Do it for the love of the game

I’ve gotta warn you, I’m not sure I can crank out a quality column now. The atmosphere is not very good.

I don’t need people cheering when I write. It helps if there have been people cheering something before I write, or at least, people cheering something that inspires me to write.

There’s the word, well, just a word cousin, actually. Inspiration.

How can I do this well without any?

This is why I love youth sports. Give me your little league ballgames. There’s no shortage of motivation there.

The kids are there to have fun. The families and friends are there to see them have fun.

Games are fun. So let’s play. Simple, right?

That’s why, after playing all sorts of sports when I was a kid – organized, and not — and after writing and talking about them since, I have never, ever, ever gotten my brain to accept, never have gotten my heart to grasp, never have gotten my soul to understand, why athletes in high school, in college and in the pros “just couldn’t get up for the game.”

Especially after we’ve just come through a pandemic, with cancellations and then restrictions stopping and then adjusting if, and how, games got played, I can’t swallow that one.

Yet I hear players trying to explain subpar performances by saying the game was at a less-than-sparkling facility, or there weren’t many fans there, or it was a long trip … we’ve all heard the excuses.

At the level where I’ve spent most of my career, college football teams play 11 or 12 regular-season games each fall. In basketball, it’s roughly 30. Baseball and softball, the count rises to 50-60. Tennis teams are lining up for 20-25 matches and some individual tournaments in the fall. Soccer, volleyball, track and field … we can go on.

Those numbers pale in comparison to the time invested, in days, in hours, at times before dawn and after dark, preparing for those opportunities to compete.

Yes, it can turn into a grind. There is more to daily life than practice and preparation for the seasons, for the games. Warning to the athletes, prep all the way to pro: nobody plays forever. Only the elite keep playing for long. Only the lucky ones get to play at all. It is not a birthright. If often ends unexpectedly.

Sometimes, the victory is in the grind – in the ability to go out and set aside whatever burdens and distractions exist, to focus on doing all that can be done for teammates and coaches, to find the very best you can summon on that date and at that time.

Not allowing surroundings or situations to suck away the energy and excellence within.

Play the game, young athlete, like you did when you were playing in your neighbor’s front yard, or out on the street, or on a dirt court, or on the practice range.

When you might play for hours, or just shoot hoops by yourself until you missed supper.

For the fun of it.

Because when you can’t “get up” for the game, that’s when you’re cheating it, wasting your time, and everybody else’s. I’m pretty sure you’re better than that.


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Mocks no more, it’s Draft Day, not a moment too soon

News flash — the 2022 NFL Draft begins tonight.

Which means, I suppose, the first Mock Draft for 2023 will pop out next week. Seriously.

If you’re somebody who is immersed in the Mock World, this real draft is the realization of football prophecy. What a weekend! All these months of speculation play out and we see if Mel Kiper Jr.’s latest mock draft had more on the money picks than Todd McShay or Daniel Jeremiah or … Billy Bob Bivens from Biloxi.

I think he has one. There is no shortage. Looking at the ole w-w-w, there are even sites that track how “draft analysts” have performed over the last few years to give observers (bettors, right?) guidance on who’s the boss.

There were well over 100 listed, and graded, over the past five years on one site. Somewhere near 30th place, I noticed one name I recognized as a somewhat prominent NFL analyst – none of those mentioned above, except perhaps Billy Bob from Biloxi, cracked the top 100. This list could’ve been an off-Broadway collection. I did not scan it long enough to know.

It’s astounding that real people have real time to devour dozens of mocks and their reshuffles, and I am happy for you people who do. No shame in that; glory to you and your insight on the tight end from Northern Idaho State who could be a great third-day sleeper.

Is my pal Mel (fact! More in a sec) and his 2.0 Mock graded against the real results, or is it just his final version? Or is his 2.0 compared to McShay’s 2.0 and all the rest, and their 3.0’s, and … I’d rather revisit my 12th grade trig class. Same level of understanding. I got a B. It was my favorite graduation gift.

More on Mel: 40 years ago, I was just out of college and working at UL Lafayette in the sports information office. He was the same age, and had already begun analyzing prospects as a teenager and sent his breakdowns to the GM of his hometown team, the Baltimore Colts. Ernie Accorsi was impressed enough to suggest Mel sell his reports to fans (no small feat before the internet) and eventually offered Kiper a job in the Colts organization – just before they bolted for Indianapolis, which took that option off Mel’s board.

Kiper called to check on a Cajuns’ prospect. A few months later, I noticed a story in a Football Gazette newsletter explaining why he insisted on being called Mel Kiper Jr., to honor his dad. Next time he called, I told him I enjoyed it. More than a decade before Al Gore invented the internet, Mel had never seen the story. I mailed the clipping (remember those?) and we were BOYS.

When we spoke through the years, either with him calling to gather info or me calling to glean insight on the draft potential for a Northwestern State player, his photographic memory was everything you’ve seen on air, and more. He could instantly narrate the draft bio and outlook for the young man that was desperate to hear an objective take on his prospects. He was blunt – passionate, charming, but he did not put icing on the cupcake. The players might cringe at what he said, but they appreciated it.

So I like Mel Kiper Jr. He is the John Glenn of the Mock Draft industry. I admire him.

But tonight will be the first time I’ll watch his analysis of the 2022 NFL Draft. I guess starting next week, ESPN will be treating us to coverage of drone racing and cornhole competitions.

Those, like Mock Drafts, have their place. Just not on my TV or computer screen.


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SPOTLIGHT: Sayonara Southland? Conference reconsidering its brand

CHANGING LABELS?:  The Northwestern State Lady Demons won the 2021 regular-season and tournament Southland Conference soccer titles. They may defend their crown in a rebranded league, one with a new logo and perhaps a new name.

By DOUG IRELAND, Journal Sports

What’s in a name? Southland Conference athletic directors discussed that this morning, probably before you read this.

They were getting updated, in a 7 a.m. Zoom call, by new Southland commissioner Chris Grant and his staff, discussing a rebranding initiative announced April 11 after months of consideration.

The conference’s statement a couple of weeks ago said the rebranding will include “a new name for the conference and its sub-brands and properties” and a “new logo that is uniting and inspirational.”

Not so fast, said the AD who has emerged as the league’s most influential athletic leader.

McNeese AD Heath Schroyer told The Journal Monday afternoon that the name, at least, might remain the same.

Troika Media Group is managing the process. TMG (not TMZ) has been involved in branding Apple, Hulu, UFC, Peloton, CNN, HBO, ESPN, Yahoo, Netflix and Coca-Cola, and collegiate-sport-specifically, the four Power 5 conference TV networks (SEC, ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12) along with ESPN College Football, ESPN College Basketball and CBS Sports.

Northwestern’s new AD, Kevin Bostian, is approaching his three-month anniversary May 7 and admittedly is not up to speed on the rebrand. After this morning’s call, which will include other topics as well, he expects to have a much better understanding.

“We are excited for the direction the conference is taking,” he said. “We will follow the conference’s lead and support the administration in the steps it plans to take.”

Bostian and the other ADs met individually with TMG during the Southland’s basketball tournaments in early March in Katy, Texas. Bostian shared his outside perspective as a newcomer to the league, having noted its status from afar, in the eastern time zone, most recently at UNC-Greensboro.

Many longtime fans, veteran administrators and coaches have posed a simple question as the league nears its 60th anniversary in 2024.

What is wrong with sticking with “Southland Conference?”

“It’s a great question. All of us as AD’s have actually pondered that,” said Schroyer. “We have to take a step back and look at it. We want to be aggressive as a league, we want to be proactive in recruiting members, but we also want to be strategic in everything we do. If a rebranding takes place, what does that look like, and how does that help us? I think those are all questions that are still on the board.”

It’s a process of exploring a new brand, he said, not necessarily creating an entirely new one with only one newcomer in the fold at this stage (Texas A&M-Commerce joins July 1, moving up from Division II).

The widespread expectation is whatever is decided, it will be unveiled in July at the Southland Football Media Day in Lake Charles. But Northwestern is among league members who need a new logo sooner – a new turf playing surface is being installed this summer at Turpin Stadium for NSU football, and a new court is going in at Prather Coliseum, which houses volleyball and basketball.  Those facilities need to be ready in late July for preseason workouts.

Timelines were doubtlessly a focal point of discussion during this morning’s call.

“I’m not sure exactly where it’s at (as of Monday afternoon),” said Schroyer. “It’s still in discussion and there’s a lot of things being floated around, but I don’t think we’re close to having a definitive answer on that.”


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Please come to Boston, for the springtime, and a race

You can’t imagine actually playing in the Super Bowl, the NBA Finals, the World Series, or the Masters.

It’s unthinkable to believe you could really compete in the Daytona 500, or at Indy, or ride a thoroughbred in the Kentucky Derby.

Those are NOT public access, available-to-enter events. The American sports calendar slows to a crawl for them, along with bowl games, the BCS National Championship, the Final Four, and the U.S. Opens in golf and tennis.

The gateway to those Opens is ever-so-slightly accessible, assuming your game is elite and you can survive a series of sectional qualifying tournaments. A handful of “normal” people make it all the way through.

The Boston Marathon stands alone. Yes, there are qualifying standards, and yes, you’ve got to be a pretty strong distance runner to make it into the field. But THOUSANDS do it every April, and they did again Monday. Among the estimated 31,000 entrants, all are serious runners, but they are nearly all recreational athletes, running for the sheer joy of it.

They are convinced running 26 miles, 385 yards is fabulous. About a half-million people line the race route, cheering them on.

Those runners are people who shop for their shoes in the same stores you visit. They are probably a bit pickier about what they buy.

Monday, probably a half-dozen or so of your neighbors from Caddo and Bossier Parishes were there in Beantown, running the race of their dreams.

