MONROE, La. -- The gritty little Sun Belt school that was the talk of the college football world last September, the Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks, is hoping to show it's a lot more than just a check-cashing bunch.
Truth is, after knocking off Arkansas (ranked eighth in the country at the time) last season, and coming within 10 points of beating both Auburn and Baylor, Todd Berry's program has already proven that. ULM's stunner in Arkansas, rallying from being down 28-7, wasn't the first time the Louisiana school beat an SEC team. In 2007, ULM beat Nick Saban's Alabama squad, a 25-point favorite, but since then things have really cranked up for the most efficient program in college football.
ULM's motto -- Put a Ball Down (as in let's just go play football) -- is everywhere when you show up at the school's modest practice site. After last season, the identity has taken root.
"We can be the Gonzaga of football," ULM AD Brian Wickstrom said Thursday.
On Saturday, when Louisiana-Monroe -- the school once known as Northeast Louisiana -- opens at No. 16 Oklahoma, it'll be the Warhawks' sixth consecutive opener facing a ranked opponent. It'll also provide little ULM a robust $1 million, money vital for the program with the smallest budget in all of FBS.
The Warhawks will make a total of $1.9 million for their three nonconference games this fall against the Sooners, Baylor and Wake Forest. In 2014, they'll pocket $3.1 million to face a trio of SEC opponents -- LSU, Texas A&M and Kentucky. The negotiating process for the games has more to do with travel than toughness of the task, meaning trekking to Lexington, Ky., costs more than bussing four or five hours to Baton Rouge or College Station. The price tag for long-range games is usually much steeper, factoring in escalators for inflation, Wickstrom pointed out.
To say ULM is making do with less would be an understatement that doesn't do justice to the ever-widening gap between the Have-a-Lots and the Have-Almost-Nothings in the sport. Until last year, ULM didn't even have the same number of full-time assistant coaches as the rest of FBS. There is also no training table for ULM football players. There are no fancy dorms. There is no airplane recruiting for ULM coaches. No private planes, where coaches hop on some smaller jet to see prospects. The staff hasn't boarded a single plane of any kind to see anyone. Nothing.
"Some of our assistant don't even have real offices. They're in converted closets," Wickstrom admitted. "When a coach has a recruit on campus, they can't take a kid into their office."
Asked about amenities like the famous Oregon waterfall, Berry jokes that ULM's idea of a perk for the players is giving them popsicles after a steamy day of camp. "Although," he added, "I'm not sure that's such a bad thing."
The Warhawks have embraced the "Put a Ball Down" blue-collar persona. Their leader, lefty QB Kolton Browning -- son of Karl and Panda (yes that's his mom's given name) -- is from a tiny Texas town of 2,700. ULM was Browning's only offer until Tulsa tried to swoop in late to grab him, but the formerly skinny three-sport star thought it wouldn't be right to break his commitment.
Berry says Browning won over teammates with his grit playing through pain. "He broke his sternum in 2011 and they saw him keep playing and grimace every time he got hit," Berry said.
Browning winced every time he threw a pass too. He never missed a game.
"We don't necessarily need all the nice things," Browning said. "Just give us some pads and we'll be happy to go play football."
A gifted dual-threat quarterback with 4.6 speed in the 40, Browning packed on 15 pounds this offseason to better withstand the pounding. There is also plenty of talent and experience around him. ULM has 18 starters back from last year's 8-5 team. The Warhawks also are technically the most experienced team in the country, with 440 games started among their returning players (Ga. Tech is second with 426), according to Colorado SID Dave Plati, who researched the note.
Still, the Warhawks are a 23.5-point underdog against the Sooners. Another upset would do wonders for the ULM program financially. Just being competitive probably would too.
"This is the most critical year for ULM in the history of the school," Wickstrom said. "Last year we opened people's eyes, but now can we get people to buy in and start writing checks that'll give us chance to build the momentum?"
The school hopes it can land the gift that'll help lead to the development of a football facility, where ULM would have a real locker room, coaches' offices and meeting rooms, like the rest of the FBS.