Tulane balances life and football in wake of tragedy

Updated: September 6, 2005, 12:54 PM ET
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

"In Jackson the other night, I was falling asleep sitting up. My son Glenn said, 'Dad, you're falling asleep on a bench like a homeless person.'"

Glenn paused. Then he said:

"Dad! We are homeless!"

-- Tulane defensive coordinator Eric Schumann

DALLAS -- They laugh because they don't want to stop to cry. The Tulane football team doesn't know where it will play this season. The 88 players, 10 coaches and assorted staff don't know where they will live. The players don't know where they will attend class. They have no money in their pockets. New Orleans bank accounts remain frozen. Many of them don't know what, if anything, in their homes remains dry and not looted.

In the grand scheme of what Hurricane Katrina hath wrought, their problems are slight. But they are no less easily solved. As the members of the Green Wave try to pick up the pieces of their lives, living in a DoubleTree Hotel some 500 miles from home, they also continue to try to exist as a Division I-A football team using borrowed or donated supplies.

"Most of us lost everything," senior middle linebacker Anthony Cannon said, "and if you do have something, you're not getting into New Orleans anytime soon to get it. It's pretty amazing to go from having everything to having nothing in a matter of 24 hours. Coach stresses to us that we shouldn't worry about ourselves right now. We're OK."

Katrina has forced head coach Chris Scelfo to attempt a balancing act as a football coach and a disaster relief coordinator, two jobs that are mutually exclusive. Coaches thrive on routine, and on planning for every contingency. Right now, the only thing that Scelfo knows for sure is that the Green Wave will play this season. He didn't even know that for sure until three days ago.

Practices that used to be routine for Tulane are suddenly littered with hardships.
Tulane's first game, at Southern Mississippi, was moved last week from Sept. 4 to Nov. 26. But it was not until Friday that Dr. Scott Cowen, the university president, decided that the athletic teams should "carry the torch, face, and name" of Tulane this fall. The new opener is against Mississippi State on Sept. 17, site unknown. It had been scheduled for the Superdome.

In Scelfo's new world, 12 days from now might as well be 12 months. A I-A program, with its trainers, weight rooms, video, and assorted other branches, is a complex business. Scelfo, like so many CEOs in New Orleans, is trying to keep his company going while rebuilding its infrastructure from scratch.

What appears to be a former meeting room has been transformed into a locker room. A "locker" is a hotel banquet chair, the round-backed ones that stack atop one another. Above it, taped on the wall, is a piece of computer paper with a uniform number printed on it.

"If you close your eyes," said Conference USA commissioner Britton Banowsky, inhaling, "it's a locker room."

Other necessities have not been so easily found. It may be as simple as providing water for practice.

When he gathered his players around him Saturday after practice on a typically stifling Dallas morning, Scelfo reminded them, "Stay hydrated. I want you peeing clear, not yellow or orange. When we walk out of here, grab a water bottle.

"But just grab one. That's all we have."

It may be as sophisticated as computers.

Scelfo had to delay his staff meeting Friday until the position meetings ended. They had to be staggered because the team had only two VCRs available for watching practice tape. In this era of digitized video, VCRs are the equivalent of Game Boy Color.

"It goes much deeper than that," Scelfo said.

It may be as heartfelt as arranging with a Dallas therapist, Brandi Sinclair, to be available should any of his players become overwhelmed by the tumult in their lives.

Scelfo has been staying awake until some time between 4 and 6 in the morning, worrying about his players, worrying that other coaches will lure his players away, trying to find a happy medium between keeping his players cooped up in the DoubleTree and letting them out in a city that neither he nor they know.

As dawn approaches, Scelfo grabs a couple of hours' sleep and starts again. His wife Nancy and their children Sarah, 13, and Joseph, 12, are with him. They have no idea whether their home is intact. They left the family cat in the garage with food and water.

"I'm not going to stop and figure out how I'm doing," said the coach, 41, the son of a legendary Louisiana high school coach. "I'm fortunate. I got everything I need. I am in good shape."

He paused.

"I might fall asleep in the middle of talking to you."

Pictures from home
The Green Wave bugged out of New Orleans on Sunday, Aug. 28, and went north to Jackson, a three-hour drive that took nine in the exodus. Katrina followed less than a day behind them. On Tuesday, after spending nearly 24 hours in a gym that became an oven, the team loaded onto buses and headed west across I-20 to Dallas. SMU offered to share its weight room and whatever else Tulane needed.

Late Tuesday night, the buses pulled into a truck stop in Shreveport. Not until then did the players see television coverage of the destruction and chaos in New Orleans.

"The whole football team was in the store, eyes glued to the television," Cannon said. "You could have dropped a dime in there and heard it fall."

