(Part 2 of 3: interview with UL President Dr. Ray Authement):
The Times: Is there a future for this university in the Sun Belt Conference?
Authement: Yes. I think the Sun Belt with Florida Atlantic and Florida International, both large schools and very affluent, will help the league. I don't say it's the ultimate for this university, but the Sun Belt is improving. We had a meeting in Bowling Green (Kentucky), and most of the schools there were committed to a very competitive league in football and basketball. There will be some more movement (in different conferences) in the next four of five years, and we'll see how we can improve the Sun Belt or improve the university's position.
The Times: Do you want to be a part of that movement? Is this university being aggressive in looking elsewhere? Or are you content with your lot right now?
Authement: Well, I'm realistic in our position. The football program needs to be built, and I think Rickey Bustle can do that. I think we can improve in some other areas. We're very strong in spring sports, and our basketball program will bring us a lot of notoriety this year and hopefully next year. We need to position ourselves so if something better comes up, we need to be there. Obviously, we've made significant improvements because we've done so well in funding academics. I'm not saying we have enough money for academics, but we've raised the $100 million, we've created a new museum, we've funded the library very well. So, now we're concentrating on the athletic portion of the university (by) enlarging the training room and will enlarge the weight room, and I'll ask for an architect appointment on the outdoor facility over the next two or three weeks. The students have agreed to fund that project with a $15 per semester assessment, and we're also putting in a $2 surcharge for football tickets and a dollar on all the other tickets that we sell, which should produce another $200,000 to help fund that facility. So we're taking some very, very bold and, I think, innovative steps to get where we need to be.
The Times: Granted, but to translate into athletics, the only way this or any other Sun Belt school can change national perception is success, which is something they haven't had. We're all aware of the deficiencies in Sun Belt football and the reputation it has and, to be honest, this school pretty much carried basketball in the league this year. Does it ever frustrate you that, despite your efforts to advance the school athletically, nobody notices because of the overall picture in the Sun Belt?
Authement: That's true, but we have to work to make the Sun Belt more visible across the country, and that's part of our responsibility. There's been some talk about us joining the WAC, since the Eastern part of that league has been decimated with Tulsa, SMU, TCU and Rice leaving ...
The Times: Have you ever pursued the WAC?
Authement: We've talked. But, I don't want to go back because it's the Big West all over again. If you look at the WAC as it now exists - with the exception of Louisiana Tech - you've got New Mexico State and Utah State going in and, hey, we've been to that table. We just don't believe that's our future. The travel's too great, and the cost of basketball and baseball is not what we think we can afford at this particular time. They have no baseball in the WAC; their basketball is not that strong. So, yeah, there's been some conversation, but we're not going back to the Big West table.
The Times: Do you ever wonder how Louisiana Tech survives it? Are they happy in the WAC and will they stay in the WAC?
Authement: That's the big question. That decision will be made, I think, within the next 45 days. We know that Conference-USA has visited North Texas, and they're looking at Texas-El Paso, they're looking at Temple and I'm sure they're looking at Louisiana Tech. The problem (C-USA) is having is basketball, because they gave up a lot of basketball revenue when they lost Louisville and Marquette, so they have to be looking at some basketball income. And that decision will cause some movement because if Tech is not taken, what happens to them? Can they stay in the WAC? They're the only eastern school left. Will (the WAC) come after us? Yes, but I've already decided unless there are some other configurations, that's not the place for us. C-USA is more visible than the Sun Belt and has some schools that we'd like to be associated with, but we're just not strong enough in football at this time. To me, that's our handicap. But, that will change.
The Times: There are fans out there who perceive a built-in prejudice toward this university from schools in C-USA in general and Tulane in particular and that they will forever keep you out of their league even if you had a desire to join. Is there truth to that?
Authement: At one time, when it was first considered and when Conference USA was formed, I picked up that there was some opposition from Tulane. That has disappeared. We have great relationships with Tulane University. President (Scott) Cowen was really the leader of this movement to join the BCS, and I think there'll be some announcements in the next month or soon some very positive moves that will be taking place among BCS schools. I credit that to his leadership and we were part of it; I joined with them in the initial movement, and we think we'll be very pleased with what happens to the Sun Belt and the other four conferences that aren't BCS conferences.
The Times: An unfair question. All things being equal, which they're not: If you had the Sun Belt in one hand and Conference-USA in the other, which would you prefer?
Authement: With the present configuration, the answer's very easy. With the natural rivalries with Rice and Tulane and Memphis and the visibility of that conference at this particular time, we'd have to go with Conference-USA. However, that's strictly for the present situation. But, I really believe that the Sun Belt will improve drastically in football and baseball, especially with the two Florida schools.
The Times: So do you believe this university's athletic perception as well as conference affiliation depends largely on success in football?
Authement: Don, it's all about money. To be successful in this business, you'd better have money. Look at the amount of money these BCS conference schools (generate).
The Times: That works out to about $76 million a year, doesn't it?
The Times: Just for the bowl games.
Authement: That is correct. So there certainly is this appreciation nationwide that football - and basketball, believe it or not, produces a lot of money - is the big (money-maker), and that's how the BCS and its schools have continued to prosper, because they get so much money. I think when the announcement comes, you'll see a change.
The Times: How do you turn casual fans into fanatics? I have this theory that every school has a large contingent of casual fans, which presidents or athletic departments can't really count on because they never know what the casual fan's going to do. Will he buy tickets or take the family to the movie? You just don't know what his priorities are. But the fanatic, well, he'll run through walls to support his team.
Authement: It's all about winning, and baseball is a classic example. Before (head coach) Tony Robichaux started achieving success, we'd get two or three hundred people for a game and sometimes less than that. Now, we sell 2,000 season tickets. The first game of the season, I think we had 3,200 there and we're averaging 2,300 people. That's a result of success, and I think you'll see that improve in basketball. I think a lot of people didn't renew basketball season tickets because they felt we lost too many people academically, and we did lose one player (Michael Southall) who was important to the team but he didn't perform academically. But we had success this year because the people who played on that team played together and were highly motivated and they're basically good kids.
The Times: This club was maybe the most entertaining team since the days of Andrew Toney (UL All-American in 1980) and, considering the history of the program, that's saying a lot. Still, to average only 4,800 fans a game at home has to be a concern to you.
Authement: It is, but look across the country (at other attendance figures) and 4,800's very good. But, we should have seven, eight, 9,000, and I think if these kids take care of their business - and they're doing this at this time and we have tutors on the trips with them - and they're dedicated to the academic portion now. They've seen what can happen if they don't do their work, so they're well directed.
The Times: Unless I missed the press release, (Coach) Jessie Evans' contract still has not been renewed ...
The Times: ...and there's a perception out there that the university was taking a wait-and-see attitude about resigning him. Does the fact that the team has made it to the NCAA Tournament impact Evans' future here at all?
Authement: No, not really. He and I had a conversation before the season started and it was based on academic performance of the ball club. I thought that we had to do better than that. Jessie brought in (Assistant Coach) Jimmy Williams, and he's had a tremendous influence on the program and now we just need to sit down and negotiate the contract. I told him at the time I thought he was an excellent coach and had a good presence about him, but we needed to improve academics and that has happened.
The Times: Should Cajun fans read anything negative into the fact the contract hasn't been renewed yet?
Authement: No, not at all. It's just a matter of sitting down because I'm very, very pleased with what has happened academically.
Last edited by californiacajun on Thu Mar 25, 2004 9:17 am, edited 1 time in total.