Southern falls behind in championship chase

Charles McClelland had the toughest assignment in the Southwestern Athletic Conference when the Prairie View grad was named athletic director at his alma mater in 2001.

Though just 29 and with a background in accounting, his mission was to turn around an athletic department that long had been the laughingstock of the SWAC.

McClelland figured his best bet was to look 300 miles east, to a Southern University program that treated the conference’s athletic fields like its own personal playground.

“When I became the athletic director at Prairie View, Southern was on top,” said McClelland, who has spent the past five years as AD at Texas Southern. “Not only were they winning, they had the attitude to go with it. They knew they were going to win. So I really looked in-depth at what Southern was doing in order to try to elevate Prairie View.”

The Jaguars ruled the SWAC with such authority that their fans claimed the acronym should stand for Southern Wins Another Championship. Never was Southern’s reign more prominent than in the 2002-03 athletic year, when it won or shared 10 of the conference’s 17 championships. A year later, the football team won its ninth black college national championship.

But the Jaguars, who won the Commissioner’s Cup (given to the SWAC’s top program) 12 of the first 14 years it was handed out, have not won the award since sweeping the men’s and women’s basketball titles in 2005-06.

From the 1991-92 athletic year, the first year the Commissioner’s Cup was awarded, through 2003-04, Southern took home 82 league championships.

In the nine years since, it has won only 15.

“You’re not going to see anybody dominate like that anymore,” said Henry Baptiste, a longtime radio analyst of Southern football. “Parity has set in. Schools are catching up with us.”

Southern’s football team hasn’t won the Western Division of the SWAC since 2004 and hasn’t taken the conference title since 2003, when the Jaguars hoisted the SWAC trophy for the fifth time in 11 seasons.

The men’s and women’s track and field programs, which combined for 35 indoor and outdoor titles from 1992-2004, have not won any in the past nine years.

With help from Golden Spikes Award winner Rickie Weeks, Southern’s baseball team won the SWAC title in 2003 for the third year in a row and the seventh time in eight years. But the Jaguars will enter coach Roger Cador’s 30th season next year having won the conference just twice — 2005 and ’09 — since Weeks entered pro ball as a top-three draft choice.

And Southern no longer offers three of the 18 sports sponsored by the SWAC, having dropped men’s and women’s golf and men’s tennis to cut costs.

Money matters

Not surprisingly, the schools spending the most money in the SWAC are the ones winning the most rings. Southern no longer is one of those schools.

According to USA Today’s database for NCAA finances, Southern athletics spent $6,184,080 in 2006, ranking second behind Alabama A&M in athletic department spending.

Fast-forward to the 2011-12 academic year, the most recent reports provided by the U.S. Department of Education.

Alabama State led the SWAC with $10,390,114 in total expenses, up from $5,155,421 in 2006. Texas Southern was the second-biggest spender, up from $5,974,726 in 2006 to $9,287,905. Prairie View was up to $6,698,587 from $3,815,306.

Southern had fallen to sixth among SWAC spenders in 2011-12, up to $6,569,097 in total expenses for an increase from 2006 of just 6 percent.

“You started seeing a trend take place where other schools in the conference made more of a commitment to athletics, and we weren’t able to keep pace,” Cador said. “We remained at the same state we were in rather than up the ante, and other schools passed us by. When you’re used to winning, you’ve got to keep adding fuel to keep it going. We didn’t do it. We stayed pat.”

An athletic department that once dominated the conference watched Alabama State win five SWAC titles in 2012-13 and Prairie View four. Prairie View claimed the Commissioner’s Cup for the second straight year, a remarkable transformation given PV’s status as an across-the-board doormat for so many years.

Southern’s spending in 2011-12 included a woeful $23,519 in recruiting expenses, giving the Jaguars the smallest recruiting budget in the conference.

“Finances are such a key part to athletic success,” said former Southern Athletic Director Floyd Kerr, now AD at Morgan State. “You have to compete with your budget as well as on the field. You can’t sustain winning without competing in your budget. If your budget is at the bottom of your conference, then that’s where you will inevitably end up.”

William Broussard, in his second year as Southern’s athletic director, said he expects the budget to be a little over $7.5 million this year. But he expects Alabama State to be well over $11 million and Texas Southern to be “healthily over $10 million.”

