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Paul Letlow

July 8, 2004

This has been a summer of good cheer for Louisiana-Monroe sports fans like Todd Martin.

The school's athletic department is on the verge of joining the Sun Belt Conference in all sports, a shift that will finally give supporters consistent rivalries year round. ULM plays football in the Sun Belt, but has kept most of its sports in the Southland Conference since moving up to I-A in 1994.

A new athletics director, Bobby Staub, was selected last week and he will report to work by early August. Staub is sure to bring new energy to the program.

As much as anything, the school's administration - headed by President Jim Cofer - has gone public with its desire to improve the quality of the entire ULM athletics department. A recent review of the department reaffirmed ULM's commitment to Division I-A football and encouraged pursuit of Sun Belt membership.

"Overall, this is going to be the one of the best things to ever happen to ULM," Martin said. "I have never seen such optimism at the school, but it must last and the whole community is going to have to get behind the Louisiana Indians."

Martin continued, "We finally have an excellent president in place, are about to have a very, very good AD, and have an incredible football coaching staff. The tide has turned and we are heading back to the top."

The good news should keep coming. The Sun Belt Conference will have an evaluation team on campus today to meet with various school officials. Commissioner Wright Waters will be part of a delegation that will include Middle Tennessee president Dr. Sidney McPhee, Dr. Wayne Andrepont, faculty representative from Louisiana-Lafayette; Rick Mello, Florida International's AD; and Kathy Keene, the senior woman administrator from New Orleans.

Assuming the team affirms ULM as a prospective full member, an invitation and acceptance to the league should be forthcoming soon. ULM notified the Southland Conference last week that it was leaving by June 2006.

"I believe that we are competitive with all the Sun Belt football schools," ULM supporter Ellis Lewis said. "And I think by joining in all sports we will see better competition in baseball, women's basketball, men's basketball and softball. I think this move will help our school immensely in recruiting and add to the continuing effort to improve our image."

Added ULM fan Charlie Miller: "The Southland has been very good for us. But now we must improve and the only way to do so is to get in a tougher conference."

But as ULM leaves the Southland, home to most of its sports since 1982, it will have to prepare to spend more money to remain competitive against a new set of peers. Sun Belt programs on average spend about $3 million more per year than Southland schools.

"The move to the Sun Belt is not one we as fans and supporters can just feel is a nice gift to us - it is one we will have to pay for," Martin said. "With the loss of State Farm and losing Union Tank to Alexandria, Monroe will have to realize very quickly what ULM is to this community.

"It is going to take a lot more money to support all sports in the Sun Belt. For all the people that say we should be 1-AA it would even take more money to go back to the Southland. Dropping football would devastate our enrollment and in turn would devastate this community. We have only one option and that is to support this football program and athletics department. In turn this supports and saves ULM and Monroe. State Farm was a drop in the bucket to what the economic impact of the decline of ULM and loss of its athletics program would do to this community."

The Indian Athletic Foundation has set a goal to raise an additional $250,000 each year to support the program. But at the same time, individual sports will have to be more successful in tandem to sustain the fund-raising efforts.

With so much at stake, accountability has been a big buzz word around campus this summer. The message coming from the top down is that mediocrity will no longer be accepted.

"We can not compete at this time in the Sun Belt in most sports," Miller said. "But with the new AD coming in, I believe he will have to let a lot of the present coaches go.

"Now I know that funding has been a big problem, but some sports have gotten stale and need an infusion of different blood to get the excitement back and more importantly the fans back."

Overall though, Martin sees ULM as a natural fit with the Sun Belt schools like North Texas, Arkansas State and Louisiana-Lafayette.

"These are our peers and are who we should be competing with," Martin said. "It is a much stronger league in all sports than the Southland and I think it will improve the quality of athletes we are able to attract at ULM and in effect give us a higher level of competition."

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