Only a few weeks after inheriting a program with a skeleton staff, a talent-starved roster and a mountain of debt, University of New Orleans basketball coach Mark Slessinger entered a storage shed at Lakefront Arena and rifled through dozens of FEMA boxes inside.
He was in search of something he felt his players needed more than anything else at that time: Hope.
When Hurricane Katrina tore through the roof of Lakefront Arena and flooded the interior in 2005, the school’s championship banners, trophies and memorabilia sustained massive water damage. Whatever wasn’t thrown in a dumpster got packed away and quickly forgotten.
To Slessinger, salvaging the faded newspaper clippings, dusty photos and broken trophies in those boxes was about more than merely decorating the basketball office’s bare white walls. It was also a way of reminding his players that league titles and NCAA tournament bids were attainable goals at UNO even if it sometimes didn’t feel that way.
“When I got here, nothing around us told the story of how great our program once was,” Slessinger said. “It was hard for my guys to understand how good things once were here when we didn’t have a conference, we were playing an independent schedule and we had absolutely no chance of reaching the postseason. I needed them to know the story. I needed them to know what we could do.”
A rebuilding job that began six years ago with cleaning rags and superglue has now reached a major milestone. Slessinger can add another trophy to the collection on display in his office, a gleaming new one with no dents, broken nameplates or water damage.
UNO squandered a late six-point lead at home to Southeastern Louisiana on Thursday night, but clinched a share of the Southland Conference title anyway when second-place Stephen F. Austin also suffered an upset loss. If the Privateers beat Nicholls State on Saturday, they would clinch the outright league title, an unfathomable feat for a cash-strapped university that not long ago had given up on competing at the Division I level.
“It’s an amazing, amazing accomplishment,” Slessinger said. “You have to have an undefeated attitude every single day if you’re trying to redo something to this magnitude. You’ve got to be tough as hell, you’ve got to be willing to work and you’ve got to hold firm to what your values are. You’ve got to stay on the guys every day about working hard, getting better and seeing how high we can go.”
The floodwaters had long since receded when Slessinger arrived at UNO in June 2011, but the school’s athletic department was still drowning in indecision.
A crippling drop in enrollment, massive state budget cuts and insufficient fundraising efforts had plunged UNO athletics into a $5 million debt after Katrina, forcing cut-backs in staffing and substantial scholarship reductions. Making ends meet became so difficult that school officials began to debate whether remaining in Division I was financially feasible anymore.
On Nov. 11, 2009, UNO announced it would withdraw from the Sun Belt Conference and drop from Division I to Division III, a controversial decision that ushered in a three-year period of paralyzing hesitation and uncertainty. At first, the school did nothing, not even join a Division III conference. Then in March 2011, UNO declared its intentions to reclassify to Division II and join the Gulf South Conference. And finally a year later, the university reversed course altogether, announcing it was staying in Division I and applying for entrance to the Southland Conference.
Nearly three years of wavering ultimately did more damage to UNO athletics than the storm ever did. More than 100 UNO athletes transferred somewhere they could compete at the highest level and many of the athletes who replaced them were ill-suited for Division I.
Making matters worse, the athletics infrastructure at UNO no longer resembled a typical Division I operation anymore.
Rows of offices in UNO’s athletic facility sat empty in April 2012 because school officials had halved the size of the staff the previous five years. The coaches and administrators who remained often did the equivalent of two or three jobs because the school couldn’t afford to fill essential positions like academic coordinator, strength and conditioning coach or marketing director.
Angela Marin, then UNO’s director of athletic operations, served as travel coordinator for the whole department and also filled in as an assistant volleyball coach despite possessing little experience in the sport. Ola Adegboye, then 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.
“Sometimes I think it can’t get any worse, then something else happens,” Adegboye told Yahoo Sports in April 2012. “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.”
The strain of wearing so many hats was too much for the three UNO head basketball coaches who preceded Slessinger. They all left for assistant coaching gigs somewhere else rather than trying to help UNO rebuild on a shoestring budget.
None of that fazed Slessinger when UNO offered him the job. The longtime Northwestern State (La.) assistant had a desire to be a head coach, a willingness to work long hours, extensive recruiting ties to New Orleans and a love for the city after meeting his wife there.