They all felt the same immense pride at reaching the qualifying standard in their age groups, then at being in a huge pack at the start (all 31,000 don’t start at once!), at conquering fabled Heartbreak Hill, and at crossing the finish line on Boylston Street in front of the Boston Public Library. Those joys are shared by the world’s best and the rest, thousands who come from not only across America, but from around the world for this race, this unique experience.

It is unfathomable to me. I sit here typing and spooning away at a DQ Blizzard. But as I was reading Teddy Allen’s Spotlight on young Hayden Slack’s first Boston Marathon, I thought of Frank Bright, who ran his 16th Monday.

The 78-year-old retired Shreveport attorney took just over five hours to finish. He was 25th in his division, 13,447th among all male runners and 23,084th overall. He finished – again. He finished, a couple of years after a heart attack that he didn’t know he’d had until a checkup sometime afterward. Monday was his second Boston Marathon since he added three stents to his inventory.

Frank Bright took up running – a mile, not 26 of them – as a senior at Fair Park High School, and won the 1961 state championship four months later. He ran his first marathon at age 35, and now has over 60 under his belt.

I also thought of Mindy Stokes. She could have died there, in 2013, near the finish line, cheering for Victoria Willis, her former coaching pal on the Northwestern State Lady Demons basketball staff. Victoria crossed 10 minutes before the bomb exploded.

“I was 20 yards from the bombing site. God was looking out for me. Had Victoria stopped and walked, and a lot of them do, or had she been slower … “ she said.

When the evil erupted, Victoria and Mindy were two blocks away. They heard the blast.

Her husband, Dr. Marc Stokes, went to Boston a year later, taking his son Connor to a Red Sox game. He had to see where Mindy was standing. He had to give thanks for what didn’t turn his life upside down.

Both women have been back since, Victoria running, Mindy supporting.

“I didn’t go to the race at all. I met her after. I was hesitant to be in the crowd. I hate that it affected me that way, but it definitely did,” she said. “Victoria ran, and she did well, and she’s done it another time. Victoria is brave for running again. But she loves to run.”

That passion. It has hold of Frank Bright and his very, very small group of peers. It tugs at Victoria Willis and the others who ran in 2013. It is undeniable, and for many, unquenchable.

Whether on Heartbreak Hill, or along Clyde Fant Parkway, when they are running, they are beyond reason. They are obsessed. They are enthralled.

The fortunate few get to be in Boston, on a mid-April Monday, like Frank Bright, Victoria Willis, Hayden Slack, and maybe somebody down your street, someone you saw at the grocery store.

That is what sets the Boston Marathon apart.


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SPOTLIGHT: Could NCAA’s APR be DOA?

ON THE MOVE: Senior-to-be point guard Brian White is reportedly not returning to Northwestern State’s basketball team.

By DOUG IRELAND, Journal Sports

Grambling’s just-hired volleyball coach, Chelsey Lucas, reportedly cut her entire team to look for better players.

New basketball coaches at Louisiana Tech, LSU and Northwestern State have varying degrees of roster management issues.

At Tech, the focal situation centers on the big man, Kenneth Lofton Jr., the Bulldogs’ sensational sophomore. Before Eric Konkol took the head coaching post at Tulsa, Lofton understandably stated his intention to explore entering the NBA Draft. Last week, Lofton also entered the NCAA’s transfer portal, increasing chances that he will be movin’ on up one way, or another, despite being recruited to Ruston by new Tech coach Talvin Hester, an assistant at the time of Lofton’s signing.

After the firing of Will Wade, the LSU basketball roster emptied. All scholarship players entered the transfer portal, or declared for the NBA Draft. Several Murray State Racers have followed their head coach, Matt McMahon, to Baton Rouge, along with NSU’s freshman star center, Captain Shreve product Kendal Coleman.

The new Demons’ head coach, Corey Gipson, has seen other key figures from last year’s NSU squad exit Prather Coliseum. Coleman was gone before Gipson arrived, but as of today, five of Northwestern’s top six scorers last year (two were seniors) reportedly won’t be back, notably underclassmen Carvell Teasett (12.9 points per game) and senior-to-be Brian White (5.9 points), the starting guards.

These are some, not all, of local cases-in-point illustrating the transfer portal is college sports’ version of the DFW Airport, with constant incoming and outgoing traffic.

Fluid rosters in coaching transitions are nothing new, but widespread exits had been curtailed significantly after the NCAA instituted academic reform with the arrival of the Academic Progress Rate in 2004. APR is a gauge of how schools do advancing student-athletes toward graduation. There have been penalties, including bans from postseason play and limits on scholarships and practices, for programs that fall below Division I-wide standards by not retaining their players.

Due to pandemic impact, the NCAA quietly suspended APR penalties a couple years ago. A restart was expected next year but has been delayed for at least another year, if not forever, as the transformative impact of the portal, and other problematic issues, soaks in.

The transfer portal has radically altered the landscape. No matter what the sport, Division I coaches have to constantly monitor their own roster, understanding the status of each player, and must be alert to players looking for a new home who might be good additions. The conventional recruiting paradigm has been blown up. With that, it’s possible, even perhaps likely, that the APR, the NCAA’s anchor for academic emphasis, could join fax machines and Walkmans in the obsolete file.

“You’re getting to the point where it’s unknown if penalties will be reassessed,” said Dustin Eubanks, associate athletic director at Northwestern State, who has handled NCAA compliance for 22 years. “We have to look at it as if they will be, but can I tell you they will? It’s like so much with the NCAA now; the word that is used is uncertainty.”

Does that mean the NCAA’s heavily-marketed focus on academics is in the way of its newfound commitment to free enterprise by student-athletes?

“There are too many issues like the portal that are problematic at this stage,” said Eubanks. “How does the NCAA reconsider its enforcement of academics? I don’t think they know right now.”

If these academic standards do resume, will they matter? A growing number of ambitious coaches on the outside of dream jobs, but looking up, are putting in all their chips toward rapid success to quickly climb toward multi-million dollar contracts. What’s left behind when they jump? Not their problem.

“There are some that don’t focus on APR as much as the way it used to be,” said Eubanks. “Coaches will tell you, we’re paid to win. If we don’t win, we’re out. Talking to colleagues at other places, I think discounting or altogether disregarding APR is more prevalent than you’d want, if you believe the end goal for college athletes is graduation.”

Do academics really matter in college sports? Rumors of the elite power programs considering a super division, something that could replicate minor league sports with a modicum of academics, are on the radar.

With so many unknowns, the notion that graduation is considered as big a win as championship trophies is very much in doubt.

Photo by CHRIS REICH, Northwestern State


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Sorting through storylines, wondering what’s next

Logic finally prevailed in the Southland Conference.

Meanwhile, the incomprehensible has suddenly become the new order in high school sports.

College team rosters are best maintained on an Etch-A-Sketch.

Those are among the sports storylines of significance that we’re dealing with in The Year of Lawdy, Lawdy 2022.

We can all agree Will Smith may have once given us a brilliant portrayal of Muhammed Ali, but he gave Chris Rock a lick more suitable from a star in the WWE.

Then the Academy gave him a ban that may last longer than Will Wade’s banishment from college basketball. It was not remotely a damned strong slap.

Some things make so much sense, they actually happen. Exhibit A: Lamar has quickly backtracked, realizing that charting its course into the three time zones of the Western Athletic Conference was just plain stupid and too durned expensive. Friday, Lamar announced its return to the Southland in 2023-24, kissing and making up much faster than Bennifer did.

Can Stephen F. Austin’s path to redemption be equally brief? Despite enrollment issues (fairly common among colleges nowadays) and suddenly shaky finances, don’t expect a quick retreat to familiar Southland territory by the ever-egocentric Lumberjacks. Last thing SFA will do sooner than later is re-up with the Southland, no matter how prudent it is.

They are still locked in a semi-permanent wince from getting kicked to the curb by their neighbors and arch-rivals, the Sam Houston State Bearkats, who spent only slightly more time in the WAC than Tom Brady’s retirement before leaping to a bigger, more pricey locale, Conference USA alongside Louisiana Tech.

Demons can tell Bulldogs that Huntsville ain’t Hattiesburg, and the Bearkats will seem like Jersey Housewives, hoping to fit into a social circle that don’t suit them much.

More things make no sense, but they’re happening anyway.

Prepare to cringe: beg your pardon as I bring up the LHSAA’s begrudging embrace of NIL.

Legally, Eddie Bonine and the state’s principals were boxed in. Could’ve put up a stand, could’ve spent a bunch on attorneys, couldn’t have won the argument – in a courthouse.

Kids are given grown-up opportunities, and there are far too many adults with self-serving agendas willing to capitalize. Unfortunately, the law is on the side of individual freedoms, generally a good thing (even Kentwood’s Britney Spears finally got freed up nearing 40!) but when it comes to those too young to serve in our military or cast a vote in a public election, they are flying blind or close to it at this stage of their lives.

So now Get Gordon and the like are beginning to trade on the identities of high school girls and boys, appearing to do nice things like congratulating a sensational young scholar-athlete when we all quickly see through to their end game: presenting a top-dollar NIL offer to encourage a college commitment, dare we suggest to area code 225?

Kim Mulkey doesn’t need that “help.” But she can do nothing to stop it. And the kids and their parents and their high school coaches and teammates, none who asked for this, are confronted with issues that nobody before has had to consider.

Combine NIL with Transfer Portal and your desire to read any further roughly equals Ed Orgeron’s appetite for opera. While he’s no doubt got Wayne Toups and not Pavarotti on his iPod, like most of us, Coach O hates those diabolical new arrivals to the college scene with a passion. Can team sports values survive the age of individualism?

