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Athletics: Sports success is more than fun and games

The Advertiser, May 29, 2014

Listen long enough anyplace University of Louisiana at Lafayette fans gather, and you’ll hear some variation of a particular phrase. It may be pronounced with great pride. It may be offered timidly, as if the speaker is afraid of bringing down some jinx on the campus.

Here’s the phrase:

“This is the Golden Age of UL sports.”

The proposition is hard to dispute.

The Ragin’ Cajun softball team, which always seems to excel when other major university sports programs struggle, opens play against Kentucky at 7 p.m. today in the College World Series in Oklahoma City. The Cajun baseball team, ranked No. 1 in the nation, is the top seed in its own NCAA regional and will play Jackson State at 6 p.m. Friday at M.L. “Tigue” Moore Field.

In March, the men’s basketball team reached the NCAA tournament for the first time in nearly a decade.

And the football team, which not so long ago seemed doomed to permanent futility, has now won the New Orleans Bowl three straight years.

It wasn’t so long ago that the university had to be concerned about NCAA rules requiring Division I football schools to draw an average of at least 15,000 people per home game. Now the university is expanding Cajun Field’s seating capacity from 31,000 to 38,000, with an eye toward accommodating 60,000 fans eventually.

And these accomplishments don’t take into account the success of UL athletes in sports that don’t draw as much attention.

All this makes for some great fun, cheering for the Cajuns at Lamson, Cajun Field, the Tigue or the Cajundome. The region’s morale would be reason enough to justify the money and effort that has gone into improving UL’s athletic program.

But the university will be even better off if it can manage to translate athletic success into the sort of prestige that attracts intellectual talent and financial support.

The link isn’t as tenuous as it might seem. Nelson Schexnayder, the former UL athletic director, used to pose the question this way: Which university has the better computer science program, UL or Notre Dame?

The point, of course, is that our reflex is to say Notre Dame, largely because the school’s legendary athletic programs make it seem bigger than life. In fact, Notre Dame didn’t have a computer science program when Schexnayder said that in the mid-1990s (although it does now). UL’s computer science program was, then as now, one of the best in the country.

At the very least, the improving fortunes of Cajun sports teams could take some of the financial pressure off the university budget after several years of deep budget cuts.

While so-called revenue-generating sports like football and basketball subsidize the less visible sports at many larger universities, all UL’s sports teams have traditionally relied on general fund support. Any additional revenue that Cajun sports bring in — either at the turnstile or in the form of donations from boosters — can only help the university’s bottom line. A Lafayette Economic Development Authority report released Wednesday said the 2013 UL football team had an economic impact of more than $27 million here.

But there’s plenty of time to worry about bean-counting. For now, let’s get behind the UL softball and baseball teams as they fight their postseason battles.