In Slessinger’s head coaching debut on Nov. 11, 2011, UNO lost at New Mexico by 52. The next day, the Privateers fell at Rice by 34. Slessinger didn’t let it worry him. UNO didn’t have a Division I-caliber roster yet since the university was still a few months away from even publicly announcing its desire to remain at that level.
For Slessinger, what happened after his first season was more concerning. That’s when the NCAA penalized UNO basketball for underperforming academically before Slessinger’s arrival, handing down sanctions that included a postseason ban, recruiting restrictions and a reduction in practice time.
“For three years, we had every APR penalty known to man, and none of it really was our fault,” Slessinger said. “We were penalized for kids who were in our program when we were going to transition out of D-I and then we came back, they weren’t eligible. You trick yourself into saying it’s not that big of a deal, but eventually I added it up in my head and I realized we were practicing a month less per year than everyone else.”
Between UNO’s meager budget, postseason ineligibility and NCAA-mandated restrictions, Slessinger faced a daunting challenge trying to sell his program on the recruiting trail. The most success he enjoyed often came with prospects no other Division I programs wanted.
Christavious Gill, a high-energy, big-hearted shooting guard generously listed at 5-foot-8, received scant interest from other programs because he’s so undersized. Fellow senior starters Nate Frye and Tevin Broyles also had no other Division I scholarship offers until Slessinger came along.
But the player who has made the biggest impact on UNO’s turnaround is the fourth member of the Privateers’ outstanding senior class. Forward Erik Thomas has emerged as the leading candidate to win the Southland Conference’s player of the year award after averaging 20 points and 7.8 rebounds so far this season while also shooting 60.8 percent from the floor.
When former Baton Rouge Community College assistant Tyrone Mitchell urged Slessinger to come take a look at Thomas, the UNO coach was initially a little skeptical about taking a chance on a 6-foot-5 combo forward who was both undersized and overweight. Only after scouting Thomas and falling in love with his diverse skill set did Slessinger change his mind.
Slessinger asked Mitchell and Baton Rouge head coach Ricky Wilson who he had to beat out to land Thomas. To his surprise, the only other school interested was a local NAIA program.
“McNeese State, Southern, Northwestern State, they all knew about him and they all passed,” Wilson said. “I don’t know what people were looking at. I was recruiting a couple weeks ago and I had one of the coaches at Southern come up to me and say, ‘Hey, why didn’t you call us about Thomas?’ I said, ‘I told you guys about him. I told everyone. But nobody really bit until UNO finally did.'”
Injuries and an inability to win close games prevented UNO from making much progress last season, however, the Privateers returned nine of their top 10 players from a squad that went 10-20. Though Southland Conference coaches projected UNO to finish ninth in the league’s annual preseason poll, Slessinger began the year quietly optimistic the Privateers would exceed those expectations.
The first sign of validation for Slessinger arrived early in the season when UNO demolished city rival Tulane by 24 points and routed Washington State by 16 on its home floor. Narrow losses against Louisiana-Lafayette and Utah State were frustrating yet also signs of progress.
By the time Southland Conference play started, UNO had developed an identity as an excellent defensive team that forces turnovers with an aggressive half-court man-to-man. The Privateers shoot poorly from the perimeter and turn the ball over too much on offense, but they make up for it by displaying smart shot selection and cleaning up the offensive glass.
Even as UNO was in the midst of making its run at the program’s first conference title in two decades, there were plenty of reminders that its athletic department still isn’t on solid financial footing. UNO still only attracts 700 or 800 people to most home basketball games, still can’t afford to pay its coaches a competitive salary and still had the third lowest revenue of the 231 Division I athletic departments surveyed recently by USA Today.
Two nights before a critical victory over second-place Stephen F. Austin last month, Slessinger had a task to do that didn’t involve preparing for his team’s biggest game of the season. He and UNO women’s basketball coach Keeshawn Davenport both took tickets from fans when they arrived at Maestri Field for the Privateers’ baseball game against second-ranked LSU.
“We had a great time,” Slessinger said. “We talked a ton of trash. I told every LSU fan who walked in that we had a whole trailer selling UNO shirts and hats. It was never too late for them to make a good decision and go buy a blue shirt.”
To Slessinger, sometimes a great attitude can go a lot further than great resources. This UNO basketball season is proof of that.
The Privateers have now added a new trophy to the basketball office, validated the school’s decision to stay in Division I and provided Slessinger’s future teams with the single thing he values most.
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