Billy Ladner, of Slidell, remembers the last time Southeastern Louisiana University won a conference football championship — as well he should, since he was a star on that 1961 team.
What he doesn’t recall is the excitement he’s seeing now.
“This is the most enthusiasm that I’ve ever seen for Southeastern as far as the football program,” Ladner said. “No contest.”
While game day in Hammond will never approach the frenzy around Tiger Stadium when LSU plays, there is no mistaking the increase in school spirit with SLU winning its first Southland Conference football title and its first berth in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. The Lions will host Sam Houston State at 7 p.m. Saturday in SLU’s Strawberry Stadium.
“Lion fever is rampant in the city of Hammond,” said Hammond Mayor Mayson Foster. “How do you measure excitement? You can’t. On a scale of 1 to 10, I’d say it’s a 12.”
If that is impossible, it’s OK. Lions’ fans are just making up for lost time.
The glory era of Lions football was 1952-61, when Southeastern Louisiana College (as it was known then) won six Gulf States Conference titles. Success and fan support waned after that. In 1985, SLU President Larry Crain pushed the school to drop the sport as a financial drain on academic resources.
There was no football for 17 years.
The sport was restored in 2003, and that brought sellout crowds at first. But, like most start-up programs, SLU struggled on the field. Eight of the first 10 teams posted losing records. In 2011 and 2012, the average crowd was roughly half of Strawberry Stadium’s roughly 9,700 capacity.
Nowhere was this more noticeable than among students. SLU draws many students from Baton Rouge and New Orleans — close enough to go home each weekend, far enough to not return for a football game. That’s not a new situation.
“It was referred to as a suitcase college,” Ladner said. “That’s what everybody called it. Come Friday evening, everybody was gone. Even me. We’d play on Saturday. The chances of me going home on Saturday night were excellent.”
Greg Crovetto, a senior from Ponchatoula and SLU’s student government president, has been attending games with his family since 2005.
“From that point to now, it’s a huge difference,” he said. “I used to sit on the home side with my father and look across to the student section and it looked like a handful of people, probably around 100 to 150 people, because there wasn’t much interest in it, and they weren’t necessarily winning. A lot of people base their allegiance or their excitement on a winning record.”
They got that this season. After losing two of their first three, the Lions have reeled off nine consecutive wins, including a 41-7 thrashing of McNeese State in Lake Charles that made SLU fans realize that a conference championship was really possible. Since then, attendance at Strawberry Stadium has averaged 7,000, almost 2,000 more than the first half of the season.
Lions fever is reflected not only in attendance, but the appearance of green and gold in Hammond.
Kevin Brunelle, manager of the Albertson’s grocery store near campus, said all of its SLU items have been flying off the shelves, especially T-shirts. The anticipation of a playoff game is only going to increase that, he said.
“That’s unprecedented for the town, unprecedented for that stadium,” Brunelle said. “It’ll probably be the most exciting thing to ever hit Hammond that I can think of.”