Ted Lewis: Now 15 years’ strong, the New Orleans Bowl’s stability is doubly impressive in the ever-changing bowl landscape _lowres

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- A record crowd watched the opening ceremony of the Tulane-UL-Lafayette New Orleans Bowl in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in December 2013.

Wright Waters is not the kind of person to be easily discouraged. But this time he was at least getting that way.

As the just-hired commissioner of the New Orleans-based Sun Belt Conference in 2001, Waters had managed to persuade a group of schools to join what became the newest Division I-A league.

But there was no carrot — a bowl game — for the champion. No existing bowl inside the Sun Belt’s footprint was interested in partnering with an unproven, low-profile product.

“We shopped ourselves around for some time,” Waters said. “But everybody else was aligned with other conferences. We knew we weren’t going to be playing for the national championship, but we couldn’t leave our champion just sitting at home.

Out of options, Waters belatedly joined with the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation, and the New Orleans Bowl was born.

There was derision the first year when North Texas won the first Sun Belt title but lost all of its nonconference games to finish 5-6. The bowl had to get a special ruling from the NCAA to allow the Mean Green to play Colorado State in the inaugural game, which the Rams won 45-20.

And now, 15 years later, the New Orleans Bowl is still around.

Arkansas State and Louisiana Tech meet at 8 p.m. Saturday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome with a crowd approaching 40,000 anticipated.

“Those folks who never thought we’d make it past one year might reconsider,” said Waters, who left the Sun Belt in 2013 and is now executive director of the Football Bowl Association. “Fifteen years. Wow.”

And while the New Orleans Bowl, which added freight shipping company R+L Carriers as a sponsor in 2006, is never going to be considered among the top tier of bowl games, its stability in an ever-shifting bowl landscape is to be admired.

The Sun Belt is still the primary tie-in; Conference USA has provided the other team 11 of the past 14 years and will continue to do so through at least 2019; the relationship with R+L Carriers is the fourth-longest among the 40 bowls; and the date (the Saturday before Christmas) has been the same since 2006.

The year before, the bowl faced its greater challenge: finding a place to play after Hurricane Katrina rendered the Superdome unusable and the withdrawal of title sponsor Wyndham Hotels. The game between Arkansas State and Southern Miss was successfully moved to Lafayette with a major financial assist from ESPN.

“I think we’ve succeeded because we’re comfortable in our own skin,” said Billy Ferrante, the bowl’s executive director since 2004. “We know who we are, and we’re always striving to be the best we can be at what we do.”

Give a big portion of the credit for that to Ferrante, who has been with the bowl since its beginning.

While Ferrante has other duties with the Sports Foundation, which took complete ownership of the bowl in 2003, as the senior vice president of marketing, the game is his passion.

“There have been a lot of good people who have had a hand in the New Orleans Bowl, and Billy Ferrante tops the list,” Waters said. “He has embraced the game; he has grown the game. He has done everything right.”

Growing the bowl, Ferrante said, included adding fan entertainment before the game. REO Speedwagon and Big Sam’s Funky Nation headlined a free concert Friday in Champions Square.

More important, Ferrante added, has been enhancing the players’ entertainment experience during their time in New Orleans.

“As much as anything else, that’s how your bowl is judged,” he said. “If the teams don’t enjoy themselves, you’ve got problems.”

Thanks to the presence of Louisiana-Lafayette, local awareness of the game grew over the past four years.

The Ragin’ Cajuns not only were the Sun Belt team in the game from 2011-14, they won all four, including a 24-21 victory against Tulane in 2013 before a bowl-record crowd of 54,728.

“Everyone loves coming to New Orleans, and the UL-Lafayette fans really demonstrated a fondness for the city and the bowl,” Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson said. “Arkansas State had been to Mobile for the last four years, but they were really hungry to come to New Orleans. The hospitality is first-rate. We’ve just got a great combination of bowl and conference.”

While a one-year swap with the Mountain West brought Nevada to last year’s game and C-USA’s failure to have enough bowl-eligible teams in 2010 and 2011 meant Ohio and San Diego State were subbed in, Ferrante said the nature of the bowl means it’s best to have two regional teams in the game.

With C-USA’s champion no longer going to the Liberty Bowl, a champion-vs.-champion game could happen one year, but Ferrante said proximity to New Orleans remains the most desirable factor in the pairing.

“In our first year, Sonny Lubick was Colorado State’s coach, and he said if he wasn’t playing for the national championship, the New Orleans Bowl was where he’d want his team to be,” Ferrante said.

“You can’t have anybody say anything better about your bowl game than that.”