PAnews.com, Port Arthur, Texas

March 19, 2010

Lady Cardinals run to NCAA elite eight truly amazing story

Best of Bob West

Bob West
The Port Arthur News

— Editor’s note: The following column from the Best of West collection was originally published in the Port Arthur News on March 27, 1991.

So where does the Lamar Lady Cardinall basketball program go from here? Encores, after all, are pretty tough when you’ve made the quantum leap from afterthought to one of the great stories in the history of women’s college basketball.

Lady Cardinal basketball, virtually overnight, went from playing in front of empty seats to playing on national television for a spot in the Final Four. For thrills, chills and hills to climb, this was college basketball’s version of the movie Hoosiers.

Al Barbre, coach of the Lady Cardinals, went into the playoffs with the hope that his team could just make a positive statement in the school’s first ever appearance in the NCAA tournament. The Lady Cardinals took it several steps further, authoring a bold declaration of belonging that rocked three of the game’s recognized powers.

Now the ball is in the hands of university officials who would seem to have no choice but to make a major budget upgrade in the commitment to Barbre’s program. The Lady Cardinals, as Barbre so aptly puts it, soared to the elite eight of women’s baseball on a budget that’s a “blue light special.”

Lamar’s total 1990-91 allocation for women’s basketball was a meager $140,688. Cost of scholarships, team travel and recruiting, as well as $23,872 of Barbre’s modest $36,872 salary, comes out of that figure. Is it any wonder there was nothing left to buy conference championship rings for the Lady Cardinals?

To perhaps better appreciate where Barbre is budget wise, consider he gets roughly half of the $278,000 Louisiana Tech operates on. The Lady Cardinals have only the fourth highest budget in the American South Conference, and they aren’t even close to No. 2 ($211,130) or No. 3 ($180,000).

If Lamar happened to be in the Sun Belt Conference, its budget for women’s basketball would be eighth. Old Dominion tops the Sun Belt at $374,223, followed by Western Kentucky’s $311,772 and Alabama-Birmingham’s $250,000.

The major rationale, I’d imagine, on providing so little in the way of funding for women’s basketball at Lamar would have been an almost total lack of revenue. The projected income from women’s basketball two years ago, for instance, was $500. Even at that, of course, the red ink in women’s basketball was a mere drop in the bucket to what Lamar was swallowing in football.

Mentioning football, by the way, is not a reach just to take a cheap shot. With the dropping of football, which had a budget of $666,678.66 in its final season, it was logical to assume Lamar would improve the plight of other sports that had long been slighted.

Precious little, however, managed to trickle down to women’s basketball. According to LU athletic director Gary Gallup, the 1989-90 budget was $132,515. The increase, then, was only $8,173 in the first year after football. That’s a rather small slice of $666,000.

For its minimal investment, Lamar got the ride of a lifetime. There’s no way you can put a dollar sign on the positive publicity generated locally, statewide and nationally by the Lady Cardinals. In 20 plus years of writing sports in Southeast Texas, I’m not sure I’ve seen a story that created so much across-the-board excitement, so much good feeling.

Al Caldwell, in a matter of minutes, was able to raise $5,000 on KLVI radio so the Lamar pep band and cheerleaders could be a part of the Midwest Regional scene. Others have come up with the $6,000 necessary to purchase conference championship rings. And the tireless Caldwell has been hustling donations for Barber’s recruiting budget.

Those things probably shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Southeast Texas has a lot of good people like Caldwell and Cardinal club president Frank Messina. Southeast Texas has always been quick to rally behind Lamar’s athletic needs. Southeast Texas is hungry for winner, and the Lady Cardinals filled a void.

By the same token, I think Southeast Texas is sometimes too good about bailing out Lamar. It really wasn’t the community’s responsibility to send the cheerleaders and band to Austin, nor to underwrite championship rings. It’s wonderful the willingness was there, but it shouldn’t have been necessary.

Hopefully, when it comes time to make that major budget upgrade, Lamar won’t choose to cut corners in the realization the good fans of the Golden Triangle will be there to make up any shortfall. Those fans are already providing support through buying tickets and Cardinal Club donations.

The bottom line is that in the Lady Cardinals Lamar has a viable program it can market and sell in Southeast Texas. While the school did precious little to help get the program to its current lofty status, it can now do much to help keep it there.

Step No. 1 should be elevating the budget on a par with Louisiana Tech. Step No. 2 should be a healthy raise for Barbre. Step No. 3 should be the kind of creative promoting that can help boost women’s basketball revenue, and offset the need for helping hands should the Lady Cardinals go a step farther next year.

Finally, how about a big bash to honor this team? They’ve earned it, and I think Lamar owes it to the players, the coach and the fans.

Sports editor Bob West can be e-mailed at rdwest@usa.net.