How the Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns try to stay relevant as college football realigns again

Tim Buckley
Lafayette Daily Advertiser

With Big 12 members Texas and Oklahoma headed to the SEC, some teams in conferences like the Sun Belt brace for what could be another seismic shift in the college football landscape.

UL athletic director Bryan Maggard, however, doesn’t worry about an FBS already divided into Group of Five and Power 5 programs – the Sun Belt, MAC, AAC, Mountain West and Conference MAC in one corner, and SEC, ACC, Pac-12, Big Ten and Big 12 in the other –  splintering even more.

“I don’t fear it, if that’s the direct question,” said Maggard, whose Ragin’ Cajuns belong to the Sun Belt. “I’m not sitting here losing sleep about that, or concerned about it.

“My focus just continues to be ‘How do we continue to position the University of Louisiana to be the best version of itself?’ and every day I come to work thinking about (that).

“If and when we can do that here, particularly in this state, in our region,” he added, “particularly with the fertile recruiting ground we have and the amazing university we have, if we can be the best version of us I do not worry about being a have-not." 

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NCAA Division I football already is dissected into FBS and FCS subdivisions, the latter utilizing a full playoff structure – 24 teams – the former is reluctant to embrace.

Maggard doesn’t sense a divide among the nation’s 130 FBS programs – super conferences versus the rest – beyond what already exits.

“I think during my career I don’t see that demarcation happening with the current FBS programs,” he said. “In 15, 20 years from now, who knows?

“But I think in the not-too-distant future, let’s say the next 10 years, I’m not really concerned that the Group of Five level programs are going to be distinguished differently so much like the current FBS-FCS structure.

“I think there’s always going to be room for Group of Five programs, as long as they can succeed and be the best version of them,” Maggard added. “I think it stays glued together by simply … You have to be relevant. You have to be competitive in what you do.”

UL not making phone calls

Maggard said UL’s focus “is not, ‘Hey, do we need to be making phone calls to this conference or that conference?’ ”

“We’re going to let our body of work speak for itself … and if that continues to elevate our profile nationally, great,” he said.

UL athletic director Bryan Maggard watches a 2019 game against Liberty at Cajun Field.

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Yet Maggard does quietly keep sights on positioning UL for a potential high-echelon landing spot if, and whenever, the opportunity should arise.

“We absolutely continue to invest resources in our athletics department and our programs,” he said, “because we believe … if we can be the best we can be then relevance and other things may happen.”

UL recently agreed to a 15-year, $15 million Cajun Field naming rights deal with Our Lady of Lourdes Regional Medical Center.

Maggard deemed vital the completion of major future renovation projects at the school’s football stadium and its volleyball, tennis and softball venues – plus a new baseball stadium clubhouse.

“There’s no doubt that capital projects are a key focus right now and will be moving forward,” he said.

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All of that drives Maggard, who’s been linked  in multiple media reports as a potential candidate for the  AD opening at SEC-member Missouri, in his fifth year at UL.

“Relevance comes from your competitive success from an athletics standpoint,” said Maggard, also a candidate several months ago at Boise State. “And certainly after the last few years we have achieved that at a high level in the sport of football, among other sports.”

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UL finished last season ranked 16th in the USA TODAY coaches poll.

“So because of the success we’ve had over the past few years, and certainly because of our head coach and the attention he has received from multiple Power 5, in particular SEC, programs,” Maggard said, “I think our relevance certainly exists.”

UL has been to three straight bowl games under Billy Napier, who turned down an offer from Mississippi State after the 2019 season and was a high-profile candidate at South Carolina and Auburn after last season.

Napier’s base salary doubled from about $1 million to $2 million earlier this year.

“We know that certainly we’re not going to be in a position right now to pay the $4 million-plus type salary,” Maggard said, “but we did feel it was both appropriate and necessary to continue to show an investment in Coach, the program’s he’s put together, because we absolutely recognize that a successful football program … is key to overall success, and we love the direction we’re going in.”