All is not well on the New Orleans front
Saints euphoria is meaningful, but Katrina's effect can still be felt at struggling UNO
NEW ORLEANS -- The catharsis came at approximately 8:30 p.m. CT, as Tracy Porter zipped into the end zone to all but seal the New Orleans Saints' Super Bowl victory.
For a full two weeks, this city had been on a pigskin bender. Along St. Charles Avenue in the Garden District, homeowners draped Saints' black and gold alongside the purple, green and gold Mardi Gras bunting on their stately homes. Downtown, the church bells at Saint Louis Cathedral rang out "When the Saints Go Marching In" at the top of every hour.
Waiters at upscale Galatoire's sent diners on their way with a "Thank you" and a "Who dat?" And in department store windows along Canal Street, the backdrop behind the mannequins was not advertising upcoming sales, but instead read, "Who dat? Who dat? Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints?"
When Sunday finally came, Porter's pick-six of Peyton Manning merely added the exclamation point to what everyone in New Orleans had been saying: The Crescent City, once the site of so much suffering, was back.
Joe Pasternack, born and raised in the city, celebrated right alongside his fellow New Orleanians. He wasn't here when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, but felt his city's agony all the same. He saw and believed in the redemptive meaning behind the run from Aints to Saints.
But for Pasternack, the University of New Orleans men's basketball coach, the happiness was tinged with a stinging bite of reality.
"I grew up here and I'm a huge Saints fan," Pasternack said. "I couldn't be more excited. But everything here is not rosy. Not at all. Our university is struggling mightily still."
It is the cruelest twist of ironies: While the city's most beloved sports team celebrates its greatest moment, the University of New Orleans athletic department, younger than the Saints by only eight years, is going backwards.
UNO announced recently that a crippling drop in enrollment since Katrina, coupled with massive state budget cuts, will make it impossible for the university to offer Division I athletics. Earlier this month, the Privateers officially announced their withdrawal from the Sun Belt Conference. Next year, they will compete as a Division I independent, and in 2011-12 will begin life anew as an NCAA Division III team.
Since 1981, only five schools have gone backward from Division I to III. Centenary College, located in the northwest part of Louisiana in Shreveport, announced last year it will also join the group.
"This is our flagship school -- the University of New Orleans," said Vanessa Pappillon, whose godson Charles Carmouche is the Privateers' leading scorer. "To not have a Division I sports program at the university that belongs to the whole city, to every socioeconomic level, is inexcusable. We have a lot of wonderful distractions happening in this city -- Who dat? -- but how can you say we're entirely healed with what's happening to our university? We're not."
Jim Miller doesn't mince words. Asked what happened to UNO athletics, the school's former athletic director says bluntly: "Total lack of leadership."
He, along with many others, points the finger of blame squarely at university chancellor Timothy Ryan. They empathize with the impossibly difficult financial situation Ryan was placed in, given the double-whammy from the hurricane and the state budget cuts, but argue that in the end he chose the easy way: eliminating Division I athletics instead of rolling up his sleeves to try to save them.
"Anybody who says I'm anti-athletics is just wrong," Ryan said. "I was an athlete -- not a very good one but an enthusiastic one -- and I've been a season-ticket holder for UNO basketball and baseball as long as I've been on faculty, 34 years. But I also know it's hard to blame things on circumstance, on the environment, on something as nebulous as the economy. 'It's that god-damned Ryan -- he's a moron.' So sure, I take the blame."
Ryan argues that the decision wasn't a simple or easy one -- that even blaming the hurricane is too simplistic.
The UNO mess, he says, is the result of a combustible cocktail of Katrina, budget cuts, fan apathy and the financial stress of balancing the needs of a few hundred student-athletes versus the needs of thousands of students.
"College athletics in general has become the tail that wags the dog," said Ryan, adding that his university ranked at or near the bottom in attendance in baseball and men's basketball, it's two most prominent and successful sports.
"We all have to compete with the big guys and very few can. We have 12,000 students paying fees to support 150 student-athletes and that's just out of whack. I believe we have to get off the treadmill of the tail that wags the dog. With the way the state of Louisiana funds this university, we just can't afford to try to keep up with the Joneses."
