Today in Tedium: If you’re not a fan of college football but interested in the kind of culture surrounding it, look no further than SEC Shorts, a YouTube channel whose clever skits lovingly detail the inside jokes and not-so-subtle digs common among rivals. Since college football is first and foremost a regional affair, rivals tend to know each other’s business like citizens of a small town. And their pettiness is only rivaled by church knitting groups. One line from an SEC Shorts video perfectly sums up the feeling when a character says, “As long as it’s something Alabama wants and I am taking it away from them.” Or put more bluntly: Whatever they want, I want them not to have; I want them to want something and know I’m the reason they can’t have it. Considering such epic pettiness, it makes the calculated moves by a relatively unknown school in southwestern Louisiana all the more interesting. In fact, it might be one of the biggest marketing coups in modern sports history. Today’s Tedium is talking about the University of Southwestern Louisiana and how it became “Louisiana.” — Andrew @ Tedium
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“We kept going … we persisted … we persisted a huge lawsuit against them stopping us. We didn’t stop. You are talking a 19 billion dollar university versus a small store in College Station trying to keep the tradition alive.”
— Fadi Kalaouze, owner of Aggielnad Outfitters, explaining the outcome of a lawsuit he defended against the University of Texas. Kalaouze’s t-shirt store in College Station, home to Texas A&M, sells memorabilia aimed at its most hated rival… and a few trinkets of school pride. His best seller involves a version of the iconic Longhorns logo, sans horns, with the phrase “Saw ’Em Off”. Kalaouze has successfully defended his trademark on the phrase and logo since 2007. For comparison, the University of Texas has successfully prevented the University of Tennessee from using the acronym “UT” west of the Mississippi since 1986.
Names matter, especially in college football
With recent news that the University of Texas is joining the Southeastern Conference (SEC), one of sports most storied rivalries will be renewed again. Football games between UT and Texas A&M date back to 1894 though they have been on hiatus since 2011 (for reasons that are VERY much in debate between both schools and probably worthy of its own Tedium article but Ernie indulges me too much on these topics already so just look it up if you’re interested). I explained exactly why UT decided to move conferences in a recent piece I wrote for MidRange, Ernie’s other other side project. It’s about ego. Texas wants prestige and the SEC offers it in football. If UT could buy its way into the Ivy League, it would. With $31 billion in the school’s endowment plus an infinite pool from alumni, money is never the issue in Texas. And still, UT thinks of Texas A&M as THE cow college. The little brother. The kind of place no respectable person would get an economics/English/film degree.
(Note: The writer is an unabashed supporter and graduate of Texas. If it wasn’t obvious already.)
Over a century of animus between both Texas schools has cultivated jokes, nicknames, and bona fide hate. But the most relevant to our discussion is Aggie fandom’s near categorical refusal to accept the basic name of the University of Texas, usually opting for TU (as in Texas University) or simply “that school in Austin”. The fact that A&M’s most hated rival is the University OF Texas is apparently too much.
Arguments over conjunctions and other forms of grammar are nothing new to college sports especially. Ohio State University has gotten a lot of flack over the years for its insistence on being referred to as “The Ohio State University”. Administrators even went so far as to attempt to secure a copyright on THE definite article, which was done to “protect assets of significant value”. Though THE university was unable to claim a copyright on one of the most used words in the English language, they do have some 150 trademarks across 17 countries, vigorously defending their brand wherever necessary.
This same logic seems to apply to a more recent battle between the commonwealth of Kentucky and its flagship University of Kentucky over the phrase “Team Kentucky”. The commonwealth (which is somehow distinct from a state but not in any meaningful sense) had been distributing t-shirts with the phrase as part of its community outreach efforts during the COVID pandemic. Kentucky governor Andy Beshear had used the phrase since 2019 but applying for an official trademark was a step too far for UK.
College football gets very litigious once brands are threatened. In this environment, where money and legal resources tend to be concentrated, it is almost impossible for a small or medium sized university to compete with established brands and massive alumni bases. Almost.
The estimated increase in applications to colleges and universities that result from success in football and basketball, according to a study from Brigham Young University-Provost. The same study found the increased applicant pool “improv[ed] both the number and the quality of incoming students.” Much of this increase is limited to schools that finish in the top 20 for football and the top 16 in basketball. With an average cost of a college application being $43 in 2016, top football and basketball programs can yield millions … before the merchandising.
Move fast and ask for forgiveness later
On September 4th, 2021, the University of Texas Longhorns will open their season against the University of Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns. Yet, the box score will simply read Louisiana at Texas.