I’d rather contemplate my taxes. On April 12, I’d better. Not gonna waste time considering the reality that most SEC quarterbacks need CPA teams about now, and at three times their age, I’m suited for the latest edition of TurboTax.


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SPOTLIGHT: Checking the NCAA resumes of area D-I basketball teams

RAIDER IN THE DANCE: Huntington High product Shamir Davis led Northwestern State to the 2013 NCAA Tournament and a first-round matchup with the Florida Gators in Austin, Texas.

BY DOUG IRELAND, Journal Sports

The incredible NCAA Tournament ledger of the Louisiana Tech Lady Techsters is among the elite in NCAA Division I basketball history, men or women.

But in a modern culture where many only consider “what have you done for me lately,” despite the Techsters’ 27 NCAA Tournament appearances, 13 Final Fours, four national runner-up finishes and three national championships (including the 1981 AIAW crown), it’s not Tech’s women who landed on a Big Dance bracket most recently among the men’s and women’s programs representing the four north Louisiana Division I institutions.

That would be the 2018 Grambling Lady Tigers, in their only trip this century.

Among the men’s programs in the 318 area code, the last NCAA participant was Mike McConathy’s 2013 Northwestern State Demons, who had three Shreveport-Bossier products – the Huntington duo of Shamir Davis and “Big Game” James Hulbin, and Bossier’s Jalan West – among their top five scorers. It was the first of three straight seasons NSU had a team in March Madness. In 2014 and 2015, the Lady Demons were surprise winners of the Southland Conference Tournament to earn their way into NCAA postseason play.

A look at the area’s college teams is painfully scarce of recent NCAA appearances. As the men and women prepare to finish the 2021-22 college hoops season, and they stage their respective Final Fours, here’s a review of the major college NCAA postseason resumes of Tech, NSU, Grambling and ULM.

LOUISIANA TECH

The Lady Techsters’ last NCAA Tournament berth came in 2011. Among those 13 Final Four appearances (the last in 1999), the powerhouse Techster squads won it all in 1981, 1982 and 1988. The last of their four national runner-up finishes came in 1998.

Despite plenty of regular-season success, the Bulldogs haven’t landed in the NCAA field in 31 years. That 1991 appearance was the fifth in eight years, with Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer Karl Malone the cornerstone for three of them. In 1985, the Mailman led Tech to the Sweet 16, and only a last-second basket by Oklahoma’s Waymon Tisdale denied the ‘Dogs an Elite Eight berth. Three times, Tech made the Round of 32.

NORTHWESTERN STATE

The other area team to make the Round of 32 was McConathy’s 2006 “Demons of Destiny,” whose 26 wins included the comeback upset of No. 15 Iowa in a first-round 14/3 matchup. The NSU men won the tournament’s first-ever Opening Round game in 2001 and last danced nine years ago.

The Lady Demons own four NCAA berths (1989 as an at-large entry, 2004, and 2014-15). Despite some name-brand wins over programs like Duke, Iowa, Louisville and Notre Dame, the NSU women are 0-4 in NCAA play, notably battling top-seeded Tennessee to the final five minutes in 2014.

ULM

A quarter-century ago, the Warhawks were Southland Conference stalwarts, making seven appearances in the NCAA men’s bracket from 1982-96. But there’s been no Big Dance since, and no NCAA wins ever to the credit of the ULM men.

The drought is even longer for the ULM women, whose four NCAA Tournament appearances came from 1983-87 when coach Linda Harper’s teams went toe-to-toe with the Lady Techsters, actually denying them a Final Four berth with a regional final upset in 1985. ULM made the Sweet 16 in 1984 as well, but the program quickly deteriorated due to NCAA rules violations.

GRAMBLING

There are no NCAA Tournament trips by the G-Men. They won the 2018 Southwestern Athletic Conference regular-season crown but faltered in the conference tourney. The Tigers followed Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer Willis Reed to the 1961 NAIA national championship.

The Lady Tigers have danced six times, the last trip coming four years ago, but they’re also winless in NCAA play.

Photo by GARY HARDAMON, Northwestern State


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Inside the (refs’) Road to the Final Four

FINAL THREE: Mark Whitehead, a Denham Springs native, joined two other top-flight officials who made the grade and earned this Final Four assignment working Oklahoma’s blowout semifinal loss to eventual NCAA champion Villanova in 2016.

By DOUG IRELAND, Journal Sports

Nobody cheers for 11 men whose performance is pivotal to the outcome of this weekend’s NCAA FinalSBJ spotlight Four.

Their highest compliment is not being noticed during, and after, they go up and down the court with young men who are at most, half their age.

They’re in uniform, with their jersey design a timeless standard: black and white vertical stripes.

How did they get there? For over a decade, Shreveporter Tynes Hildebrand helped choose the best officials to work the NCAA Tournament, culminating with the Final Four assignments (a trio of three-man crews, plus two alternates). One of this weekend’s referees, Keith Kimble of Arlington, Texas was calling college games around Louisiana on a regular basis not too long ago.

The Final Four picks emerged from 104 whistle-wearers who, over a seven-month stretch, survived scrutiny by a group of evaluators and conference coordinators. Some of the best refs didn’t work the first weekend, held out on purpose. They entered the assignment pool for the Sweet 16, along with the top graders from the first and second rounds.

How did Hildebrand and his colleagues evaluate them?

“Did he get the call right? Did he make the wrong call? Or was there no call when there should have been one? We totaled the numbers and the officials with the highest percentages moved forward,” said Hildebrand, who has lived in Shreveport with wife Julia for the past several years.

“No calls and missed calls are negatives. About nine out of 10 calls during the season, and in the tournament, the top officials get it right.”

Until retiring following the 2014 Final Four, Hildebrand was one of four NCAA regional officiating observers.

Since then, he actually gets to watch the games.

“I don’t think I ever enjoyed the games. You never watch the game. You’re watching the trail (official), the center, and the lead, and we had about 75 criteria that we looked at: their positioning, signaling, decorum, on and on,” Hildebrand said.

“These days, I enjoy watching the tournament like everybody else.”

The 91-year-old played basketball for H. Lee Prather at Northwestern State from 1950-54, then became a teacher and coach. He got the head coaching post at Northwestern in 1964 and kept it for 16 seasons, infamous for his outbursts with officials but respected around the country for his basketball knowledge. He helped head coach Henry Iba and colleagues including Bob Knight pick the 1972 USA Olympic Team. He and John Wooden developed a friendship.

The Final Four, even after his coaching days ended, became an annual reunion of coaching colleagues – until it turned into a work assignment when he began grading officials in 1997, and especially once he was tabbed one of four regional observers when that system was created in 2006.

Traveling far and wide throughout the season, from hallowed venues like Allen Fieldhouse at Kansas to mostly-empty gyms in remote locations, was quite an experience. There often was time for him and his frequent travel partner, Julia, to see sights, even visit friends and family. That wasn’t the case in March.

Once the initial pool of 104 referees was chosen, with Hildebrand working from his longtime home in Natchitoches, he headed north.

Through the four opening round games in Dayton, and the first two rounds, the evaluation team included conference coordinators and observers gathered in a command center at NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis. Every official in every game got rated either “highly recommend, recommend, do not recommend.” Officiating director John Adams took input from his regional coordinators and made assignments for the second weekend, and the Final Four.

In the Sweet 16, Hildebrand and the other regional observers went to regional sites, grading from a prime courtside seat during the games.

“Sitting next to Verne Lundquist and Bill Raferty, getting to know them, that was a joy for a country boy from Florien,” he said.

The observers got game videos, retreated to hotels and graded again that night to compare to the on-site ratings.

“My grades didn’t change much,” said Hildebrand, a 2014 Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame inductee.

Now just a fan with a very unique perspective, Hildebrand said officiating in this March Madness hasn’t been as bad as many believe.

“The kids now are staying in the weight rooms, and are stronger and faster. The post play is a wrestling match, and that’s unfortunate,” he said. “The officiating has generally been really good. Some of it, average, I’ll put it that way.

“There’s more missed traveling than ever before, and double dribbling. It’s a hard game to officiate. But the fellows we’ll see this weekend, they’re just dadgum good officials.”


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Cinderella taken out by the blues

Cinderella isn’t coming to New Orleans. Instead, we get a Final Four of bluebloods.

Who among us thought St. Peter’s could overcome North Carolina, even an eighth-seeded bunch of Tar Heels, after dispatching Kentucky, and Purdue (no disrespect to the Murray State Racers, but a super season isn’t admission to the Sky Lounge)?

Who among us HOPED St. Peter’s could do it ONE MORE TIME?

St. Peter’s, undergraduate enrollment of 2,600, shouted “why not US?” to every Division I basketball program not in a Power 5 conference, and to some that are in that number. Washington State? Vanderbilt? Colorado? I could go on, but you get the idea. Most of the 358 D-I basketball teams are not anywhere near the top of the food chain.

The 2022 Final Four teams have millions of lifelong fans who have only seen their favorite teams play on TV. Nothing wrong with that. But there’s a lot to be said for the George Masons, Butlers, and yes, the Gonzagas of the college hoops world (the Zags seem omnipresent in the top 10 now, but they didn’t make a Final Four until five years ago) crashing the Big Dance’s smallest gathering, its conclusion: four regional champions, three games, one winner.

How sweet it would have been to have St. Peter’s in the Crescent City. A school whose campus takes up all of two blocks in Jersey City. A program that uses trash can lids mid-practice to catch dripping rainwater in its home gym. The other teams have five-star recruits. The Peacocks didn’t have five stars AMONG their recruits.

When Mike McConathy led Northwestern State on its first steps into March Madness in 2001, it was just two years earlier that Gonzaga had made its initial run to the Elite Eight and was considered a Cinderella. When the Demons came home, there was a decent amount of dreamy speculation whether NSU could follow that same trail.

