In case you haven’t noticed, this region of Southwest Louisiana has undergone a facelift in the last 10 years. It continues to change with growth and expansion on numerous fronts.
New industrial mega-plants. Sleek new casino high-rise hotels from Vinton to Lake Charles out to Kinder.
Local city mayors spending half their days at new business ribbon cuttings. Massive apartment complexes popping up almost as if at will. And of course, an onslaught of residential housing development and construction such as this area has never experienced before.
Somehow, McNeese State — amid years of budget cuts to higher education by the Louisiana Legislature — got an invite to the building party and is changing its campus skyline with the new Health and Human Performance Center.
It’s better known as the new “basketball arena.” It hasn’t gotten a nickname yet, but it will by the time it opens this fall.
Football got its long-needed athletic fieldhouse expansion and new artificial turf (second turf nearly completed). The Cowboy Diamond received more than a million dollars in upgrades and renovation, along with the new name of Joe Miller Ballpark to honor the program’s benefactor. The women’s softball field upped the ante as well.
McNeese basketball, at times the forgotten sport in the athletic portfolio, got swept up in the facility euphoria and topped them all.
An on campus basketball arena/multi-purpose center had been talked about and dreamed of for a long time — maybe as far back as the Joe Dumars era in the 1980s. McNeese has probably been the only Southland Conference team without an on-campus home court gym through the years.
It’s been a thorn in the hoops saddle and a bit of an embarrassment for McNeese. Many ardent basketball supporters and boosters felt it has held the program back in many ways, including the recruiting of players, attendance, fund-raising, game day revenue production, attracting coaches, and, of course, wins and losses.
I don’t know whether I would go to those extremes, but admittedly the lack of a basketball hardwood among the friendly confines of the campus was at the very least a drag on the program’s self-esteem.
All that changed a few years ago when the move to get out of Burton Coliseum got serious with serious people doing a serious amount of work, engaging in serious negotiations, and raising a serious amount of seed money to get the ball rolling.
A combination of private and public money finally got shovels in the ground, and after years of design and construction, the new arena building will open its doors this September, barring any delays.
When it’s all said and done, when the lights finally come on, the final cost will be an estimated $41.6 million, according to Candace Townsend, director of public relations and university events.
Men’s and women’s basketball, along with ladies’ volleyball, will take center court inside the new arena. But Townsend noted the building will house health and human performance classrooms and faculty offices and host Banners performances and other McNeese events, including the fall and spring commencements.
At a $41-million price tag, McNeese intends to keep this building mighty busy.
All this new arena chatter leads to the next chapter in McNeese Cowboys basketball.
Chapter one began with the hiring of new head coach Heath Schroyer from BYU.
In his introductory press conference, Schroyer followed a well-thought-out script of leadership, humility and winning now.
He spoke from the heart about his five tenets and principles of coaching basketball: loyalty to the university and teammates, playing with great passion, being unselfish, discipline on and off the court and instilling a champion’s work ethic.
It was easy for me to see how the 46-year-old Schroyer, a native of Fredericks, Md., rose to the top of more than 100 candidates during the coaching search. He eventually beat out four other finalists for the job, including former LSU head coach and current top assistant at Nevada Johnny Jones, from nearby DeRidder.
Schroyer is a polished and effective speaker who communicates his message on point, clearly and with the honed skill of a master recruiter. That ability to communicate was one of the key reasons Schroyer was hired, according to McNeese athletic director Bruce Hemphill.
I’m big on communication, consistency of the message, cutting through the clutter, establishing and selling your brand. It’s the only way to get the attention and penetrate the psyche of today’s generation of players, who are insulated, self-absorbed and ruled by social media on many levels.
That’s why I think a true national coaching search was paramount, and Schroyer was a great hire as a result of that process.
I also think that a coach with his extensive resume as a top assistant at BYU, UNLV and North Carolina State; and with head coaching stints at Wyoming, Portland State and UT-Martin; doesn’t accept the McNeese job WITHOUT that brand new arena.
“With the new arena coming, the new level of commitment that the university is doing and putting into basketball, and the players that are here and the players I think we can attract here, for me it was a perfect match,” Schroyer said. “Two months ago, I knew about the new arena, and I think it can be a gold mine in this area and in this league.”
He won’t come out and say it. But I believe the new arena, with the shiny bells and whistles that will surely be a critical selling point to new recruits, sealed the deal for Schroyer and his decision to seek and accept the McNeese job.
He did say a shared vision for Cowboys basketball among the university hierarchy put him over the top, and convinced him McNeese was the right fit for his fourth Division 1 head coaching position. “Everywhere I’ve been, I learned a couple of things. If your president, your athletic director and your coach have the same vision, you can do some things that are really special. When there is a kink in the armor somewhere, and there is not a shared vision, sometimes it can be really hard. That’s what I was most impressed with after having some conversations … was that their vision was shared with the vision I had for the program,” Schroyer explained.
