Dawn of the directional: UL Monroe football, where upsets are the business model

Nelson Chenault-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

The Sun Belt's tiniest school shocked Arkansas and almost did the same to Baylor and Auburn. But for a perennial cupcake trying to build fans and revenue, what's next? SB Nation's Steven Godfrey headed to Funroe.

Kolton Browning has almost done it again. That's good enough for America, but not enough for its newfound favorite underdog.

The quarterback, standing alone in the hallway underneath his team's home bleachers, still sounds slightly out of breath. It's been less than 30 minutes since he led his last touchdown drive, a frantic 12-play, 90-yard dash that could only cut Baylor's win down to 47-42. Louisiana-Monroe has just spent the better part of a Friday night trading spread-option blows with Baylor in front of a home crowd and a national television audience. They acted like a BCS team, and short of one particular back-breaking turnover in the fourth quarter, had the complete capacity to beat yet another BCS team in this young season.

Regardless of the box score, the reviews are in, and they're fantastic. Tweets and comments claim that, no matter your own regular rooting interests, ULM is appointment viewing this season for simply being damn good television. Browning and his 1-2 Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks are America's second favorite team.

"That's a nice little compliment. That's great, especially to get recognized nationally because we know what we're capable of. If you want us to be your second favorite team that's great, but we expected to win all those games. We truly believe that," he says politely.

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Moments after the loss to Baylor, a ULM team far more dejected than anyone could have expected just a month ago. (Steven Godfrey, SB Nation)

The national audience enjoying the kitsch of this come-from-nowhere story would likely infuriate Browning in person. In head coach Todd Berry's third year resuscitating this perennial Sun Belt doormat, a mental reprogramming and an agressive, fearless brand of offense have thrust a forgotten team into the spotlight, and with Arkansas as proof positive, they're bought into believing. They beat a top-10 Razorbacks team, 34-31, in overtime on a Browning QB scramble, the kind SportsCenter producers dream about.


Steven Godfrey: All-access with Vanderbilt || With WKU, Alabama week

But hey - even though it was fun, it was a John L. Smith team, right? ULM encored immediately, almost beating Auburn the following week in a 31-28 overtime loss. They outscored the Tigers 14-3 in the second half, passing and running the ball far better than their SEC competition and winning time of possession by 10 minutes.

***

If they're lucky or if they're for real, or, if like most college football stories they're just a bit of both, Louisiana-Monroe is most certainly no longer what they were, at least for the time being. Because what they were was worse than awful. Now, thanks to the serendipity of a major upset win and a growing trend in college football scheduling - BCS teams "dropping down" to play home-and-home series with smaller FCS opponents to save cash - they've got a chance to build something more than one Sunday morning's worth of wild headlines.

At a Thursday afternoon Quaterbacks Club luncheon on campus, ULM athletic director Bobby Staub unwraps a piece of newspaper. It's a story cut from an international edition of USA Today, featuring a full headline and photo of the Warhawks' win over Arkansas. Some friends of Staub's mailed it to him from a vacation in Europe. Later, head coach Todd Berry tells me that in the midst of the buzz surrounding team's win over Arkansas, he opened a letter from a woman in Tennessee who had been converted to a Warhawks fan.

"No affiliation with the university, and apparently no affinity for football, even," he says. "But after that game, she had caught the last quarter with her husband and watched how hard the kids had played and never gave up. So she sent me a $50 check to the general scholarship fund."

Like most of America, the woman likely had no idea what or where a "ULM" was. But as the note said, she was, "just proud of those boys."

"If you can create some kind of inspiration, maybe people see us play and think they're OK, I'm going to be OK and this country's going to be OK. Maybe that's far fetched, and it is, but I thought that was neat. I certainly showed it to our team to prove to them they can make a difference," Berry said.

With an enrollment of just over 8,500 students, ULM has the smallest undergraduate campus body in the Sun Belt. Its athletic budget is routinely ranked as the smallest of all FBS member schools in the nation. A 2012 USA Today report lists ULM’s all-sports total revenue at $11.6 million annually, just $400,000 above last place North Texas. Of that figure, the Warhawk football budget is roughly $3.3 million per Staub, also one of the lowest in the FBS.