Didn’t happen. Doesn’t but once every forever. Ask folks at UT Arlington. The Mavs soared to the 2017 NIT quarterfinals, ending with 27 wins and a Dallas Morning News headline that seemed reasonable: “UTA comes up short in bid for NIT semifinals, but appears long on promise for the future.”

Didn’t happen. Hubris overdose. A year later, after 21 more wins, a new athletic director canned coach Scott Cross – not only a UTA grad, but an Academic All-American guard for the Mavs – and said the program was headed on Gonzaga’s path to prominence. Heard anything from UTA since? Except for two coaching changes?

Point is, don’t look for St. Peter’s to be back next year – in March Madness, let alone the Elite Eight.

The Peacocks didn’t edge over .500 this year until Jan. 18 after topping Canisius 65-57 in a Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference battle. They hadn’t won more than two straight until they got hot at the right time, reeling off 10 wins until Sunday’s meltdown. So Cinderella was 12-11, then found its footing and eventually, a glass slipper.

The St. Peter’s run was fueled by gallons of guts, complete buy-in among the Peacock flock, no small amount of pluck, and feathery jump shots that seemed magnetized to the inside of the rim. Good players, playing great – but not a future NBA Draft pick on the roster. A coach who knew his team and knew no fear.

It was a joy to watch. In the 318 AC, doubtful anyone had a direct tie to St. Peter’s, but we all developed a connection.

“Why not US?” That question is being asked by Bulldogs, Demons, Warhawks, (Grambling) Tigers and many, many more. Every March, we’ll now all have a little more hope, thanks to Peacocks who ruffled some feathers, spread their wings and soared.


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Come next Monday, it’ll be all right

Shoulda not missed buying the Powerball ticket Monday.

But it was just a little bit hectic. If anyone had foresight on even just a couple of the breaking college (and pro) sports news that spilled out yesterday, they surely had several on-target numbers for Monday night’s drawing.

In the morning, the Sports Twittersphere provided the not-very-surprising news that somebody in need of a college basketball coach looked toward Ruston and made Eric Konkol an offer he didn’t want to refuse. It’s Tulsa Time for Tech’s hoops maestro.

As it turned out, the same thing, on a much lesser $cale, unfolded Sunday in Cane River country, with a deal struck and word circulating in the 71457 and 65897 (Springfield, Mo.) that Show-Me-State native and resident Corey Gipson was making history. The Demons hired their first-ever African-American head coach of a major sport to replace a walking, talking, smiling, living legend, Mike McConathy, who has won more college basketball games (682) than any human in Louisiana ever will.

Northwestern showed its cards middle of Monday afternoon, catching most by surprise with the hire six days after announcing McConathy’s exit.

Louisiana Tech and Tulsa pulled up the curtain after 8 last night, confirming what had been decided Sunday evening and was trickling out since then. Media in Tulsa, where Golden Hurricane basketball has been the big story in town for decades, had the goods before Monday lunch, along with the national hoops newsgathering crew.

All of interest in the 318 AC, but good for just raised eyebrows and shoulder shrugs elsewhere around The Boot.

Enter Scott Woodward, the Don King of college coaching hires. Last week the otherwise subtly-stepping LSU AD and his president, Dr. Bill Tate, provided a predictable flush to the Will Wade error of Tiger basketball.

The stench from that will linger, due to sure-to-follow NCAA sanctions that will nick the Tigers’ football program but gash (comparatively speaking) LSU basketball, where the most “damn strong” rules violations have been sniffed out by the NCAA.

Matt McMahon is quite an underwhelming hire for Woodward, LSU’s big splash AD, in context of Kim Mulkey/Jay Johnson/Brian Kelley, but the former Murray State mentor seems squeaky clean, and quite capable of better game management than what many Tiger fans groaned about in the latter stages of Wade’s time on the bench in Baton Rouge.

The LSU move immediately soared to the top of Monday’s sports news summary, but NFL (Not For Long).

The Saints reupped with Jameis Winston at QB1, after making a lot of stomachs queasy with their interest in disgraced Houston (now, naturally Cleveland) passer DeShaun Watson. Winston had his own shady days in college at Florida State, but has regained his good name. Saints fans hope he regains his 2021 form and that GM Mickey Loomis has pulled the correct contract out of the W-file in the Black and Gold’s front office.

Meanwhile, on the college football scene, spring practices continued around north Louisiana, although at Grambling, news of Hue Jackson’s first on-field interaction with the Tigers is flowing like cold vanilla pudding. Evidently the stumbles with hiring an offensive coordinator have contributed to a plan to low-key the high-profile head coach’s beginning steps forward with the G-Men.

If that’s a puzzle that will take some time to unwrap, some clarity will probably emerge quickly at Bossier Parish Community College. A disappeared Tweet provided some consternation, popping up in mid-afternoon and vanishing later. To be explained: BPCC is said to be shelving its women’s basketball program, leaving the Cavs playing only men’s hoops, baseball, softball and women’s cross country. Women’s History Month is an awkward time to announce discontinuing a signature women’s sport, and the question of meeting Title IX requirements will arise.

Turns out Monday night was the last time this season we get amazed by what Kim Mulkey is wearing at the LSU women’s basketball game. The Wizard of the Wardrobe and her team bowed out of March Madness.

The thunder that you’re cringing about this morning has nothing to do with those bolts of lightning that landed Monday. But it sure is a well-timed Louisiana sports soundtrack.


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Demons make historic hire with new hoops coach

NEW NSU COACH: Corey Gipson was announced Monday as the new men’s basketball coach at Northwestern State.

By DOUG IRELAND, Journal Sports

NATCHITOCHES – The last two years have been good for Missouri State basketball and especially for Corey Gipson’s coaching career.

A 40-18 mark for the Bears, following relative mediocrity for most of the last decade, has restored some of the luster to an accomplished Missouri Valley Conference program. Gipson, Missouri State’s associate head coach for the past six years, reaped the rewards Monday when he was announced as the new head coach at Northwestern State.

It was a landmark hire, in the wake of the departure of iconic 23-year head coach Mike McConathy, whose exit was announced last Monday. New NSU athletics director Kevin Bostian promised and delivered on a lightning-quick search for a successor, with the decision made Sunday evening and announced in mid-afternoon Monday.

Gipson replaces the winningest men’s or women’s coach in Louisiana college basketball history. The transition not only ushers in a new approach in the basketball program, but brings NSU its first African-American head coach in a major sport.

The 41-year-old has been coaching on the college level since 2007, but has not been a head coach at any level. He comes to Northwestern after spending seven years on the Missouri State staff. He was named associate head coach 11 months after joining the Bears’ staff.

They snapped out of a barely-break even stretch with a 17-7 finish in 2020-21, then made their first postseason trip since 2014 and first appearance in the National Invitation Tournament since 2011, finishing 23-11 this season.

In that 17-7 year, Gipson and the Bears lashed the visiting Demons in Springfield, Mo., 94-67. That appears to be his only connection to NSU until recently.

He was a point guard for two seasons at Austin Peay in the Ohio Valley Conference, helping the Governors reach the 2003 NCAA Tournament as a junior. That is the only time he’s reached the Big Dance. A native of Sikeston, Missouri, Gipson played junior college ball at Three Rivers Community College in his home state.

His coaching career began at Division II Virginia State, recruiting players who won a 2007 conference championship. He worked at UNC Greensboro, in Bostian’s hometown, from 2009-12, the last two years as associate head coach. Gipson then moved to Austin Peay as an assistant before taking the Missouri State post, where he worked for two different head coaches and was the only staff member retained in the transition.

Dealing with potential attrition, and also adding players through the portal, were primary factors in Bostian’s rapid timetable. NSU’s roster is filled with underclassmen led by first-team All-Southland Conference center Kendal Coleman, the Captain Shreve product who entered the portal last Monday and reportedly has about three dozen offers including from Oklahoma and Marquette.

Gipson will be introduced to the media and NSU supporters at 10 a.m. Wednesday at a news conference in the Lucille Mertz Hendrick Room (Room 121) inside the Friedman Student Union on the Northwestern State campus.

In the NSU athletic department’s announcement Monday, Gipson was appreciative.

“This is very humbling, first and foremost, to be able to take the helm of a program with so much history and tradition,” said Gipson. “My family and I are elated to be going to a historic community and a program where coach McConathy has built such a great legacy. He paved the way for me and my family to come in and have a chance to push that legacy forward. It is an opportunity we do not take lightly. We see it as a privilege.”

“As we went through the search process, it was clear Corey possessed all the qualities we desired in a coach,” Bostian said. “We look forward to him building upon the great legacy coach McConathy built here at Northwestern State. Corey has been successful at every stop in his career. He is a strong coach and recruiter, but more importantly, he has a track record of developing student-athletes into better young men on and away from the game of basketball.”

All signs point to the exit of longtime McConathy assistants Jeff Moore and Dave Simmons. Moore, associate head coach, did interview for the vacant position last Wednesday morning.

Photo courtesy of Missouri State


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Tech’s Konkol takes Tulsa job, Bulldogs begin search

TULSA TIME: Eric Konkol, highly successful as Louisiana Tech’s basketball coach in the last seven years, is the new coach at Tulsa

By DOUG IRELAND, Journal Sports

RUSTON – For the second time in a decade, Louisiana Tech is a victim of its own success in men’s basketball.

The official announcement was issued Monday night that the Bulldogs are searching for a new men’s basketball coach, confirming that after seven seasons in Ruston, Eric Konkol will be introduced today as the successor to fired Frank Haith at Tulsa.

“I want to thank Eric for the job he has done serving as our men’s basketball head coach over the past seven years,” said Tech’s Director of Athletics/Vice President Dr. Eric A. Wood. “He ran a first-class program that was highly competitive on and off the court. Although we are sorry to see him leave, we wish him and his family nothing but the best moving forward. We are excited about the future of Bulldog basketball and we will work diligently to find the right person to lead our program.”

