by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Hard as it might be for any football fan under 50 to comprehend, but there was a generation in which the Pittsburgh Steelers were the laughingstock of pro football. Make that two generations. The Steelers never won a championship in their first 40 years of existence; they never played for a title, either, although they did participate in a playoff game of sorts in 1947 when losing the Eastern Division playoff to the cross-state Eagles.

In fact, the Steelers weren’t even known as the Steelers in their first seven years of existence, borrowing the name “Pirates” from the hometown baseball team. In the war years, the Steelers even merged with the Eagles for one season, becoming the Steagles, and the Chicago Cardinals for another year. So, in retrospect, you can understand the explosion of excitement in 1972, when the Steelers finally made it to the playoffs legitimately, and won their first-ever postseason game thanks to Franco Harris’ Immaculate Reception vs. the Raiders. We still get chills recalling that play and that game.

But for all of their decades of losing, owner Art Rooney nonetheless endeared himself to the pro football family because he was so unfailingly gracious about the results. “Well, not every team can win,” Mr. Rooney once said when the Steelers were getting whipped year after year. “Somebody has to lose.” Understandably, when the Steelers finally did win, it was remarkably well-received because of the affection afforded Mr. Rooney.

We’re making a pretty big leap here, because Mr. Rooney has now been gone for 24 years, but we can assume that he probably would have had some appreciation for UL-Monroe football. After all, somebody has to lose. And the Warhawks have been doing an awfully good job of it since they moved up to the old Division I-A ranks in 1994, when known as the Northeast Louisiana Indians. They’re the only Sun Belt entry (not counting newbies South Alabama and Georgia Southern) that has never been to a bowl as a I-A, or FBS, side.

And as the Sun Belt is undergoing various cosmetic changes, it seems relatively certain that the Warhawks, for one, are not going to leave the nest. While entries from large metro areas such as North Texas and Florida International have been poached for future membership by Conference USA, and Middle Tennessee and Western Kentucky wait in that same queue, and while Florida Atlantic seems to believe it will get a call from the Big East, ULM seems quite happy and content in the Belt.

Still, existence for the Warhawks, as it is for many Sun Belt entries, at the FBS level means taking payday road trips (which often involve beatings) to help balance the athletic department budget. Because of its centralized location (Monroe, after all, is the birthplace of Delta Airlines) and proximity to many locales, ULM is a convenient choice to fill out dates for many big-name schools in the region. The Warhawks have visited most SEC venues (and even famously beat Nick Saban’s first Alabama team in 2007, 21-14), and have picked up lots of hefty appearance fees. Florida State, TCU, Iowa, Texas, Texas A&M, Kansas, Kansas State and Minnesota have also hosted ULM since 2000. And 2012 is going to be no different, with road trips to Arkansas and Auburn to open the season (ouch!) before getting a rare chance to host one of the “big boys” at Malone Stadium when Baylor comes calling to visit the Warhawks on September 22.

For those reasons, coaches are usually not going to be judged at ULM by their overall records, as like most Sun Belt entries, the Warhawks are simply not going to win many of their intersectional dates. At Monroe, the litmus test for coaches is how they fare in league play. Which is why third-year HC Todd Berry is facing what could be a make-or-break campaign this fall after last year's somewhat-disappointing 3-5 Belt mark.

Berry is unique among major college head coaches in that he seems intent on using up every one of his cat-like nine lives. To wit: in Berry’s ten years as a head coach, he’s had losing records in eight of them, including six straight (four at Army between 2000-03, fired midway through the last season while sitting at 0-6; and the last two years at Monroe). Berry hasn’t had a winning record as a head coach since the days of the Clinton Administration in 1999, when at Illinois State. Along the way he set back the West Point program several years by junking the Black Knights’ patented option for wide-open passing game, which was about the worst match since Julia Roberts married Lyle Lovett.

Berry, who was 5-35 at West Point, was offensive coordinator at UNLV in 2009 before getting the Warhawk job. Which still puzzles some who wonder how a coach on a staff (UNLV’s) that was going to be terminated en masse instead landed an FBS head-coaching job.

The answer, at least partly, is that Berry is willing to work more cheaply than most FBS-level head coaches. Make that any FBS head coach; $200K per year is not chopped liver but it does put Berry at the bottom of the head coaching salary pyramid.

For all of the beanballs we have just aimed it Berry, it should be noted that his Warhawks have not fared all that badly in the past two years. Sure, Berry’s two-year mark at Monroe is only 9-15, but last year’s 4-8 wasn’t quite so bad when considering expected losses at Florida State, TCU, and Iowa. Berry’s ULM also came real close vs. the top three Sun Belt 2011 entries, losing by 5 vs. Arkansas State, 3 in OT vs. Western Kentucky, and 1 vs. blood rival Louisiana; that 4-8 could have easily been 7-5 instead.

