It is a great story, the ultimate feel-good story of the year in sports here in New Orleans.
That Mark Slessinger has his University of New Orleans Privateers in the NCAA tournament, the first appearance in the event since 1996, is a virtual miracle and a godsend for a school in drastic need of something positive, good publicity, a shot in the arm.
With an enrollment listed most recently at 8.423, UNO remains off by about 9,000 students from its enrollment as the second largest university in the state prior to Hurricane Katrina. Since that epic storm, the university has employed three chancellors, four athletic directors, four basketball coaches and three baseball coaches.
A bevy of poor personnel decisions, poor management and purely bad luck has conspired to relegate UNO to third-tier status as a sports entity in the Greater New Orleans area behind the likes of the Saints, Pelicans, Tulane, the baseball team now calling itself Baby Cakes, LSU, and prep sports. Fortunately, there is no more Arena football or professional hockey or the position on the totem poll would be so low that it would be virtually below ground.
Since the initial retirement of Ron Maestri as athletic director in 2000, the university has employed a part-time athletic director, a good man in Bob Brown, who shared duties as a Vice Chancellor and lobbyist, which kind of told you how the university perceived and what it believed pertaining to its athletic program under then Chancellor Gregory O’ Brien.
A good UNO man and baseball legend in Randy Bush was treated shoddily and resigned. Bush has gone on to be an executive with the Chicago Cubs, where he now wears a World Series championship ring.
Tom Walter was hired to replace Bush, an excellent hire, and he was not only successful with two NCAA appearances but saved his program by setting up a satellite location in Las Cruces, New Mexico and New Mexico State University.
After losing his home in Lakeview, Walter lived in a trailer behind his baseball clubhouse in a desolate, virtually deserted area of town after returning with his players to New Orleans following Las Cruces in the aftermath of Katrina.
Having been here for a lifetime, I was fortunate to begin covering University of New Orleans athletics in 1978, though I attended games beginning in 1971.
From Terry Gill to Duane Reboul to “Hawk” Hamilton to “Pogo” Henderson to Warren Booker, Ron Greene constructed a basketball program and athletic department from scratch. With Ron Maestri building the same level of success, if not greater success in baseball, UNO bulled its way to Division I status.
Greene had great players such as Wilbur Holland, Wayne Cooper, Ardith Wearren, Nate Mills, Rico Weaver and Mike Edwards. Butch Van Breda Kolff reaped the rewards of those players when he took over for a brief time. Don Smith took over and did a solid job with the program, achieving an NIT bid.
It was during Smith’s tenure that I was fortunate enough to do my first UNO basketball broadcast (1983). It was during Maestri’s tenure that I was blessed to do my first UNO baseball broadcast (1982). Smith had excellent players in Mark Petteway, Oscar Taylor, Wade Blundell, John Harris and Muff Butler, to name a few.
By 1985, I had become the play-by-play voice for the university.
I was blessed to marry my wife, Denise, on Jan. 17. 1986. Our honeymoon was a trip to Miami–to do a UNO basketball game. We drove from New Orleans. Thanks to Maestri, we made our first visit to enjoy the delicacy of all delicacies, enjoying Joe’s Stone Crab on Miami Beach. You know you have married the right person when she goes along with this plan!
Personable Benny Dees came in at the right time.
With a host of players that Smith had recruited, including Gabe Corchiani, Sam Jones and Terrance Bellock, four Tulane transfers (Ronnie Grandison, Michael Smith, Elden Irving, Theron Cojoe), an LSU transfer (Damon Vance) and the additions of Ledell Eackles and Michael Porter. the Privateers had a banner year (1986-87), won 26 games and earned a seventh-seed in the NCAA tournament, the first Division I berth in school history.
UNO won its first and only NCAA tournament game, downing BYU 83-79 on March 12, 1987 in Birmingham. It was such a thrill to be part of it in calling the game. The Privateers then bowed out to a virtual home team in Alabama in the second round.
Dees departed for Wyoming, assistant coach Art Tolis took over and an NIT bid resulted but Tolis had many issues with the university and vice versa and Ron Maestri made a brilliant hire in Tim Floyd, who had the most sustained level of success from 1988-1994, going 127-58, taking the Privateers to a pair of NCAA tournaments and three NIT appearances.
Names like Tony Harris, Tank Collins, Ervin Johnson, Melvin Simon, Mike McDonald, Reni Mason, Gerald Williams and Dedric Willoughby (before transferring to Iowa State) were staples of the program.