When the coaching staff squares off against Baylor, they've got one less coach than the Bears - after Berry, there are only eight assistant coaches, per the budget. There's a single elevator to the press box level of Malone Stadium, which causes a panic when it isn't held for the two teams' coaches to head to the locker rooms before halftime. Shortly after, it opens to reveal, among others, the cast of the locally shot Duck Dynasty show. The mass of folks loudly and drunkenly spill out, entourage in tow. During Friday night's game a pipe bursts under the stadium, and a pool of water cascades from the sidewalks leading to the box office while pressure fails for the soda fountains and bathrooms above. By halftime against Baylor, most bottled sodas and concession stand food are sold out. Parking is jammed. Stadium employees look harried. Fans who have clearly never visited are wandering aimlessly about. Some even talk about having to buy tickets from a friend of a friend. Does that technically count as a scalper? At a ULM game?

It's because of these calamities brought by a record crowd that it's apparent the business of ULM football is finally, finally booming, at least for the night.

***

For as long as any fan of a major college football program has bothered to notice who the hell their favorite team was beating by 40 points on Labor Day weekend, the Warhawks have been a rent-a-win. When Louisiana-Monroe (then Northeast Louisiana) left I-AA in 1994 to join the ranks of Division 1, it became the prototypical cupcake opening game, amassing a string of sub-.500 seasons built with road losses to programs like Colorado, Georgia, Auburn, Louisville, Arkansas, Kansas State and Arizona. Because of the guaranteed money that came with those games, it was impossible to turn down.

Not much changed when the program joined the Sun Belt Conference in 2001. In the last 11 seasons, the Warhawks (Indians until 2006) have finished .500 twice, but never posted a winning record in the FBS. In 10 of those 11 seasons, ULM had a losing record before they hosted their first conference home game, routinely opening the year at places like Florida, Texas, LSU, and Clemson (maybe it actually got worse). During that time the Warhawks did pull off the unthinkable - upsetting Alabama 21-14 in Nick Saban's first season with the Crimson Tide. If that game was the apex, according to a band of hardcore local fans two years later the Hawks hit the basement, losing to a two-win Louisiana-Lafayette team to close the season in a game that likely cost the Warhawks their first bowl bid ever.


Shutdown Fullback shuts down Week 5.

That was Berry's first season. The coach arrived in Monroe from UNLV, where as the offensive coordinator he'd touted the growing popularity of the spread option and intended to use its speed and space on the field to help ULM overcome a variety of disadvantages. Now entering his third year, this system is an inarguable success, but even an offense that's in the top 20 in most national categories couldn't rehabilitate the mindset of a fan base, or what was left of one. Berry insists on a team mentality that's straight from the big book of head coach cliches - expect to win ... no, really expect to win - but it's still effective as a salve for both players and fans alike. There's a joke among diehard ULM fans that they were so bad for so long, they were simply forgotten and not even allowed to be the scrappy underdog in Louisiana because of C-USA member Louisiana Tech, just one parish over in Ruston.

"I have been somewhat cavalier in terms of the way we approach this, because I think I had to be that for the attitudinal change. If I wasn't that way, and that agressive, I don't know if we'd ever have a buy in," Berry said after Thursday's practice.

Cavalier has largely been defined by agression. The Warhawks routinely go for it on fourth down in the Baylor game. By the end they'll have converted 10 of 14 fourth down conversions in only three games, and only Southern Cal (with an extra game) has attempted more. They purposely don't settle for field goals, scoring an average of five touchdowns a game through three weeks of play. Browning has 37 plays of 10 or more yards, 10 of 20 or more and four of 30 or more. Yet the Warhawks are also fourth in the nation in time of possession, averaging 35:19 a game despite running the offense least likely to revert to ball control. And they're also fun (hence America's casual viewing love affair). Browning lines up with fellow quarterback Cody Wells on more than one play, perfectly executing a two-quarterback option formation that's as infuriating to Baylor's defense as it is just damn PlayStation cool to watch.

In the loss to Baylor, ULM outscores their opponent in the fourth quarter for the third straight game and outgains Art Briles' own vaunted quick-strike attack, 560 yards to 549, and in three fewer plays. Throughout the week Berry never once mentions playing anything other than ULM's brand of offense. There's no talk of running the clock, keeping the ball or trying to do anything other than score more points than the Bears can. When you mention a potential need to hold the ball against a more talented and very similar offense, Berry doesn't take offense, but simply shrugs. He won't concede a game by changing his attack due to your conceived talent disparity.

