Imagine a program that has the lowest budget in the FBS, very little help from the state, and a history that is full of losses. That program, my friends, is the Louisiana Monroe Warhawks.
It is honestly amazing that, given the circumstances, ULM has been able to make it to even one bowl during its history in the FBS. Let's take a look at ULM through the years from the beginning in the 1950s to the 2016 season and beyond.
A program that dates back to the 1951 season, the Warhawks (Indians until 2006) were part of the NJCAA, NCAA College Division (Small College), and Division II for their first 24 seasons. The school went by Northeast Louisiana State College and later Northeast Louisiana University during that time.
While playing at those levels, ULM accumulated eight winning records and eight seasons with two or fewer wins. The Warhawks were never a great team, capping at eight wins in 1956 and zero conference titles, but hung around as a solid program in football hungry Louisiana. When making the move to Division I in 1975, the Warhawks held an overall record of 88-137-4.
Though their D-II days and into the next seven years, they were a bit of a football vagabond with no conference affiliation. From 1975-1981, the football program was Division I and I-A with a 31-46-2 record.
Success Is Here:
The 1982 season saw things change dramatically for the Warhawks with a move to Division I-AA (now FCS) and a spot in the Southland Conference. The twelve seasons as a part of the FCS and Southland were the most successful in school history. ULM had nine winning seasons, two double digit winning seasons, four Southland championships, and the 1987 I-AA National Championship. The Warhawks ended the impressive run with a 90-48-2 record.
The 1987 I-AA playoffs were arguably the wildest and most successful time in school history. After dispatching North Texas 30-0 in the opening round, it took a 33-32 win over Eastern Kentucky to earn a spot in the semifinals to face Northern Iowa. A wild game that included two overtime periods finally saw ULM pull out a 44-41 win.
Facing I-AA juggernaut Marshall, the Warhawks struggled in the first three quarters and trailed 42-28 with one quarter remaining. Stan Humphries led ULM to two scoring drives, including a two point conversion, winning the only football national title in school history.
The 1994 season marked another enormous change for the program with a move to the Division I-A level (now FBS).
The Present (FBS level):
The Warhawks, still called the Indians at the time, joined the FBS as an independent in 1994. That season saw them end up 3-8 with a surprising win over SEC cellar dweller Kentucky. That original schedule saw ULM face four P5 programs and BYU. A win over Mississippi State in 1995 was one of the few highlights of the 1990s, though there was some momentum with four straight five-win seasons to end the decade at 25-42.
After a disappointing 2000 that saw them finish 1-10, ULM found a conference home and joined the Sun Belt. Conference play was a struggle with a 6-29 record in the first three seasons. Then 2005 happened. ULM finished with a 5-6 record, but the conference was weak enough that they were crowned co-champs anyway. Again, they won the conference with a losing record in 2005.
There were signs of improvement with 6-6 records in 2007 and 2009, but the Warhawks ended their second decade at the FBS level with no bowl berths. ULM defeated Alabama 21-14 in the 2007 season, but their overall record from 2000-2009 was 38-82.
These last six seasons have seen ULM make their first bowl (2013) and actually look fairly competitive. Then 2015 came and blew everything out of the water. The Warhawks finished 2-11 and were not even competitive for a majority of the season. Whether that is an aberration or what to expect, it is hard to determine right now.
Overall, the Warhawks are 92-170 as a FBS program.
I would normally step away from finances as a reason to expect a downfall, but it is a huge detriment to ULM. According to numbers pulled by USA Today, ULM is ranked #181 nationally in athletic expenses at $12,801,041.
How bad is that?
Here are a few programs that spent more on academics than ULM: ULL (by $10 million), Cal-Irvine (by $5 million), Illinois-Chicago (by $3 million), and New Jersey Tech (by $800,000). With the finances for the state of Louisiana in shambles, there will be no relief for ULM anytime soon.
After the debacle of 2015, the Warhawks made one of the smartest moves in recent history with the hiring of Matt Viator from McNeese State to lead the program. He has an understanding of the budget constraints coaching at non-LSU Louisiana programs, and should be able to make the program better immediate, despite the Warhawks' overwhelming history (one winning season since joining FBS in 1994).
If that doesn't make the ULM Warhawks the biggest underdog in the FBS, then I have nothing for you.