by Erin K. Moore
Go Green! Go Gold! Go Lions! Both new and tried-and-true traditions will be in play as the Southeastern Louisiana University Lions take to the field this fall, five years after the triumphant return of football to Strawberry Stadium following an 18-year hiatus.
After starting the season out on the road, the Lions will come roaring onto their home field Sept. 15 to face Kentucky Wesleyan. As part of the five-year anniversary celebration, student tickets for the entire season will be free.
A Spirited History
The 2007 season will continue a long history of Southeastern football that spans three quarters of a century and boasts two undefeated seasons. In that time, many Lions football traditions have evolved from the people and events that make up the school’s unique history.
For years, when Southeastern scored on the home gridiron, the university’s cheerleaders would wheel out and ring a large bell. That original bell’s whereabouts is unknown; however, thanks to a donation of another bell by Hancock Bank in 2003, Southeastern once again heralds touchdowns and field goals with a spirited peal.
Southeastern students have always had an abundance of school spirit. In fact, Hammond Junior College, the predecessor of today’s Southeastern, had cheerleaders before it had sports teams, thanks to D Vickers. (Yes, there’s no period after the “D,” thank you; that is how Dovie Evora Vickers—original English-speech teacher-librarian and a Southeastern legend for decades—styled herself.) Miss Vickers organized the first pep squad shortly after the junior college was founded in 1925, and her little troupe cheerfully cheered for Hammond High, which housed the junior college for its first two years.
But before too long students had something of their own to cheer about. Shortly after Southeastern moved to a campus of its own on the northeast side of Hammond, A.L. “Red” Swanson was recruited to form the first football team. A home field was built near the area now known as Azalea Circle, between Mims and Southeastern Halls on North Oak Street. Creative funding for public works projects from the local drainage board, the police jury and an automobile raffle financed the field’s construction. Lumber came from the demolition of a Mississippi sawmill, and other building materials were donated by Hammond’s hardware stores. According to reports, the first game at the new field drew no fewer than 5,000 fans.
In the 1930s, Governor Richard Leche’s grand plans for Southeastern—“One Of The Finest Institutions In The Entire South”—included a permanent stadium. Thanks to the federally financed building programs of the New Deal, Leche had the money to fulfill the plan. However, some argued that academic buildings and dormitories, not football stadiums, should be the priority of the fledgling college. Leche arrived at the ideal compromise: build two buildings, approximately 60 yards apart, each 100 yards long, sloping toward one another with bleachers affixed to the tops.
Strawberry Stadium—the two multi-purpose buildings with the football field in the middle—was perhaps the finest public works projects constructed in Louisiana during the Depression era. In addition to providing a first-rate 8,200-seat stadium, the east side housed a cafeteria, post office and social room, while the west side accommodated athletic offices and training facilities. The second floors served as dormitories for the football team and other male students.
Leche was so anxious for the new stadium to be ready for the 1937 football season that he reputedly pulled workers from other government construction projects to work on it and even broke ground two weeks before the State Board of Education actually approved funding. Miraculously, Strawberry Stadium, named in honor of the local strawberry farmers, was completed in just 16 weeks and was dedicated Sept. 17, 1937.
Southeastern’s Golden Era of athletics took place from the end of World War II through the 1960s. Returning GIs swelled the ranks of the Southeastern student body, creating a magical season that resulted in the university’s only post-season bowl appearance, a 21-13 victory over Milligan College in the Burley Bowl in Johnson City, Tenn. The team flew to Tennessee in “chartered” planes, which sounds a lot fancier than the two war-surplus planes (with benches for seats) really were. Students made the trip in the Green Hornet, the Lions’ team bus, piloted for 24 hours straight there and back by Gene Hallum and Hollis “Roomie” Wilson.
The spirit of Wilson lives on in Southeastern’s mascot, Roomie, who was named for the beloved biology professor and fervent Lions fan. Students originally chose the name “Lobo” for the Southeastern lion, but, since the name means “wolf” in Spanish, it did not prove to be a popular choice. When Wilson passed away, the name was changed to honor him.
A popular teacher, Wilson created a unique insect collection. Laid out on a large board that replicated Strawberry Stadium, the various insects served as the teams on the field, the officials and the spectators in the stands. In his entomology classes, students studied the “bug game.”
The Traditions Continue
Seventy years later, it is construction time again in and around Strawberry Stadium. Renovations are underway that will result in long-needed upgrades and additions to the venerable facility, including a new press box, club seating and corporate suites. Newly installed lights will triple the brightness on the field.
Outside the stadium this fall, fans will encounter a few new twists. Friendship Circle tailgating locations can now be reserved free of charge on a first-come, first-served basis by calling the Southeastern Athletics Ticket Office at (985) 549-5466. Electrical outlets are available at select tailgating locations.
Socializing in the circle continues a tradition that dates back to Southeastern Louisiana College’s early years, when Friendship Oak’s branches sheltered a popular student hangout and a wooden bench circled the landmark tree’s trunk. A 1939 Lion’s Roar editorial read, “Would that we could recall some of the days when at noon the students crowded into the Pop House to purchase nickel hamburgers and cold drinks for lunch.”
When football returned in 2002, the team began a new tradition—the Lion Walk. Two hours before kickoff, the team makes its way to the stadium, passing through Friendship Circle to greet tailgating fans. Contests and competitions among the tailgating groups are also in the works to add to the excitement of Lions football tailgating this season.
With Mike Lucas as new Lions head coach and Joel Erdmann as new athletic director, the Lions plan to continue the tradition of success both on the field and in the classroom. With a focus on student athletes’ academics as well as physical prowess, the Lions will play five home games, four against Southland Conference foes.
A relatively new tradition, the Hall of Fame Game, will take place Oct. 20 when the Lions play Central Arkansas. Former players are invited to all home games to participate as honorary captains and take part in the pre-game coin toss.
This year’s homecoming game is set for Saturday, Nov. 10, against Sam Houston State. The weeklong homecoming festivities will take on an extra-festive flare this year as the Alumni Association celebrates its 80th anniversary. The homecoming bonfire, a long-standing tradition, will be torched on Thursday, Nov. 8, and the spirited homecoming parade will caravan through Hammond streets at 1:30 p.m. on game day. Both the homecoming court and the 2007 Alumnus of the Year will be presented during half-time festivities. The ladies of the court, and perhaps some of the female fans in the stands, will sport large golden mum corsages—another homecoming tradition. (For more details about Homecoming Week fun, contact the Alumni Association at 985-549-2150 or 1-800-SLU-ALUM.)
Roomie will be back on the sidelines this season helping the cheerleaders, Lionettes and Spirit of the Southland marching band rev up the Strawberry Stadium crowds. The 2007 Lions football experience promises great performances on the field, with pre-games and half times jam-packed with games, activities and traditions, both old and new. Amidst the new faces and new events, the timeless tradition of cheering students, fans and alumni will continue. Go Green! Go Gold! Go Lions!
Many historical facts for this article originated in “We Hail Thee Now Southeastern,” which was published by the university’s 75th Anniversary Committee.