Wood said a national search is underway but no definitive timeline has been set.

Konkol, 45, won 67 percent of his games (153-75) in seven seasons at Tech, going over 20 wins six times. He was an assistant at Miami before following Mike White as the Bulldogs head coach. White left for the Florida job and this offseason moved to take over the Georgia program.

Konkol, like White, couldn’t deliver a berth in the Big Dance to the Bulldogs, but kept standards high throughout his time in Ruston. In his first season, Tech went 23-10 and reached the quarterfinals of the Vegas 16 postseason event. In five of his seven campaigns, his teams finished third or better in Conference USA, winning the West Division in 2021-21.

That was his best performance, a 24-8 season that carried Tech to the National Invitation Tournament semifinals. It netted a third-place finish after a narrow semifinal loss to Mississippi State and a dramatic win over Colorado State in the consolation game.

The Tulsa World reported Konkol had signed a $2 million extension through 2026, so a buyout payment will be required by Tech. His predecessor, Haith, former head coach at Missouri, had a $1.3 million annual salary at Tulsa.

The Golden Hurricanes have a successful hoops history. Konkol steps into a program whose past head coaches have included Nolan Richardson (1980-85), former Tech coach J.D. Barnett (1985-91), Tubby Smith (1991-95), Bill Self (1997-2000) and Danny Manning (2012-14). Tulsa has four NCAA Tournament berths and four NIT appearances this century.

Konkol was a student assistant coach at Tulsa in 2000-01, part of an NIT championship team.

Photo courtesy Louisiana Tech


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Dayton’s Demons: Recalling NSU basketball’s Big Dance debut

BEFORE THE DANCE: Second-year NSU basketball coach Mike McConathy with CBS announcer Tim Brando before the Demons’ March 13, 2001 NCAA Tournament debut in Dayton, Ohio.

By DOUG IRELAND, Journal Sports

This morning, Mike McConathy walks onto the court at Prather Coliseum for the last time as Northwestern State’s basketball coach, at an event celebrating his retirement after 23 years. A highlightSBJ spotlight reel of memories has been dancing through the minds of Demons since his announcement Monday afternoon.

Some of the most compelling, and overlooked, are of the charmed five days in March 2001 when McConathy’s men became Dayton’s Demons. It was 21 years ago tonight that his second NSU squad won the first-ever NCAA Tournament play-in game, then stayed in town for three more days before No. 1-seeded Illinois sent them south.

Getting there was no small feat. Northwestern (finishing 19-13) was the sixth seed in the Southland Conference Tournament, and won it by dispatching three foes who had beaten the Demons twice in the regular season: No. 3 Nicholls on its home court, then No. 2 UTSA and No. 1 McNeese at the Brookshire Grocery Arena in Bossier City.

Then came NSU’s own version of Planes, Trains and Automobiles getting to Dayton. NCAA pairings were announced at 6 p.m. Sunday night, but the NCAA’s travel agency didn’t give the Demons travel plans until nearly 10 o’clock. Their bus pulled off campus at 6 a.m. in a violent storm, flew out of Shreveport at 8, looped northward in Atlanta, boarded a bus at the Cincinnati Airport (which is in Kentucky), and an hour later unloaded at the UD Arena just in time for a 7 p.m. shootaround and media session.

The play-in game was a first-year experiment pitting the lowest two seeds in March Madness. It now involves eight teams over two nights in the NCAA Opening Round, but it has never left Dayton, a hoops hotbed of Americana. Only a few of the 6,813 fans in the house on March 13, 2001 were wearing NSU purple or Winthrop maroon, but everybody was into the matchup. Instead of the atmosphere of a lab experiment, it had “an NCAA Tournament feel,” said ESPN’s Andy Katz.

“It was a new opportunity, the play-in game. Winthrop didn’t like it. We were thrilled,” said McConathy. “There was no other game that Tuesday night, and we were getting all that media attention around the country. It was incredible, and after we won, it magnified.”

3-15 Chris Thompson 2001 NCAAThat night, the game was the lead story on ESPN’s SportsCenter, and drew the top half of the sports page in Wednesday’s USA Today.

Two of the central figures were Bossier City natives and Airline High graduates with deep ties to Bossier Parish Community College – McConathy, of course, and senior forward Chris Thompson, who led NSU with 18 points in a 71-67 victory.

They weren’t alone. One of Shreveport’s best-known sports figures, Tim Brando, called the national television broadcast – carried on TNN, the forerunner of today’s truTV, but produced by CBS with all the trimmings. Rick Pitino, soon to become the coach at Louisville, was Brando’s analyst.

“Rick and I were already friendly, so that helped the broadcast,” said Brando. “He understood that Northwestern State was from my neck of the woods, and that Opie (McConathy) was a lifelong friend.

“After our production meetings leading into the game, I recall Rick saying, ‘This guy’s for real, isn’t he?’ Opie’s humility struck him,” said Brando.

That impression, and Brando’s insight, pleased those watching back home around northwest Louisiana.

“Having Tim on the TV call, he knew us, knew our story. We didn’t have to explain how to say Natchitoches,” said McConathy. “It was priceless.”

And on the court, another local – veteran NCAA official Mike Thibodeaux. The Shreveporter, who had worked a few Demon games in the past two years, was regarded among the best wearing a whistle anywhere in college basketball. As Thompson warmed up, he noticed a familiar face watching.

“It put a smile on my face,” said the NSU senior forward, whose colorful on-court persona drew several technical fouls in his two years in Natchitoches. “I’d known Thib a long time. His first words to me: ‘Chris, you gonna be all right?’ I said, ‘I’m gonna be on my best behavior.’ It was all fun and games, but I’m a competitor. He knew that.”

“We weren’t going to get any breaks,” said McConathy, “but Mike being there showed our guys that at its core, this was just another basketball game, and it was going to be well officiated.”

The game was close. NSU senior point guard Josh Hancock sank a 3-pointer with under a minute to go for a five-point lead, and transfers Chris Lynch and Michael Byars-Dawson made a pair of free throws each in the final 8.8 seconds to seal the outcome.

“We came out with great energy, we played well. Winthrop made their runs. There was a stretch when they hit several 3s in a row, but we weathered that,” said Thompson. “D’or Fischer was big for us. He was up and down as a freshman, but he was up that game (11 points, 12 rebounds, 9 blocks, the last setting up Hancock’s crucial 3-pointer) and that was a big plus. We made the clutch plays at the end.”

Shocked by the crowd support, and with the hometown Flyers hosting an NIT first-round game the following night, NSU bought Dayton basketball T-shirts and attended the game. The  Dayton Daily News called them “Dayton’s Demons” and the local love for the upstarts from Louisiana didn’t fade.

“That was pretty nice, all that attention,” said Thompson.

“They had embraced us, and we hugged back,” said McConathy. “They invited us on their local sports talk shows. It was incredible to play in a city that was filled with great basketball fans. It’s why they’ve kept the Opening Round all these years later.”

All these years later, most fans know McConathy led NSU to three NCAA Tournaments, and rightfully, it’s the dramatic 14/3 upset of 15th-ranked Iowa in 2006 that immediately comes to mind.

All the Demons’ future success was rooted in those days in Dayton, and that night 21 years ago when McConathy and his brand of Northwestern State basketball made its debut on the national stage.

Photos courtesy NORTHWESTERN STATE


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We’ll never watch another Pistol, but we have Red Panda

Since I can remember watching, on our family’s black & white Motorola TV, a mop-topped, shaggy-haired lanky kid wearing floppy socks doing optical illusions with a basketball on Saturday afternoons, I feel justified in saying this.

Not everything in basketball is better now.

Specifically, the ball-handling. Yes, it is unfair to the human race to compare anyone to Pistol Pete Maravich, the LSU phenom who would today, 50 years later, STILL be ahead of his time doing what he did with the rock.

“Boy, could he play basketball, and he could entertain you. The no-look passes, the pat-it and pass it with one hand, that’s where I saw all that, from Pistol Pete, and that’s where I got all that,” said Magic Johnson, who has had a bit of influence on the game.

If you haven’t seen for yourself, thank goodness for YouTube. It’s worth any amount of time you spend, and it costs as much as an e-mail subscription to the Shreveport-Bossier Journal.

But I’m not here to toast the Pistol. As the starting point guard on the Rundell Junior High School Tigers, 16-1 rulers of all the pine trees we surveyed in the middle of north Louisiana in 1973, I had to pay attention to ball-handling. I emulated Maravich like every other kid dribbler in those days, but to paraphrase Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry, “a boy’s gotta know his limitations.”

I also knew coach Bill DeCou would sit my fanny next to him on the bench in a second if I turned it over too much, or if I turned it over at all trying something I’d seen Pete do.

So while I would sneak in a behind-the-back pass or a between-the-legs dribble once every semester or so, only when loosely guarded, I knew what looked good, and I knew what was prudent, and they were not the same.

Today, what looks good is paramount. That’s not totally terrible. Ballers grow up scoping out SportsCenter, and your basic layup, your solid skip pass and your turnover-light night never make the Top 10 package. Style is the standard. It’s fun to watch, even more fun to do.

Pete Maravich’s creative genius arrived just as college basketball found some footing on TV. It was perfect timing for an alien being to wear jersey 23 in purple and white, and then don No. 44 in various hues during his NBA career. You KNEW there were UFOs because you saw Pete play.

But he played with old-school rules. Watch him dribble with his hand on top of the ball, not halfway or less on the side of it. Pistol was cupping it and scooping to make a move, but he was not putting the rock back on the floor and continuing his dribble.

That’s routine nowadays. A player getting called for carrying is as rare as concurrence in Congress.

