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Seven years after Hurricane Katrina, University of New Orleans hoops still trying to find firm footing

Jeff Eisenberg
Yahoo Sports

NEW ORLEANS – One month into his tenure as University of New Orleans basketball coach, Mark Slessinger decided he couldn't tolerate seeing only bare white walls at work every day.

Slessinger rifled through dozens of FEMA boxes in a storage shed at Lakefront Arena last summer in search of any water-damaged treasures packed away and forgotten after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 rendered the building unusable for three years.

He found trophies with their statues or faceplates broken off. He found faded posters and newspaper clippings covered in layers of dust. The only items Slessinger is buying anew are replicas of UNO's league championship and NCAA tournament banners, which were so moldy and damaged after the storm that someone long ago threw them in a dumpster.

"One of the biggest issues I've faced so far is just retelling the story of the history of the program," Slessinger says. "Guys don't know the history of how great UNO basketball was at one time. When I get the trophies restored and the banners hung in the practice facility, it will automatically give them a feel of where we're trying to go."

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Slessinger is thankful he has a chance to help UNO return to its pre-Katrina glory days. Until last month, it didn't appear the Privateers would even be staying in Division I.

A crippling drop in enrollment, massive state budget cuts and insufficient fundraising efforts plunged UNO athletics into a $5 million debt after the storm, prompting then-chancellor Timothy Ryan to decide to move the school from Division I to a lower level. Only after a change in leadership, from the LSU system to the University of Louisiana system in December, did school officials reverse course.

New UNO president Peter Fos announced last month that the school will remain in Division I in hopes athletic success at that level can be the marketing tool that helps restore enrollment to pre-Katrina levels. Fos backed up his words by earmarking $1.6 million per year for athletics out of the general budget to help the department pay off its debt, fill vacant jobs and meet the requirements for Division I membership.

"It's about letting people know this university is growing again," Fos says. "We were knocked down to our knees by Hurricane Katrina. Then an economic downturn knocked us back down as we started to stand up.

"I need to do some things to let the world know we're a major university in all things we do, and athletics is part of it. I see investing in athletics as the same as investing money in public relations for the university."

UPHILL CLIMB

Most UNO coaches and administrators are confident the allure of the city and the school's newly remodeled facilities will allow the Privateers to someday thrive again in Division I, but interim athletic director Amy Champion says the next few years will be an uphill climb.

In the two years between UNO's initial announcement it was leaving Division I and last month's reversal, Champion estimates that 115 athletes have transferred to schools where they could compete at the highest level. Coaches scrambled to fill their rosters despite limited available scholarships, but many athletes they recruited are ill-suited for Division I.

UNO currently offers a total of 20 athletic scholarships among its 10 programs, sufficient for Division II but not even 40 percent of what it will take to satisfy Division I requirements. To meet minimum standards for the division, the school will need to add at least four more sports by the start of the 2012-13 school year and offer a minimum of 50 percent of the maximum allowable financial aid in those sports.

Making matters worse, substandard Academic Progress Rate scores exacerbated by heavy roster turnover the past two years could render several of UNO's major sports ineligible for Division I postseason play for at least a year or two. Champion said the Privateers are in the process of submitting APR data to the NCAA for the two transition years. UNO baseball and men's basketball faced scholarship reductions even before the transition period began.

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When Ryan and other LSU system administrators initially pushed for UNO to drop all the way from Division I to Division III where athletic scholarships aren't even offered, it was Champion who advocated for a compromise of Division II. She has endured criticism from former UNO athletes and coaches for not fighting hard enough to remain in the highest tier, but she notes many outsiders do not fully grasp the challenges remaining in Division I will present.

"I think people have accused me of being such a strong Division II proponent that I didn't consider Division I, and that's absolutely false," Champion says. "We wanted to remain a stable Division I program going forward, but I just knew that it was going to be a huge challenge.

"We have a lot of barriers and a lot of hurdles we have to overcome."

WINNING TRADITION

It's easy to understand why UNO's decision to reclassify inspired so much outrage among its supporters. Such a move would have been unfathomable a decade or so ago.

UNO men's basketball emerged as a Sun Belt Conference power from 1987-96 under coaches Benny Dees, Tim Floyd and Tic Price, making four NCAA tournament appearances and cracking the AP top 25 four times. The 1986-87 team, coached by Dees, finished 26-4 and won a game in the NCAA tourney as a No. 7 seed. Future NBA players such as Ledell Eackles, Ron Grandison and Ervin Johnson starred for the Privateers.

The Privateers' baseball program also built a national reputation, becoming the first Louisiana team to make the College World Series in 1984 and producing a handful of successful major-leaguers, including Randy Bush and Wally Whitehurst.

