Tulane anxious to get back to campus
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Tulane senior forward Quincy Davis is not very optimistic about the shape of his campus after Hurricane Katrina.
"I'm expecting the worst when I get back," he said. "I'm expecting to see the classes smaller. I'm expecting to see the professors laid-back. I know a lot of the professors live around campus and lost their possessions. I'm expecting the worst for a lot of stuff."
Yet the Green Wave men's basketball team is going back to New Orleans for Christmas Eve anyway, after spending the first semester at Texas A&M.
The team will stay in still-recovering New Orleans for 3½ weeks, practicing and playing games while it waits for the lifeblood of the campus, the student body, to return for the start of the second semester on Jan. 17.
This potential isolation is enough of a concern for first-year Tulane coach Dave Dickerson that he already has talked to a friend of his at Pensacola (Fla.) Junior College about the psychological damage Pirates players suffered after Hurricane Ivan swept through there a year ago. Dickerson was warned that he couldn't predict how his players will react to the air of negativity that permeates a hurricane-ravaged community.
"There is a big potential for that," Dickerson said. "We as adults, as coaches, are concerned."
So if the dorms aren't ready or if the players are the only ones occupying them and a hotel isn't an option, Dickerson and his staff have a plan: They will house the team at their own homes, all of which survived Katrina's wrath.
"We're trying to figure out what's going to happen on the night of the 24th, when the team flies back into New Orleans," Dickerson said. "The best-case scenario might be to have them live with the coaches."
The difference between Tulane and the University of New Orleans' plight is this: Tulane knows it is definitely going back to New Orleans. UNO is planning on leaving its adopted home at the University of Texas-Tyler, but isn't quite as certain when, because of the damage to its campus, which runs up against Lake Pontchartrain.
Still, there are just as many questions for the Green Wave before they even get to Dec. 24.
Dickerson said he took a flight into New Orleans with his two assistant coaches three weeks after the storm to survey the damage to their homes. He went back for a second visit, two weeks ago, just before practice started. While all of their homes and possessions were spared, that wasn't his lasting impression.
"The military presence, the FBI it was so scary, it was like, 'Oh, my God.' It was lifeless," Dickerson said of the first trip back. "The second time I went back, it was similar. You could tell people were starting to come back but they were concerned about what they had lost. I went to Home Depot and it took me an hour and a half just to check out. What is it going to be like when we're scheduled to go back? I can't judge."
Right now, no one can.
"I expect it to be pretty barren since coach said most of the houses on the street near Tulane were wiped out," said freshman forward Daniel Puckett, who was ordered to evacuate one night after arriving for his first day of the fall semester. "[The Tulane administration] told us it's not going to be the same New Orleans for the second semester. It's going to be a lot more like a small college town. Campus wasn't hit as hard as the surrounding neighborhoods."
The Tulane campus is on higher ground than UNO, which should allow the school to get the campus up and running by the second semester's start on Jan. 17.
"I'm settled here, but I'm not spooked about anything," Tulane sophomore David Gomez said. "It's going to be a different place. It will look like peace-keeping around campus. I'm from Baton Rouge, and I've seen downed trees and limbs. I know what to expect."
Tulane plans on returning to New Orleans a few days after a Dec. 19 game at Texas A&M against St. Edward's. The plan is to practice on campus for two days before Richmond visits on Dec. 27 for the first sporting event in the city since the floodwater broke through the levees on Aug. 30, the day after Katrina hit. Tulane is scheduled to play at UNO on Dec. 31 -- the Privateers' first game in the city since the storm.
Until then, the Green Wave operate in obscurity as guests on the Texas A&M campus. When arriving Thursday, we were told that Tulane was using abandoned football offices at Kyle Field, but no one associated with Texas A&M's media relations department was quite sure exactly where the staff was located.
The search began underneath the grandstand. Through an office door and down a few wrapping hallways was a sign: "Tulane compliance." Further down there was another one indicating women's volleyball. There were signs over the doors for men's and women's tennis and for women's swimming. Finally, down in the corner, was the sign for men's basketball.
Inside the abandoned, former Aggies football offices, painted Aggie maroon and white, were a few desks and lots of boxes. There, mapping out the tasks of running a program away from home were assistant coach Andrew Novick and equipment manager Pete Maglieri. Handling the affairs of the Tulane operation on A&M's campus was associate athletic director Vince Granito. All of them were decked out in some sort of Tulane green and white gear.
With Thursday's 7:30 p.m. practice two hours away, Dickerson walked in to open up his private office, with no windows and a grease board that had a practice plan and the Green Wave's adjusted nonconference schedule.
"Welcome to our offices," Dickerson said. "This is it."