End of an era

Much of Southern’s dominance in the SWAC was achieved under league legend Marino “The Godfather” Casem, who took over as athletic director in 1986 and served in that capacity for 13 years. Kerr arrived in 2001 and saw Southern win 32 conference championships and four Commissioner’s Cups, but his contract was not renewed after the 2004-05 academic year.

From that point, the run of titles slowed.

“I think we took it for granted that we would always be successful, and we didn’t reinvest money back into the program,” Cador said. “I think we got caught up in the success, not knowing that the more successful you are, the more money you need to put into it to keep it going.”

Casem said he believes one of the reasons is that too many decisions regarding athletics were made at the institutional level.

“You’ve got to constantly fund your program,” he said. “People were making choices for the athletic program that came from up high instead of having it originate at the athletic level.”

Even as the Jaguars were racking up championships, there was reason to question the direction they were headed. A fire in the F.G. Clark Activity Center in 2002 redirected the athletic department to Jesse Owens Hall, and the program’s weights and equipment were moved into temporary trailers.

Later that year, football coach Pete Richardson wrote a letter to the Board of Supervisors to complain about the state of the athletic facilities.

“A lot of the schools have mimicked Southern University for so long; Southern has been just a leader in this conference in terms of new ideas and new strategies coming forward,” said women’s basketball coach Sandy Pugh, the interim AD before Broussard’s arrival. “I think there was a time right after Floyd Kerr left that we didn’t do that. We just got really stagnant.”

But Pugh said Broussard has Southern back on the right track.

“The good thing about it is we have a fantastic guy right now in Will, and I think everyone has seen a 100 percent turnaround,” she said.

Renowned for his fundraising efforts during his time as Northwestern State’s associate athletic director, Broussard, a former Northwestern lineman who holds master’s and doctoral degrees, hopes to help Southern’s athletic budget play catch-up through private fundraising.

Through grants, corporate sponsorships and donations, Broussard said the athletic department raised nearly $1.9 million this year.

“That’s the area where we have the potential to grow, where we can chip away,” he said.

Adjustments abound

Southern’s downturn in athletics has come when the university, hampered by strengthened admission standards and years of state budget cuts, has struggled to stay afloat.

Enrollment has dropped from nearly 9,500 students in 2000 to about 6,600 this past year. Southern declared a financial emergency, known as exigency, in 2011, allowing the university to more easily downsize staff and consolidate academic programs.

The athletic department in 2011-12 received $4,577,853 in the form of student fees and school funds, according to USA Today. By comparison, Alabama State received $9,357,157. Texas Southern received $8,833,289 and Prairie View $7,392,141.

But the change in admissions requirements — leading to the decrease in enrollment — has done more to Southern athletics than affect the amount of subsidies it receives. With the stricter standards, coaches have had to be more selective on the recruiting trail.

“I can’t tell you the number of kids we could have signed that have come out of Baton Rouge, but we couldn’t get them in school,” Pugh said.

On a roster of 15 players, Pugh will have seven this year from Florida.

“(Louisiana) kids are perfectly capable of meeting the admission standards,” Pugh said. “The information (regarding admission standards) just has to be put out there.”

Back when Southern operated under an open-enrollment policy, incoming student-athletes needed only to satisfy the NCAA’s minimum requirements for athletic eligibility to participate in sports. Southern was forced to do away with open enrollment in 2001, part of a higher education desegregation settlement.

Being admitted to the school became even tougher in 2006, when the state required Southern to raise admission standards in accordance with a master plan that affected all four-year schools. In the fall of 2014, another wave of state-imposed standards will prevent Southern and other four-year schools from accepting students who need a developmental or remedial course.

“The move toward partially selective admissions made Southern and Grambling basically the Harvard and the Yale of the SWAC, where we became the two most difficult institutions in terms of admitting students,” Broussard said.

The changing admission standards have coincided with the dawn of the APR era.

With the NCAA looking to improve poor graduation rates among Division I student-athletes nationwide, the Academic Progress Rate was introduced during the 2004-05 academic year as a rolling four-year system that measures classroom performance and retention.

Penalties for programs that fail to meet APR standards include scholarship losses, recruiting restrictions and exclusion from postseason competition. By next year, Southern will have had three of its programs (men’s basketball, football and men’s track and field) receive postseason bans because of APR issues.

