Thirty minutes after the most significant victory of his tenure on Monday night, third-year University of New Orleans coach Mark Slessinger found the ideal destination for his budget-conscious program's celebration dinner.
"We went real high-end," Slessinger quipped. "We celebrated at Whataburger."
Fast-food burgers and milkshakes served as a fitting spread for a blue-collar, no-frills program that has gradually made progress under Slessinger despite incredible financial hardships. UNO won 71-69 at Conference USA power UTEP on Monday night, an off-the-radar outcome that won't command a segment on SportsCenter yet signifies how far the Privateers have come since their cash-strapped athletic department nearly dropped from Division I to Division III before reversing course in March 2012.
"It's an enormous step for us," Slessinger said. "To go from no-man's land two years ago when we were at 3 1/2 scholarships and playing a hodge-podge of a schedule to being on steady ground is a huge, huge 180. We're back to full Division I membership. We have a conference home. We drew over 1,000 for our first two home games. It doesn't seem like a major event, but when you look at where we were, it's pretty significant."
When Slessinger arrived at UNO in June 2011, he walked into an athletic department so decimated by Hurricane Katrina that it didn't resemble a Division I operation anymore. A crippling drop in enrollment, massive state budget cuts and insufficient fundraising efforts plunged UNO athletics into a $5 million debt after the storm, forcing cut-backs in staffing and substantial scholarship reductions.
Rows of offices in UNO's athletic facility sat empty as recently as spring 2012 because school officials had halved the size of the staff during the previous five years due to the financial woes. The coaches and administrators who remained often did the equivalent of two or three jobs because the school couldn't fill essential positions like academic coordinator, strength and conditioning coach or marketing director.
UNO's director of athletic operations served as travel coordinator for the whole department and also dabbled as an assistant volleyball coach despite possessing little experience in the sport. An associate athletic director who oversaw the department's finances also assumed the role of cross country coach even though his athletic background came as a sprinter. UNO lost the three head basketball coaches it hired before Slessinger to assistant gigs elsewhere because none could handle the strain of rebuilding without a full staff or a sufficient recruiting budget.
Increased funding for athletics under second-year school president Peter Fos has enabled UNO athletics to pay off its debt, fill some positions that were previously vacant and meet the scholarship requirements for Division I membership. Slessinger is thrilled by the progress made in the past 18 months even if he still works long hours, still recruits on a shoestring budget and still answers his own office phone since he has no director of basketball operations or administrative assistant.
"You're never where you want to be budget-wise but we won't complain," he said. "We've got enough to play basketball. In this environment of budget cuts, we're grateful for what we've got and where we're at. We're a big piece of the school, but so is our naval architecture program or our jazz studies program that's one of the top in the world. l can't say we're more important than someone else."
The rebirth of UNO's basketball program has mirrored the stabilization of its athletic department.
Since UNO didn't commit to returning to Division I until nine months after Slessinger arrived, he had a Division III-calber roster and played a schedule littered with lower-division teams during the 2011-12 season. Familiar teams returned to the schedule by last season, but the Privateers still weren't members of a league, still weren't eligible for the postseason and still started multiple walk-ons throughout the season.
Though APR violations left over from the previous regime have prevented UNO from regaining postseason eligibility this year, everything else about the program has returned to normal. Now full-fledged members of the Southland Conference, the Privateers have a full complement of scholarships to offer prospects and have opted to play as challenging a non-conference schedule as possible in order to raise money and remind fans and recruits that the program is still at college basketball's highest level.
Among the more meaningful games on the schedule was Monday night's visit to UTEP, whose coach, Tim Floyd, led UNO to three NIT appearances and two NCAA tournaments from 1988 to 1995. UNO had lost its first four games against Division I opponents by an average of nearly 24 points, but the Privateers were competitive enough for stretches at LSU and Minnesota for Slessinger to believe his team had a chance to spring an upset.
Despite playing nobody taller than 6-foot-7 and giving away several inches at almost every spot on the floor to the taller, stronger Miners, UNO was able to spread the floor and take advantage of mismatches in quickness and skill. The Privateers stayed within two at halftime, reeled off 11 straight points when UTEP switched from man-to-man to 1-3-1 zone in the second half and then hung on despite the Miners attempting a shot to win and to tie on their final possession.
Starting forwards Cory Dixon and Matt Derenbecker led UNO with 12 points apiece. All 12 of Dixon's points came in the second half, while Derenbecker had eight of his points in the final six minutes.
The jubilation in the visiting locker room had only begun to subside when there was a knock at the door. Floyd, the former UNO coach, graciously visited the Privateers coaches to congratulate them on the victory and compliment them on the job they've done keeping the program afloat amid challenging circumstances.
"He was very, very kind," Slessinger said. "He said we had a good game plan and we coached well. Just the fact that he took the time to talk to us after bad night for him was very gracious of him. So much of who we are as a program is because of him. It was very humbling that he would do that."
Over burgers and fries at Whataburger later Monday night, Slessinger and the two assistants who have been with him the past three seasons at UNO reflected on how much progress the program has made.
They talked about losing their final game of their first season at Division II Selma University. They talked about not knowing what level they'd be competing at the following season and only having 3 1/2 scholarships to award. And they talked about how much more stable the program is now and how much further they have to go.
"I tell our players all the time, UNO was Butler, it was Gonzaga, it was Wichita State. It was a legit mid-major power back in the late 80s and early 90s," Slessinger said. "Our goal is to take a little step each day to get back to that point. Our players are a little too young to appreciate how good UNO was back then, but this was a huge step for us to move back toward righting the ship."
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