By ULMWarhawks.com Online Columnist Paul Letlow
Not long after becoming ULM’s head football coach in 2009, Todd Berry popularized a slogan meant to convey the mindset he wanted from his teams.
“Put A Ball Down.”
In a nutshell, PABD means it shouldn’t ever make a difference where, or who or when a team is playing. Forget history, forget weather conditions, and focus on how you play.
Put a ball down, and play.
“You can’t get caught up in the past or any of the things people tell you that you can’t do,” Berry told ULMWarhawks.com this week. “Certainly, there were a significant number of people that said, ‘I’m not going to invest in the program because there’s very little chance that it’s going to have the success to make it worth investing in.’
“Sometimes people just need a little hope. They just need to know that what you do is going to have some value.”
Indeed, ULM’s stock was rising in 2012, when the Warhawks took fans on a crazy ride that started with a win over No. 8 Arkansas, featured a near upset at Auburn, brought a record-smashing crowd to Malone Stadium for a Friday night shootout with Baylor and delivered the program’s first postseason bowl bid.
“Those kids didn’t care who they were playing,” Berry said. “They just wanted to play. They’d heard about all the things they couldn’t do. ‘You can’t fill the stands; you can’t beat a ranked team or go to a bowl game.’ They were bound and determined to prove everybody wrong. That’s what’s was pretty cool about it.”
ULM finished 8-5 after a 45-14 loss to Ohio in the bowl game, but the journey to the destination was memorable nonetheless. Community support was off the charts as the Independence Bowl sold more than 40,000 tickets to the game with ULM fans providing most of the crowd on a cold, dreary day in Shreveport.
“It shows that it can be done,” Berry said. “Every football team, every community, every university needs hope.”
To commemorate the 10th year anniversary of that squad’s uplifting run, ULM invited team members back to campus this week for the Sun Belt Conference opener against Louisiana Lafayette. Berry, his wife Lisa and more than 70 players have all committed to return.
“We really enjoyed Monroe and the university,” said Berry, who has served as the American Football Coaches Association executive director since 2016. “We’re both really excited about going back.”
Dubbed “The Shock in Little Rock,” ULM’s 34-31 overtime win over Arkansas served notice that something special was brewing in Monroe, Louisiana. Quarterback Kolton Browning’s 16-yard dash and dive into the end zone was the signature moment in ULM’s first-ever win over a Football Bowl Subdivision-ranked program.
While the current Sun Belt now carries the giant killer reputation, ULM’s Arkansas win also marked the first time a conference team had beaten a Top 10 opponent.
ULM trailed 28-7 in the third quarter before rallying as Browning completed 42-of-67 passes for 412 yards and three touchdowns. Browning added 69 yards rushing with the game-winning score. His 481 yards of total offense and dazzling display earned him ESPN College Football Player of the Day.
Senior wide receiver Brent Leonard, who caught 11 passes for 112 yards in the Arkansas win, was another offensive star in 2012 who came up big on this night.
All in, fans greeted the team bus when it arrived back in Monroe and later lined up at the bookstore to purchase commemorative “Shock in Little Rock” T-shirts.
The victory led to a flurry of national attention for the Warhawks. The following week, Berry was a guest on the Tim Brando Show and the Scott Van Pelt Show while ULM also was featured on ESPN College Football Live, ESPN College Football Daily and ESPN UNITE. The team was later spotlighted on ESPN All-Access, a half-hour behind-the-scenes program that aired nationally.
“I was excited for the kids and the program,” Berry said. “They hadn’t had an awful lot of that, and I thought they did a pretty good job of handling it.”
The fun was just beginning.
Riding high, ULM incredibly took Auburn to overtime the next week before losing 31-28 on a 35-yard field goal from Cody Parkey. Browning led the game-tying drive, which started with 4:37 left in the game and covered 65 yards. Browning found sophomore wide receiver Colby Harper for the 6-yard score and sophomore Justin Manton booted the extra point to tie the game at 28-28.
“I’m disappointed, but I’m proud to say that and I think our players are proud to say that,” Berry said the following week leading up to Baylor’s visit. “I mention that because you have to get past the moral victory mentality. I know that a lot of people in the past, inclusive of our team, and maybe inclusive of some coaches in the past, get into a situation where they feel like we played them close and that’s good enough. For our team and staff to be as disappointed as they were afterwards against a good Auburn team, that tells me that we made a lot of good progress.”