Duplicating those patches of success had become far more difficult for UNO as a result of the financial strain Katrina caused an already cash-strapped athletic department. UNO's enrollment dropped from 17,000 before the storm to about 11,000 afterward, a significant blow to an athletic department that received fees totaling $100 per student. The department might have been able to make up for that lost revenue with donations, season-ticket sales and corporate sponsorships, but numerous alumni whose homes had been damaged didn't have surplus cash and UNO lacked the money or manpower to devote to marketing.

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The resulting dearth of funds has forced UNO to cut the size of its athletic staff in half during the past five years, leaving rows of offices empty in the brick building near campus the department made its permanent home in 2009. UNO doesn't have an academic coordinator, a strength and conditioning coach or a marketing director, and its coaches and administrators often do the equivalent of two and three jobs.

For example, director of athletic operations Angela Marin serves as travel coordinator for the whole department and is an assistant volleyball coach even though she has limited experience in the sport. Associate athletic director Ola Adegboye lost the assistant who helped him oversee financial, administrative and payroll duties for UNO athletics, and he also assumed the role of cross country coach even though his athletic background is as a sprinter.

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"Sometimes I think it can't get any worse, then something else happens," Adegboye says. "People on the outside cannot understand what we've gone through. I feel like I've been sprinting and I have not stopped sprinting since I took this job. There are a lot of issues, but you've just got to keep going."

To help ease the burden, Fos' plan is to provide more monetary support and challenge his staff to make it worthwhile. Fos has pledged to hire an academic coordinator, a strength and conditioning coach and a marketing director. He also brought on former Southern Miss athletic director Richard Giannini to lead the search for a new athletic director with fundraising expertise and to assess whether UNO would be better off joining the Southland or Sun Belt conference. It would require a bigger budget to compete in the Sun Belt than in the Southland.

"When you have someone at the top who's committed to athletics, that's a plus," says Ron Maestri, UNO's former athletic director and baseball coach. "As a coach, you're only as good as your athletic director, and as an athletic director, you're only as good as your president.

"We've got a president who wants a Division I program. If they get the right AD, they've got two guys who can make it go."

TOUGH SELL

It's a testament to how difficult things have been that UNO is searching for its fifth athletic director since 2009, and it lost the three basketball coaches before Slessinger to assistant gigs.

Monte Towe took an associate head coaching job under Sidney Lowe at North Carolina State in 2006 after six seasons at UNO, including the difficult first post-Katrina season. Buzz Williams lasted one year before the challenges of rebuilding without sufficient funds or a true home arena caused him to leave for a job under Tom Crean at Marquette. And New Orleans native Joe Pasternack lasted four seasons before he left to work for Sean Miller at Arizona last year after all but one of his players transferred when UNO announced it was reclassifying.

Next to try his luck revitalizing the basketball program is Slessinger, who has extensive recruiting ties in New Orleans and a soft spot for the city after meeting his wife there. The former longtime Northwestern State (La.) assistant, has endured a lot of long work days since landing the job last June.

In addition to having the money to hire only two assistants instead of the usual three, Slessinger has no director of basketball operations and no administrative assistant, meaning he actually answers his own office phone. Furthermore, because UNO didn't have an academic coordinator, strength and conditioning coach or even a bus driver last season, Slessinger filled those roles himself.

"I don't sleep much," Slessinger says. "I'm surviving on Mountain Dew and Hubig's Pies [a famous New Orleans bakery], neither one of which is good for my waistline."

While most other coaches would be eager to find another job with better pay and shorter hours, Slessinger's background makes it easier for him to focus on the perks he has rather than what he lacks. The junior college he coached at in Arizona played in a high school gym in a town of 2,800. And Northwestern State's 48-year-old, 3,400-seat arena pales in comparison to UNO's facility, which seats 10,000 and includes a practice facility, refurbished locker rooms and a film room replete with leather recliners with the school's logo on the backs.

Slessinger seemingly was sincere when he called UNO his "dream job" the day he was hired and when he said the job is even "dreamier" after the Privateers announced they're staying in Division I. He relishes not having to sweep the gym floors for the first time in his career. He chuckled at getting better Final Four seats last week than all of his assistant buddies. He even appreciates having a window in his office even though it overlooks an asphalt parking lot.

"When I talk to coaching friends of mine, the stuff that I don't freak out about would be deal-breakers for them," Slessinger says. "God really blessed me to put me in a situation where 95 percent of the challenges I face, I know I can handle them because I've already faced them."

One of the challenges was foraging for signs of the program's past successes last summer.

It's hard for Slessinger to find time to glue all UNO's water-damaged trophies and plaques back together, but he hopes to finish all that work this summer. Then he'll get back to work on the more daunting challenge: adding some new trophies to the school's collection.

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