This much no one will argue: Long after Katrina's waters receded, its effects were still evident. UNO's enrollment bottomed, with some 7,000 students leaving. Each of those students represented $100 in student fees, the primary source for the athletics department's funding.
The real killer, however, came from the state government. Trying to make its own fiscal budget meet, it voted twice to slash higher education. The initial hit came in 2006, while UNO and other schools were still struggling to dig out from under Katrina.
Ryan made the unprecedented move to lay off tenured faculty.
"I lost a lot of credibility with the faculty," he said. "They wanted to know how I could justify firing tenured faculty member and not eliminating athletics? But at the time, we felt the student population would come back and we felt, for what we wanted to do in terms of rebuilding, hopefully adding out-of-state students, that athletics was important -- so we stuck with it."
Miller, then the AD, put eight of his 14 sports on hiatus. But thanks to a waiver from the NCAA due to the extenuating circumstances of Katrina, UNO kept its D-I status. The university had five years (until 2010-11) to return to 14 sports, the minimum Division I requirement.
With a strategic plan in place -- paid for by the Sun Belt and executed by Carr Sports Associates -- UNO tried to stem the tide. By 2008, Miller thought things were improving after he was able to reinstitute three sports.
And then the state whacked higher education again, this time to the tune of $219 million statewide, including $15 million for UNO.
Still, Miller thought that with some creative energies and careful attention to the strategic plan, his department could be spared.
Ryan disagreed. Taking cues from the faculty and university senate, he decided that the only way to make up the difference was to ask the students to up their fees by $100.
Student-athletes and coaches campaigned feverishly, but on May 1, 2009 -- Black Friday, as Miller calls it -- the student referendum failed.
By 167 votes.
"That was the death knell of UNO athletics," Miller said.
A month later the university announced that other schools could contact its athletes.
On July 30, a fed-up Miller -- who spent 20 years in the NFL prior to arriving at the University of New Orleans -- walked away from the two years left on his contract and resigned.
"The bottom line is maybe 20 universities in Division I even break even," Miller said. "But at the end of the day, they make a choice: They decide that athletics is important. That's what it comes down to."
Four months after Miller left, interim athletic director Mike Bujol, a 27-year athletic administrator at UNO, retired.
The school has yet to fill the position.
At least twice, UNO thought it had found a savior.
Days after the student referendum failed, New Orleans Hornets owner George Shinn announced he would spearhead a fundraising effort to save UNO athletics.
"We will have the money when the money's needed," he said.
But in the sort of warped daggers that continually have dogged UNO since Katrina, Shinn's efforts were undone by another generous offer.
Just two days after Shinn's announcement, longtime UNO season-ticket holder and New Orleans resident Logan Wickliffe "Wick" Cary passed away. Cary never married and had no children, and in his will, he left a significant amount of money to UNO. Word leaked it could be as much as $150 million.
"That just about put an end to the fundraising with George Shinn," Miller explained. "People figured we were saved."
The truth is, much of Cary's assets are in real estate, and the university has since learned that the donation is likely to be closer to $8 or $9 million. The other catch is that it will be tied up in probate for a few years -- too much, too late for UNO.
And no one is quite sure if New Orleans even will see any of its share. Cary, a consultant in offshore and other oil ventures, also left money for Tulane, LSU and the University of Oklahoma, where he did his graduate work.
Cary's money was earmarked specifically for athletics. Is the spirit of the will honored if UNO is competing at the Division III level?
Charles Carmouche packed his bags for two days, figuring that would be plenty to ride out the storm that was bearing down on New Orleans on Aug. 28, 2005.
He never returned to his home again.
Instead, he and his family spent the year after Katrina in Houston, and when they finally returned home, their old house in the New Orleans East neighborhood was uninhabitable, its roof gone, with mildew and mold covering the walls.
Carmouche, once part of a star-studded freshman team at St. Augustine High School, enrolled at McMain for his junior and senior seasons. An all-state selection and district MVP, he was recruited heavily. When it came time to choose his school, the self-described homebody kept it simple, electing to go to UNO.
