The University of New Orleans cross country teams toed the starting line Tuesday on Lakeshore Drive, the sliver of winding road between UNO and the 630-square mile Lake Pontchartrain that fronts it. With the sun reflecting off the lake, the Privateers acquitted themselves well. The men’s team swept the podium and the women finished second.
“The men’s side had a tremendous race, led by Jared [Robertson] and Edmund [Pine], who really cleared the way for our one-two-three finish,” said UNO head coach Benjamin Dalton. “For the women, Callie [Willcox] and Emily [Martinez] really stepped it up for the second-place outing.”
Their performance is an apt metaphor for a program that persists after being steadily buffeted by headwinds well after those of Hurricane Katrina 10 years ago.
In the harrowing days and nights of late August 2005, the levee fronting the university and restraining Pontchartrain held. Looking north onto the lake, away from the main of New Orleans, the London Avenue Canal borders the university to the left. It too is lined by levees, and several blocks from campus one breached as the storm sent water surging into the canal.
A deluge flowed in from the side, swamping a portion of UNO and flooding several buildings including a cluster of residential dorms and the University’s engineering building. Wind gusts blew the roof from UNO’s Lakefront Arena, and the resulting damage closed down one of the athletic department’s primary sources of revenue for the next three years.
The National Guard arrived, and although they restored stability to the rest of New Orleans, they based an evacuation and staging area on the dry portions of the UNO campus.
Its facilities compromised or damaged beyond use, the teams the school could support were dispersed elsewhere to compete. The basketball team headed to Tyler, Texas. The swim team, its aquatics center one of the buildings most severely impacted, headed to Georgia’s Emory University. The women’s golf team departed for Nicholls State, the men’s to LSU.
All tennis and track activities were suspended, along with women’s golf. Six teams remained, eight less than the NCAA Division I mandate of 14.
An athletic program that previously labored to find a firm home in the college ranks was now reeling. Largely through online efforts and satellite locations, UNO’s academics were at least partially operable by October. UNO’s athletic program was granted a waiver until 2011 to recover and meet the NCAA-mandated requirements.
Jeff Duncan a sports journalist for The Times-Picayune, was part of the team that earned a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of Hurricane Katrina. He told ASN this week, “The laws of natural selection applied to Katrina. The strong institutions, like the resource-rich Saints of the NFL and Pelicans of the NBA, survived the storm and in many cases have thrived. The weak and vulnerable struggled.”
The UNO student population fell from 17,000 before Katrina to 11,000 the following fall. Like the insidious side breach of London Canal’s levee, the state flanked the university with budget reductions as part of an overall reduction in higher education funding. In 2008, $15 million reportedly was cut from UNO’s budget.
The athletic department struggled with what to do next. Missteps ensued en route to what ultimately became a place in the Southland Conference.
In late 2009, the university announced that it was dropping from Division I to Division III. UNO played outside a designated conference, only partially committed to being at the level. In early 2011, UNO looked into joining the Division II Gulf South Conference.
In March 2012, two months after he was hired, UNO President Peter Fos announced UNO’s return instead to Division I. In August 2012, UNO joined the Southland Conference and began competing in 2013-2014.
While UNO rooted through the college ranks in 2009-2012, it retained six students from its original Division I athletes.
But as befitting the city whose name the university bears, there’s hope and somewhere beyond that is promise. The roof is back on the Lakefront Arena. The crowds are thin coming through the doors to see the basketball team, making the 8,000-seat arena seem cavernous. On the court, the Privateers are developing new rivalries in the Southland.
The baseball stadium has been renovated, and the tennis facilities nearby are among the best in the South. The athletic department is up to the required 14-teams. The restored track and field programs compete at New Orleans’ storied Tad Gormley Stadium, built in 1937 to provide work during the Depression, and still providing it.
On Monday, Fos announced that he was retiring effective Jan. 31, 2016. “I believe that I have contributed all that I can,” he said in a statement, “and it is because I care so much for the institution that I can say it is time for a new president to bring it to new heights.”
Uncertainty took a new — yet familiar — place in the athletic department. The efforts of the Privateers’ cross-country team followed quickly on its heels. Friday night, the volleyball opens its season at home against Providence.