Thankful – From the Bird’s Nest
I honestly didn't think the news would affect me the way it did.
I had known it was imminent a couple of weeks ago. I knew it was a done deal last Friday.
Yet, it hit me yesterday. And, it hit hard.
It hit when I looked at the latest Sun Belt basketball release yesterday afternoon. The standings were listed. And, there it was.
As I said, I knew it was coming. My story had already been written and was ready to publish. But I'm not going to lie. When I saw it in print, my eyes welled up. My lip quivered. Finally. FINALLY!!
Now, if my reaction to the Cajuns' athletic branding seems a little strange to you, let me just say, for the last 17 years, this has been personal. The day of the name change in 1999, I visited with then-Louisiana Athletic Director Nelson Schexnayder. and asked how I should indenttify the school. He told me how NOT to identify it.
Never Lafayette. Never ULL. He said Louisiana's Ragin' Cajuns was acceptable. But it was what he didn't say that stayed with me. He couldn't ask me to do it. But I knew. And, for me, it's been Louisiana ever since.
It started that day on "Bird's Eye View." No one called me out on the air that day. But they called my boss. He asked me to explain my position and I did. He supported it. Took some heat, too. Thank you Mike Grimsley.
A few months later, the Cajuns defeated South Alabama for the Sun Belt Tournament title up in North Little Rock. That night, the crawl on ESPN said "Louisiana wins the Sun Belt Tournament. The Cajuns' promotions and marketing person had been working the phones for some time to get the point across. On that night, the worldwide leader got it. At the NCAA Regional, CBS got it as well. Thank you Andrew Dumond.
Then the Cajuns made it to the College World Series. And, all hell broke loose.
There are stories about ESPN being flooded with faxes, emails and phone calls concerning the name. Most of those stories are true. One ESPN commentator at the CWS told a staff member something about the people at LSU not liking us very much. It was so bad they couldn't sell the baseball caps that had been made (like the players were wearing) because they didn't have "Lafayette" under the UL.
Things only got worse after that.
The Sun Belt had used "Louisiana" at first. But then Sun Belt Football came around. The University of Louisiana at Monroe joined as a football-only member of the league. They complained. The league acquiesced.
Things only got worse after that.
The league then went on a crusade to shove ULL down everyone's throat. And, that included the increased television coverage. I spoke with one play by play man who said he felt our pain but was instructed to use ULL. I was angry. I criticized the league, not only for their stance, but also didn't hold back when it came to being hyper-critical of Sun Belt officials, especially in basketball. I got chewed out pretty good by the Commissioner. I took the heat. And, it got so contentious I sent an email to the league office basically severing my relationship with them. Eventually that passed but the extent of my displeasure became known, at least.
In the meantime, the fight continued within. New uniforms reflected the school's preference in athletic branding. The coaches were pretty adamant. They understood. I won't list them all. But it was pretty consistent across the board. Thank you coaches.
Sports Information was in a tough position. In the early days, when Louisiana was used, they got fussed at. By their own people (who were taking a lot of heat politically) as well as opponents. But they persevered. You don't know how many times they educated people who worked scoreboards, spoke with TV announcers and out of town reporters to try and get them to use Louisiana, or at least stay away from ULL and Lafayette. They got hit in the mouth more often than not. They never backed down. Thank you Daryl Cetnar, Brian McCann, Matt Sullivan, Matt Hebert, Jeff Conrad, Rob Broussard, Jeff Schneider and others. You may not even know all those names. But they were giants when it came to this cause.
Then there's Scott Farmer.
I make no apologies for the fact the former Athletic Director has not only been a valued colleague, but a personal friend. I won't get into the events that led to his departure. But I will say this: When it came to the name, he fought the good fight. And fought. And fought. He and his staff came up with all sorts of ideas for abbreviations that would be something other than ULL. They either were technically in violation of state law or being used by another university. But he never stepped in and said Louisiana and UL couldn't be used. He approved uniforms, media guides, fact sheets and just about anything else that pushed "Louisiana." Yesterday was the culmination of a lot of hard work behind the scenes. Thank you Scott.
In 2012, Karl Benson became the Commissioner. I wrote to him before his first day on the job and gave him the background on the name. His stance, after a bit of time on the job, was pretty neutral. He understood the plight, but at the same time, got plenty of push back from the administration at ULM. He kept things pretty much status quo but the league was no longer forcing the issue when it came to ULL. But he was at least receptive to the position. His stance became when the higher ups were ready to get common ground, he'd support it. But he wasn't going to force anything. That was a big step. Thank you Karl.
We all hoped President Joe Savoie would get behind the movement. And, he did to an extent. He wanted Louisiana. But it was a bigger political hot potato than any of us realized, and not just with ULM. One day the Cajuns were playing ULM. It was early. The scoreboard said "Louisiana" and "ULM.". I did some work and looked up a bit later.
And, that day I realized the upper administration wasn't ready to really fight the fight. And, that day, I stopped fighting as well. I knew until Louisiana had the FULL backing of everyone at the University, I was spinning my wheels and so was everyone else. And, I understood why the Commissioner wasn't getting involved.
I've known Joe Savoie for over 30 years. I think he's brilliant. I also don't think he does anything impulsively. This issue, as I said, had been political football for years. T-Joe is a consensus builder, not an in your face guy. He had waters to navigate that none of us fully knew or understood. Dr. Savoie moves slowly on many things. But he almost always gets it right in the end.
The Sun Belt Conference came out with branding initiatives about a year ago. And ULL became UL-L. I threw up in my mouth a little. I found out later the President fought and fought for a better identifier. But again, there was no cooperation and the new identifier was just as bad as the old one.
After the Alden Report was released, everyone re-grouped and worked on a new plan. And, everyone finally agreed what the stance would be. Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns. Louisiana. LA.
And, finally, last week, every single person of note on campus was behind it. The folks at ULM still didn't like it. But the compromise was reached. The league would ask ULM be a first-reference as opposed to Louisiana-Monroe or UL Monroe. T-Joe moved slowly. Too slowly for many (me included.) But I truly believe he knew what he was doing. Thanks, Dr. Savoie.
While I have never wavered in my use of the preferred name, I didn't have anything to do with what happened yesterday. There are many who worked harder. Most of them are listed above. They are the ones who deserve the kudos for this. They fought like crazy. They won.
And, as a result, I'm incredibly thankful today for each and every one of them. If you're a Cajuns' fan, you should be too.