"When I first started the recruiting process, I was excited -- all these schools wanting to talk to me," Carmouche said. "Then I just wanted to get it over with."
Now he'll start all over. In March, UNO will play its last game as a Sun Belt program, and Carmouche and his teammates will scatter.
Where? Carmouche has no idea, but the vultures already are out.
Pasternack hoped that other coaches would respect the situation and not contact his players until after this season ended.
No such luck. The feeding frenzy has been on in earnest since the first tip. Pasternack said his kids are practically being recruited in the layup line and that assistant coaches are slipping their phone numbers to his top players during the postgame handshakes.
Carmouche denied receiving phone calls from other coaches, but when asked if coaches are honoring the unwritten rule to wait until the season ends, Pappillon, who shepherded her godson through the process the first time, snickered: "I have no comment on that."
Pasternack came to UNO knowing things weren't going to be easy. The previous two head coaches -- Buzz Williams and Monte Towe -- both opted to leave for assistant gigs.
But Pasternack is both a champion of difficult jobs -- he cut his teeth as Bob Knight's graduate manager -- and a native of New Orleans. He not only thought he could make it work; he wanted to make it work.
"This was a dream job for me," he said.
Within his first year, he helped secure a $1 million donation from former Privateer Gabe Corchiani and his business partner, John Georges. The first $250,000 installment helped refurbish Lakefront Arena, the Privateers' home court, which had been severely damaged by Katrina.
In Pasternack's first season (2007-08), the Privateers finished 19-11, their best record since 1997. That despite playing without a home arena. So he thought his leap of faith had been rewarded. He brought in nine newcomers for the 2008-09 season, and Lakefront, closed since Katrina, reopened. But the good news was short-lived.
In November he was ready to sign his incoming class, a class he thought would help the program turn the corner.
But the day before signing day, UNO announced that the school would drop to Division III. Pasternack was told he couldn't offer scholarships.
"The hardest part is I spent so much time convincing families to trust me and believe me," Pasternack said. "We had heard the rumors about going D-III, but we were also told that it wasn't going to happen. These people trusted me with their kids. I had one kid going to host a press conference that night. I had to tell him to cancel."
Pasternack knew that day that it was over -- the program, the season, all of it. He has tried to motivate his team -- reading to them from "The Precious Present," a book that is about living for the moment. But their minds are understandably elsewhere. Where will they play? Will they play? Will their credits transfer?
When the season ends, Pasternack will go from head coach to consultant, helping to place his own players on other teams. He has a year left on his contract, but without scholarships this year or for the future, next year's team will essentially be made up of walk-ons competing as a Division I independent.
Corchiani and Georges, who recently ran for mayor, have pulled the plug on their donation.
"We were really interested in helping secure the future of UNO athletics," Corchiani said. "But with us going to Division III, I'm just not sure that's what we're interested in."
The university must formally apply to the NCAA for Division III certification by May 15 and then will need to find a conference. The American Southwest, which counts schools in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi among its members, is a likely fit.
"I understand what the chancellor was up against and I suppose Division III is better than nothing, but I feel so badly for the kids," Pasternack said. "These kids wanted to be here."
The Privateers are just 7-17 this season and 2-11 in the Sun Belt. To literally add injury to insult, they are playing without their leading scorer. Billy Humphrey has missed the last 14 games with a knee injury.
UNO has won just two games without him.
"We came here expecting to do great things and instead we watched it fall apart right before our eyes," Carmouche said. "I would love for us to go out as winners so that at least the final team at UNO leaves something special behind."
Fat Tuesday is officially a week away, but no Mardi Gras celebration will ever rival the one New Orleans just hosted.
Fans poured into downtown to watch their beloved, bead-throwing Saints tote the Lombardi Trophy through the streets. Schools and businesses closed early or shuttered their doors altogether for the extended party.
The University of New Orleans cancelled afternoon and evening classes, too, so the UNO community could enjoy a moment "that has brought us all together like none before," according to a university press release.
It might just be the last big sports party the university takes part in.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at email@example.com.
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