PARTSCH: UNO embodies the survive and advance spirit
Managing Editor Raymond Partsch III
Survive and advance.
That phrase is often used at this time of the year when the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament dominates the national sports conscience, as 68 teams attempt to win the national championship, or at least reach the Final Four.
No team in this year’s bracket better represents that “survive and advance” mantra than the University of New Orleans Privateers, a team that actually lost its first-round game – a play-in game at that. That’s because the program itself has somehow survived an unthinkable force of nature that ravaged its campus and city, a seemingly never ending crippling budget crisis suffered by its university, the devastating and stunning death of a teammate and wave after wave of losses.
UNO was always one of the state’s better small school basketball programs. The Privateers had a run of success in Division II back in the 1970s, including a pair of Final Fours and a national runner-up finish in 1975. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Tim Floyd-coached Privateers routinely won 20 games a year and made the postseason five times, including a pair of NCAA Tournament appearances in 1991 and 1993.
The program suffered an on-the-court decline in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but nothing would prepare it for when Hurricane Katrina made landfall in August 2005.
The university, situated on the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain, was savagely beaten by the unforgiving winds and waters of the storm. The roof of UNO’s Lakefront Arena was damaged so severely that it took three years to repair and the basketball team relocated to Texas for a brief period.
So much focus back then, when it came to the city’s sports teams, was directed toward the two professional sports franchises. UNO became a forgotten casualty of the storm’s enormous destruction.
UNO’s pre-Katrina enrollment hovered around 17,000 and plummeted to below 8,500. The university struggled to get back on its feet as the Louisiana legislature continued slicing funding to the institution, exceeding more than $40 million over a five-year period from 2008-12. The budget cuts and weakened enrollment also saw 182 full-time faculty members lose their jobs between 2008-15, and athletic offices became empty tombs.
The imminent demise of UNO, with constant discussion of its closure, seemed to become a staple of the news cycle for more than a decade.
Yet, UNO survived and advanced.
It was during this tumultuous period that Mark Slessinger arrived on campus.
Not long after being hired in the summer of 2011, the former longtime assistant coach at Northwestern State in Natchitoches began showing off the program’s pride in the basketball offices. Slessinger rummaged through a FEMA storage shed and found memorabilia such as banners and trophies (some of them broken and water damaged) that served as a positive reminder of the program’s glory days.
The program needed that dose of positivity as Slessinger took over a program that had only three players on the roster, one coaching assistant and no conference affiliation. Two years prior to Slessinger’s arrival, the university decided to unwisely drop its athletic teams to Division III, which does not offer athletic scholarships. The following year the university changed course and joined Division II. Two years later, it became a Division I program again.
That see-saw decision making and dysfunction gave UNO a reputation as a failing program that even marginal hardwood talents avoided in droves
Yet, UNO survived and advanced.
As an independent, UNO went 25-33 during Slessinger’s first two seasons. In 2013-14, UNO joined the Southland Conference and the foundation for a turnaround was laid.
Slessinger, who learned how to recruit overlooked but talented players throughout the backroads of Louisiana by NSU coach Mike McConathy, signed a trio of tough-minded guards that would help bring the program back. There was Christavious Gill out of Alexandria who was deemed too small (5-foot-8) to garner a Division I scholarship offer. There was Nate Frye, a six-year letterman and the son of the coach at Class B’s Houma Christian. And there was Tevin Broyles out of Gautier High School along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
Later came junior college transfer Eric Thomas, who would eventually be named Southland Conference Player of the Year.
The program had its coach and core players but UNO had to learn how to win again as the Privateers won 11, 11 and 10 games the next three seasons.
The 2014-15 season started off with a double dose of tragedy for the program.
Matt Derenbecker, a former star at Metairie’s Country Day, had played for LSU, then Dayton and finally UNO. He played for the Privateers for half of the 2013-14 season before leaving the team due to medical reasons. Derenbecker committed suicide in August 2014. That tragedy came the same weekend as four members of former UNO star Cory Dixon’s family were killed in an auto accident in New Mexico.
Yet, UNO survived and advanced.
UNO entered this season being picked to finish ninth in the SLC by coaches and 10th by the league’s Sports Information Directors. Yet, the Privateers won 20 games, won their first regular-season conference title since 1997 and went on to win the conference tournament in dramatic fashion, with a double-digit overtime comeback against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.
That gave UNO its first berth in the NCAA Tournament in 21 seasons as the team from New Orleans would face fellow No. 16 seed Mount St. Mary’s in the play-in game held in Dayton, Ohio on Tuesday.
The team was so grateful to be there that players shook hands and thanked the media following the press conference, and then cut practice short by meeting and visiting with fans.
UNO came up short in the game, losing 67-66.
Yet, the team’s season and its bright future is a remarkable achievement.
That doesn’t mean that there won’t be daunting challenges moving forward.
The team loses a slew of senior playmakers, the school’s athletic budget is only $5 million, which is $415,000 less than how much LSU paid its football assistants in 2016, and fan support is still an issue, as exemplified with a game against visiting Louisiana-Lafayette back in December where Cajun fans outnumbered Privateer fans, 3-1.
Yet, despite those obstacles UNO will likely survive and advance. That has become the Privateer way.