The Pistol’s panache is unmatched in today’s game. We may have greater shooters (Steph Curry leads the way), we may have greater talents (your pick, LeBron, Kobe, Durant, and of course, MJ) and we have epic dunkers of all sizes from all over.

But the rulemakers, and the stripes with whistles, have dumbed down ball-handling. Pistol Pete was certainly not The Last Boy Scout, he admitted when he found Christianity late in his career (and sadly, his life). But because the bar has been lowered, we’ll never encounter a modern baller who controls the rock remotely as well as he did, and that’s too bad.

There is a saving grace for today’s game, however. If you ever can, check out Red Panda. And if you don’t know, there’s YouTube.


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Barbier’s Demons serve notice they’re pretty salty, again

Once is a nice surprise, twice in a row maybe a happy coincidence. Three straight? That’s more than respectable, it’s remarkable for David, vs. Goliath.

With its 4-2 win Friday night on very neutral ground – the Texas Rangers’ Globe Life Field in Arlington – the Northwestern State baseball team topped the Oklahoma Sooners. Worth noting, yes. A fluke? Not hardly.

Especially when you consider it was the third straight Power 5 win for the Demons of coach Bobby Barbier. They beat LSU in Baton Rouge last year, denying Paul Maineiri his 1,500th career win in his final home game as the Tigers’ coach, and put down the top 10-ranked Arkansas Razorbacks in Fayetteville in 2019.

OU, LSU and Arkansas have decimal-point budgets. The Demons get by on decimals, mostly.

There’s a huge difference in resources when Barbier and his boys line up against a brand-name foe, but between the foul lines, you can’t tell it.

It was three years ago in Corvallis, Ore., that LSU had to pull off a miraculous ninth-inning rally to escape the Demons’ guillotine in the NCAA Regionals. That came one day after Northwestern blanked one of the top 40 winningest programs in college baseball this century, San Diego State. In its opener, NSU played eventual College World Series champ Oregon State more competitively than LSU did twice afterward in that regional.

Barbier, married to Bossier City native Kody Sprout, was an Academic All-America first baseman and a first-team All-Southland pick a year later in 2005, when he helped Mitch Gaspard’s Demons reach the Baton Rouge Regional. He began his coaching career for Gaspard, first at NSU and then at Alabama when Gaspard succeeded another former NSU coach, Jim Wells, when the Bossier City native retired after 13 seasons steering the Crimson Tide.

With a 192-89 record from 1990-94 at his alma mater, assisted at times by both Gaspard and current Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco, Wells jumpstarted an amazing run of nine Southland Conference titles in 17 seasons (1991-2005) by the Demons. Contributing to that were current Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn (106-65 from 1995-97), current Mississippi State AD and former head coach John Cohen (146-84 from 1998-2001) and Gaspard (210-138 from 2002-07).

Barbier came back to Natchitoches as pitching coach for Lane Burroughs in 2015-16, when the Demons surged to a 40-18 Southland mark in two seasons, a span good enough for Louisiana Tech to tap Burroughs as its head coach. That’s worked out pretty well. So has the in-house promotion of Barbier.

Along with his team’s repeated dents inflicted on Power 5s, and the 2018 Corvallis Regional trip earned by the Demons’s first-ever Southland Tournament title, Barbier and his associate head coach, former LSUS pitching coach Chris Bertrand, have a salty collection of credentials.

Since 2018, NSU has had six MLB Draft picks, including the Southland’s highest in 2018, 2019 and 2020. The Demons have had an All-American in 2020 (rising Pittsburgh Pirates pitching prospect Logan Hofmann), and Freshmen All-Americans Johnathan Harmon (2020) and Dante Stuart (2021).

Most impressively, Barbier’s bunch has posted the Southland’s top winning percentage since 2018, better even than the perennially strong Southeastern Louisiana Lions. They own wins in three of their last four against Burroughs and the Bulldogs, and have captured their last two against LSU.

NSU nearly won the series against the Sooners Saturday night, falling 2-1 in Arlington at Globe Life Park. Sunday evening, Oklahoma (5-2) got a shutdown pitching outing and chipped away for a 5-1 victory.

Not anyone in the Demon dugout was proud. But going toe-to-toe with the Sooners in a three-game series signals Barbier’s Battlers are capable of big things again this spring.


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NSU, Tech waiting for the dominos to fall

Contests involving Bulldogs, Demons and Warhawks on the field, at the track and on the courts are entertaining, but not as intriguing or impactful as the games being played via e-mail, Zoom, WebEx and cell phones.

While the teams at Louisiana Tech, Northwestern State and ULM are aiming for wins and championships, their athletic directors are continuing to twist and turn through unsteady territory minus a scoreboard. The biggest game is conference realignment, which will shape the new era for college sports in Ruston, Natchitoches and Monroe.

ULM’s got the Alfred E. Newman mindset. What, me, worry? The Warhawks’ membership in the Sun Belt Conference has never looked better. The Sun Belt swiped Southern Miss, Old Dominion and Marshall from Tech’s Conference USA flock, and added stout FCS member James Madison, too.

That’s the good news for ULM. The flip side is the Warhawks’ neighborhood is getting richer and the look up the budget ladder is steeper now.

Nearby in Ruston, the C-USA lineup will soon look a lot different. Whether that’s in 2022-23, or 2023-24, will depend on lawyers arguing and judges ruling on exactly when the departing members can shift to the Sun Belt. It’s nothing that a negotiated, decimal-point buyout can’t resolve.

NSU hopes the Southland Conference has staying power. Although Texas A&M-Commerce is moving up from Division II with plenty of money and street cred, and Southland staple McNeese decided to stay put last fall, the league is still fragile. McNeese dreams of an invitation to move up to FBS status, and pines for a wink and nod from CUSA or the SBC. Tech’s conference might need shoring up, but it’s hard to fathom McNeese not looking like McLeast to the reconfigured CUSA collection. The 14-member Sun Belt isn’t receptive.

There’s no instability, just looming prosperity for Grambling. With the surge of support and attention that HBCU institutions are realizing, the Southwestern Athletic Conference is strong and getting stronger.

While ULM has to cope with the rising price of poker, it knows who its conference cousins are. That’s not true for NSU or Tech.

Sure, there are core membership groups, with newbies arriving. But both leagues crave strength in numbers, and currently lack it.

After six CUSA members charted their course for 2023 arrival in the American Athletic Conference (Tulane and pals), last fall’s defections of ODU, Marshall and USM were disastrous.

By adding four members, CUSA will survive with nine, but two of the schools relocating for 2023 (Jacksonville State, Sam Houston) are moving up from FCS, while another (New Mexico State) has never found its footing in FBS. Liberty has Power 5 financial resources and will immediately contend in football and basketball, at least.

Cue the 1970s Gloria Gaynor hit, “I Will Survive,” as CUSA’s new anthem, even if this version is a little off key.

Considering Northwestern, its conference hashtag has shifted from #SouthlandStrong to #SouthlandUnsteady. Following five of 13 members bolting last summer, Incarnate Word is the latest departure, heading out in July to join (at least for now) Stephen F. Austin, Lamar, and Abilene Christian in the Western Athletic Conference. UIW’s exit is offset by adding nearby A&M-Commerce, a Division II stalwart in football and basketball.

The Southland’s dilemma could be remedied by the suddenly plausible return of SFA (financial problems, and dipping enrollment) and Lamar (never enthralled by the move west). The realities of WAC-ky travel to Seattle, L.A., Salt Lake, etc., are sinking in. The Southland’s other ideal: at least a couple regional Division II programs like Arkansas Tech, Central Oklahoma and West Texas A&M decide to follow Commerce into Division I.

All of these hypotheticals could be moot before 2025, once the major powers have a monstrous new TV/streaming deal set, rooted in football, but maybe folding in March Madness, which if so, would shatter the NCAA as we’ve known it.

There are 358 Division 1 athletic programs; the elite 65 are in Power 5 conferences. The majority does not rule. The D-I lineup will likely look quite different, with more separation than has existed in decades.

Don’t be shocked by minor-league sports at the top. With the dawn of NIL benefits for college athletes, Power 5s are basically there now, although they have minimal control, and that makes them uncomfortable. Refining that landscape will trigger another reshuffling, ultimately producing stable conference affiliations down the line for Northwestern, Tech and their peers.

Don’t expect quick solutions. The big boys choose when to start the dominos tumbling.


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College upheaval is not totally terrible

Name, Image and Likeness deals are downright crazy. The transfer portal is an unmitigated disaster. College sports as we’ve known them have a very wobbly foundation.

This is not totally terrible.

My great friend Greg Burke, in his farewell interview with the SBJ published Monday, expressed dismay that a lot of the ongoing revolution in the structure of college athletics is being driven by media and public opinion. There never will be a more noble, altruistic Division I athletics administrator than the just-departed Northwestern State Demons athletic director, but on this point, I humbly and respectfully disagree.

Bigly.

For the love of good ole American values, we should be thankful the day has finally dawned. This upheaval has required public outcry, and media focus, and most of all, the pressure of potential class action litigation and protests by student-athletes to begin rectifying decades of imbalance.

Key point – NIL isn’t an NCAA program. The colleges, happy with the status quo, didn’t design it. Congress did that. It’s federal law, prompted by the massive revenue stream generated by major college athletes providing only a small percentage directly benefitting them. What’s right about that?

There were tremors last March, the ripple effect of the Ed O’Bannon lawsuit, which in the past decade began to erode the status quo. It sparked fear among the power brokers that at last year’s Final Four in Indy, where the NCAA has its headquarters, players could walk out to the opening tip, then sit down on the court and stay there for a bit. The point – that a bigger share of profits from March Madness and other major college sports should benefit, indirectly and directly, those actually playing the games.

