MONROE, La. — John Patrick could have fed every patron in the Pecan Grove before Louisiana-Monroe kicked off its home finale against Coastal Carolina.
If ever there was a diehard, Patrick checks all the boxes. As the weeks pass and the crowds thin at Malone Stadium, the lonely tailgater refuses to bail from the good ship Warhawk, sitting at the ready with a pan of boudin and a cooler of cold beer for the friendly passer-by.
"Call me Don Quixote," Patrick said. "I keep tilting at that windmill because this school gave me an opportunity to get an education and be successful in life. Maybe that makes me stubborn, but I've always operated under the concept that you cheer for your alma mater."
Patrick chose the right parable. The Army took the Bastrop-native to places both foreign and domestic after graduating from then-Northeast Louisiana University in 1986. He carries the eternal optimism and borderline martyrdom every ULM fan needs.
A few vacant spots down from Patrick's tent, Tyler Harris savors the spoils of winning the ULM Alumni Association's 35th annual Don Weems Chili Cook-Off. Events like this keep the younger members of an aging alumni base active and engaged when the herd of Ouachita Parish and its surrounding areas turn indifferent once the Warhawks start collecting losses.
This is a program with one winning season since joining Division I-A/FBS in 1994, the smallest athletic budget in the division and a consumer base that barely put 1,000 people in the stands on Saturday.
"It's always a good time," said Harris, who hails from Winnsboro and is a 2009 ULM graduate. "Of course, you'd like to see more wins than losses, but it is what it is. When people do come out, they do have fun and enjoy themselves and I just wish we could keep them coming back week after week."
Tyler Flemister is front and center for Harris' triumph. The same applies to most happenings on campus. A former ULM baseball player, Flemister grew up in Monroe around the university's old guard, many of whom either have passed away or forgone their support over the years.
It was with that in mind that Flemister took it upon himself to assume the same role for the next generation.
"I'm not a hunter or a fisherman, so this is my hobby and what I'm invested in," Flemister said. "I want this place to be the best it can be not just for me but for the future because it's such an important part of our community."
ULM fans have the same goals of carving a niche in a crowded marketplace against LSU, Louisiana Tech and Grambling State. But how to do it has frayed a congregation of true believers once united in means.
The appointment of longtime booster Scott McDonald to interim athletic director, and eventually the full-time position, started the divide. Some saw the hire as the perfect move for an operation craving stability after cycling through three ADs in two years.
"Scott is doing a really good job and he wants to be here," Harris said. "I think that's what you need here because it's tough at a small school like ours against the competition we face. We know the financials aren't great, but you have to do the best you can, and I think Scott is
McDonald is a graduate, a product of the baseball program, and has a genuine love for all things ULM. But can an athletic department run on affection
Others wonder if a cozy relationship with ULM President Nick Bruno got McDonald the job. They question McDonald's qualifications — his most relevant experience came while chairing ULM's facilities corporation — and see him making the same mistakes as his predecessor, Nick Floyd, a noted recluse who the fanbase felt guarded news on facility upgrades and other projects like classified
When a school is as reliant on private donations as ULM, it's best to keep those capable of giving them informed.
"What frustrates me is we don't even talk about the things that we're doing," Patrick said. "I've heard people at ULM say we have to get our house in order and have something big so that we can release it and create some excitement. We have to release a strategic plan first because we are poor and this way we can show everybody how their money is being spent.
"Scott and Dr. Bruno don't seem to care about our frustrations. I've seen them walking around to different tailgates before games. Maybe they should ask some of us what we think."
Patrick found an outlet to voice his concerns on Twitter. Using the handle @injunjohn86, he tweets at Bruno and McDonald almost daily using his #freetheplan hashtag. Why is it almost impossible to find Adidas gear with the new ULM logo? Does the university ever plan to dedicate the renovated Charlie Martin Training Room?
Most of his concerns go unaddressed.
Flemister walks between both worlds as a regular fan and a ULM Athletic Foundation/Warhawk Club board member. Such a task requires delicate balance, and never was it tougher to maintain that footing than when the Grove was bulldozed to build a parking lot for the new Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine located on campus.
The Warhawk faithful took pride in the Grove. Other schools may win more games, but not many could match the party behind Malone Stadium. Flemister and the rest of the "South End Zone Squad," a rowdy band of locals who took the name from their game-day seats, hosted many of those gatherings.
Tailgating was moved to the renovated Pecan Grove starting this season and a good number played along as McDonald insisted the new digs created a
better atmosphere. But the merits of a medical school, the only on-campus facility in Louisiana, didn't placate
To quite a few, the loss of the Grove became a new reason to quit on ULM, another addition to the overall tapestry on par with the name change.
"Did losing the Grove hurt us a little bit? Maybe so," Flemister said. "Some of the older crowd was probably upset by it and I get it, but you have to look at what's best for the university and what the medical school will mean for this area.
"I can't control what other people think or say about ULM. All I can do is control what I do and keep inviting people to come out for games. Whether they come or not, I'm going to keep doing my part to help this university move forward."
Though modest compared to its peers in the Sun Belt Conference, the facility improvements ULM has made over the past five years are noteworthy. The $4.1 million fieldhouse addition to Malone Stadium, a pet project of former athletic director Brian Wickstrom, opened prior to the 2016 season.
The athletic department worked with the Monroe-West Monroe Convention and Visitors Bureau to secure the funding to renovate Brown Stadium and Groseclose Track in 2018. Field turf was also installed at the ULM Softball Complex alongside a renovated dressing room and a new player's lounge.
History has shown prosperity to be a fleeting endeavor on the bayou. With every step forward comes another, or sometimes two in the opposite direction. Look no further than Warhawk Giving Day
Designed to entice donations during a 24-hour cycle, ULM flooded social media with videos and reminders across multiple social-media platforms last Thursday. Despite an extended deadline, Warhawk Giving Day netted $12,882, which was well short of the $20,000 target. The goal posts were even lowered to $15,000 at one point, then returned the original figure.
Neither the athletic department nor the Warhawk Club promoted Giving Day on social media until two days prior.
It all invites the question of why.
Why do the few but proud in this collective continue supporting a place that at times does little to help itself? Maybe that is part of ULM's appeal. There's nothing more American than an underdog.
If it were that easy, it might not be as fun.
"Part of it is the struggle," Patrick said. "It's frustrating at times, but I keep coming back. One day I want to be able to say I was here when it all came together. That can't happen if I don't show up."