Louisiana Turns 20 – From the Bird’s Nest
August 16, 1999
The official word came down.
You could kiss their "S" goodbye. Forever.
The University of Southwestern Louisiana got a name change to the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
It was a long time coming. The school's name had been changed to the University of Louisiana back in 1984, only to have the Louisiana Legislature overturn it. Since that time, former President Dr. Ray Authement had worked tirelessly to get that name back. Finally, it was decided a school could change its name to the University of Louisiana at ____________, provided more than one school made the name change. Northeast Louisiana was willing to make the switch. They were moving up to Division 1-A (now FBS) and the Sun Belt was about to form a football league. They needed allies to be a part of that group.
After the announcement was made, I went over to the Athletic Complex to see Athletic Director Nelson Schexnayder. I really only had one major question.
What do I call you?
He smiled. He had to choose his words carefully. "Cajuns is fine. Ragin' Cajuns is fine. Louisiana's Ragin' Cajuns is fine. It's easier to tell you what not to call us. Do not call us "Lafayette" and do not call us "ULL."
That's right. The three-letter name has NEVER been ok.
I left his office and that afternoon, on Bird's Eye View, I became the first person ever to publicly refer to the Cajuns' athletic teams as Louisiana. And, I caught plenty of grief for it. My boss got several phone calls and I had to explain to him what had happened and what my stance was. "Go for it," he said. I had LOTS of phone calls from irate fans of other schools, telling me I couldn't refer to the Cajuns as Louisiana because it was against the law. I explained, as someone not employed by the University, I was not bound by any state law. Those folks didn't like that explanation that much.
I would find out shortly just how rigid...and petty...those who were against the name change would be. The 1999 football season was starting. I was entering my eighth season on the broadcast team, serving as a color analyst with Don Allen. When I got to Cajun Field, I noticed the hedges in the north end zone that had previously read "USL". The "S" had been modified into a fleur-de-lis. In the pregame, the band formed UL for the first time.
And, people were in a tizzy over it.
By game two, block letters made of wood that spelled out "Lafayette" were placed underneath the "UL" hedges. State law stipulated that any reference to UL had to be followed by the city designation. And, the name police said it applied to hedges. Then in the band's pregame, when they formed UL, two people rolled out a banner that said "Lafayette" and held it for as long as the band had the letters formed.
So THAT'S the way it was going to be, eh?
At the time, the Cajuns had a Marketing Director named Andrew Dumond. He would become the first to buck the system. It happened in March of 2000. The Cajuns upset South Alabama to win the Sun Belt Conference Tournament and a trip to the NCAA's. After the game, we were at the hotel bar having a celebratory drink. Andrew came over to me and said "watch," pointing to the television. It was on ESPN. The crawl at the bottom of the screen gave the final score. "Louisiana" had defeated South Alabama and "Louisiana" wins the Sun Belt Championship. Andrew had given ESPN a heads up before the game of what we should be called. And, ESPN, much to the consternation of those 50 miles to the east, complied. It didn't last long, but the first real salvo had been fired. CBS, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, had Louisiana on its graphic. Baby steps.
There would be more national recognition for the Cajuns, as the Louisiana baseball team shocked college baseball by defeating South Carolina in a Super Regional to reach the College World Series. There would be no magic from Andrew Dumond this time, however. By the time the Cajuns got to Omaha, a copy of the state law had been sent to ESPN and demands were made that the Cajuns not be referred to as "Louisiana" unless "Lafayette" followed. Moreover, Cajun baseball caps could not be sold unless they had "Lafayette" directly below it. The team had worn "UL" caps during the season, but no one could buy the official hats in Omaha.
The push back had begun.
Meanwhile in North Louisiana, the University of Louisiana at Monroe had decided two could play that game. They unveiled new football helmets that said "Louisiana" with an arrow running through it. Their baseball caps had an "L" with a feather sticking out. No one seemed to mind. But they dropped that when they got rid of the Indians mascot and embraced Warhawks.
By now, it was pretty obvious what the University brass wanted their athletic brand to be. It was also pretty obvious the name police would do everything in their power to keep it from happening.
The name police had an ally in Sun Belt Commissioner Wright Waters. Now, this is not to say there was communication between the two parties. Waters, however, was not the Cajuns' friend when it came to athletic branding. In fact, the Commissioner decided, despite the school's request from day one, that they would be ULL. And, he ULL'd the Cajuns up one side and down the other. There was no budging him. Despite the fact ULM had embraced their new identity, Waters continued to call the Cajuns everything they didn't want to be called. And, that lasted until his retirement in 2012.
The new Commissioner, Karl Benson, walked a fine line. He understood the Cajuns' position, but ULM was being defiant about how Louisiana should be branded. Finally, ULM President Nick Bruno, much to the consternation of Warhawks' supporters, relented.
The Commissioner then became an ally of the branding initiative, helping with ESPN and other entities. Athletic Director Dr. Bryan Maggard was aggressive in that regard as well.
Twenty years. Many obstacles. Tireless work behind the scenes.
Happy Birthday, Louisiana.