Now, 14 starters are back in the fold, including a whopping nine from pretty good Sun Belt offense a year ago. Will 2012 be to the Warhawks what 1972 was to the Steelers?

Berry’s spread offense certainly appears as if it will have a puncher’s chance in most games this fall. Junior southpaw QB Kolton Browning (left) will begin his third season as the starter, already passing for better than 5000 yards and 31 TDs in his career. Browning’s feet aren’t in concrete, either, as he moved out of the pocket well enough to gain 443 rush yards last fall.

Moreover, almost all of Browning’s skill position weapons return from an “O” that ranked 55th in the country a year ago...darned good for a Belt rep. Slashing RBs Jyruss Edwards (right) and Centarius Donald return after combining for over 1000 YR in 2011 despite the fact Donald missed the last half of the campaign with a lower-body injury.

Browning also welcomes back his top four receivers from last season including wideout Brent Leonard (69 catches LY) and Tavarese Mays (left; 50 receptions in 2011). When Berry goes to his four-wideout sets, deep threat Je’Ron Hamm (15.1 yards per catch last fall) likely gets onto the field as well.

Berry also effectively has four starters back along the OL, counting jr. Josh Allen, who started at eight games at the position as a frosh in 2010 before seeing duty at a guard spot last year. As well as a pair of TEs with starting experience, although Berry and o.c. Steve Farmer know that keeping 6'4, 288-lb. sr. Keavon Milton (a superior blocker) healthy this fall will help the ground game immensely.

Adding it up, for a Sun Belt offense, the Warhawks are looking exceptionally good, although there are still some questions regarding a kicking game that wasn’t even subpar a year ago. Berry needs better production from soph PK Justin Manton after he missed 8 of 14 field goals tries in 2011, including 8 of 10 off the mark beyond 40 yards. Two of his FG tries were also blocked.

Meanwhile, defensive coordinator Troy Reffett, a Rocky Long disciple, is hoping that many of last year’s redshirts will be ready to step into the breach for his platoon that ranked among the nation’s leaders in several categories last season (again, extremely rare for a Belt rep), including 8th in rush defense (100 ypg) and 21st overall (326 ypg). Seven starters have departed from that surprisingly-robust stop unit.

Sun Belt sources say Reffett’s 3-3-5, Rocky Long-inspired looks should benefit from the addition of juco star LB Austin Moss, who played in 11 games for Arkansas as a frosh in 2009 before leaving Fayetteville and landing at Navarro JC in Texas. Moss, perhaps the top defensive newcomer in the Belt, so impressed in spring that he beat out incumbent sr. starter R.J. Young.

Uncertainties abound, however, along the line and in the secondary, especially up front where only one starter returns. Reffett moved some parts along the line in spring, with one of those redshirt frosh, Volkswagen Beetle-sized 6'0, 267-lb. NT Gerrand Johnson, so impressing that last year’s NT, Kentarius Caldwell (right), was switched to DE.

Berry is also looking for a few new D-backs but likes the speed in his secondary. Belt sources say a couple of frosh (CBs Tryen Hills, who at 6'1 has the size to combat taller wideouts, and Linzy Pipkins) from a DB-heavy recruiting haul could make their way into the lineup, especially with returning starter CB Vincent Eddie standing only 5'8 and weighing in at a middleweight 157.

Replacing last year’s Monroe version of Brian Urlacher, leading tackler Darius Prelow in the “Hawk” (hybrid safety-linebacker) position, could prove tricky. An honors candidate in the secondary could be jr. safety Isaiah Newsome (left, vs. Iowa last September).

Spread-wise, Monroe has mostly held its own the past couple of years under Berry, and has offered good value on the Sun Belt road, where it has covered five of seven chances.

Summary...We have previewed several ULM teams in the past that had little chance of making headway. But that doesn’t appear to be the case in 2012, as this could be the year the Warhawks make a serious move in the Belt with their experienced offense led by savvy QB Kolton Browning. And if juco LB Austin Moss is as good as advertised, the Warhawk “D” might not regress, either. As long as ULM isn’t embarrassed, Berry will be excused if he can’t win the non-league games (save perhaps for a winnable trip to Tulane), but this is the year for the Warhawks to make their move in Belt play...especially if Berry wants to solidify his status as the leader of the program. And if he has the time, he might want to remind his troops about the ‘72 Steelers, who hadn’t won anything beforehand, either. A look at Franco Harris’ Immaculate Reception on YouTube (we recommend the NBC original telecast, not the NFL Films version) should convince ULM that anything, even a first bowl bid, is possible.


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