Warhawks holding great expectations

Associated Press photo by Gerald Herbert -- Western Kentucky coach Bobby Petrino, left, is greeted by Texas State coach Dennis Franchione during the Sun Belt Conference media day Monday in New Orleans.
Associated Press photo by Gerald Herbert -- Western Kentucky coach Bobby Petrino, left, is greeted by Texas State coach Dennis Franchione during the Sun Belt Conference media day Monday in New Orleans.

“The first year, it sleeps; the second year, it creeps; and the third year, it leaps.”

So far, Todd Berry’s borrowed multicultural saying has held true at Louisiana-Monroe.

His third season in Monroe marked a breakthrough in the Sun Belt Conference, as the Warhawks won eight games last season, a school all-time high in Division I. The victories were highlighted by a road upset to start the season at then-No. 8 Arkansas. Had the Warhawks closed out games against Auburn and Baylor, they might have transformed into last season’s NCAA dark horse.

So what kind of season follows the Year 3 leap?

Berry laughed when asked Monday morning at the Sun Belt Conference Football Media Day at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Surprisingly, he didn’t have a rhyming addition to the saying, which dates to his youth in Oklahoma. Not that he doesn’t know what he expects ULM to experience this fall.

“Is eight wins good enough?” he asked, already knowing his answer. “Is going to a bowl game good enough? Is all these things good enough, or do you want everything?

“I want our players to be somewhat greedy.”

By everything, Berry means he wants his fourth season at ULM to become the type of season in which his players thrive on the field and in the classroom. He wants them to thrive socially. Find a great wife. One day, become a good husband and father.

“And yes, I want to win a conference championship, I want to win every game,” he added, smiling. “And I want them to be the same way.”

This season, it starts Aug. 31 at Oklahoma.

“We look forward to it,” quarterback Kolton Browning said. “Last year, we went to Arkansas when they were ranked eighth in the nation. Those are games we look forward to. We don’t look at ourselves like underdogs. We look at ourselves like we can go out and compete with anybody and win any game that’s on our schedule.”

That’s just how Berry wants the Warhawks to think.

Petrino gets second chance

Less than two years after a very public extramarital affair highlighted his firing from Arkansas, Bobby Petrino made his football media day debut with Western Kentucky, where he was hired in hopes of resurrecting his coaching career.

“I’m just fortunate enough that (Athletic Director) Todd Stewart and (school President) Dr. (Gary) Ransdell gave me an opportunity,” said Petrino, who was hired in December. “I’m grateful for that. The situation worked out extremely well for my family and now, we’re just focused on ... what the future will bring.”

Petrino said he was hopeful he’d get another opportunity to coach. After all, he reached seven bowl games at Louisville and Arkansas, including the 2011 Sugar Bowl (Arkansas) and the 2007 Orange Bowl (Louisville).

“When you looked at his résumé, there was no comparison to what he’d done compared to everyone else,” Stewart said. “He’s been to the Super Bowl, the Orange Bowl, the Cotton Bowl. Obviously, we’ve never been to any of those bowl games.”

Résumé aside, the question was would a school consider him a good fit to lead young men, who can be impressionable.

“We talked about that, and he was very candid,” Stewart said. “Had he made excuses or pointed fingers and blamed others, that probably wasn’t really the answers we were looking to get. But he didn’t do that. He took ownership of it. He learned it and paid a heavy price for it. He had a $3.5 million job at Arkansas that he lost.

“But I think having come through that, he became a changed man. That’s what we were convinced of.”

Western Kentucky offensive lineman Luis Polanco said he didn’t know much about Petrino’s past problems before he was hired to coach the Hilltoppers.

“To me, it didn’t really matter,” Polanco said. “To some people it did. I really don’t care... If my school feels like Petrino is the guy for the job, man, I shouldn’t question what he’s done.

“We’re human beings. At one point in time, we’re going to be knocked down and have to move forward.”