"Yeah, we're not gonna do anything different. We feel we can hang with these guys. Games like these are about who can score last, and we think we can," he says with a half smile.

He ends up being totally right. Down 40-35 after squandering an early 21-7 lead, ULM has converted for a first down on a 41-yard pass from Browning to receiver Colby Harper and is gearing up to drive the field with six minutes left in the ball game. But junior running back Jyruss Edwards, over 100 yards rushing on the night and counting, fumbles away possession. In the the war of quick strikes, Baylor scores again and ULM can only scramble to cut the final deficit to five. The offense committed mistakes, but was fundamentally capable of winning the game.

***

After coaching his third non-conference game against a BCS team in as many weeks, Berry is composed but clearly gutted afterwards. ULM was routinely fooled by a hard count into jumping offsides, fumbled the ball twice, threw an interception and routinely failed to wrap up tackling receivers. These are the mistakes made by a team that could've won, not the lament of a squad that had no business being on the field. But if the close loss to Auburn offered a little consolation, this one has no silver lining.

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Hanging outside of the ULM locker room, the last sign visible before entering the stadium. (Steven Godfrey, SB Nation)

Except it does, in the form of a record attendance of 31,175, more than double the average home attendance for a regular ULM game. According to Staub's calculations on Monday, Baylor accounted for 1,000 to 1,500 tickets sold, meaning that the tiny campus showed up en masse. More noticeably, the city of Monroe and its surrounding communities, who willingly moved an entire slate of major high school games to Thursday night, showed up too.

"You know, I've tried, we've tried for three years now to get these kids on this team to believe. And this team believes. And I hope these fans, this student body, that they believe too. Because if they do, we can go a long way with this thing. Hopefully in some form or fashion they were encouraged enough to come back and watch us play again," Berry says after the game.

That's what Staub is banking on. Despite the loss, ULM has captured the spark set by their win at Arkansas. Unlike the Alabama upset of years past or any one particular game, Staub had a fire starter to follow the spark of that win in Little Rock - a home game in Monroe's Malone Stadium against a BCS opponent, nationally broadcast by ESPN.

After years of traveling for one landslide loss after another to fund the budget, ULM and schools at the bottom of the FBS' budget rankings have found the joy of trickle-down economics. As major conferences have begun to rake in record revenue from TV deals, that's allowed their cupcake opponents to ask for more cash on a per-game basis. Sun Belt teams are now averaging around $1 million a game to play major SEC opponents (ULM received $1.05 million to play at Auburn the previous week). The Arkansas series, set before Staub arrived, actually had ULM as the home team in Little Rock thanks to a five-year contract with Arkansas that granted ULM hosting status in War Memorial, allowing the crowd of over 50,000 to count in ULM's annual attendance average. The NCAA mandates that FBS teams average 15,000 a game in home attendance, and ULM routinely plays only five home games a year. On top of the statistical boost and the huge win, ULM pocketed $950,000 for the game, per Staub.

But then what? Staub suffers no shortage of lopsided, bad offers from teams. That's life in the basement. But now that teams are routinely getting seven figures to play the cupcake, the market has priced out all but an upper tier of national programs. Paying a $1 million-plus tag is no sweat for Oklahoma (playing ULM in 2013) or Alabama or Florida, but what about the Baylors of the world?

"What you’re finding is that there are 15 programs or so that can pay significant dollars, programs that can certainly justify someone going there and not returning a game. And there’s some other programs in the power conferences that can’t pay those kind of figures that are more apt to go home-and-home, especially if they’re struggling to find games," Staub said.

In other words, years and years of publicly maligned "cupcake" games (plenty featuring ULM losing by double-digits) have actually created a level playing field, sort of: Baylor had to come to Monroe, to Malone Stadium, and ULM hosted its first-ever nationally televised true home game against a BCS opponent. The Bears aren't reinventing the wheel, either - Mississippi State has travelled to Sun Belt neighbor Troy already this season, while Georgia Tech has gone on the road to Middle Tennessee and Oklahoma State has traveled to Louisiana-Lafayette in recent years.

