ULM Football: a lost program

It could be one of the saddest stories in all of college football. <br><br> Just one decade ago, the University of Louisiana Monroe was ranked among the top programs in the nation – in Division I-AA that is. <br><br> Year in and year out, then "Northeast Louisiana University" was home to a proud football tradition. What a difference 10 years makes.

Over the past decade, the former I-AA powerhouse has been reduced to a Division I doormat, enduring embarrassing losses, miniscule crowds and the loss of respect from its student body and fan base.


In those 10 long years, NLU (or ULM, or UL-Monroe, or Louisiana-Monroe…. whatever!) has underwent a name change, four different head coaches and an innumerable amount of losses… 70 defeats in the last 10 seasons.


In 1994, then athletic director Richard Giannini, now the AD at Southern Miss, led the Indians into Division I stating it was time for NLU football to be identified on the national stage. In all actuality, it was the Batan Death March as the program would flounder in its first season and never recover.

In these days of the big business of college athletics, like LSU head coach Nick Saban has said, "it's never about money, but it's always about money."


Giannini never took into consideration what the jump to Division I would do to the once-proud NLU football program, however, focusing only on the monetary gain of playing up among the big boys. Gaudy paychecks offset by lopsided, embarrassing defeats never seemed to phase the powers-that-be.


NLU's first four games as a Division I member resulted in an 0-4 start with losses at Colorado (48-13), at Auburn (44-12), at Georgia (70-6) and at Nevada (34-22). The Indians 0-4 start was a far cry from the program's preseason No. 1 ranking just two years earlier heading into the 1992 season as a member of the I-AA Southland Conference.


In the years to follow, NLU, soon to become ULM in 1998, strung together eight straight losing seasons including records of 2-9 twice (1995, 2001) and 1-10 in 2000.


Before head coach Ed Zaunbrecher was forced out following the 1998 season, the former LSU offensive coordinator managed to post a few respectable years, including three consecutive five-win campaigns in 1996 (5-6), 1997 (5-7) and 1998 (5-6). In Zaunbrecher's five-year stint as head coach, he managed a not-so-impressive 20-35 record. However, he did claim wins over a pair of SEC teams defeating Kentucky 21-14 in 1994 and Mississippi State in 1995 (34-32).


After Zaunbrecher was shown the door following the 1998 season, McNeese State head coach Bobby Keasler was brought aboard to try and get Monroe moving in the right direction. Although the ULM alum brought much-needed energy to the program, Keasler could not reverse the trend of losing and the Indians sank deeper into a pit of despair.


Eventually, Keasler stepped down after just over three seasons at helm. An 0-3 start to the 2002 season and an 8-28 record was enough to force him by the wayside. Mike Collins stepped in as the interim head coach and guided the Indians to a promising 3-6 finish. However, Collins' stint as coach ended abruptly the night before the 2003 spring game with an unfortunate altercation with the law.

At any rate, the past 10 years has not been a glorious period for the Indians. There has even been talk recently of scrapping the football program all together, a sad situation for a once outstanding football program.


There is a chance ULM could be dropped back into Division I-AA following the 2004 season, but the question now is would it matter? A school that once averaged almost 20,000 fans per game in 24,000-seat Malone Stadium, the Indians can hardly pack in 5,000 per game in a facility which now seats 30,000. Plus, the interest in the community has sagged considerably not only because of 10 losing seasons but also due to the popularity of high school football in the area.


The damage that has been done is irreparable.


However, there was once a time at ULM when spirits were high and wins were plentiful.


Before the march into Division I, NLU enjoyed 12 fruitful years as a I-AA member. In a dozen seasons, the Indians accumulated an 80-48-2 record. Pat Collins, the father of Mike Collins, led NLU for the first seven of those years before giving way to Dave Roberts, who coached the Indians from 1989-1993. Roberts abdicated the head coaching job and headed to South Bend serving as Lou Holtz's offensive coordinator at Notre Dame. It is justifiable why Roberts left for such a high profile job at arguably the nation's top program at the time, but was it also that he saw the writing on the wall?


To put the NLU program in perspective in the 1980s and early 90s, the Indians made four playoff appearances compiling a 5-3 postseason record, won four Southland Conference titles and defeated Marshall 43-42 capturing the 1987 national title.


In the halcyon days of Indian football, NLU pumped out some outstanding players as well.

Leading the Indians to the I-AA title in 1987 was quarterback Stan Humphries, long time signal caller for the NFL's Washington Redskins and San Diego Chargers. He was also the Chargers starting quarterback in Super Bowl XXIX, when the San Francisco 49ers defeated San Diego 49-26.


Humphries predecessor was former Pittsburgh Steeler and Denver Bronco quarterback Bubby Brister. Also from the Pat Collins era was place kicker Teddy Garcia, who played for the New England Patriots.


Under Dave Roberts, NLU produced another sluice of NFL players including quarterback Doug Pederson, who currently serves as Brett Favre's backup in Green Bay. Roosevelt Potts was the Indianapolis Colts leading rusher before Marshall Faulk broke into the league. Also from that highly-touted 1992 team came wideout Vincent Brisby, who starred for the New England Patriots for a number of years, playing in Super Bowl XXXI in which the Pats fell to Green Bay in the Superdome.

Three years earlier, tight end Jackie Harris was taken by the Packers in the fourth round starring in the NFL for nearly a decade.


Even after the years of plenty, NLU/ULM still managed to produce out several standout performers.

Shawn King was a 1995 second round draft pick by the Carolina Panthers and played a part as a driving force on the Panther defense when Carolina reached the 1997 NFC Championship Game in just its second season of existence.


Stepfret Williams was a third round pick by the Cowboys in 1996 and played opposite of Michael Irvin for the latter portion of the 1990s. Two years later, defensive end Steve Foley was picked up by Chicago Bears in the third round and started as a rookie in 1999.


Alan Ricard, cousin of LSU quarterback Lester Ricard, signed a free agent deal with Dallas in 1999 but is now the starting fullback with the Baltimore Ravens.


In 2000, Pat Dennis was a third team all-American at corner and was drafted in the fifth round by the Kansas City Chiefs, but has since been traded to the Houston Texans.


Finally, the most prominent ULM Indian drafted in recent years was Jonesboro-Hodge native Marty Booker. A standout wide receiver at ULM from 1995-98, Booker was taken in the third round by Chicago and grew into the Bears' go-to receiver, recording back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in 2001 and 2002.


Enough with the stroll down ULM memory lane - I climbed up on my soapbox babbling on about something I am far too familiar with being a UL-Monroe alum myself.


However, when you are sitting in Tiger Stadium on Saturday night and LSU is pounding away at a helpless ULM squad, take into consideration where the Indians once were, have been and where they are going.


And to again quote Nick Saban, "it's always about money." That's right… it is always about money and money is what sealed the fate of a once proud football tradition.

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