It's the recognition of streets I drive on every day, and the streets of these people who don't have running water, drinking water, medicine, food, Pampers for their babies. I've never seen anything like that. I see that in third-world countries. To see it in the city I left ...
Tulane senior LB Anthony Cannon
Quarterback Lester Ricard stood there, listening to the tale of a man in the rising waters, holding onto three children with one arm and his wife with the other.

"She was slipping off. She told him, 'Take care of my babies,'" Ricard said. "I'm telling you now and it makes me want to cry. I had to leave out of there. I cried for two hours. I was that emotionally torn up."

Added Cannon, "It's the recognition of streets I drive on every day, and the streets of these people who don't have running water, drinking water, medicine, food, Pampers for their babies. I've never seen anything like that. I see that in third-world countries. To see it in the city I left ... "

Seven of the 10 coaches believe their homes are destroyed. Late Friday night, defensive line coach Lorenzo Constantini went to Nola.com, which has satellite photos of the city broken down by neighborhood. The photo didn't quite show his house. But it showed enough.

"You can't see one car," Constantini said. "One house, there's water all the way up to the vents. That one's two doors away from me."

Constantini regrets only that the baby pictures of his two daughters may be ruined. Dennis Polian, the new director of football operations, believes the one-bedroom apartment he moved into in mid-August is ruined. He had just filled it with new furniture.

"I sat in it for a day," he said. "And I really loved it."

The kindness of strangers
Like New Orleans neighbor Blanche DuBois -- another famous city institution, from the play "A Streetcar Named Desire" -- Tulane is depending on the kindness of strangers. After Scelfo made public pleas for clothes, food and toiletries for his team, people all over the country responded.

One conference room in the hotel has been devoted to the gifts. Along one wall are bulging brown grocery bags labeled Deodorant, Soap, Toothpaste, Shave, Conditioner. Another wall has all kinds of snacks. Lining the hallway outside there is a box of bananas, a box of apples, a box of oranges, and a few cases of water bottles.

Polian is the son of Indianapolis Colts president Bill Polian, who sent down boxes of Colts T-shirts, as well as windbreakers for the coaches. Nike FedExed a couple of dozen cases of T-shirts, shorts and duffel bags.

The players need it all. They packed for Jackson as if they would be gone for two, three days tops.

"This isn't a Christmas deal," senior offensive lineman Matt Traina said. "Nobody thought, 'Let me see how much I can get.'"

A Tulane donor offered to buy clothing for the entire football team. It would be, in normal times, a blatant NCAA violation. If anyone believes Tulane has gained a recruiting advantage in the last week, it's hard to believe that he would have the gall to complain.

"The NCAA is going to promote local decision-making," said Banowsky, who, with his staff, has spent countless hours in the last week keeping Tulane athletics alive. "If the decision is a function of the disaster, that's a fairly consistent principle. Getting the students clothes that they would have had at home is one of those things."

On Thursday afternoon, the team traveled en masse to a nearby Dillard's Department Store. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones had invited the team to its preseason game that night against Jacksonville. Scelfo wanted them wearing something other than the workout gear they had been in for four days.

Each player had a list of items he could pick out. It included collared shirts, nice slacks, dress shorts, T-shirts, underwear, socks, and shoes.

After senior linebacker Brandon Spincer gathered the items on his list, he picked up a black Sean John T-shirt.

"I wanted it," Spincer said. "I didn't need it."

Spincer moved to the Uptown neighborhood in New Orleans in elementary school. When Katrina approached, his parents, Barbara and Barry, left to stay with relatives in Greenville, Miss. His brother Christopher stayed in New Orleans in a room on the ninth floor of the Fairmont Hotel, where a friend worked.

Rescue personnel didn't get to the people at the Fairmont until late in the week. No one in the family knew that Christopher had made it safely out of the city until he called his mother from the Astrodome in Houston, pleading with her to come get him. Friends loaned Christopher cab fare to get to the Greyhound station, where a bus ticket to Greenville awaited him.

"The things I take for granted," Brandon Spincer said. "Just being able to drink water. I can drink water, and people back home can't get clean water to save a life. I'm drinking it because I'm a little fatigued."

Spincer replaced the Sean John T-shirt and walked away.

'The people here want to help you. Let 'em'
On Friday night, the Tulane team went to Dave & Buster's, a restaurant and sports bar, for dinner, billiards, and arcade games. Scelfo warned the team that it would be there until 10 p.m. SMU uses the DoubleTree on the night before home games. Mustangs coach Phil Bennett had a 10:30 curfew for his players. Scelfo is so self-conscious about the footprints that his team leaves that he wanted to make sure Tulane stayed out of SMU's way.

After their respective teams made curfew, and Scelfo conducted a late-night staff meeting, he and Bennett stayed up until 4 a.m.