I have heard the reservations from more than a few McNeese supporters about hiring a new head coach with a losing record as a head man. It’s a valid point, but not one that should be the deciding factor in this case.
I would argue that Schroyer took control at Portland State and UT-Martin when these two programs were in deep losing funks with nary a light at the end of the tunnel (much as McNeese is now). After a few short years, he rebuilt and rebooted both teams with a Big Sky Conference championship in Portland and several 20-win seasons at UT-Martin.
“Every job that I’ve had as a head coach was one that the team had to be rebuilt. I actually enjoy that process. Some of my colleagues think I’m insane, but I enjoy the process of building something and putting my stamp on it.”
His reclamation successes, head coaching experience and national recruiting connections were qualities the McNeese search committee, along with university president Dr. Daryl Burckel and A.D. Hemphill, were looking for.
But make no mistake, Schroyer had a wish list too.
He has more than 20 years in D-1 coaching, with nine years as a head coach in his back pocket, and top assistant positions with North Carolina State, BYU and UNLV. While in Las Vegas from 2011-14, he was listed as one of the nation’s Top 15 assistant coaches twice, and he helped sign four McDonald’s All American stars to the Rebels.
Schroyer could afford to be a little picky in choosing his next stop, so there was selling from both sides. McNeese couldn’t match his salary at BYU, but could hand over the reins to a team with pretty good returning talent and low expectations.
Clearly Schroyer was at a point in his career that he felt he needed to be a head coach again. He probably asked himself more than a few times … “Why not McNeese State? Why not Lake Charles, Louisiana, and the Southland Conference?”
Untapped potential was Schroyer’s rallyng cry for all things McNeese basketball, the city and region and the job as a whole. Even though he had never been in Lake Charles before he accepted the job, Schroyer felt the vibe of community support in a city he is convinced he can attract talent to.
“I think Lake Charles is a great location to recruit to. It’s a destination spot. I think it’s the best city in our league, personally. (I would assume he knows Houston and San Antonio are in the SLC). I also think we are going to have the best facility in our league and this part of the country. I really believe we can turn this into a mid-major powerhouse. That’s what I envision,” Schroyer said.
In his first media sit-down to field questions, Schroyer did not stray far from references to the new arena and the advantages of a state-of-the-art facility, as it were.
That’s why he’s taking a pay cut and dropping down to a smaller conference with less hoops stature and cachet.
I guess the new digs … all 145,820 square feet of it … was the true closer in this negotiation.
But can a building housing this long-awaited arena nestled in the heart of the university really solve six straight years of losing records and game attendance marks that fall below those of many of the area high school teams?
McNeese’s student count isn’t growing by leaps and bounds. According to the office of public relations, the spring enrollment stands at 6,827 students.
To be honest, the hope and belief that the on-campus arena will attract a large student contingent to the games I am skeptical of. You see, there are only 800 students who actually live on campus. If McNeese is lucky, 30 percent might find their way to games consistently. That’s 240 students in an arena with an estimated 3,000-plus capacity.
The expectation is the arena, with its more convenient location and sleek amenities, will surely bring in upwards of 2,000 fans from the surrounding area. That would more than triple home game numbers of the past few years at Burton Coliseum.
To come anywhere near those gate numbers, the new arena will have to offer upper-tier concession fare and maybe even a mini-food court type set-up. There should be great sight lines with high-grade seats. The light and sound system should appeal to both senses. The arena should have a scoreboard and video screen that catch your eye, and music and promotions to keep fans’ interest and attention.
Hemphill has said the goal is to be much like an NBA game, with a high dose of entertainment mixed in with a basketball game.
The athletic brass has until November to make all that happen.
In the meantime, Schroyer is holding up his end of the deal.
He has hired two new assistant coaches in John Aiken from Nicholls State and Michael Dubose from Chipola Junior College. Schroyer and Aiken have also recruited and signed three junior college players, and have several more on their radar.
“Take the blinders off and think big. It’s a global basketball world out there. There are players across the world and the country that would love to come experience what we have to offer here. But that comes back to changing the mentality. Why not us? Why not come here? I have never put any limitations on any players, let alone limitations on the program. I think we can accomplish great things. We just have to change our mindset,” Schroyer proclaimed.
Hey, I would put him in Alaska to sell snow balls. But can he convince a football-crazed region to buy into a perennially losing basketball program?
Schroyer’s got seven months and a new arena to prove he can.
Rick Sarro’s perspectives and commentary can be heard on Soundoff 60 nightly, Monday through Sunday evenings, at 9 pm; broadcast on Suddenlink channel 4.