Nick Bruno faced a difficult decision in the spring of 2011, six months into his tenure as the president of Louisiana-Monroe.
The men’s basketball program was a mess. Years of academic neglect had produced dismal graduation and retention rates; the hammer was ready to drop. The Warhawks were headed for a postseason ban under the NCAA’s stiffer Academic Progress Rate (APR) penalty structure. In prior years under different leadership the university had submitted improvement plans to the NCAA, but not completely followed them. Men’s basketball had lost scholarships and practice time. Now, Bruno wondered if it might be best to shut down the program. Maybe let time heal what had become an embarrassment to the university.
Keith Richard had just finished his first season as the Warhawks’ coach. It had been a struggle, ending in a 7-24 record. He’d played a role in the program’s brightest days, as the point guard on an NCAA tournament team in 1979 - when the school was called Northeast Louisiana - and as an assistant in the early 90s when the Warhawks reached the NCAA tournament four times in five years. The president who hired him in April 2010, James Cofer, Sr., had told him about the academic trouble and asked him to fix it. Richard expected to lose a scholarship or two for a season, then start building ULM into a winner. He’d done it before, leading Louisiana Tech to a 150-117 record in nine seasons and winning 60 percent of the conference games.
Richard and Bruno returned from a trip to NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis in March 2011 understanding the scope of their trouble. In meetings that followed the coach told the president he’d lead his alma mater out of this academic disaster. He just needed some time.
Last April, ULM competed in the postseason for the first time in 20 years. The Warhawks fell short against Loyola-Chicago in the finals of the College Basketball Invitational, but 4,460 fans watched the game in Fant-Ewing Coliseum and any sting from the defeat was temporary. The Warhawks had finished the year with 24 victories - third best in school history - and shuttered seven consecutive losing seasons during which they won only 27 percent of their games.
ULM returns four starters from the squad that was top 15 in the nation in field goal percentage defense (.388) and 3-point field goal percentage defense (.297). It enters the season as a legitimate Sun Belt Conference contender.
Fox Sports broadcaster Tim Brando is a ULM former student who lives 100 miles west of campus in Shreveport. During the coaching search, the athletic director at the time, Bobby Staub, called Brando, who recommended Richard because he knew the coach was resilient, selfless, confident, could recruit and teach the game.
“For him to have done what he did last year I thought was Herculean,” Brando said. “I thought it was one of the greatest coaching jobs I’ve ever seen. He’s a friend, and I’m somewhat biased and it’s my school and I’m somewhat biased but I’m really proud of what he’s achieved."
And while the 180 degree spin on the court is remarkable, it’s nothing compared to what the program has accomplished in the classroom. In 2012-13 ULM was one of 21 NCAA Division I men’s basketball programs to post a cumulative grade point average of 3.0 or higher. ULM did so again in 2013-14 and also tallied a perfect 1,000 APR score. It has won the Sun Belt’s academic award for men’s basketball three years in a row. The program’s five seniors are on track to graduate in the spring.
“It’s an interesting success story,” Bruno said. “It was a case of everyone being committed and everyone honoring their word. I didn’t forget the coach and he didn’t forget his university and the end result has been an amazing turnaround.”
Adopted in 2004, the APR holds institutions accountable for the academic progress of their student-athletes through a team-based metric that tracks eligibility and retention for each student-athlete during each academic term.
Each student-athlete on athletic scholarship earns one point for staying in school and one point for being academically eligible. A team’s total points are divided by points possible and then multiplied by 1,000 to equal the team’s Academic Progress Rate.
In addition to a team’s current-year APR, its rolling four-year APR is also used to determine accountability. Teams must earn a 930 four-year average APR to compete in championships.
From 2004-05 to 2012-13 the ULM men’s basketball program’s four-year average was less than 900 each year.
“They had recruited students who needed a lot of help, and we didn’t have the academic support structure available to help them,” Bruno said. “Some people took their eyes off the road.”
ULM submitted a revised APR improvement plan to the NCAA and took the steps to follow it, hiring an academic advisor specifically for the men’s basketball program. Bruno appointed an APR task force on campus, including the university’s Faculty Athletic Representative, members of the faculty and registrar’s office. ULM raised its academic standards for athletes. Any potential recruit had to meet those standards before being invited to campus for an official visit.
“We restructured the whole way we were operating,” Richard said. “We gave structure to our players daily and weekly in everything academically and held them accountable. (Bruno) told me early on, ‘look don’t worry about the winning and losing. You’ve got to fix this academically.’ I held academics above athletics if it came up. Left kids at home to play a game. If they had a tutoring session the same time as practice they went to tutoring. If we did have a scholarship available we gave it to someone with grades higher than the NCAA standard.”
With the stronger support system and individual accountability in place, the program began making positive steps in the classroom. But the Warhawks took a beating on the court, posting a 14-73 record in Richard’s first three seasons.
The academic trouble handcuffed Richard’s ability to recruit. ULM, like all institutions, is provided its penalty report before it is publically released in May. It knew exactly how many scholarships it had available for the upcoming academic year. If there was one available, the only candidates were student-athletes who were "no risk" academically. The coaching staff prepared and the team played hard but the talent gap was too wide. A fierce competitor with a strong coaching resume, Richard found the constant losing difficult to swallow until he realized the part he was playing in a more significant mission.
“I had to get over this losing and understand that I had to throw my ego aside, I was doing something bigger than me,” Richard said. “Get over my career record being obliterated and understand that I’m giving my alma mater, my school, giving them back a men’s basketball program and academic integrity, which was really a neat thing.”
Satisfied with the academic progress, Bruno gave Richard a new five-year contract following the 2011-12 season.
Richard saw a faint light of hope during the third year. He and his staff began casting a wider net in recruiting, combing the corners of the country for players long and athletic enough to play pressure defense and disciplined enough to handle their studies.
A turning point occurred when they landed Tylor Ongwae, a native of Kenya, who had played one year at a U.S. junior college. Ongwae, a 6-7 forward, made third-team All-Conference in 2013-14 and first team last season, the first Warhawk to earn that honor since the school joined the Sun Belt in 2006.
After years averaging 1,500 fans or less, ULM attracted at least 3,000 for each of its three home games in the CBI. Bruno said there’s a palpable anticipation in the community. Even in the heart of football season in the heart of football country, fans are excited about what the basketball season might bring.
As an alum and veteran college sports broadcaster, Brando grasps the day-to-day financial challenges the ULM athletic department faces as it competes at the highest level of college football and basketball.
“He’s got them on the precipice of being a contender every year in their conference and it’s just unbelievable when you think about the hurdles he had to get through,” Brando said. “Even without the APR trouble, which was significant, he was behind the 8-ball trying to catch up to the competition in that league. Now they’ve become a source of great pride to the athletic department. Richard’s basketball program has become the beacon light of what they’re doing.”
Richard is thrilled to have rekindled interest and regained Monroe’s support. His goal now is a simple one: he wants to have another good season, continue laying the foundation necessary to build a consistent winner.
ULM had a four-year average APR of 966 in the 2013-14 academic year and is penalty free.
“We’ve had 10 straight guys graduate that have completed their eligibility. Not one player in these five years has lost an eligibility point,” Richard said. “These five seniors do have a lot to live up to. Our culture is so much different than it was. They do things right academically”