Initially, ULM was scheduled to play at Baylor this season and host the Bears in 2013, but the Big 12’s expansion to nine conference games caused the series to flip-flop. Staub contends that some conferences are even considering the price of non-conference payouts when expanding their season slate from eight to nine games.

Whatever the reason, Berry's upset and Staub's deal landed ULM its biggest win in program history - 30,000 fans who came to either support ULM or at least indulge a curiosity.

***

If the final score of the Baylor game only matters so much for the future growth of the program, the biggest opponent is the team ULM sees every day of every week at every turn in Monroe.

Ask Clint Thibodeaux, who could be considered the king of good-faith tailgating. Hours before kickoff, the 27-year-old is working around an eight-foot long smoker cutting up sausage and sporting a ULM Warhawks apron. He's a fixture at ULM home games win, lose, or really lose, and as he cuts open a bag of charcoal, he recalls all the various sports he's tailgated for on campus.

"One time, we tailgated for a ULM tennis match. The coach said he'd pay for the food if we did it, so we were out there."

Thibodeaux's family is native to Louisiana, but he moved to Monroe from Blounstown, Fla., before high school. His father attended ULM, and despite growing up a Florida Gators fan, Thibodeaux threw himself into ULM fandom when he enrolled. The combination of Louisiana heritage, a Gator youth and a ULM diploma gives Thibodeaux a unique perspective on the "LSU problem." Like any other Louisiana university, ULM's student and fan base have long been filled with fans who pledge their hearts to the Tigers first and whatever else second. Even when non-LSU programs - like neighboring Louisiana Tech, currently undefeated - gain momentum, the purple shadow seems to prevent roots from growing.

In ULM's case, it's the combination of a I-AA history that's lost on the current generation, almost three decades of total irrelevance, and the rarity of chances for events like the Baylor home game to excite the base and attract new members.

"Growing up in Florida, I haven't been back in seven or eight years, but if you name someone I can tell you if they're a Florida fan, Florida State fan or Miami fan. You don't have that here, different teams that win. They don't understand it. Even with the Saints up until recently, if you wanted to cheer for a team that won in Louisiana, it was LSU."

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The loyal tailgater, at work before kickoff. (Steven Godfrey, SB Nation)

Not that such a perspective means Thibodeaux is OK with the state of the Louisiana college football fan.

"Absolutely it pisses me off. It infuriates me. Last year Coach Berry walked through the Grove [ULM's designated tailgating area adjacent to the stadium], and one of these tents nearby, the guy had an actual LSU tent and was wearing LSU stuff. Coach Berry stopped, walked over there and said 'LSU's playing four hours south.' I think it's great he did that. It's disrespectful to the players and their families."

Wait, what? The first-year coach of the forgotten directional school said what about who? Isn't that illegal, if not by Napoleonic Code than certainly by some tacked-on amendment from Huey Long?

"It made a little bit of noise when I did it," Berry admits. "But I told [A.D.] Staub I'm going to do it just one time and hopefully we get the message out that that's not good football etiquette. It's something that every other school in this state other than LSU has to battle. I've talked with Sonny [Dykes] over at Louisiana Tech and Mark [Hudspeth] at Lafayette.

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Not pictured: the color purple. (Steven Godfrey, SB Nation)

"It was frustrating to my players. Quite honeslty, and I don't think anyone had ill will or bad hearts, it was just disrespectful. And to act like you're coming in to cheer for us and yet you're wearing somebody else's colors? When I went through the Grove in our very first ball game, I confronted those people in front of our players, any time I saw the LSU colors. And look, I don't have any animosity at all towards LSU. I just want people to be respectful of my guys. I owed it to my guys to do that one time. I was hopeful that in my first year I'd brought it up in the quarterback luncheons that I wouldn't do that, that everyone else would do it for me.

"I won't do it again. I did it that one time. If they're out there wearing LSU now, I'm not going to move 'em."