After Floyd left for Iowa State, Maestri hired Tommy Joe Eagles but Eagles died before ever coaching a game.
Tic Price, whom Eagles had brought in an as an assistant, was promoted in to run the show and he did an excellent job, guiding UNO to an NIT appearance and the last NCAA appearance prior to now in 1996. He became the first coach in school history to win 20 or more games in three consecutive seasons before departing for Memphis.
Since then, UNO has had a stream of good coaches who did not achieve that level of success which had little to do with their substantive efforts.
Joey Stiebing, born and raised as an Archbishop Rummel graduate and former Archbishop Shaw coach was promoted. He did an admirable job, even earning Sun Belt Conference Coach of the Year honors but was dismissed anyway, following Maestri’s departure. Stiebing’s teams began the practice of playing more “guarantee” games to generate revenue but also virtually ensuring more losses to superior opponents on the road.
Monte Towe replaced Stiebing and with the continual reduced budgets, it was a struggle. Towe, who fell in love with the city (like Van Breda Kolff), was good in the community and got his team to the Sun Belt Conference championship game in 2004 but new, stringent academic standards cost him two of his better players (Victor Brown, Billy McDade) the following season.
Then came Hurricane Katrina.
Towe had little or no chance after the storm, had an athletic director who did not hire him and wisely opted to leave to become a top assistant coach at his alma mater at North Carolina State.
In recent years, Bo McCalebb and Hector Romero made their marks on the hardwood, establishing themselves as all-time greats in program history, both brought in by Towe
Buzz Williams was hired but while he was obviously going to be a good head coach, he never really wanted to be in New Orleans and got out after one season, going to excellent success as a head coach at Marquette and Virginia Tech.
Hometown hero Joe Pasternack of Country Day returned to New Orleans to take over and spent four years on the job before departing to become a top assistant at Arizona when UNO was on the verge of leaving Division I status. Pasternack is a good coach who may have stayed, given his local roots. We will never know.
That begat Slessinger, who took a job that most coaches would not have dared to take on, given the declining status, student clientele and poor leadership of the university, including in athletics.
The aimless, shameless decision by the university to pursue Division III, then Division II status was short-sighted and destructive. Pasternack had no chance. Slessinger knew he would have to go schedule-light. In baseball, Bruce Peddie played traveling showman with a preponderance of road games to keep the program afloat with no chance at winning.
Maestri even returned as coach to try to infuse the program with name recognition and to unite people who had been part of supporting UNO athletics but had moved on.
He turned the baseball program over to young, capable assistant Blake Dean, who is doing a fine job.
As for Slessinger, he has stayed the course, remaining upbeat in the midst of having the smallest annual budget ($5 million) in the Southland Conference, one of the smallest budges in the country. Athletic Director Derek Morel gave Slessinger the highest vote of confidence, giving him a six-year contract extension in 2014.
Attending a UNO game is an exercise in frustration and a labor of love.
The frustration stems from the lack of commitment by the university to its programs, understandable, given the dramatic cuts to academics and administration due to the severe reduction of students.
The labor of love represents the few who remain loyal followers of the program, despite lots of losing, a total lack of commitment and being virtually invisible on the local sports scene and on the marketing and advertising front.
This is a program that cannot afford to or will not invest in putting games on commercial radio, a rarity for a legitimate Division I program in basketball. Of course, there are no local radio broadcasts of baseball, either.
Slessinger is the right man at the right time at UNO. Very few could have endured what he has had to deal with under the most extreme, adverse circumstances which he inherited from previous regimes, including severe budget cuts, minimal to no fundraising and poor direction and management on campus.
How can any coach recruit when there is no morale, no money and a plan to drop out of sight? In 2009, it was going to be Division III. In 2010, it was Division II. Then, another local in Dr. Peter Fos, who had taken over running the university, wisely reversed course and kept the school in Division I in 2012.
By that time, many who were on campus as scholarship athletes had left for greener pastures. Many top administrators were laid off or departed (myself included). Slessinger had no players, had to compete as an independent and had to go about the business of selling his moribund program to prospective recruits.
To make things worse, the NCAA imposed sanctions on Slessinger’s program for poor academic performance, largely due to developments beyond Slessinger’s control, such as athletes transferring and those transferring in who were not four-year students. UNO dealt with a ban on postseason games, reductions in scholarships, practice time and even games.