Chris Scelfo
RICK GERSHON/Dallas Morning NewsTulane coach Chris Scelfo admits to lying awake night after night worrying about his players, his program and his life.
"He needed to talk," Bennett said. "I'm not a sleeper. Since my wife died, I get four or five hours a night. I just listened."

In August 1999, shortly after Bennett became the defensive coordinator at Kansas State, his wife Nancy went jogging. She was struck by lightning, leaving Phil with two young children.

"I told Chris something," Bennett said Saturday, before the Mustangs lost their opener to Baylor 28-23. "I've lived around coaches. They're private people. I'm very private. When I lost Nancy, I didn't want people taking my kids anywhere. I was going to do it.

"[Wildcats coach] Bill Snyder called me in. He said, 'People want to help you. You have to let them. Not for yourself, but for your children.'"

"I told Chris, 'The people here want to help you. Let 'em.'"

Bennett and SMU athletic director Jim Copeland invited the Tulane team to the Baylor game.

In normal circumstances, that is an NCAA violation. Opposing coaches and players may not scout a team on their schedule. Tulane is scheduled to play SMU on Sept. 24. Scelfo called Copeland and offered to send only the players. Copeland dismissed the notion.

"You got all the film," he said.

"Yes, sure," Scelfo replied. "It's floating down at Tulane."

In this together
The Green Wave's off-the-field lives have been reduced to the DoubleTree, practice at Jesuit High, and weight training at SMU. Scelfo is trying to keep his players' spirits up, and he is trying to keep his program alive. Those two goals come to cross-purposes when it comes to the players' free time.

"We are not going to turn them loose, going to high school games," Scelfo said to his staff Friday night. "If they ask you, say, 'I wouldn't ask Coach right now.' I don't want them out on the streets right now. One slip and it's over. A player, a coach, everybody."

After the night at Dave & Buster's, Scelfo held a team meeting.

"You guys got to trust us," Scelfo said. "Here's what I propose to you: next weekend, you invite your people here. Curfew is going to be adjusted daily. I told you, I'm not going to let you down. What we do is going to be done in the hotel or together, outside of it. On our day off, you want to have a party here? I'll be damned if y'all have a party without inviting me."

From the middle of the room, a voice rang out.

"Naw, coach. You can't come."

The entire team broke into laughter, Scelfo loudest of all.

"This is not [like] a Friday night on a road trip," Scelfo said. "Treat this like we all live off-campus. It's just a hell of a lot nicer place then all of y'all have."

On the way off the practice field Saturday, Scelfo pulled freshman defensive back Matt Harding aside. Harding graduated last spring from South Garland High in the Dallas area.

"You want to be a hero?" Scelfo asked him. "Get your friends here. Your teammates need to see a different face, a pretty face. Get the Dallas guys together. I know you're a freshman. Take the responsibility."

Harding nodded and went to the bus.

Scelfo needn't have worried. Before the game, Scelfo brought the team to The Boulevard, the tailgating area for Mustang fans in the center of the campus. It is modeled on The Grove at Ole Miss. Tents and tables are set up beneath a canopy of live oaks. The food is catered, the music is vibrant and the beer is cold. Scelfo instructed his players several times that, as they walked through, to introduce themselves and thank the SMU community for all it had done.

For coaches and players used to being hidden away on game day, The Boulevard was a revelation.

"How can I get paid and travel around the country and tailgate?" asked assistant head coach Bill D'Ottavio. "This is awesome."

The locals adopted the Green Wave.

"One of the girls I was talking to," said Mason, the linebacker, 'said, 'I wish we had a team that didn't suck. I know who I will be rooting for in a couple of weeks.'"

Students wandered around the Boulevard carrying plastic canisters. One of them approached a Tulane player.

"Would you like to donate to the Pony Hurricane Katrina Fund?" she asked.

Senior tailback Jovon Jackson replied, "We are the Pony Hurricane Katrina Fund."

'We're here for each other'
The Green Wave left at halftime to return to their hotel. They needn't get too comfortable in Dallas. It looks as though Tulane will leave the DoubleTree soon, perhaps for Louisiana Tech, perhaps for another campus.

"Everybody is going with the flow pretty much," said Mason, one of the team leaders, as he sat in the north end zone. "We had a team meeting today on how the coaches are doing everything for the best. Whatever we can do to support them, we're all for it. Whatever the situation, we're fortunate to get out of New Orleans and fortunate for everything we have. Everything people are giving us is overwhelming, to be honest with you."

Added Ricard, the quarterback, "Some people are wanting to go home. I think guys need to realize the big picture. If your parents are safe and you know it, that's what you need. We're here for each other. Home isn't there for a lot of guys."

Tight end Jerome Landry grew up in Chalmette, a town submerged next to New Orleans. He dismissed the notion of going home.

"Where am I going to go? I don't have anywhere to go."

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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