“It’s a very expensive process, and knowing the challenges financially that the state of Louisiana has had and the budget cuts for Southern, it was only inevitable Southern was going to take some of the hits competitively while they were able to regroup from an APR standpoint,” McClelland said.

APR issues aren’t unique to Southern. Mississippi Valley and Arkansas-Pine Bluff were ineligible for the SWAC tournament in men’s basketball last season after receiving postseason bans.

Empty seats

At the heart of Southern’s regression from all-around SWAC power is a football program that once packed stadiums and trophy cases with equal regularity.

Every year from 1998-2005, Southern ranked in the top five of the Football Championship Subdivision for home attendance, leading the nation in 2000. Southern averaged 23,048 fans in 2004, the fourth time since 1998 the Jaguars averaged 20,000-plus.

“When I left Southern, we were getting almost 200 RVs for a home game in a stadium that seated, what, 21,000 — maybe 22,000?” Kerr said. “If the fire marshal didn’t show up, you got 22,000 in. If the fire marshal was there, you got 21,000 in.”

Many point to the school’s increase of ticket prices in 2004 as the reason for dwindling attendance. Fans were hit with a $12 increase that year, part of a plan to build a north end-zone enclosure that included extra seating as well as football offices, locker rooms and a weight room.

The enclosure finally became a reality in 2009 — the year Southern fired Richardson, who won more than six games only once in his final five seasons. Southern has not enjoyed a winning season since.

“In my opinion, they let a good coach go,” Casem said. “He had some rough years, but that didn’t compare to all the good years he had. I thought that may have been a bad move.”

Stump Mitchell went 2-9 in his first season as Richardson’s replacement, then 4-7 the following year. He was shown the door two games into the 2012 season after an embarrassing 6-0 loss to Mississippi Valley on national television.

Broussard appointed assistant Dawson Odums as Mitchell’s interim replacement, then gave him the full-time job after the Jaguars finished with four wins in their final nine games.

An average of 16,602 fans attended Southern’s four home games last year, including 25,400 for homecoming. Southern averaged 13,679 the year before.

“Attendance being up 28 percent, that is a gigantic clip,” Broussard said. “If we have the same kind of increase this year, we’ll clear 20,000 a game.”

Not only have home attendance numbers affected the athletic budget, so too has a dramatic loss of interest in the Bayou Classic. The annual rivalry game with Grambling on Thanksgiving weekend has averaged 43,396 fans the past three years. In 1994, it drew 76,641. The game hasn’t sold out since 68,911 turned out in 2004, the year before Hurricane Katrina.

Broussard said there was a time when Southern and Grambling split about $1.5 million in Bayou Classic ticket sales. Now, he said, the schools share about $950,000.

Signs of life

Getting Southern’s athletic department back to its heyday will come with challenges, but it’s not impossible to excel despite difficult circumstances.

For inspiration, Southern can look to Roman Banks and his men’s basketball team. Banks inherited a program coming off the worst season in school history and hampered by APR woes. But in his second year, he guided Southern to the SWAC title and a scare of No. 1 seed Gonzaga in the second round of the NCAA tournament. For his efforts, he was given a new five-year contract that bumped his base salary to $165,000, up from $115,000 the previous two years.

The run in men’s basketball capped an athletic year in which Broussard saw progress. The baseball and women’s basketball teams fell short in their conference tournaments, but baseball won the Western Division of the SWAC and women’s basketball was second in the regular season.

The football team had its second straight 4-7 finish, but some of the sting was erased when the Jaguars won the Bayou Classic for the first time in five years. The women’s tennis team won its fourth straight SWAC championship.

“It’s not as if the coaches and the student-athletes we have are lower caliber,” Broussard said. “It’s not that they’re not competitive. The programs that we have, the coaches that we have, the student-athletes that we have are acquitting themselves very well.”

Whether one of the SWAC’s proudest athletic departments can return to its former glory remains to be seen.

“I can tell you this,” Kerr said. “Sports is an indigenous, important piece to the African-American community, regardless of what anybody says. It’s a pathway to success. It’s extremely important in many communities around the country. I don’t see Baton Rouge being any different.”