Tulane actually lucked out. Texas A&M wasn't using the office space after the Aggies moved into much higher-quality football digs. The Aggies also had plenty of student housing that it wasn't going to fill, either. Texas A&M also was willing to provide Reed Arena for the Green Wave, albeit at one of three practice times -- 5:30 a.m., 6 a.m. or 7:30 p.m. -- every day.
"It's hard for us to complain about practice times since we're fortunate to have a season," said Dickerson, who spent the previous nine years as an assistant at Maryland, his alma mater.
"One of the first conversations I had with [Texas A&M coach] Billy Gillispie is that I didn't want our program to be a distraction to his program," Dickerson said. "I know this is a critical year for him, being his second season."
But this is just as crucial for Dickerson.
"This can't be a throwaway year," Dickerson said. "The bigger picture here is Tulane University succeeding and getting back to some sort of normalcy. I've got two seniors who decided to come back and play for their school and I can't cheat those guys."
So Dickerson and his staff are trying to find some sort of normalcy in their everyday lives. Uniforms and the newer practice gear were lost in the flood, but Novick and Dickerson were able to get old practice jerseys and shorts that were stored separately (and stayed dry) in Fogelman Arena.
Early Thursday, Maglieri was sewing one of the jerseys after a player had worn it ripped for the first week of practice.
"We're going to wear Tulane gear. We're not going to practice in gear with all kinds of stuff on it, because that's who we are," Dickerson said. "If it's not up to par, then it's not up to par. We had to sew it because we don't have replacements. That's why you'll see practice gear from last year and two years ago."
Tulane's practice Thursday night lacked energy. The players were zapped. No one said this was going to be a smooth transition. The players all said they had no issues adjusting to Texas A&M, even though the class sizes were much larger than they were used to on their smaller, tonier campus.
Two players have cars, and the team piles in them to get to Reed Arena, which is on the outskirts of campus -- a good hike from the classrooms and dorms. That's in stark contrast to the Tulane campus that is more manageable on foot.
Dickerson said the Green Wave will be a sound passing team, which will give Tulane enough spacing for the offense to be fluid. He also said he expected the defense to be tight. Still, the reality is this was a 10-18 team (4-12 Conference USA) a year ago.
"If they were a great team, then I wouldn't be the head coach here," said Dickerson, who replaces Shawn Finney. "But our guys have bought into the fact that they want to win this year and they're not going to let this situation deter their thinking."
Tulane wasn't going to release any players who wanted to leave, according to sports information spokesman Richie Weaver. Seniors Davis and Vytas Tatarunas could have bolted and tested the process, but instead returned.
"I couldn't see myself at another school," Davis said. "It's going to be rebuilding [here] and nobody wants to be a part of that, but it has to happen."
The season has to be the start of that process, since recruiting likely could be lost this season. When asked how his recruiting was going, Dickerson paused for what seemed like a 20-second timeout.
"We're trying to stay involved with certain situations," Dickerson said. "But we're also doing a good job of seeing who is going to sign late. It's unrealistic to bring our recruits here for a campus visit. You just can't do that. We thought about bringing someone in for a Friday night practice, Saturday mid-morning practice and be out. But the kids we were going for, our competition would blow us out of the water.
"When Katrina hit, the images of the city, the total storm -- the parents couldn't buy into that."
Tulane lost what would have been a home opener against Loyola (La.) when that program shut down for the year. So the new opener will be at College Station against UNO on Nov. 22 as part of a doubleheader with the Aggies, who play Mississippi Valley State. This game replaced a previously scheduled Tulane home game against Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
And then Tulane will play "host" to the Aggies in a game in which all of the proceeds will go to the Green Wave to pay their bills here on campus. Tulane will wear the home white jerseys. The Green Wave also go to Butler, play in a tournament at Iowa, host TCU in College Station and go to Seton Hall before playing St. Edward's before the Christmas break.
"For Tulane, that's a bear of a schedule," Dickerson said. "We don't have our students, no fan base. Before Katrina, I thought we were doing a great job getting the local people back in the program. Ticket sales were up. We had a renewed interest in the program. We've had great support from this community so far, but are they going to come to the UNO game and give us 4,000 or 5,000 like we would have had at Fogelman Arena? The TCU game would have been a sellout at home. Our guys want to get back to their place."
They do. But they just don't know what it will be like. Still, they're willing to find out, even if it means being isolated for a few weeks as the first students back on campus. If they're on a losing skid by mid-December, it could certainly make the transition back to New Orleans tougher to digest.
There are plenty of questions and still not enough answers. The staff is furiously working on how to get all of the players' possessions from College Station to New Orleans before they all go to their respective homes for a few days prior to Christmas. Where should it be sent? Where does it get stored until the players return? Where will they live when they arrive in New Orleans?
The Green Wave don't know yet. No one does. For now, they're practicing here at Texas A&M, assimilating on a campus they don't want to call their own after this fall.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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