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Maintaining I-A status was best for UL

The discussion comes up again and again, every season, and it will be hashed out ad nauseam the rest of this week as the UL-McNeese football game draws closer.

When the Cajuns split from many of their state brethren in 1982, leaving the Southland Conference behind to maintain Division I-A status, the debate was whether then-USL had done the right thing. Was it smart to leave the secure and the known, and aim high – higher than many thought the athletic program capable?

A quarter-century later, the answer is more obvious now than it was 25 years ago. It slaps you in the face every time a Cajun team is seen, heard, mentioned or otherwise encountered.

Where would this athletic program be if those in charge hadn’t made that decision to be bigger than the backyard, to make the effort to reach excellence, to strive for a higher level?

Poor. It would be poor – financially and competitively.

Keeping its I-A status is the best thing that ever happened to the UL athletic program. If you don’t think that’s a fact, you don’t know much about college athletics.

If that wasn’t the case, why have so many schools realized the error of their ways, and put themselves through the now-more-difficult task of moving up in NCAA classification? Those numbers include two schools here in Louisiana, with both La. Tech and UL Monroe migrating to I-A.

Unlike those who realized their mistake too late, UL never had to play down in Division I-AA. When the NCAA originally split Division I, the Southland held onto its I-A status. After the 1981 season, when I-A requirements were tightened, UL left the league and embarked as a I-A independent, taking the opportunity that some of its sister schools didn’t have or didn’t care to take.

It was not a smooth road, especially for the football program. That team had to sell its soul many times over in order to boost the program’s financial cart.

Now, there’s no arguing the fact that the Cajuns’ football program is light years improved from its not-so-distant past. Alabama, Texas A&M and Oklahoma State would never have come to Cajun Field if UL had that extra "A" attached to its classification, and you wouldn’t have that historic win over the Aggies. And the Sun Belt Conference wouldn’t exist in its current format. It may not be the best league going, but it’s a lot better than most of the alternatives.

But this is not about football. This is about an overall program, one that has on occasion reached heights not imagined in 1982. And this is also about financial success.

Baseball has reached the College World Series and tied for third nationally. Softball has been in the Women’s College World Series – three times. UL’s women’s basketball team played in the NCAA Tournament as an at-large selection last spring. The track program won 17 conference titles in a 12-year period. Golf has 11 NCAA Tournament appearances.

Look at the state’s I-AA football schools. Name one major team sport from any of those campuses that has been nationally competitive on the NCAA’s highest level.

Such competitiveness comes at a price. I-A programs can and do achieve significant income in football through guarantees and BCS and conference revenue sharing. And until recently when the Board of Regents changed its formula, the state funded its I-A and I-AA programs differently and put more money in the I-A schools’ coffers.

Those funds aid all sports. UL’s budget pales in comparison to most of the nation’s I-A programs, but it is still significantly higher than the state’s I-AA membership. And it’s no secret that the more money a program has, the more successful it can be. Those funds have helped and continue to help in UL’s complete program.

If you’re a long-time Cajun fan, think where you were 25 years ago, and remember that you could still be right there in that same little corner. And thank your lucky stars.