or in a bookcase,” he said. “It’s so much better than just a plaque. It’s something you can keep with pride for the rest of your life.”

Wave view

ULL and East Carolina have one common opponent: Tulane.

The Cajuns beat the Green Wave at home 41-13, and the Pirates prevailed 28-23 in the Superdome. Despite the disparity in scores, Tulane director of football operations Doug Lichtenberger said Saturday’s game should be tight.

“It’s a great matchup,” he said. “You got two very similar teams who like to run the spread, and both played a physical 3-4 defense.”

The edge, Lichtenberger said, could go to ULL because of the kicking game — particularly Brett Baer, whose 50-yarder against San Diego State was the winner in last year’s game — and the home field advantage some 30,000 Cajun fans should provide.

“No doubt that’s a big help for them,” he said.

It wasn’t a factor for the Tulane game.

“It seemed pretty empty,” Pirates running back Vintavious Cooper said. “Usually on the road, you have the crowd against you, but the coaches told us we’d have to pump ourselves up to make our own energy.”

How quiet was it?

“We could hear our coaches on the sideline calling out changes,” he said. “We know it’ll be different Saturday, so we’ve been working on our silent snap counts.”

Slimmed-down coach

East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill looks noticeably different from when he took the job in 2010. Then, the former Pirate defensive back weighed 388 pounds and often had to conduct practice in a golf cart because of a degenerative hip condition.

But thanks to bariatric and hip replacement surgery following his first season, McNeill now checks in a svelte 210 pounds and moves, in his words, “like a ninja.”

Eating right and exercise — McNeill walks at least an hour a day — helps keep the weight off, although he admitted being in New Orleans this week has its temptations.

“Oh, I still love good food,” he said. “And they’ve got lots of it here. You just have to maintain the discipline.”

McNeil did confess to chowing down on charbroiled oysters this week and said he might have to have another helping before the Pirates leave town.

Déjà vu

At the end of Thursday’s practice in the Superdome, Hudspeth replayed Baer’s winning kick.

As the final play before ULL moved on to another part of practice, he sat the ball at the spot where last year’s final play began ... then moved it back 2 yards. Baer, now a senior and the leading kick scorer in Cajun history, was true with the 52-yarder.

“That was fun,” said Baer, whose winning kick last year carried just inside the left upright on the Poydras Street end of the stadium.

“I wanted to make sure that we had that again if we needed it,” Hudspeth said. “I won’t lie to you; when I walked out on the field for the first time today, I glanced up at where that ball went through. It felt pretty good to see that again.”

Crossing paths

Even though they’ve never faced each other on the field, McNeill and Hudspeth share a spot on their résumés.

McNeill served as linebackers coach at North Alabama, his second full-time collegiate coaching job, during the 1988 season. Twelve years later, Hudspeth took over at UNA and began a stellar seven-year streak that included a 66-21 record and five appearances in the Division II playoffs. The Lions reached the national semifinals in 2003, ’05 and ’08.

Ted Lewis and Dan McDonald contributed to this report.