Not those coaching them. Not those scheduling or staging them. The college students playing them – in every one of the 24 sports the NCAA sponsors.

Yes, all of those basketball players and most of the football players at Big School U. are on full scholarships, getting academic guidance, meals, housing, tuition and books — and beginning seven years ago, “cost of attendance” stipends at schools that could afford them.

At smaller Division I programs like our area colleges, players on some teams get stipends, while other sports don’t. Where decisions are necessary, top priority goes to the athletes in the money-making sports, football and basketball, not necessarily in that order. Easier to give 30 stipends (men and women) for hoops than dozens more for football, if a choice must be made.

However it’s done, and to what degree institution by institution, it’s good. But it pales compared to the absurd coaching salaries in the upper echelon, even down in the grass roots along the country roads flanking the 358 Division I athletic departments.

Billy Napier was collecting $2 million coaching football at UL Lafayette last fall. Meanwhile, an average of 11,000 fans came disguised as empty seats at 31,000-capacity Cajun Field. Not an acceptable ROI, especially during the best season in school history.

Scholarships ARE a big deal. Just ask anyone paying off a college loan. That group includes many more student-athletes than you’d think, because the vast majority are NOT on full scholarship. For example, college baseball teams have 11.7 scholarships to give to a max of 32 players allowed to receive them. I can do that math. Not to say other financial aid programs don’t reduce the cost of college, but most of the athletes at Tech, NSU, Grambling or ULM are not on full rides, so most have family, financial aid or student loans helping them cover expenses.

Since last summer, when NIL deals became legal (and the NCAA belatedly waved the surrender flag), in the top half of Division I, some (not most) of the athletes have benefitted.

The impact dwindles from the Power 5 leagues to the Group of 5 conferences (where Tech and ULM are), and is a notch above a mirage for FCS schools like NSU and Grambling. The pending announcement of an NIL deal for all Grambling scholarship athletes is wonderful, but it isn’t about to give each Tiger an extra $10-20k per year. More likely, reportedly funded by an East Coast trust fund, it will be a tiered system that is not one-size-fits-all. The biggest payouts won’t be very big, but far better than nothing at all.

It’s a start. Just like the transfer portal (reminder: pro sports survived free agency). Adjustments will be made, because Nick Saban says they must.

But thanks to media pressure, public grumbling, and most of all, the fear of nothing less than a labor force rebellion, Division I college sports are finally becoming more fair to the young people playing them.

NOTE — ONE WORD, “required”, should run in italics. It is marked in red in the fifth paragraph that begins “For the love of…”


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February’s National Signing Day still has its own special appeal

There’s something for everybody on National Signing Day (Traditional).

Really. For those into high school and/or college football, it’s like a holiday, except everybody 12th grade and under does GO to school, and to class. And gets homework.

It’s huge for fax machines. Otherwise a space taker for 364 days, the fax still gets a few adoring glances on NSD. There are still some technologically challenged coaches (more than a few of them, actually) who help their players maneuver through the actual pages of scholarship documents, but can’t for the sake of seconds at supper figure out how to scan and e-mail them. No shame in that; the fax stands ready, like the push lawnmower.

NSD (Traditional) is not as big for team caps as it was. NSD (Early) has dominated the team cap announcement, when A-List Prospect has a collection of hats with school logos of his final choices, and toys with everyone in the room and elsewhere before pulling on the one he’s gonna make part of his new wardrobe. Most of the high-profile signees do their deals in December (NSD Early).

But that doesn’t dim Traditional for unabashed exhilaration.

Traditional is every bit as solid as ever in that department. EVERYBODY is happy. Family gathers, often dressed to the nines. High school coaches are stoked. They, teachers, and administrators are proud to see Prospect is stepping on a path to higher education. They’ve all been through college and they know what a life-changer it is. Meanwhile, college coaches are happy their months of recruiting are rewarded, they are excited about Prospect getting on campus and getting in the offseason program, and boosters cannot help but picture EVERY signee stepping quickly into the starting lineup and stacking up Ws.

(With the NIL money now flowing around the high-rent campuses like a flooded Red River, Prospect also will soon, if not immediately, need to fill out his W9 and consider a CPA. It is, after all, bidness.)

Traditional also is relief. Those who didn’t get to do NSD (Early) have had several weeks to find their path forward. Some already knew it, some took it down to the wire. Some discovered the fit wasn’t there at the Snazzy Conference level and when reality settled in, just like when Favorite Girlfriend kicked Prospect to the curb, well, there were other really nice girls around and one had PO-tential. All the good food ain’t served at five-star, pricey restaurants, either. So, Traditional is also satisfaction.

It’s accomplishment. Scholarships of ANY kind are not birthrights. They’re earned, with years of commitment, toughness, resilience, and yes, God-given talent. From the youth league coach to the junior high teacher to the high school counselor, and for Prospect’s people sitting around the dinner table, this was a day of celebration, and rightfully so. They helped make it happen.

It’s transition. High school days are not done, but this is the first big step away from everything Prospect has known for 17 or so years. Might be exciting, but at some point it’s probably daunting. That support base almost always shrinks once you’re out of sight. Gotta make better choices than ever before, because the people who know you best won’t be close by as sounding boards.

But all that uncertainty is outweighed by the assurance that NSD (Traditional, or Early) provides. And that feels Tony the Tiger GRRREAT!

Last thing. BTW, this year NSD (Traditional) was extra wonderful, with it being Women in Sport Day, and Groundhog Day. Six more weeks of volleyball?


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Four involved locals confident in outcome of NSU AD search

(Left to right) Mike Wilburn, John Manno and Kenny Knotts joined Terry Moore (not shown) as Shreveport-Bossier residents involved in the selection of their alma mater’s new athletic director last week

By DOUG IRELAND, Journal Sports

A week ago, Northwestern State supporters were digesting the news that the replacement for longtime Demons athletics director Greg Burke was somebody nobody in the 318 area code knew.

How’d that happen?

It was a product of a two-month process led, for the first time at Northwestern, by an outside search firm. To say Kyle Bowlsby of Bowlsby Sports Advisors was discreet during those eight weeks is more than understatement.

The curtain opened, and 43-year-old North Carolina State graduate Kevin Bostian made his first impression, introduced last Thursday on campus before quickly heading home to Greensboro, N.C. until he steps into his new office Feb. 7.

Among the 10-person advisory committee that pared dozens of applicants down to three finalists: four Shreveport-Bossier men confident the Demons have found the ideal candidate.

Ex-Demon baseballer Kenny Knotts is an insurance consultant. John A. Manno Jr. is a retired local businessman. Terry Moore, a Haughton native and Captain Shreve graduate whose brother Robert started at safety 30-plus years ago for NSU, then the Atlanta Falcons, is a financial advisor. Vietnam veteran and former NSU infielder Mike Wilburn is an investment advisor.

They are as Demon as it gets. When their work began after Thanksgiving, they liked the idea of being involved in a new approach.

“I was really proud of the university going to a nationwide search process, and I was really happy that on the committee were business people, former athletes, and representatives of the faculty and student body as well,” said Moore. “Everyone brought something to the table. From a leadership standpoint, you can’t get any better than John Manno, a level-headed guy who loves Northwestern and would ask relevant questions.”

The unknown: being guided by an outsider who was learning about NSU on the fly.

“My initial thoughts were this was going to be really fast, and I wasn’t sure it would be handled correctly,” said Manno, who last fall was part of the advisory committee helping hire new president Dr. Marcus Jones. “I was very wrong. The search firm was excellent.

“We damned sure should have done this (process) 15 years ago,” he said, not referring to replacing Burke, but to how NSU has previously hired key athletic personnel.

“Rather than making it so Natchitoches-centric, looking for ties to Northwestern, we enlarged the pool in this process. We needed that so very much, a new approach with a new leader who has great vision,” said Wilburn.

“Kevin is going to build on the legacy that Is in place,” said Moore. “People assume since there’s change, that so much is wrong. No. It’s just time for another person to take the hammer and nails and build on the many strong points in place.”

Bostian was a prime pick by the advisory panel, said Manno, emerging from 25 (chosen by Bowlsby from an initial pool of 80) who were narrowed to 13 by the group, then to five who they interviewed, and three finalists recommended to Jones. That trio visited Natchitoches for final interviews with Jones and other NSU personnel on MLK Day and the next morning. Bostian quickly got the offer while he was in Shreveport last Tuesday, waiting to fly home.

A few days earlier, Bostian had checked out Natchitoches on his own. He flew into Shreveport, drove south, visited downtown and walked the campus by himself, without anyone at NSU aware.

“That made an impression on me. He did that on his own dime,” said Wilburn. “It said a lot about his approach, and his interest in our job.”

“He was the most ready candidate to make this step,” said Knotts, noting Bostian spent three months last fall as interim AD at UNC Greensboro. “He’s sat in that chair, made the final calls, hired coaches, kept the ship steady.”

“We have the right guy,” said Manno.


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Why not (nominate) the best?

Opinion by DOUG IRELAND, Journal Staff

Lots of fine folks have contributed money to give away, legally, to top-caliber high school senior football scholar-athletes.

The S.M. McNaughton Chapter of the National Football Foundation has been doing this for over 40 years. The local chapter raises funds with tennis tournaments, auctions and other events, then awards scholarships to the cream of the crop among north Louisiana’s seniors.

One catch: those fine young men have to be nominated by their head coaches. Only 10 nominations have been submitted so far, from eligible football programs in districts 1, 2 and 3 in Louisiana.

When you read that the deadline to apply was last Thursday, don’t be alarmed. It’s been extended to Wednesday, Feb. 2, already a red letter day for senior prep football players. It’s also National Signing Day.

Throw in the excitement of Groundhog Day, and it’s a date impossible to ignore.