Berry's point is understandable, especially on the rare chance for ULM to brand itself to recruits, potential new fans and the national viewing audience.Thus, I decide to enforce the Todd Berry dress code roughly 2 hours prior to kickoff. Standing in the main parking lot of Malone Stadium, with the main entrance gates at my back, I randomly approach any fans I can find wearing LSU gear (or mixed LSU and ULM gear). Given their polite but quick non-responses, it's safe to assume Berry's decree has garnered attention, if maybe not creating a total change. Still, it's apparent that he's a least spooked them: In a decade of talking to sports fans for various media outlets, I'd never seen such a universal reluctance to comment about fans and students allegedly moonlighting with LSU.

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Todd Berry approved: Canine ULM fan Breeze. (Steven Godfrey, SB Nation)

Fan No. 1: Middle-aged male, wearing LSU cap, ULM "white-out" t-shirt.

When approached, declines comment.

Fan No. 2: Young, college-aged male, wearing LSU t-shirt.

When approached, acts as if he's committed a crime, admits he's a current ULM student, won't give me his name, and offers a friendly "Beat Baylor!" before walking away quickly.

Fan No. 3: Middle-aged female, wearing purple and gold blouse and a ULM visor.

Seems confused when asked about the dual allegiances and politely excuses herself.

Fan No. 4: Young, college-aged male, wearing a LSU polo.

Me: Hey, I just wanted to ask if you'd heard about the ULM coach asking that fans not wear LSU gear at the games.

Fan No. 4: (is heavily inebriated) Oh. That right?

Me: Yeah. Are you a LSU fan? ULM fan? Both? Don't care?

Fan No. 4: I'm a LSU student. I was a LSU student. But I'm from Monroe.

Me: Oh, OK.

Fan No.4: And so I'm not allowed to wear LSU gear? (smiles)

Me: According to the coach, I guess.

Fan No. 4: Huh. (pauses) Well. They can go f--k themselves. Also, Geaux Tigers. Put that in your newspaper: 'Geaux Tigers.'

Me: Gotcha.

Fan No. 4: Do you know how we spell 'Geaux?'

Me: I do. Can I get your name?

Fan No. 4: Reggie Bush.

Me: Thank you.

***

Monday evening Staub is still happy, effusive towards the Monroe and Ouchita Parish communities for their support. Given the size of the undergraduate enrollment on campus alone, there's no question that the locals were the difference. There's an amended season ticket plan the athletic department is aggressively marketing to the first-time attendees from Friday night's game. Be they LSU moonlighters, unaffiliated locals or simply warm bodies looking for entertainment, the plan is, above all else, to raise attendance and revenue at Sun Belt Conference home games, and do it immediately. More money means a full roster of coaches. It means the hope of one day creating a football facilities. It means maybe, one day, more elevators.

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The face(s) of the future? (Jeremy Stevens, ULM Media Relations)

"For everything we've done, the job Coach Berry's doing right now, this momentum is fleeting," Staub says. "We've got two weeks to capture it before FAU comes in. We have to do the work off the field, get the message to those 30,000 fans and say 'Hey, we need you back.'"

The battle for ULM in the marketplace is long from decided and will likely be a tougher outing than any four-game stretch of playing the victim role. For the time being, Berry's closed the gap on the competition that the budget forces ULM to face. You can argue Arkansas is imploding, Auburn is floundering and Baylor is rebuilding, but not three weeks in a row, and not against a program considered the premiere doormat of the FBS just two months ago. Staub, Berry, the team and the university are tasked with carving out a permanent name in between world-ending upsets every few years.

Back at the Friday afternoon tailgate, hope doesn't abound, but it feels a hell of lot less ludicrous than before.

"It's the first time I've ever seen ULM fans excited and active about a football game," Monroe resident and former local talk radio host Sean Fox says.

"If it stays, that depends on how they play, and if they lose, how they lose, if they're right there with Baylor. They have to make this thing a season, and that means a bowl game. They haven't had a winning season since they moved to 1-A. They have to show consistency for people to support them. They beat Alabama, but what happened after that? They probably lost to somebody in the Sun Belt, or already had a losing record. (Ed.: After their 21-14 win over Bama, ULM closed the '07 season with a 17-11 win at Louisiana-Lafayette and a 6-6 season)."

"Even after Arkansas, I didn't see anyone excited about the next game. You didn't log on to Facebook and see people saying 'Hey, we've got a find a place to go watch the ULM-Auburn game. But now I'm seeing people today and it's because they won, but also because the game's here."

"At least this gives them a chance."

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