The story of how the University of Southwestern Louisiana became the University of Louisiana-Lafayette goes back to the 1980s when school administrators unilaterally attempted to rebrand without approval from the state legislature, which it needed. An article from The Daily Advertiser in 1995 explained, “[Louisiana State University] stymied a 1984 USL name change by the Board of Trustees by taking the issue to court. The court ruled that only the Legislature could name universities, so LSU got lawmakers to keep Southwestern in the name.”
After being forced to backtrack, the school kept petitioning for the change while pointing out that many of the state’s independent universities could benefit from being organized into one cooperating school system. Institutions like the University of Southwestern Louisiana in Lafayette and Northeast Louisiana University in Monroe were given the opportunity to reorganize into UL-Lafayette and UL-Monroe, respectively, under the University of Louisiana System.
“The university has earned a name change because of its achievements,” then USL president Ray Authement said when announcing the name change, according to the Opelousas, Louisiana Daily World. “It’s difficult to convey the positive effect the new name will have on the university and its future.”
Alumni from both schools were initially resistant, not wanting to lose their own identities. Subsequent legislation and guidelines declared that each school was to always be known by its geographic location and that no one school could declare itself the “flagship” of the University of Louisiana system.
“It’s a piece of legislation we’ve been working on for 11 years and now it has come to fruition,” said state senator Cecil Picard, an alumnus of USL, after legislation creating the UL system was signed.
The effort to limit the names of schools in the new UL system didn’t only come from member schools. Alumni of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, which is the actual flagship university of the state, were also keen to protect their status. Since LSU alumni dominate the state’s institutions, including the legislature, they got their wish. Mostly. The 1995 legislation shifted naming authority from the legislature (which again is dominated by LSU alumni) to the Board of Trustees of the University of Louisiana System.
Almost immediately, the UL-Lafayette athletic department began referring to their teams as the “Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns,” though the university maintained such a designation was unofficial and never intended to force a name change. And this state of affairs largely held from 1999 until 2013 when Lafayette petitioned the Sun Belt, the school’s athletic conference, to be recognized in conference materials simply as “Louisiana”. The Sun Belt, not being familiar with the official naming conventions of Louisiana institutions of higher education, agreed on the condition that other conference members also agreed. Also a member of the Sun Belt? UL-Monroe.
Amazingly, ULM’s president Nick Bruno didn’t object to the designation. When asked to clarify his thinking, Bruno explained, “Ultimately due to lack of enforcement of legislation they are associated with the name. We can be a nuisance, but ultimately I think we must forge our own identity.”
As it turns out, UL-Lafayette has its own alumni that have long referred to Louisiana’s Ragin’ Cajuns, much to the annoyance of the state’s other schools. The university went so far as to reject the ULL acronym when the UL system was adopted. Despite an explicit law preventing UL-Lafayette from declaring itself, or its athletic programs, as “Louisiana”, they went ahead and did it anyway. In fact, the same year, the school launched its new website at louisiana.edu.
Even my beloved Longhorns, the recognized University of Texas, have to settle for utexas.edu. The extra “U” is for “unacceptable.”
The University of Louisiana-Lafayette is now the largest school in the UL system and the 3rd largest in the state. Administrators have gone out of their way to emphasize they have no plans to attempt an official name change to the university, even as they continue to brand its athletic programs as “Louisiana”. In fact, the school in Lafayette seems downright shocked that anyone would mind the change in the first place.
“We’re not trying to change the name of the university,” UL-Lafayette communications director Aaron Martin told the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 2013. The Times-Picayune also noted Martin and other officials seemed “surprised” at reports they were attempting to do so, which stemmed from rumors the University was encouraging ESPN announcers to refer to “Louisiana” during broadcasts.
How well the name change works for UL-Lafayette as an academic institution remains to be seen. But for athletics, it has clearly had an impact. When the Ragin’ Cajuns head to Austin, they’ll open the season ranked number 25. It’s the first time the program has been nationally ranked in preseason college football.
As I noted earlier, college sports have a lot to do—with ego and arrogance. LSU alumni might have had the influence and ability to preempt UL-Lafayette from becoming the University of Louisiana.
However, in a state long dominated by LSU, they might have been just arrogant enough to not take the threat seriously. And as a result, they almost didn’t notice it was happening until ESPN had already agreed.
There’s a reason for the pettiness of college football. If you give an inch, they’ll take a football program.
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