Northeastern Louisiana rallied around the upstart Warhawks and turned out in record numbers to see the showdown with Baylor. Promoted as a “Whiteout” game, area high school football teams even moved their contests to Thursday to throw the region’s full support behind ULM.
Stan Humphries, the quarterback who led ULM to an FCS National Championship in 1987, joined the Warhawks during their weekly press conference and encouraged the locals to get on board.
“I want to urge everyone to come out and support this coaching staff and these players and this university,” Humphries said. “(The national attention) has brought back a lot of memories. I’ve gotten a lot of phone calls from my teammates in ’87 and guys in California that I knew from the Chargers about beating Arkansas and forcing overtime with Auburn. There’s a lot of excitement around this university and it’s time for this area to come out and support it.”
On a historic night inside Malone Stadium, a record crowd of 31,175 fans witnessed a wild offensive shootout won by Baylor, 47-42. The game featured only three total punts, five lead changes and one tie.
“I thought one of the best compliments was one of the Baylor kids, saying, ‘We’re playing America’s team this week. Everybody’s fallen in love with this team, so we know we’re in for a difficult game,'” Berry said.
Junior running back Jyruss Edwards rushed for 120 yards and a touchdown while Browning finished 25 for 39 for 272 yards, two touchdowns and one interception and rushed for 49 yards and another score.
Showing the swagger of a riverboat gambler, Berry earned applause for his innovation during the game by using two quarterbacks at the same time. Browning handed the ball to backup Cody Wells, who completed two passes.
“That was probably one of my most enjoyable games to be a part of in all my years of coaching,” Berry said. “It was back and forth and every time we adjusted, they adjusted. I liked our adjustments that we made, so it was a little bit of a chess match. It was fun for a coach and the kids kept playing really well.”
The loss to Baylor didn’t derail this train as ULM enjoyed a five-game winning streak with victories over Tulane, Middle Tennessee, Florida Atlantic, Western Kentucky and South Alabama. It was the program’s longest win streak since a five-game run during the 1993 season.
The Warhawks suffered back-to-back losses to Louisiana Lafayette and Arkansas State before finishing the schedule with wins over North Texas and FIU. ULM played in four overtime games, winning three to go 8-4 in the regular season while securing its first bowl appearance since joining the FBS in 1994.
“The conference was good that year too,” said Berry, who was voted Sun Belt Coach of the Year in 2012. “Middle Tennessee beat Georgia Tech and that was quite a game. Western Kentucky kind of had it rolling at that time and Lafayette and Arkansas State were always going to be good. It was a fun season.”
Playing in nasty weather with a number of players battling the flu, ULM lost 45-14 against Ohio in the Independence Bowl on Dec. 28, 2012. Attendance for the bowl was 41,853, the highest since 2009 when 49,653 fans watched Georgia defeat Texas A&M in Shreveport.
“There was some pride in the community and pride in the university,” Berry said. “I wish we could have finished it off a little better, but those things are what they are too.”
Despite the disappointing finish, the season and the 2012 team remain one of the most memorable in school history.
Browning, who accounted for 3,537 yards total offense and a school single-season record 36 TDs, was selected Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year.
“He did a lot for that program and certainly that team,” Berry said.
Leonard set the ULM single-season record with 104 receptions for 1,118 yards and 10 scores. He ranked sixth in the NCAA FBS in receptions, averaging 8.0 per game.
Center Josh Allen and right guard Jonathon Gill, who each earned All-Sun Belt Second-Team honors, anchored an offensive line that helped ULM average 432.8 total yards and 33.9 points per game.
Defensively, the Warhawks were led by a pair of All-Sun Belt Second-Team selections, in linebacker R.J. Young, who led the team in tackles with 94 including 11 for losses, and safety Isaiah Newsome, who contributed 57 tackles, four interceptions and five pass break-ups.
“There was certainly some talent in the group,” Berry said. “Don’t get me wrong. But there was a huge desire by that group to do well and prove everybody wrong. Everything kind of came together.”