Commentary

The state of college athletics in N.O.

While UNO tries to find its footing, other area schools offer a mixed results post-Katrina

Originally Published: February 10, 2010
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

NEW ORLEANS -- The dire straits of the University of New Orleans in the five years since Hurricane Katrina have received the most attention.

But every university in the city was affected, as were the athletic departments. Only now are they even emerging from survival mode to rebirth.

"You have to understand, everyone in New Orleans suffered but no one suffered exactly the same way," Loyola men's basketball coach and athletic director Mike Giorlando said. "Some people lost their homes; some lost part of their house. Some had displaced families; some had problems with their schools. It's the same with the universities."

After taking a look at UNO's situation, here are updates on the other five colleges and universities in New Orleans:

Tulane: Rather than shutter its campus doors, the Tulane administration made the unusual decision to ship its student-athletes to four nearby colleges -- Louisiana Tech, Texas Tech, Texas A&M and SMU -- so they'd be able to compete.

[+] EnlargeTulane Tennis
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesThe Tulane tennis teams have taken the last four seasons off, but will return to the courts this spring.

By paring the athletic department to the bare minimum for survival -- which meant temporarily closing down eight sports -- and relying on its endowment and alumni, Tulane got through the early difficult days and slowly rebuilt itself.

What was wiped out in days took years to rebuild. Athletic director Rick Dickson admits there were dark days. He even went so far as to take another job at one point, tempted at least briefly by a job with an easier road.

"Surviving is one thing, but rebuilding from the ground up is another," he said. "You need to be resolved to doing it and I think that's something we all had to consider personally. I took another position and three days later, I said I can't walk away from a place that is on its back and did nothing to deserve it."

Dickson said every minute decision was considered -- everything from travel to new uniforms to team meals.

Slowly the administration introduced new sports, gradually restoring what the budget could handle.

Four-plus years later, Tulane is "on the victory lap," Dickson said. The Green Wave is two sports from being whole and will reach that by next season when it adds men's indoor track and field and another women's sport (the university is still exploring options, considering women's soccer and even sand volleyball). The staffing is within 5 percent of where it was pre-Katrina and most important, the university is on its feet. This past year Tulane had around 34,000 applicants for roughly 1,500 spots in the freshman class.

"We were fortunate in that early on there was a unanimous decision by our president and our board that it was important that Tulane, with its history, its stature as a university, its location, maintain a Division I program," Dickson said. "That was the backdrop for everything and paved the foundation for us."

Southern: Inundated with 15 feet of water and suffering close to $350 million in damages, Southern University at New Orleans (SUNO) abandoned its campus for a makeshift one made up of FEMA trailers for almost two years.

The Health and Physical Education building -- aka The Castle for the Knights -- closed for two years, forcing the basketball teams to play at an area community college.

But buoyed by $92 million in federal aid that has helped rebuild some structures and in other places, construct new ones, SUNO is rallying. The Knights are back in their facility, which has been given a facelift, and last month the school announced it was at 93 percent of its pre-Katrina enrollment.

[+] EnlargeXavier Sign
AP Photo/Bill HaberLong after the flood waters had receded, one could still see the marks they left on the XU campus.

Xavier: More than 300 people lost their jobs at Xavier in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the athletic programs were put on hold for the entire 2005-06 academic year. The more than $90 million in damages to the campus devastated a university whose endowment is only $52 million.

The buildings at the nation's only historically black Roman Catholic university had between 4 and 6 feet of water inside them.

Slowly and methodically the university crawled back to life, its athletic programs taking baby steps, too.

After the one-year hiatus, Xavier teams combined to win five Gulf Coast Athletic Conference titles, a stunning show of grit considering everything the programs had been through.

"We don't have the biggest department around," athletic director Dennis Cousin said after the surprisingly successful year. "But pound for pound our department does an outstanding job."

Still sustaining six sports, Xavier in the fall will reintroduce women's volleyball.

Loyola: The women's soccer team, its own fields covered by FEMA trailers, used to practice on neighboring Tulane's football field. The basketball teams played on a back practice court, requiring fans to walk through the rubble and destruction left on the playing court after a tornado in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina tore a 30-by-50 gap in the roof of the University Sports Complex, affectionately called The Den.

But student-athletes, coaches and administrators knew that comparatively, Loyola was lucky.

"Our administration was adamant that we would not drop anything after Katrina and they really honored that," Giorlando said. "It's a credit to them and our coaches.''

In fact, in the four and a half years since Katrina hit, the Wolfpack have lost just one sport: women's soccer was done in by a combination of attrition and a lack of a place to play.

The department got by on old-fashioned gumption, pinching every penny each team could find -- if a team traveled out of town, it scheduled more than one game, for example -- and hitting the telephones to essentially telethon the department to life.

In the first year after Katrina, Giorlando estimates that 80 percent of his department's budget came via fundraising.

His basketball team received $12,000 thanks to the generosity of Loyola (Chicago). The two teams wore throwback jerseys in the game against each other. The jerseys were later auctioned off and Loyola (Chicago) turned all of the profits over to the Wolfpack.

"You do learn of the good in people," Giorlando said. "We'd make one phone call to an alum and they'd turn around and make five or six more."

Buoyed, too, by a waiver from the NAIA that granted students who competed that first year an additional year of eligibility, Giorlando estimates that close to 97 percent of his student-athletes returned.

The university will add women's and men's tennis this year and by 2016 intends to add softball, men's and women's golf and men's and women's soccer.

Dillard: The Gentilly campus was all but washed away when the levee containing the nearby London Avenue Canal was breached. The majestic oaks along the historic Avenue of the Oaks were uprooted and some dormitories burned to the ground after the flooding. With the campus suffering nearly $400 million in damage -- the hardest and worst hit of any of the New Orleans schools -- no one knew if Dillard would come back, let alone its athletics.

Dillard University
AP Photo/Ben MargotThe damage was so extensive at Dillard the student body lived and attended classes at a hotel.

"The fact that we've got any athletics today is a miracle," university president Dr. Marvalene Hughes said recently.

Actually it's not a miracle. Miracles are happenstance. What's occurred at Dillard is the result of hard work and a mission.

Hughes charged new athletic director Kiki Baker-Barnes with developing a plan that not only resuscitated athletics, but argued its worth to the university community. Baker-Barnes and her staff responded with a comprehensive, yet incremental plan, one that had big dreams but the patience to reach them.

"Everybody wants things to happen right now, but growth is a process," said Baker-Barnes, who doubles as the women's basketball coach. "You don't plant a seed and it grows overnight. You have to till the soil, give it water and you need sunshine. Eventually the plant grows and it's beautiful and that's where we are right now. Trust me, we've been tilling a lot of soil for four years but we're back."

Dillard put athletics on hiatus for the initial year after Katrina. In year two, the basketball teams practiced and played at nearby Delgado Community College as its own gym was used to house anything that could be salvaged from the campus.

But once the campus formally reopened and the students returned, the administration slowly put the plan to rejuvenate athletics in place. In the first year, the NAIA school upped the staffing, hiring full-time assistant coaches in men's and women's basketball. In year two, Dillard introduced scholarships, following Baker-Barnes' argument that for a school fighting enrollment, offering scholarships attracted more students to campus.

And finally they introduced five new sports -- softball, men's and women's track and men's and women's cross country.

The school even tweaked its nickname. The Blue Devils are now the Bleu Devils.

"It's really been a breath of fresh air," Baker-Barnes said. "Athletics have really contributed to the spirit and morale of our campus. Our students have somewhere to go. It's been hard; golly it's been hard. But it's also been awesome. It's like we've been brought back to life."

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

Dana O'Neil | email

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