Not that the head coaches who haven’t nominated anyone yet are intentionally overlooking this wonderful opportunity for their super seniors.

Although the football season is done, those coaches aren’t. Offseason strength and conditioning programs have begun. All of the coaches are also teachers, with classes to educate and an ever-soaring amount of record-keeping required.

Most importantly, more than ever before, today’s coaches are mentors at least, and in many cases, surrogate parents for young people whose parents are too overwhelmed or sometimes sadly indifferent.

So, Coach, if you haven’t nominated your top senior football player in 2021 for the McNaughton Chapter NFF Scholarship, this second chance is for you, says Toni Goodin, the longtime secretary/backbone of the local chapter.

She can relate. The former Logansport High cheerleader has coordinated the NFF scholarship program for longer than the 2021 seniors have been living. It’s hardly the only cause for Goodin, who among other unpaid pursuits is a vibrant volunteer for the Independence Bowl, along with her mom Peggy Mitchell.

But currently, she’s the CEO honed in on opening the sparkling Shreveport Rehabilitation Hospital. That’s resulted in her delegating the oversight of the scholarship program to another NFF board member. She picked the rookie – me.

It’s a privilege. Just like it is to win one of these NFF scholarships. I’ve been to most of the NFF Scholar-Athlete Awards Banquets this century, watching and listening to the accomplishments of these remarkable young men, seeing their excitement at being recognized for not only being a really good player, but doing a great job throughout their high school years in the classroom, and being involved in community service.

Those are the cornerstone values. Nominees must have earned all-district honors for the 2021 season; have a cumulative GPA of at least 3.2; and have involvement in some extracurricular activity. The application, submitted to SBJSportsLine@gmail.com by the head coach, must include the student-athlete’s academic transcript and any recommendation letters or supporting materials.

Nomination info was e-mailed to local and area head coaches when school reconvened early this month.

Questions? Call or text me at 318-471-2086. It’s all about giving opportunity to deserving young men – and a lifelong memory at East Ridge Country Club on March 24 for the best of the best.

There are role models on the field every fall at every high school. Here’s a chance for your favorite one to sparkle one more time.

Photo: by ROBERT FREDERICK/TimeBoxPhotography.com


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It’s a breakout year at NSU for Captain Shreve product Kendal Coleman

By MATT VINES, Journal Sports

NATCHITOCHES – Call him Mr. Double Double.

Northwestern State center Kendal Coleman has seven double doubles in his last eight games and eight overall this season to highlight an impressive second freshman campaign.

Coleman logged a season-high 14 rebounds to go with 12 points in an agonizing 79-74 loss by the Demons (4-14, 0-1 Southland Conference) at Southeastern on Saturday to open SLC play. It was his third double double against a league opponent this season.

With 13 conference games remaining, there appears no reason why the Captain Shreve High product can’t string together an impressive collection. He already ranks him 13th nationally with eight double doubles.

“Kendal has shown a great deal of interest in getting where he needs to be to succeed,” said NSU coach Mike McConathy. “The work ethic he developed over the summer is special, and he’s on a mission to be the best player he can be.

“He’s starting to scratch that surface because he’s matured a lot, and he’s starting to understand the perspective it takes to play at a higher level.”

Coleman will test the league waters again this week Thursday at preseason favorite Nicholls (10-8, 0-1 SLC) and Saturday at UNO (8-8, 1-0 SLC), a team in which Coleman has already posted 20 points and 12 rebounds earlier this month in a non-league meeting.

Already an accomplished jump shooter, Coleman developed around the basket as he’s improved his paint scoring and rebounding.

The 6-foot-8 center looks like he’s been chiseled from the side of a mountain and leads the SLC in rebounding (9.1 rebounds per game) and is fourth in scoring (15.2 points per game).

“I would attribute that to the work I did in the offseason,” said Coleman, who flashed potential in his first freshman season with seven points and rebounds per game before COVID-19 gave him a second freshman season. “All the things I learned from the NSU coaches plus guys back home like Derrick Parker and Carl Harris that I’ve worked out with from a young age – I’ve come a long way.”

An overseas trip this summer also proved formative to Coleman’s development.

He played on an international basketball tour in North Macedonia with Athletes In Action, an organization in which Baylor director of basketball operations Bill Peterson coached as Coleman joined players from Baylor, Texas A&M and Texas State among others.

“That experience taught me to be a leader on and off the court,” said Coleman, a quiet, soft-spoken leader who is trying add a more authoritative voice. “It showed me that I can try to assert my dominance in the paint and be a good role player.”

Coleman’s role within the Northwestern team has been as an offensive focal point, excelling against high-level competition while the Demons played seven teams within the top 100 NET rankings.

He scored a career-high 22 points at Tulsa and has added 20 at SMU, 19 against Oklahoma and double doubles at LSU (16 points, 13 rebounds) and Texas A&M (12 points, 11 rebounds).

Coleman has accomplished that feat with great efficiency, shooting 70 percent against the above opponents and 60 percent for most of the season before recently slipping to 53 percent.

“I think the summer tour was huge for his confidence because it’s an opportunity to go play with higher-level guys and allows you to size yourself up and see where you are,” McConathy said. “If you’re that kind of player, which I think Kendal is, it gives you the drive that’s necessary to be one of those kind of players.”

With the emergence of the transfer portal, that’s also led to a lot of extended hugs in the postgame handshake line for a player whose sole Division I offer was NSU.

But with 350 points and more 300 rebounds already, Coleman could easily become just the third Demon to score 1,500 points and grab 1,000 rebounds, and the first since Billy Reynolds in 1977.

 Photo by CHRIS REICH/NSU


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Diving into the search for NSU’s new AD

Opinion By DOUG IRELAND, Journal Sports

Remember what you were doing in August 1996, when Al Gore had just invented the internet? Was your favorite singer even born 25 ½ years ago, when Greg Burke was hired as Northwestern State’s director of athletics?

In a few weeks, Burke will nobly depart that role, becoming a fundraiser for the NSU Foundation, which supports academic endeavors at the university.

Who’s replacing him? That could be settled perhaps as fast as in a week or so, although it may take 3-4 more weeks before the new AD is actually on campus in Natchitoches, moving into the office Burke has been slowly clearing out as he continues to run the department.

Who are the leading candidates? Almost certainly, nobody we know (very well, if at all).

Indications are that Northwestern’s new president, Marcus Jones, is really, truly overseeing a national search. Unlike prominent hires in athletics in the last quarter century, there’s a tight lid on this one. Unlike any previous athletic search at NSU, it’s spearheaded by an outside consultant.

Kyle Bowlsby, whose father Bob is one of the more powerful people in college sports as the commissioner of the Big XII Conference, is nearing his mid-30s as the main man for Bowlsby Sports Advisors, a Dallas-based search firm that’s done work for some blue-blood colleges (Clemson, Cal, Pitt, and the Big Ten’s Northwestern). Also on the client list: Tulane, Army, Rice, the Ivy League, Indiana State, Colorado State, and USA Triathlon.

His work, and discussions with an alumni-based advisory committee appointed by Jones several weeks ago, involved conversations with dozens more NSU stakeholders while Bowlsby searched the collegiate athletic landscape for potential fits with the Demons. But the cards are being held very, very close to his vest.

The field, recently trimmed to a dozen or so, is being quickly whittled down to a handful. Presumably 2-4 will visit Natchitoches in the coming days, which involves making some travel arrangements on short notice, no small feat currently. Jones will rely on feedback from the committee and Bowlsby as he considers who gets the job offer, then it’s all on NSU’s new leader to seal the deal.

The new AD’s most vital task: to help Demon football get better, fast.

Demon coach Brad Laird officially took a quantum leap in that direction Monday as NSU announced hires of new coordinators with impressive credentials at the FCS level. Running the Demons’ offense will be Cody Crill, who has been the OC at Incarnate Word in the last four seasons as the Cardinals have lit up scoreboards and made two playoff appearances. Directing the defense: Weston Glaser, DC in the last three seasons for the Campbell (N.C.) Camels, who stacked up some impressive NCAA statistical rankings.

Northwestern’s players will run through a wall for their head coach. Getting them to run where the new coordinators want them to go on the field ought to produce improved results for NSU’s 2022 team.

Giving those coaches and the Demon football program resources it desperately needs is Job One for the next AD, and his, or her, boss. Improved financial support is a big part of the puzzle, but not the sole solution. In less than a decade, Nicholls, Southeastern and UL Lafayette have gone from cellar-dwellers to championship winners, and their university brands have soared. How’d that happen?

It wasn’t simply cranking up the cash flow. It was paradigm shifts in how leadership, both on campus and in the community, advantaged those football programs.

That’s what the competition has done. That’s what Northwestern desperately needs. Jones, unlike his recent predecessors, wasn’t deeply engaged with athletics, but he has shrewdly recognized the need to get up to speed and he’s worked extensively at it since taking over as the heir apparent in July. He’s watched, he’s listened, and he’s sought outside help, banking on Bowlsby, who he met at a conference in New Orleans this fall.

Can the new year be the beginning of a big bounce-back by Demon football, and NSU Athletics? Last time a new president (Dr. Randy Webb) hired a new AD (Burke), Bill Clinton was campaigning a second term in the White House. Unrelated to the man from Hope, hope abounded in Demonland.

Things soon began to percolate. NSU Athletics has never been better than it was in the ensuring decade. Northwestern supporters relished Southland Conference championships and NCAA postseason appearances in football, both basketball programs, baseball, softball, track and field, and soccer.

Anything seemed possible. To rekindle that feeling, the next AD must curtail understandable pessimism, overcome reluctance to embrace systemic change, and harness potential with new approaches, supported by NSU’s new president.

That’s all. Anything less, and not even a magic wand will help.

 Photo: CHRIS REICH, Northwestern State


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