For years on my old show Podcast Ain’t Played Nobody, I groused about natural, logical rivalry games that weren’t played for one petty reason or another. Sure, there’s the dissolution of the Kansas vs. Missouri series and of course there’s Texas vs. Texas A&M, but the example I always used was Louisiana Tech and Louisiana-Monroe, or ULM. It’s so bad that a 9-3 Tech program actually sat at home instead of playing ULM in the nearby Independence Bowl in 2012. It’s hard to beat that level of petty.
Tech and ULM are neighboring Group of Five programs in neighboring parishes separated by 37 miles of Interstate 20 in North Louisiana. And because of dumb, typical college sports reasons, an annual rivalry that ran unbroken from 1953 to 1991 hasn’t been played since 2000.
There’s a prevailing belief that Tech, a successful and consistent G5 program, is “bigger” than ULM, despite the two programs’ comparative wealth (or lack thereof). The short version (here’s a more detailed local history) is that Louisiana Tech successfully jumped to the FBS (in 1989) and Louisiana-Monroe didn’t until 1994. The Bulldogs have been to 10 bowl games since moving up, while ULM shambled through 18 losing seasons before earning bowl eligibility in ‘12, the same season Tech refused to play them in Shreveport.
But college football is in a state of free fall: The 1-2 of a global pandemic and political unrest have uprooted many “traditions,” exposing the sport’s calcified infrastructure and systemic inequality. Two Power 5 conferences have postponed (and might outright cancel) their seasons in response to COVID-19. Simultaneously, NIL proposals in state legislatures and a renewed focus on civil rights have shaken apart many long-held presumptions.
Which is to say this is everything it took for Louisiana Tech to play Louisiana-Monroe in football for the first time in 20 years. This is a small, small victory for logic in the sport in an otherwise disastrous year. Almost the entire Power 5 cancelled most of its 2020 non-conference games against G5 schools with the reasoning that smaller programs wouldn’t be able to treat and prevent outbreaks with the same resources as bigger programs. This left schools like ULM and Tech in an immediate lurch, losing SEC paychecks like Georgia and Arkansas and non-conference G5 match-ups as well.
Suddenly whatever quibble among boosters and fans about big or little brothers doesn’t matter, thank God. Tech and ULM will play in Shreveport — the facility allowing for the largest potential crowd at a reduced capacity — on November 21.
How a relationship like Tech/ULM breaks down is a symptom of college athletics’ social structure. It makes no actual sense that two schools at the same classification level from basically the same community wouldn’t play one another, except that Tech is neither a have (like in-state Goliath LSU) or a have-not like ULM, but rather an almost-have: a school with a solid and proud fan base, a history of good hires who create consistency (Sonny Dykes, Skip Holtz, even Derek Dooley) and, most important, aspirations. Tech wants to be considered among schools like Boise State and Houston and Central Florida, who themselves want to be considered the peers of the Power 5.
And somewhere along the way all this aspiration, driven almost exclusively by a false perception of upward mobility, turns programs and fan bases cruel. In order to be considered something better than they are, schools like Tech need to tell other programs they’re better than them.
The reality is that there’s no such thing as a superior program between Louisiana Tech or Louisiana-Monroe. Their metrics — TV markets, athletic budgets, recruiting territories, etc. — are more or less the same when viewed from a national perspective. And that’s beside the point, because there is virtually no chance for Tech (or Houston or UCF or Boise or Cincinnati) to break into the Big 12 or another Power 5 conference. There is no reason for these schools to build equity or differentiate themselves from their peers. The door is closed.
If Tech-ULM can regain its standing as an annual rivalry and in turn draw sellout crowds post-COVID and build a regional tradition — it will be because of their obvious similarities, not their perceived differences. Tech has been the superior program and a coaching cradle. ULM, at least as a FBS entity, is a historically moribund outfit famous only for their spectacular upsets as a cupcake paycheck opponent. Neither matters. These schools are more interesting sharing local history together than grasping for a rung that isn’t there.