ULL, ULM highlight All-SBC

Former St. Thomas More standout Andre Huval was one of three ULL players selected to the 2013 Preseason All-Sun Belt Team. Also selected for the Rajun Cajuns were defensive lineman Christian Ringo and linebacker Justin Anderson.

ULM placed five on the preseason team, including quarterback Kolton Browning, the Preseason Offensive Player of the Year. Joining him on the preseason team were receiver Je’Ron Hamm, offensive lineman Josh Allen, defensive lineman Kentarius Caldwell and defensive back Isiah Newsome.

Browning said learning the ULM offense has changed since his freshman season.

“When I first got there, he was just teaching us the offense,” he said. “Now we’re having debates in there. ‘Why are you throwing this route’ or ‘Why are you reading this way?’ Or ‘What kind of coverage are you seeing?’

“It gets more in depth, but that’s the fun part about it.”

Ga. Southern preps for SBC

Georgia Southern, once the big fish in a smaller Division I-AA pond, is preparing for life in much Division I waters.

The Eagles, the only program to make an appearance in each of the past three NCAA FCS semifinals, are playing their final season in Division I-AA’s Southern Conference before moving to the Sun Belt in 2014 with Appalachian State, Idaho (football only) and New Mexico State (football only).

This season, Georgia State will be not be eligible for the postseason in its final season in I-AA. In the Sun Belt, the Eagles and Appalachian State will not be eligible for bowl games until 2015.

“Probably the toughest thing to try to get through this year,” Georgia Southern coach Jeff Monken said. “It’s not just a goal of Georgia Southern to make the playoffs. Our goal is to win the (I-AA) national championship. And to not have that opportunity to even look forward to, it’s something that creates challenges for our team; motivating them.”

The Eagles will end the season Nov. 23 at Florida, a game that will likely serve as an unofficial bowl game for the program’s seniors.

Happy in the Dome

While Tulane is anticipating its escape from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in favor of a return to an on-campus stadium next year, Sun Belt newcomer Georgia State is content with playing in the Georgia Dome.

“We very happy playing in the home of the Falcons,” first-year coach Trent Miles said. “And when they’ll be moving into their new stadium (probably in 2018), we’ll be moving there with them.”

Georgia State is a “totally urban” school with no room for an on-campus stadium Miles said, and to build its own stadium would still mean having it a considerable distance off campus.

One thing Georgia State in the Georgia Dome had that Tulane has lacked in the Superdome are its own end zone markings. The Superdome end zones say “SAINTS” during Green Wave games.

“We make the stadium ours,” Miles said. “The people who come to our games make it a great venue for us.

“We’ve just got to somehow connect with the students and get more of them out there. They’ll be out there at the beginning, and we’ve got to give them a product to keep them coming back.”

Five-year plan

After building a football program from scratch, South Alabama is eligible for the conference championship for the first time.

“It’s been a long wait, and I could probably write a book on it,” said USA coach Joey Jones, who began the program in 2009. “But in a lot of other ways, it’s gone really fast.

“We played a tough schedule last year to get us ready for this point (the Jaguars went 2-11 in 2012), and we redshirted a couple of guys with the thought of looking toward the future. It’s time we started making an impact.”

On Aug. 29, South Alabama plays Southern Utah in its opener. The following week, USA travels to Tulane in the first meeting between the schools.

Looking for more bowl tie-ins

The Sun Belt enters this season with two bowl tie-ins: New Orleans Bowl and the GoDaddy Bowl. Commissioner Karl Benson said he believes that number will grow, possibly in time for the upcoming bowl season.

Last season, four Sun Belt teams earns bowl game berths. Their combined 2-2 record gave the conference a 7-7 postseason mark during the past five seasons.

Home field media day

Sun Belt Conference staffers only had to walk out of their new offices to prepare for Monday’s media day.

Earlier this month, the conference moved its offices from the Pan American Building on Poydras St. to the Superdome, several blocks away.

Ted Lewis contributed to this report.