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BUILDING SUPPORT: UL seeks ways to beef up athletic budget; live chat at 6 p.m. today

University officials examining ways to excite fan base

Bruce Brown • bbrown@theadvertiser.com • August 5, 2008

If UL’s Ragin’ Cajun athletic program is ever going to erase the stigma of unrealized potential, it’s going to take money.

That’s obvious when the school’s proposed 2008-09 athletic budget is just a shade more than $10 million, and the University of Tennessee makes that much on one home football Saturday.

It’s even more apparent when other schools in the Sun Belt Conference, with whom UL is said to be comparable, have larger budgets.

More importantly, though, it’s going to take a plan, one that examines where the school has been and where it wants to go in the intensely competitive world of collegiate athletics.

That’s the purpose of the Athletics Transition Advisory Team, a group of civic leaders who are close to the UL program and were chosen by new president Joseph Savoie to provide input on the school’s future.

"What’s going to have to happen is that all minds are going to have to come together," said Home Bank President John Bordelon, a former Cajun football player and chairman of the 2-year-old Ragin’ Cajun Athletic Foundation.

"Fundraising, administration and coaching all need to be on the same page. Throw the ideas in a pot, and hash it all out. The Foundation’s job is to raise money for that plan," Bordelon said.

First among immediate priorities listed by members of the committee are improvements to Cajun Field. The school’s football stadium opened in fall 1971 and hasn’t had significant improvements made since that time.

Other facility improvements have been suggested in baseball and softball, but Cajun Field has the most glaring need.

"The transition team put much focus on the press box area," Athletic Director David Walker said. "We’re talking about renovating or demolishing it, building a new press box, coaches’ boxes and club seating. We’ve had a lot of discussions within the staff about it."

"We took a tour of the facilities, and the press box and skyboxes at Cajun Field are embarrassing," businessman Herb Schilling II said. "To think that, when we hosted the New Orleans Bowl a couple of years back, visiting press, coaches and (university) presidents sat in those areas. That can’t leave them with a good impression.

"We’ve got to get that done. And we have to ask, ‘What else does the stadium need?’ There’s the possibility for open-air skyboxes. We need more elevators. We need to throw those kind of things on the table, let professionals look at the options and go forward from there."

Cajun Field, whose original design could accommodate expansion to a 70,000-seat bowl, is the largest and most visible facility at UL. But it lags behind newer, more modern stadiums.

"Football is the sport that’s bringing in the most people, yet it’s the oldest facility without improvements from the fans’ perspective," said committee member Dwight Prudhomme, a Lafayette High product and UL quarterback from 1979-82. "We need to get folks out of the parking lot and into the stadium."

Many Cajun fans enjoy tailgating and socializing before the games, but sometimes don’t arrive inside until the action is well under way.

"There has been a facility boom in the Sun Belt Conference," Walker said. "Florida International has a new football stadium. Florida Atlantic is planning one. Western Kentucky is doing football renovations, and so is North Texas.

"We’re in a facilities war. We’re ahead of the curve in some ways, with the new turf and indoor practice facility."

While Cajun Field is emblematic of the changes needed in facilities, there are other issues to address, such as an expanded, more effective academic center for athletes that will better serve the some 335 athletes in UL’s 16 sports.

"As a parent, sending your child to college, what you care about most is where they’re going to sleep and the academic center," Bordelon said.

"We need to provide money each year to hire a significant number of tutors to help our athletes. Currently, that amount is $10,000. I’d like to see us endow the academic center. We have certainly not developed a strong academic center. That should be one of our first priorities, because it affects every student athlete, and helps the longevity of the student athlete."

Bordelon added that the benefits of a new academic center are more cost effective than that of remodeling arenas.

"Say it costs $3 million for an academic center," Bordelon said. "That’s a better return on your investment than spending $50 million for a new baseball field or $30 million on softball because you help all your athletes."

The UL Conference Center, currently being remodeled, houses the academic center.

About 148 student-athletes at UL posted a 3.0 grade-point-average or higher during the Spring 2008 semester -44 percent of all student-athletes.

The female student-athletes’ GPA was a 3.0. More than 54 percent (69 of 126) of all female athletes earned a 3.0 or better. The number of male student-athletes to earn a 3.0 or better was 10 more (79) than their female counterparts.

The Cajuns’ 335 student-athletes earned a combined GPA of 2.83 in the spring. UL has now seen a student-athlete GPA of 2.86, 2.76, 2.77 and 2.83 during the last four semesters.

Strengthening the academic center can only help that pattern.

Walker has been open to the input, the fresh perspective, offered by the committee.

"We welcomed the inspection," he said. "Often, especially in athletics, you can get caught up in the everyday management of a department and not see the outside perspective.

"It’s healthy. Every 10 years, the NCAA requires a self study. They’ll be on site here in November. That in itself is healthy. There may be some things that you don’t want to see, but it makes you turn around and focus.

"There are some things you take for granted, and they turn around and affect other things."

MidSouth Bank President Rusty Cloutier sees a bright future for UL after the committee’s work.

"Lafayette and Acadiana have such a good population," he said. "We can be at the top of that second tier of Division 1-A. We could be very competitive. The Sun Belt Conference is a respectable conference. Our facilities compare with others in the Sun Belt.

"We have to continue to improve, continue to work."

"There is some opportunity," Schilling said. "There’s so much to do, but you can’t get overwhelmed. Let’s get one or two items done, but not forget about the others."