UNO withdraws Sun Belt membership

Updated: January 20, 2010, 3:44 PM ET
By Graham Watson | ESPN.com

The Sun Belt Conference announced Wednesday that the University of New Orleans, which is in the process of transitioning to Division III, has voluntarily withdrawn its membership.

New Orleans, a founding member of the conference in 1976, was authorized by the Louisiana State University Board of Supervisors in December to withdraw from the Sun Belt by July 1.

The Sun Belt Conference Executive Committee voted to relieve the university from the associated fees of early withdrawal.

"It is unfortunate that UNO finds itself in financial constraints that have necessitated such drastic measures, but there is a time when tough decisions must be made," New Orleans chancellor Tim Ryan said in a statement. "While we are proud of our past membership in the Sun Belt Conference, the university has to make changes that will allow NCAA-sanctioned athletics to continue at the Division III level."

The university is still recuperating from losses caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and had suspended most of its sports programs while it rebuilt. The school obtained a waiver from the NCAA to remain in Division I despite having only six varsity sports through the 2007-08 season and nine through the end of the 2008-09 school year.

The waiver, however, expired and the school announced its plans in November to move to Division III.

In May, the university learned that it received a substantial financial gift from Logan Wickliffe Cary Jr., a wealthy UNO supporter who died in May. The amount of the gift was to be divided between Oklahoma, LSU and Tulane. UNO was in line to receive a third of Cary's net worth, but no one knew the exact amount or when the gift would get to the school after assets were liquidated.

"We didn't quite know how substantial he was," UNO athletic director Jim Miller told ESPN.com last summer. "We just knew he was a good guy who came to a lot of our games, most of our games, sat up in the stands, kept score with his scorebooks and pretty much kept to himself."

Miller hoped that Cary's donation would help keep the UNO athletic department viable as a Division I member. Miller also enlisted the help of New Orleans Hornets owner George Shinn to help stir up financial support for the school.

Those efforts were to no avail.

"The last several years have been unquestionably difficult on the university and the athletics department," Sun Belt commissioner Wright Waters said in a statement. "The university's assessment that has led to its withdrawal from the Sun Belt Conference has assuredly also been another difficult chapter for UNO. UNO is our third longest tenured member and they will be sorely missed.

Minus UNO, the Sun Belt will be comprised of 12 member institutions, of which nine play in the Football Bowl Subdivision. For the three Sun Belt sports with divisional play (men's and women's basketball and volleyball), teams will remain in their current divisions with each division now comprised of six programs -- Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Middle Tennessee, South Alabama, Troy and Western Kentucky in the East; and Arkansas-Little Rock, Arkansas State, Denver, Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana-Monroe and North Texas in the West.

Graham Watson covers college sports for ESPN.com.

Graham Watson | email

College Football
Watson joined ESPN.com in 2008 after four seasons covering the Missouri Tigers and the Big 12 Conference for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She also covered college football recruiting for the Dallas Morning News.