August 23 – The atmosphere in the Privateer Room of the UNO Lakefront Arena was almost festive. Faculty, staff, students, athletes, coaches and members of the news media chatted amiably as they waited for one of the most highly anticipated announcements to come from the University of New Orleans since its new president was selected.
At last, the buzz subsided as Athletic Director Derek Morel took to the podium to introduce Southland Conference Commissioner, Tom Burnett.
Of course, no one was surprised when Burnett officially invited UNO to join the Southland Conference. Nor were they surprised when UNO President Peter Fos accepted on behalf of the university. Still, it was exactly the news everyone wanted to hear. UNO will compete in the Southland Conference beginning in the 2013-2014 academic year.
“Today’s announcement is the beginning, or the renaissance, of the future of UNO athletics,” Morel said in his introductory remarks. “Today is the commencement of many, many, many exciting days ahead.”
Joining the Southland Conference also signaled the end of a long, unpleasant course of events for UNO athletics. For some time UNO’s athletic program had vacillated between participation in the National Collegiate Athletics Association’s Division I and Division II. At the same time, withdrawal from the Sunbelt Conference plunged the program into independent no man’s land.
One of the earliest and most controversial decisions Fos made upon ascending to UNO’s presidency was committing UNO athletics to NCAA Division I. Soon after, he brought in Derek Morel as the school’s new athletic director.
Hiring Ty Sevin as head coach of newly added men’s and women’s indoor and outdoor track and field and cross country teams was another coup for Fos. Sevin most recently accompanied two of team USA’s track and field athletes to the summer Olympics in London.
Now, just eight months into his presidency, Fos has guided UNO athletics into one of the most solid and strategically important conferences in the country.
Southland Conference will celebrate its fiftieth anniversary next year. It has proven it’s here to stay. In addition, because its members include nearby universities like Southeastern, McNeese and Nicholls State Universities, team travel expenses will be minimized, athletes won’t have to miss as many classes, and perhaps most important, rivalries can form.
With rivalries come more interest from students and alumni, higher attendance at games, the ability to attract higher caliber athletes and increased revenue for a university that has been decimated by recent budget cuts.
Member teams of the Southland Conference benefit from UNO’s inclusion similarly. UNO is also attractive because of its location: New Orleans is a highly rated destination city capable of hosting great sporting events and attracting tourists.
The Southland Conference actively seeks member institutions that bring added value to the league, according to Burnett.
“I think this is a steal here,” he said of UNO and New Orleans. “This is huge for our conference.”
Burnett was not the only one happy. UNO Coaches and athletes were very vocal in their approval of the move.
“I’m very excited about this,” said UNO pitcher Nathan Rome. “It’s one of the greatest things that could have happened for the university at this time. It’s a great time for UNO athletics.”
Rome stressed the importance of playing in Division I from an academic standpoint.
“There’s a higher standard that you’re held to because you’re in Division I, said Rome. “You have to keep your grades up. I think we were athletes before. Now we’re student athletes. We’re students first and then we’re athletes.”
Rome was also excited about the prospect of attracting better athletes from a larger pool.
“I think we will get higher quality athletes,” he explained, “not just from around here, but from around the country,”
Laila Hansen, a sophomore on the women’s volleyball team, echoed Rome’s assessment.
“A lot of things changed and it’s for the better,” she said. “We’re recruiting girls at higher levels of play. They’re more talented.”
Glenna Richmiller, a volleyball player who transferred to UNO a month earlier from Missouri State University – West Plains, is excited about the culture of New Orleans and the athletic program. Most of all she is excited about the tradition of UNO’s business school.
“I’m not just here to be a dumb athlete,” Richmiller said. “I’m here to be a graduate.”
Richmiller and Hansen both approved of the higher GPA required of athletes who participate in Division I sports.
Kim Young-Buford, head coach of the women’s volleyball team, expressed relief at the announcement.
“It feels normal now,” said Young-Buford “We needed that in order to move forward in recruiting and also to give the kids an identity, something to fight for.”
In terms of recruiting, the decision to remain in Division I is already having a positive effect. Alliance with the Southland Conference will only make things better.
“There were some top kids out there that were a little indecisive because of us not really having our place,” Young-Buford said. “I think the immediate impact this will have will be us getting some really good athletes wanting to compete in the Southland Conference.”
Assistant basketball coach Kris Arkenberg concurred.
“Oh, it’s been great for recruiting from the basketball perspective just from the standpoint that kids know where they’re going to be playing, what league,” said Arkenberg. “Especially for us trying to recruit locally and within the state…it gives kids the ability to know they’re going to play close to home. There’s going to be a trip to Thibodaux, a trip to Hammond, a trip to Natchitoches. That’s been great for us to be able to put on paper and in spoken word.”
Arkenberg explained that basketball recruiting is done locally and nationwide and starts with players in their junior and senior years in high school.
“We really want to build this team locally, then from the State of Louisiana and go out from there,” he said. “We really want this to be a place of pride for the community and you do that by bringing in those kids from that community.”
Community buy-in and student and alumni involvement are what Fos hopes his decisions will create.
He admits keeping UNO in NCAA Division I may not have been the most important decision he has had to make since arriving at UNO, but it has probably been the most visible.
“This is not about winning games,” he said. “This is about letting everyone know we really are a major university.”
Perhaps UNO legend and former athletic director, Ron Maestri, said it best.
“I think the biggest thing we had going for us for so many years was the pride in UNO.” said Maestri, namesake of UNO’s baseball field. “This is a great education. Be proud of your university.”
Participating in Division I sports in the Southland Conference is an important step in rebuilding that pride.