LAFAYETTE — Among the thousands who pack into the Superdome on Saturday to root on the rouge et blanc will be the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s chief Ragin’ Cajun: President Joseph Savoie.
Savoie stepped into the role of university president in July 2008 after 12 years as the state’s commissioner of higher education.
The move was a homecoming for an alumnus who, despite the national recognition, honors and advancements he’s contributed to higher education, still answers to the nickname T-Joe.
It was on the UL-Lafayette campus that T-Joe began his career in higher education, working his way up in roles designed to support and promote the university’s mission, when he became its first vice president of university advancement.
His return in 2008 was met with the challenges of a state fiscal crisis and five years of cuts in state funding that total about $44 million.
Despite the cuts, the university is leveraging its resources — community support and dedicated student fees — to reshape its future. Under Savoie’s leadership, the university developed road maps to grow its campus, its university research park and its athletics complex.
The university is experiencing something of a renaissance of new construction and major renovations on its main campus that extends to its athletic fields and stadiums.
“He’s a great leader, and his leadership is how we’ve been able to advance the athletic department in recent years,” said Scott Farmer, the university’s athletic director.
There is also unprecedented private support for its athletic programs that is creating more opportunities to recruit and attract coaches and student-athletes, Farmer said.
Match that with a third consecutive trip to the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, broadcast live on ESPN, and no matter the final score of Saturday’s game against Tulane University’s Green Wave, it’s all a win for UL-Lafayette.
“It’s all positive,” Savoie said. “It brings attention to the university and is a reward for the team, players, coaches and our fans. It also rallies the community and gives people something to be excited about and something to support. That helps with other attendance at events — athletic and non-athletic. It helps in recruiting and brings a lot of attention to the university.”
For the university, that attention has helped grow its Ragin’ Cajuns Athletics Foundation, which has led to unprecedented support of the university’s athletic programs.
Although the idea of launching an athletics foundation incubated prior to Savoie’s arrival as university president in July 2008, Farmer credits Savoie for pushing the foundation into reality.
“Starting the foundation was huge. It helps provide the resources to put together a very sound department, not just one aspect of a program,” Farmer said. “I think we have tremendous coaches, and we were able to attract and retain these coaches because we have some external funding for them and are able to be competitive with our salaries.”
In the past few years, the foundation has raised more than $4 million in unrestricted money and millions more in endowed gifts, Savoie said.
One event for fans organized by foundation members has raised about $350,000 over the past two years.
Athletics is often people’s entré to a university and serves as an important marketing tool for an institution, Savoie said.
“Typically, if someone supports you, they support the whole package,” he said.
Farmer likened athletics to a university’s front porch.
If that’s the case, UL-Lafayette is making room for more rocking chairs, hanging a few more swings and setting out tall pitchers of iced tea and lemonade.
In March, the university unveiled a $115 million master plan for athletics. The initial phase includes expansion of stadium seating in Cajun Field, updates to the soccer and track fields, and construction of an athletic performance center. Student fees and other university revenue will help cover the cost of the first phase of the project.
A fundraising push will begin in the new year to fund a second tier that involves a comprehensive renovation of the football and baseball stadiums, Savoie said.
Overall, the plan includes projects for all programs and the creation of an athletic village to connect the various athletic fields and provide a community atmosphere for athletes and fans.
Plans for the baseball stadium involve a nearly $10 million renovation to increase capacity at Tigue Moore Field to 4,500 seats, a new press box and renovated offices and locker rooms.
Nearly $58 million in improvements are planned in the second phase of the plan for new construction at Cajun Field, including 1,200 club seats, 128 lodge seats and 37 box suites, a new press box and new administrative offices.
Farmer said Savoie has helped generate a renewed excitement about athletics.
“He’s a great leader, and Ms. Gail is phenomenal,” Farmer said.
Gail is Gail Savoie, whose support for the university rivals her husband’s. The couple has two children, Jennifer Blaire Saulnier and Adam Savoie.
“She’s the perfect complement to T-Joe,” Farmer said.
When Savoie took over leadership of the university in July 2008, he brought a new vision that he’s fueled with his own enthusiasm in seeing the university succeed, said Lafayette City-Parish President Joey Durel. He and Savoie are longtime friends.
Savoie graduated from the university with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education. He also holds a doctor of education degree in educational leadership and administration from Columbia University’s Teachers College.
UL-Lafayette’s plans for its athletic complex and future development of the adjacent university research park will impact not only the city but the whole Acadiana region, Durel said.
“Bringing the stadium to modern standards from the Cajundome to the football stadium is important to attracting the caliber of people we want at the university and in Lafayette,” he said.
Durel said he recently met with economic development officials in a neighboring parish who credited the university as a draw for businesses because it offers employees access to collegiate athletics.
“Other parishes have certain natural resources that Lafayette doesn’t have, but they also understand that if they’re going to attract a great business to their area, it’s possible and very likely that the upper management may be more interested in attracting that business there, if they live in Lafayette and have access to college football, and other sports and the attractions,” Durel said.
While the bowl berths have helped grow the university’s athletics foundation, they have also led to national exposure and helped recruit students, Savoie said.
“We were very concerned about a year or so ago with enrollment because we increased admissions criteria again,” he said. “Our projections were that we could lose nearly 500 freshmen who couldn’t meet the criteria, so we stepped up our scholarship offerings and ended up with an increase in our freshman class. Some of that has to do with the reputation of the university, and you spread your reputation through public exposure. Certainly, bowl games and being on television play into that.”
In the spirit of the game, Savoie said he may call Tulane University President Scott Cowen to make a friendly wager. “I may call him and see what he’s willing to put up, but you know he’s pretty tight,” Savoie said, chuckling.
Growing serious, Savoie credited Cowen for his leadership in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. Savoie was state commissioner of higher education at the time.
“During Katrina, he did a heroic job of not only bringing Tulane back, but bringing education back in the city,” Savoie said.
While a friendly wager may be off the table, one thing Savoie can count on Saturday is a sea of vermilion amid the Green Wave. It’s that rallying support for the university that makes his job worthwhile, he said.
“The support that we get from the community — from individuals who donate their time, their effort and their resources — demonstrates a real commitment and love for the place, so it’s a great environment to be in and to be involved with,” Savoie said. “People have sincerity in their desire for the institution’s success, and I feel a real — much more than a professional obligation — I feel a strong personal, moral commitment to help make that happen.”