Hunsucker: Bruno won't be missed in the ULM athletic department
Every president in Louisiana-Monroe history, through all the university’s forms, made at least some positive contribution to the campus. George T. Walker created the modern blueprint. Dwight Vines spurred a golden era. James Cofer made a decaying institution solvent again. Lawson Swearingen even got the library built.
Individual legacies are up for debate. But positive contribution nonetheless.
Nick Bruno wants his legacy to be an on-campus medical school so bad it hurts. Bruno deserves that. Just like he deserves to wear the stink for enabling, and many times causing, a decade’s worth of dysfunction in the ULM athletic department.
Meddlesome. Combative. Obtuse. Clumsy.
Welcome to the Bruno playbook. Its constraints obstructed four athletic directors — three in the last four years — too many coaches to count and helped run off more than 30 staffers in the past five years alone. Astounding turnover for such a modest operation.
The popular misconception was Bruno didn’t care about athletics. Not true at all. This is a business he doesn’t understand, and his own ignorance couldn’t stop him from getting involved. What resulted was behavior akin to an overzealous travel baseball parent — one with the power to make decisions.
Bruno, who officially retired on Tuesday, was named president in November 2010. The athletic department lived a stable existence under Bobby Staub, then in his sixth year as athletic director.
ULM enjoyed a rare, and equally fleeting, uptick beginning in the spring of 2012. Jeff Schexnaider’s baseball team ran through the Sun Belt Conference tournament and into an NCAA Regional. In the fall, Todd Berry coached the football team to a bowl game and winning season, the first since joining FBS in 1994.
Stability and success? Ego wouldn’t allow it. Unless Bruno received credit for the accomplishments of others. That didn’t happen, and drunk on his own insecurity, Bruno decided he’d prove his mettle by breaking the athletic department so he could “fix” it.
Staub was forced out in April 2013. His nine-year run was largely underappreciated, both in the community and this publication, until the financial mishaps, personnel exoduses and public sparring common in recent years.
Without Staub as a buffer, Bruno’s relationships with Schexnaider and Berry grew more contentious. Schexnaider was fired during the 2014 season. Despite his role in the move, Bruno used Brian Wickstrom — Staub’s replacement — as a human shield to avoid answering why the popular Schexnaider, a ULM graduate, wasn’t at least allowed to finish the year.
ULM endured a nightmarish 12-43 season three years later under Bruce Peddie.
Berry decided to get himself fired by goading Bruno through the media leading into the 2015 season. He succeeded and was shown the door in November with the Warhawks sitting at 1-9. The aims in Berry’s exit strategy were disingenuous, but it begs the question what would drive a man so respected in his field — Berry now serves as executive director of the American Football Coaches Association — to dump nitroglycerin on a brush fire.
A quagmire of academic red tape sent Berry over the edge. While ULM’s academic standards are consistent with other University of Louisiana System schools, the criteria for admission by exception changed almost daily at the time and put the coaching staff at a recruiting disadvantage. Bruno hid from scrutiny behind then-ULM executive vice president Stephen Richters and Brett Bennett, the former faculty athletic representative.
You’ll notice a pattern here. On the occasion where Bruno would answer for himself, his observations into college athletics were telling…
- "I think our programs continue to improve, but with our resources, for our coaches to be successful they have to out-coach other coaches."
- "Just look at the University of Texas. They aren't vying for the national championship every year with one of the biggest budgets in the country."
- "I'm not an AD or a coach, but I think the reality is if you're trying to make a correlation between success and academic standards — that's going to be tough to do."
- "I spoke to Bobby (Staub) some time back and told him I would not be entering into a contract with the athletic director. I did not feel anyone reporting to me should have that since I don't have it."
Now it makes sense why Bruno thought handing over the “Louisiana” name to Louisiana-Lafayette was to ULM’s benefit. Or why he was bewildered that bulldozing the Grove, the golf team’s house and the L Club house so the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine (VCOM) could have a parking lot would divide a long-suffering support base even further.
Bruno treated criticism in each instance as an affront and lashed out in kind over email and Twitter.
How was an athletic director supposed to thrive in this environment? Bruno soured on Wickstrom around the time Berry plotted his escape. Wickstrom survived a palace coup — Josh Brooks was brought in and told the job was his following the 2015-16 fiscal year, only for Bruno to renege at the eleventh hour — before his 2017 ouster.
Wickstrom’s constant job hunting and two embarrassing audit reports didn’t help his cause, but the fieldhouse expansion to Malone Stadium wouldn't have happened without him. Guess who wanted credit for that too?
Nick Floyd followed Wickstrom and lasted a year before health problems forced him to step down. Bruno ally and industry neophyte Scott McDonald, who left the banking industry to join ULM’s administration in June 2018, was appointed interim athletic director. McDonald was named the full-time AD one year later.
To call Bruno a failed president is wrong. His background in business affairs was instrumental in the facility revitalization on the academic side of the campus. But people aren’t numbers and tend to buck when they’re treated as such.
ULM ran like a grand experiment in budgeting under Bruno, not an actual university. His penchant for bean-counting left him out of favor with several athletic donors in the past year. The ones he hadn’t already alienated.
Bruno didn’t help himself when in May he threatened to move the Warhawk Club under the control of the ULM Foundation. All because the Warhawk Club, formerly the ULM Athletic Foundation, wanted to renegotiate an absurd cooperative agreement that puts over $65,000 annually into the university’s pockets.
Cooler heads prevailed in the end. A rare instance in Bruno’s tenure.
Bruno leaves behind a projected economic game-changer in VCOM Louisiana. He also leaves behind an athletic department further behind than ever before.
ULM was within spitting distance of Arkansas State and Louisiana-Lafayette when Bruno arrived. Not anymore. While the Red Wolves and the Ragin’ Cajuns now boast athletic budgets topping $30 million, ULM’s only grew from $10.7 million in 2010-11 to $16.9 million in 2018-19.
Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina, Georgia State, Georgia Southern, South Alabama and Texas State all joined the Sun Belt from FCS with bigger budgets.
Like it or not, stewardship over athletes was part of Bruno’s job. It’s why Bruno spent the months following Matt Viator’s hiring as head football coach in December 2015 pandering to the fan base about how committed he was to growing ULM’s budget to the middle of the Sun Belt.
Comical now, isn’t it?
That’s one joke Bruno can take all the credit for.
The thoughts expressed in this column are the opinions of sports writer Adam Hunsucker. Follow Adam on Twitter @adam_hunsucker or email him at email@example.com.