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November 4, 1999

ULM accepts Sun Belt Invitation

After participating in Division I-A football as an independent for six seasons, the University of Louisiana at Monroe football program found a conference home Thursday when it was invited to become a football-playing member of the Sun Belt Conference effective for the 2001 season.

"Today marks a milestone for the University of Louisiana at Monroe. Since the decision was made to move to Division I-A football a primary goal has been conference affiliation for that sport," ULM President Lawson L. Swearingen, Jr., said. "This signals a new era for the ULM athletics program -- one that will allow our student athletes to compete for a championship and all-conference honors, our fans to enjoy the excitement of regional rivalries that come from such an alliance, and our University to join with other institutions who share our vision for academic excellence and integrity in collegiate sports."

The official invitation came via conference call Thursday morning before a packed Scogin Room. Dr. Gary Ransdell, President at Western Kentucky University and Chairman of the Sun Belt Conference Executive Committee, extended the invitation and Swearingen accepted on behalf of ULM.

Joining ULM as football-playing members of the Sun Belt in 2001 are current league members Arkansas State and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, along with new members Middle Tennessee State, New Mexico State and the University of North Texas.

"Scheduling is one of the most difficult aspects of competing as an independent," ULM Director of Athletics Warner Alford said. "Our players and our fans deserve the opportunity for ULM to compete against quality opponents at home. We feel like with the conference affiliation that we will have the opportunity to schedule five home games per season and that those five opponents will be teams that our fans and boosters want to see and that our team is excited about playing."

The Sun Belt Conference was established in 1974 and currently has three I-A football playing members -- Arkansas State, Louisiana Tech and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Louisiana Tech will leave the league after 2000-2001. Arkansas State currently competes in football as a member of the Big West Conference and ULL is an independent like ULM.

Likewise, Middle Tennessee State, in its first season of I-A competition, is competing this season as an independent while North Texas and New Mexico State are members of the Big West.

ULM's first-year head football coach Bobby Keasler sees the new conference providing a focus for his football program as well as a boost for recruiting.

"Joining the Sun Belt Conference is a big plus for our football program. Now, our kids will have the opportunity to play for something, and that's a championship. Playing for championships is what competition is all about," Keasler said. "Our inclusion in the Sun Belt will have an immediate impact on our recruiting. Now we can go into homes and tell our recruits that we'll be playing for something (a championship) because of our membership in the Sun Belt."

Wright Waters, Commissioner of the Sun Belt, said that the fee for membership is $50,000 per institution. He also said that Utah State and the University of Idaho could join the conference and be on board for football by the kickoff date in 2001. Waters said that the conference looked at geography, academics and athletics in making the decision to expand and would use that criteria when addressing conference expansion in the future.

This year the Sun Belt will sponsor 15 championships, seven in men's sports and eight in women's competition. Next year the total will go up to 16 with the addition of women's soccer and 17 in 2001 when football comes on board.

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