|March 11, 2004
I-AA West: SLU's Lions Reestablish Their Roar
Kent Schmidt, I-AA Western Columnist
With all the negative stories in the West over the past week, one positive story can be found down on the Louisiana Bayou.
It is a story that started nearly three years ago when Southeastern Louisiana University decided to restart its football program.
That decision culminated with the program playing its first season a year ago and compiling a 5-7 record as a I-AA independent.
Before last season, the Lions' previous game was Nov. 23, 1985. The program was dissolved due to a familiar current reason; campus-wide financial troubles.
"Between when the program stopped and to 2003, the effort to bring back the program really never stopped but two previous efforts to bring back the program failed," SLU Athletic Director Frank Pergolizzi said
The Lions rebirth began with donations of $5 million from private sources which were raised from early 2001 through early 2002. $1 million came each from three private donors plus several $250K and $100K donations were given.
After the football money was in place, Pergolizzi hired an experienced coach, former Kentucky and Valdosta State head man Hal Mumme.
Mumme is known as a top offensive mind and former Vanderbilt coach Woody Widenhofer, one of football's premier defensive strategists, was hired to handle the defensive side.
The program started off from ground zero.
"When I first got here we had one small office, a total of three footballs, and one helmet," Mumme said.
The coaching staff began tryouts in 2002. Those that made the cut along with a mix of some junior college transfers practiced for the season but no games were played.
"We had about 400 tryouts that first year and found some good talent there," Mumme said.
Also, in the spring of 2003 high school freshmen were recruited and some more junior college and Division I-A transfers were added.
Perhaps the most notable upperclassman was defensive end Brett Beard. Beard was a senior transfer from Vanderbilt and joined his former coach, Widenhofer, at Southeastern. Beard was selected to play in the senior-only Hula Bowl in Hawaii.
However, the experienced Beard was the exception on the team. He was one of only three seniors on last year's squad and was one of just two starters that was a senior. The other was linebacker Josh Golding, a Columbia via D-II Delta State transfer.
On the offensive side of things, true freshmen Martin Hankins led the offense at the quarterback position.
"We had one of the leading passers in the country in the NCAA and he was a true freshmen," Mumme said, proudly.
Hankins finished the year with a I-AA freshmen passing record of 3,537 yards and had 30 touchdown passes. He led the nation in completions per game with 29.42 and Southeastern finished third in the country in pass efficiency, trailing only Grambling and Valparaiso.
Rushing the ball was another Vanderbilt transfer in junior Ray Perkins. He had 706 yards on the ground and added 199 in receiving.
The linebacker core led by leading tackler Marvin Jones and fellow seniors-to-be Rudy Johnson, and William Shensky will be the strength of the Lions' defense.
What is the Lions’ recruiting area?
Mumme said the main area will be within a 60 mile radius of Hammond, which includes the football hotbeds of New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
"We are in a fertile football area," Mumme said. "But we will also look at some other areas, especially in the junior college ranks."
How many fans came to see the Lions in 2003?
Southeastern Louisiana led the nation in per capita attendance at 126.55% of the rated capacity of their stadium. The Lions averaged 9,365 on six home dates in 2003.
"Our fans have been great. We couldn't have brought back Lions’ football without their support," Pergolizzi said.
Strawberry Stadium has a permanent capacity of 7,408. However, temporary seats in the end zones brought up about 9,700. Four out of the six home games were sell-outs.
SLU sold approximately 6,500 season tickets in its first year and numbers for next season don't look any worse.
"We expect a similar number of season ticket holders next season," Pergolizzi said. "We did a study of this past season ticket holders and 95 percent said they would buy season tickets this upcoming season."
Interest is so strong that SLU has a waiting list of 50 people wanting to buy season tickets.
The stadium went through some renovations from its last football game in 1985 before the first game Aug. 30 against Arkansas-Monticello.
A new synthetic playing surface (Spin Turf) was added and the whole stadium was painted. Temporary end zone seats were put in place.
Will there be more enhancements of the stadium in the future?
Yes, but not for a few seasons. Pergolizzi said that architects will be asked to look how 3,000-4,000 permanent seats would be the most cost effectively added, but no production is scheduled now.
In the meantime, the temporary bleacher seats will continue to be rented and placed in the end zones for next season.
Southeastern Louisiana football will begin Southland Conference play in the 2005 season. The administration wanted to have two seasons experience before beginning to play in one of the top I-AA conferences.
"Going back to our timetable to begin the football program, we decided to start one year earlier then other teams in our situation. We basically started the program 14 months after it started," Pergolizzi said.
"I felt we could start earlier if we controlled our schedule so our program would get off to a good start. We did play three teams from the Southland last year and will play three teams from the conference this season."
What does next year's schedule look like?
Seven home games and four road games have been scheduled but one of those home games was against the now defunct Saint Mary's College. Nine of the games are against I-AA opponents, one against a D-II and one NAIA.
Other games will also include the three mentioned Southland Conference foes McNeese State and Texas State on the road and Sam Houston State in Hammond.
Other home games include a return opener against D-II Arkansas-Monticello, NAIA member Texas College, Great West Football Conference member Northern Colorado, and two games against the Southwestern Athletic Conference in Mississippi Valley State and Alcorn State.
The two other road games are against Jacksonville (FL) University and Gardner-Webb (NC).
"We think it is a schedule, other then McNeese, where we have a realistic chance each week," Pergolizzi said.
Spring practices will begin March 16 and will culminate with the spring game on April 1.
What has the reinstating of the football program done for the other athletic programs?
Pergolizzi said that the reinstating the program has increased the level of Southeastern's entire array of sports.
The return of football has also increased the exposure of the Lions' other sports. The men's basketball team tied for the league championship and received the second seed in the conference tournament, losing in the semifinals.
Not only has the football program helped the other sports at Southeastern Louisiana, it also has helped the economy of the entire Hammond, La. area. A recent study conducted and released by the school stated that adding football had an economic input of approximately $8.3 million.
The study was conducted by Southeastern's A. M. M. Jamal, professor of management and director of the Southeastern Business Research Center.
It included direct revenue attributed to the football program including ticket and merchandise sales, concessions, and other sales-related income.
All indications are that the Southeastern Louisiana Lions are setting themselves up to be a football team that can compete for Southland Conference football. The future certainly looks bright in the Bayou.