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Q&A with UL President Joseph Savoie; read live chat recaps, see photos

Visionary has focus on growth, success

The dawn of a new era at UL began on July 1 when Ray Authement stepped aside and Joseph Savoie returned to his alma mater as the university’s sixth president.

Savoie, who most recently served as the state’s commissioner of higher education, recently spent one week in San Diego at a conference designed to help new university presidents become more effective leaders.

The 53-year-old took some time to answer some questions from The Daily Advertiser concerning the current and future state of UL’s athletic department.

Question: After one month on the job, what are your initial perceptions of UL’s athletic department?

Answer: The department is well managed by athletics director David Walker, and improvements are being made. There are obvious challenges with facilities. We will soon engage in a strategic planning process that will provide a roadmap for addressing this and other issues.

Q: How would you describe your level of interaction with the athletic department as university president? How will that differ from that of your predecessor?

A: NCAA guidelines are clear that an institution’s president has ultimate responsibility for the conduct of the athletics program. Therefore, the president’s office reviews and authorizes most financial and personnel decisions. Dr. Authement had the same responsibilities. I leave day-to-day management up to Mr. Walker, but we discuss various issues on a regular basis.

Q: A number of changes have taken place recently in Cajun athletics. New turf was installed at Cajun Field. A contract has been signed for the stadium to be pressure-washed. The weight room was painted and got new flooring, new lights and custom-made equipment. There was a preseason push to increase season-tickets sales for football. Why were these changes necessary? What are the long-term benefits?

A: The new turf at Cajun Field will offer many benefits to both the athletics department and the university. The obvious benefit is in enhancing the overall image, which our coaches feel will benefit recruiting and help their programs. Another benefit will be the cost and manpower savings related to field maintenance. The installation of new weight room equipment will benefit all of our student-athletes tremendously. The university is currently undergoing an extensive project to clean all of the buildings and campus facilities, and I made athletics a part of that project. The cleaning of Cajun Field will provide a better environment for our fans. Dr. Authement made some good investments, and we will make more. I’m hopeful that with a thoughtful strategic plan, the help of the Ragin’ Cajun Athletic Foundation and our fan base, we will be able to provide a major facelift to the entire complex.

Q: What are some of the changes we can expect to see for Cajun athletics in the near and immediate future? There has been talk of facility upgrades for baseball and softball. What about the addition of men’s soccer and other varsity sports currently not offered at UL?

A: I am currently reviewing the recommendations of the Athletics Transition Team, which include suggestions for facility improvements. In the near future we will begin discussions on the funding required to renovate our facilities. The athletics department is constantly reviewing its athletics programs to ensure it offers the most competitive programs possible, but I am not aware of plans to add any sports at the present time.

Q: Some in the community have concerns about UL’s current image and financial standing in athletics. How do you think the university should go about continuing to enhance the image and address those financial issues?

A: The university has made important strides in the last few years to enhance its athletics image with the addition of the Leon C. Moncla Indoor Practice Facility, the artificial turf at Cajun Field, and other projects like the renovations currently being done in Earl K. Long Gym. Financially, the university has also made improvements as a result of the new funding formula approved by the Board of Regents, the naming rights agreements on facilities, and the emphasis placed on raising private funds through our development office. I asked the transition team to review potential funding sources for athletics, and I am in the process of studying their recommendations.

Q: When we talked back in December, you knew little about the Ragin’ Cajun Athletic Board, a foundation whose primary goal will be to increase outside funding for the program. What do you know about its current status? How important of a role will this foundation play in the future of Cajun athletics?

A: The Ragin’ Cajun Athletic Foundation can play a very important role in the future of athletics. The members of this board are leaders in the community and successful business people whose association with the university and the athletics department will set an example for others who may be willing to support our programs. This association will give increased recognition and enhanced credibility to our efforts in raising private funds.

Q: Let’s say the financial issues remain despite the increased emphasis on private fundraising. Would UL athletics ever consider dropping down below the NCAA Division I level, which some say would likely ease the money crunch?

A: One of the most misunderstood notions about funding athletics is the perception that savings can be realized by moving down in NCAA division status. In reality the revenue lost far exceeds the savings. The university has no intention of changing its current NCAA division status. And, there is no reason why we shouldn’t build a competitive mid-major sports program.

Q: Asked about your vision for UL athletics in December, you said there’s always room for improvements. What’s your vision now for Cajun athletics in the near and immediate future? How does that vision become reality?

A: The university’s vision is to compete at the highest levels in athletics while not losing sight of our primary responsibility, which is to provide ever-improving academic opportunities to all of your students. I hope to enhance our facilities, our resources and the competitive success for all of our sports programs. We must also provide resources to ensure the academic success of all our students, including student-athletes.

Q: Back in December, we talked about the state’s new funding formulas, which changed the cap on athletic spending. How and when will that have a direct impact on Cajun athletics?

A: The budget cap has not been eliminated, but essentially adjusted to allow growth in athletic funding when the overall university budget grows. There were also allowances made to address Title IX issues. The adjustments are already having a positive effect on athletics in ways that were previously mentioned. I accept full responsibility for the limit or cap placed on state funds that can be used to support athletics. As commissioner of higher education, I implemented the original policy and the recent adjustment. While athletics is an important component of the university, our core mission is to provide quality educational opportunities for our students; conduct research to expand knowledge and foster economic growth; and to engage in public service by using the university’s assets to improve the social and economic health of the communities that we are responsible for serving. Prior to implementation of the cap, some institutions, not this one, had forgotten their core mission. The cap helped to put things in the proper order.

Q: The 2007-08 academic year featured some notable accomplishments for Cajun athletics. The men’s basketball team won a share of the Sun Belt Conference’s West Division title. UL’s softball team won the league’s regular-season championship and conference tournament and beat top-ranked Florida in the Women’s College World Series. How does such success help the athletic program as a whole?

A: Nothing does more to enhance the image of our athletics programs than success. The exposure provided by the softball team’s trip to the World Series was tremendous not only for the program but for the entire university.

Q: Two days after the Cajun football team finished the 2007 season at 3-9, UL athletic director David Walker released a statement affirming the school’s commitment to head coach Rickey Bustle, whose current contract runs through Jan. 31, 2011. In six years under Bustle, UL is 26-44 with one winning season. How important is it for the program to turn things around in 2008? And if those struggles continue what would be your recommended course of action?

A: Coach Rickey Bustle, like all of our coaches, has the total support of this administration. No one wants the football program to succeed more than coach Bustle, and we are committed to helping him attain that success. It would be unfair and inappropriate for me to speculate on various scenarios before the season ever begins.

Q: How important of a role would improved results for the football team play for Cajun athletics as a whole?

A: In all of our sports programs, success provides a positive image for not only our athletics department but the entire university. Because football is such a high visibility program, its success is very important to the overall image of our athletics department.

Q: At which UL sporting events can Cajun fans expect you to be in the future? How will they recognize you?

A: My family and I enjoy college athletics and will attend as many events as we can. I’ll be the one dressed in red.

UL President Joseph Savoie

UL President Joseph Savoie