A lesser man would not have been able to handle or endure it. Even without any other comparable job opportunities, Slessinger could have found another job. Instead, he forged on, against all odds.
Then came a wise move to join the Southland Conference, something I advocated when returning to the university as a senior administrator in athletics in 2001.
A man of faith who, along with his wife Toni has adopted two children, Slessinger kept the faith, stayed the course and now, he is reaping the benefits. He has another player who has stamped his names as one of the best in school history in Southland Conference Player of the Year Erik Thomas.
As I watched the replay of the game and its final moments and the various replays of the final moments on ESPN, my mind’s eye flashed to the likes of Greene, Van Breda Kolff, Smith, Dees, Floyd, Price, Stiebing, Towe and Pasternack. I even though of Tom Schwaner, who served loyally for over two decades as a baseball assistant and head coach.
Most notably, I thought of my friend Ron Maestri and my late, great friend Homer Hitt, who ran the university from 1980 in superb fashion. Hitt passed away in 2008.
Hitt believed in building a big-time Division I athletic program to go with a big-time university which was truly the University of New Orleans, an affordable university whose graduates would remain and contribute directly and greatly to the local economy. He presided over the move from Division II, where UNO was a power, to Division I in 1975.
Hitt loved UNO basketball. He continued to attend games long after he was no longer running the university. He fought and fought for athletics and Lakefront Arena, as well as Maestri Field at First NBC Ballpark, exist largely, if not primarily, due to Hitt’s efforts.
Like Slessinger, Maestri and Hitt dreamed big and were not deterred by naysayers, doubters, scoffers and negativity. They were going to succeed when no one else thought they would or they could. They persevered and prevailed.
I also thought of Wick Carey. a man who quietly attended games for many, many years. At baseball games, he was impossible to miss, sitting at then Privateer Park in his Chicago Cubs jacket. Occasionally, he would come up and ask for a lineup.
Upon his passing, Carey made a sizeable donation to UNO athletics, the ultimate labor of love.
I also thought of Mike Bujol and Mike Daunhauer, who served the university’s athletic department for the better part of three decades in dedicated fashion.
Whether Slessinger can keep it going remains to be seen. He will need more resources.
As a member of the Allstate Sugar Bowl media selection committee, it was a pleasure to help elect Slessinger to the Jimmy Collins Special Award for community service in 2014. Slessinger is not only fully engaged in his basketball program but fully engaged on campus and in the community.
When I gave up a very good job in radio where my duties included pre-season play-by-play for the New Orleans Saints and play-by-play for the New Orleans Zephyrs, many thought I was crazy to return to UNO, a declining brand and entity. It was a leap of faith.
Suffice it to say that it was a family decision and it was a labor of love for a school that I had grown to love since my youth. We are pleased to have a son in graduate school at UNO now.
While in my last stint at the university, it was a blessing to bring in Jude Young, Brandon Rizzuto and Emmanuel Pepis to the fold, the latter two who attended UNO. Rizzuto served in sports information and as an assistant athletic director while Pepis worked in sports information and still does on-line broadcasts for the university.
Young serves as the basketball play-by-play voice of the Privateers online while serving as our webmaster at SportsNOLA.com and doing shows for us on WGSO, 990 AM.
The legacy is there.
While UNO has to play a first-round game against Mount St. Mary’s with the winner to face top overall seed and defending national champion Villanova, regardless of what happens, our family household is smiling today.
Memories of being right behind home plate for the first UNO baseball game at brand new Privateer Park in 1979 after watching games on campus with an orange snow fence and doing my first UNO game broadcast at the new ballpark in 1982 remain vivid. It was one of my happiest moments when I proposed and helped bring to fruition renaming the park for Maestri.
As I speak, the garb of the day is a UNO warmup suit which I pulled out of mothballs, which is where Slessinger has revived his program from through the efforts of what he refers to as his “ministry.”
Revival is alive and well at the University of New Orleans, at least in basketball, in more ways than one. Faith, a degree of talent, solid coaching and steadfast focus plus determination can take you a long way, as in the final 68 teams standing in the country. Can I get an Amen?
(Trahan did UNO television broadcasts beginning in 1982 and did a UNO telecast this season. He served as radio play-by-play voice with a one year year hiatus from 1985-1992. He served as assistant athletic director and play-by-play voice of the Privateers on radio from 2001-2006).