Rebuilding From Katrina: University of New Orleans Looks to Take Another Step this Year

13 Feb

In the summer of 2005 the Gulf Coast was hit with the most catastrophic storm in decades, Hurricane Katrina.  The storm devastated an entire region that has taken well over a decade to recover.  College and universities all over the gulf were devastated and displaced, student-athletes transferred to schools where they could continue their educations and athletic careers.

One of the schools that was hit hardest in the aftermath of Katrina was the University of New Orleans.  The campus, like the rest of the region was devastated not only structurally but the infrastructural foundation had to be rebuilt.

Before Katrina hit the gulf in 2005 New Orleans had an enrollment of 17,142 and in the immediate aftermath that number plummeted to 6,684 in the back half of 2005.  In 2006 the enrollment nearly doubled up to 11,747 but in the 11 years since Katrina the enrollment at the University of New Orleans hasn’t come close to its pre-Katrina levels.  In fact those numbers have again dropped every year since 2006 down to 8,037 in 2016, the lowest since the storm hit in 2005.  To help alleviate the enrollment issues the Louisiana legislature attempted to merge the campuses of UNO and Southern University New Orleans.  After Katrina the students that remained at the school also struggled in the classroom with only 21% of the undergrad students finishing their degree within a six year span.  Another roadblock in the recovery of the school is that the local government severely cut funding to the schools in the area.

As a result of all of this the athletics at UNO after Katrina were just as unstable as the university itself.    Due to the budget cuts and flooding damage to athletic facilities, the school ended up cutting six of its 15 sports programs.  All of these adversities prompted the school to look into moving from Division 1 all the way down to Division 3.  The Athletic Director at the time Amy Champion says, “The Chancellor at the time of the storm thought downsizing to DIII was the ‘saving grace’ for the department. The students had rejected an increase in the student fee which, in his mind, justified his decision.”   According to Champion the move to Division 3 was rejected by nearly everyone, the LSU System, the community, etc.  The school’s alternative idea of remaining in Division 1 was also rejected and everyone decided to meet in the middle with a move to Division 2 with an invitation to the Gulf South Conference.  Before that could happen however, “We were moving along that path and 4 months later, UNO is moved from the LSU system to the U of L (University of Louisiana) system. The President of the U of L system at the time (he retired 4 months after) decided UNO would remain DI and join the Southland. Despite not having any budget or revenue remotely to support the scholarships required for DI, sports required for DI, facilities, etc.” says Champion.

It is hard enough to win basketball games at the division 1 level but to have to do it after Katrina when you have nearly nothing was an impossible task.  That was indeed the task for Monte Towe in 2006 and Joe Pasternack from 2007-2011.   In addition to the lack of facilities the team still had to recruit and schedule with the instability of not knowing what level the team would be competing at.  From 2006-10 the team finished over .500 just once, in 2008 when they finished 19-13.  The following two years is when the real logistical turmoil took place.  The Privateers finished 2011 at 16-6 playing a schedule made up entirely of non-division 1 opponents and in 2012 they played just eight division 1 games in which they went 1-7.   Things began to somewhat stabilize for New Orleans in 2013 when they found a home in the Southland Conference.  The transition to conference stability hasn’t been easy for new coach Mark Slessinger averaging just 10 victories over the last four seasons, but for New Orleans (and every other university impacted by Katrina) the recovery and rebuilding takes precedence over wins and losses.

It has been 12 years since Katrina and it has been a long road back to recovery, a road they are still on.  This season the Privateers seemed to have turned the corner in the win column. They currently sit atop the Southland Conference at 10-3 and 15-9 overall which is their 2nd highest win total with a division 1 schedule since Katrina.  With five games to play before the Southland Conference tournament the Privateers hold a one game lead over Sam Houston State (who beat New Orleans in their only meeting 70-68).  Their other two conference losses were to Abilene Christian by a point and Stephen F. Austin by 10.  Offensively Slessinger’s squad has three players averaging over 10 points per contest, led by senior forward Erik Thomas and his 19.9 points and 7.8 rebounds (also a team high).  The other two are the Privateers’ senior back court of Christavious Gill (11.7) and Nate Frye (10.2).

What New Orleans has done well this season on the court are a couple of things; they share the ball well, their 16.1 assists per game is 29th best in the country. They also force turnovers at a high rate, their nearly 17 per game is the 12th highest in the country.  They also shoot well at a 47% clip and defend the three-pointer holding opponents to 32%.

Of the 12 division 1 schools based in Louisiana just four; Louisiana-Lafayette, LSU, Northwestern State and Southern have earned a total of eight bids to the NCAA Tournament since Hurricane Katrina but the University of New Orleans is on track to make a run at the NCAA Tournament, the first for the city and clear another roadblock on the road to recovery for the basketball and athletic programs, the school, the city and the Gulf.

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