The State of the Program Entering I-A
In 1994, the team then known as the Northeast Louisiana Indians stormed into the I-A ranks as a football independent just as independence was going the way of the dodo. Seven years removed from the school’s only I-AA national championship in 1987, the team was trying under new head coach Ed Zaunbrecher to expand upon the tradition of success built by archetypal leaders Pat Collins and Dave Roberts. In 1993 the Indians had finished second in the Southland Conference behind McNeese State, who knocked off Northeast Louisiana in Monroe 34-24 on October 9 en route to the title.
Northeast Louisiana’s 1993 squad would flame out for a second straight year against Idaho, losing their first-round encounter 34-31 at home a year after the Vandals had come to Malone Stadium and defeated the Indians in the quarterfinals. With Collins leaving Monroe a year after the national title, the team failed to sustain the momentum of their previous head coach. Roberts would win two more Southland Conference championships in 1990 and 1992, but the Indians would go just 1-3 in postseason play.
Despite their slumping performance at the I-AA level, though, the school’s powers promoted the move to the top flight of college football hoping that their position in a talent-rich state would bolster their fortunes. With the hiring of Zaunbrecher, who had previously spent seven years as an assistant at LSU before his most recent stop in East Lansing as part of the Michigan State staff, the Indians were banking on a bright future.
The First Season
It was an inauspicious start for Northeast Louisiana in the I-A ranks in 1994, as they spent the entire month of September getting trounced one weekend after another on the road. Playing four teams that would finish the year with winning records, the Indians proved woefully overmatched against their initial competition.
The season started at Colorado, where a Buffaloes squad that would finish the year 11-1 and ranked #3 (with their only loss coming to Big 8 rival and eventual national champions Nebraska) routed the visitors 48-13 in a rude welcoming to elite college football. The following weekend, a top-ten Auburn team coming off an undefeated season further elaborated on the disparity with a 44-12 victory over the Indians. Georgia would humiliate Roberts’ crew 70-6 on September 17, with eventual Big West champions Nevada getting the better of Northeast Louisiana 34-22 to wrap up a winless first month for the new independents on the block.
The month of October started more auspiciously, with the Indians knocking off I-AA Weber State 62-37 for their first victory as a I-A school. But a trip to Laramie and a 28-14 defeat to the Wyoming Cowboys tempered that elation, and consecutive losses to I-AA Central Florida and Jacksonville State over the next fortnight showed how far Northeast Louisiana still had to travel toward respectability.
The Indians suffered a fourth straight loss, to #18 BYU in Provo, before righting the ship with a two-game winning streak to end the season. November 12 marks the date of Northeast Louisiana’s first victory over a fellow I-A school, with the Indians prevailing 21-14 over SEC cellar-dweller Kentucky in Lexington. They then wrapped up a 3-8 campaign at home, beating I-AA North Texas 38-20 in Monroe.
How Have They Fared Since?
As a harbinger of things to come, the 1994 season was a blunt but fair assessment of the future hopes for the school that would shuck its Native American mascot for the Warhawk a decade later. For the better part of the next two decades, they would prove to be one of the lovable laughingstocks of the I-A level, a team that powerhouses scheduled as a guaranteed notch in the win column.
After their inaugural three-win campaign, the Indians would fail to match that mark in 1995 as they finished 2-9. Though Northeast Louisiana had knocked off their second SEC opponent in as many seasons, their 34-32 upset of 3-8 Mississippi State did little to inspire confidence for the team’s future. The following year, the Indians finished 5-6 — but lost to the Bulldogs once again, this time in a 59-0 shutout that illuminated the true gulf between the two schools separated by one border, 250 miles and decades of history.
Through the rest of the 1990s, the Indians would hover just under .500, notching five victories in each of the next three seasons. In 2000, when the University of Louisiana system rebranded the school as UL-Monroe, the Indians bottomed out at 1-10 in their last season of independence. Their only victory of the year came against former Southland Conference rival Nicholls State, and then just by a narrow 27-21 scoreline.
In 2001, the Indians were welcomed into the Sun Belt Conference when the league started sponsoring football that season. A return to conference play for the first time in nearly a decade did little to change ULM’s fortunes, as victories over North Texas and Arkansas State were sandwiched by nine defeats. They improved to 3-9 in 2002, fell back to 1-11 in 2003, and returned to five-win mediocrity in 2004.
2005 would end with another 5-6 finish, but a 5-2 record in Sun Belt play would yield the first (and as yet only) Sun Belt Conference title in the school’s history. It was a fortuitous happenstance for head coach Charlie Weatherbie and the Indians, one that was not replicated in 2006 as ULM finished 4-8 in their inaugural season after switching the school mascot to the Warhawks.
Fully rebranded from their Northeast Louisiana Indians days, the ULM Warhawks proceeded to overachieve in 2007 en route to the first non-losing season in the school’s I-A history. After losing the first four games of the season, the Warhawks ultimately finished the season with a winning record in conference play and six wins overall. A three-game winning streak in November sealed the .500 campaign, with a 21-14 win in Tuscaloosa over the Crimson Tide yielding the school’s third-ever victory over an SEC school.
Weatherbie would leave after another 6-6 campaign in 2009, with Todd Berry taking over leadership of the school’s football program. The former head coach at West Point had previously worked as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach on Weatherbie’s staff in 2004 and 2005 after being fired by Army, bringing a lifetime 5-35 I-A head coaching record to Monroe.
Berry’s first two seasons offered little indication of what would transpire in 2012. Mired in mediocrity, the Warhawks posted losing records in 2010 and 2011 before surprising the country with their first taste of true I-A success in 2012. Opening their campaign with a 34-31 upset of Arkansas in Little Rock thanks to 500 total yards of offense from QB Kolton Browning, the Warhawks vanquished their fourth SEC opponent in school history. The following weekend, they nearly did the same to Auburn on the Plains, and then fell by five points in a shootout at home against Baylor.
A five-game winning streak followed, with ULM briefly vaulting to the top of the Sun Belt standings before falling back to a tie for second at the end of the regular season. With the first winning record in school history, the Warhawks earned their first-ever bowl berth. Despite the defeat to the Ohio Bobcats in Shreveport at the Independence Bowl, Berry and the Warhawks will look to build on the momentum of a long-sought modicum of respectability to continue the evolution of the school’s football program.