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Publish date: Aug 23, 2010

Athletics community banded together after Katrina

By Michelle Brutlag Hosick

In the hours, days and weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, the college athletics community came together in a way that it never has. Schools set aside rivalries, conferences set aside competitive-equity concerns, and the NCAA set aside its rule book to help affected schools get through a traumatic situation.

The Louisiana Superdome sits in the foreground as floodwaters from Hurricane Katrina continue to recede Sept. 11, 2005, in New Orleans. Crowds swamped the area around the Louisiana Superdome, Monday Sept. 25, 2006 in a human sea, creating a huge traffic jam for the team's emotional return and the reopening of the stadium, which underwent $185 million in repairs to erase damage done during and after Katrina. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, Pool)

Many in New Orleans credit the NCAA with taking actions that not only unified its membership but also helped the city rebuild.

Within days of the storm’s impact, the NCAA issued a blanket waiver to give flexibility to institutions and conferences affected by Katrina. Steve Mallonee, NCAA managing director of academic and membership affairs, said dozens of cases were verbally approved, dealing with everything from relocating teams to extra benefits to playing and practice seasons and recruiting.

Tulane University and the University of New Orleans each were granted six-year waivers of Division I membership requirements (and for Tulane, Football Bowl Subdivision requirements). Tulane, which announced earlier this summer the addition of sand volleyball and bowling, completed its compliance plan and will meet the 2011-12 deadline for membership requirements. New Orleans decided to reclassify to Division III after enrollment declined by nearly 6,000 from pre-storm levels and the economy collapsed.

The Association did not set aside transfer requirements after Katrina, though individual waivers were granted in cases with extenuating circumstances.

“It was a conscious decision not to set aside those rules that would have been detrimental to those schools’ rebuilding efforts,” Mallonee said. “We looked at the immediate needs of student-athletes and their families (in waiver cases).”

The NCAA set up a hotline for administrators, student-athletes and parents to call with questions about rules. Mallonee was the point person for that hotline, which operated for about two months. He called the hotline a unique effort and a good decision made at a difficult time.

“I was getting phone calls every day,” he said. “They wanted to talk about waivers and technical issues, and some just wanted to talk with somebody to make sense of it all. We were glad to be able to help our institutions.”

Sending events to the city

The Association also stepped up to help the rebuilding efforts, both literally and figuratively.

Jay Cicero
Greater New Orleans Sports Corporation

One New Orleans sports official said the symbolic steps the NCAA took in the months after the storm were incredibly valuable to the city’s future. Jay Cicero, chief executive of the Greater New Orleans Sports Corporation, said that the day after the floods began, he got calls from top officials at the NCAA asking how the Association could help.

Within a few months, the Division I Men’s Basketball Committee reconfirmed New Orleans as a site for first- and second-round games in the 2007 tournament, and the Division I Women’s Basketball Committee confirmed it would hold the 2008 South Regional there.

“To make that commitment back then, when nobody knew how much we were going to recover, was pretty dramatic,” Cicero said. “That was pretty special.”

Greg Shaheen, interim NCAA executive vice president of championships and business strategies, said former NCAA President Myles Brand wanted to show the organization’s commitment to the city.

Greg Shaheen

“Soon after Katrina struck, Myles Brand was sensitive to the fact that the area was facing serious challenges and he wanted the NCAA to be supportive in any way we could,” Shaheen said. “We knew the most sensible way to assist with the long-term recovery effort was by continuing to bring events to New Orleans.

“The city’s leaders put together a quality bid during the site-selection process in 2008 and proved New Orleans would be ready to host the 2012 Final Four, and the NCAA is excited to build upon the city’s long history of hosting the event while assisting with the ongoing recovery process.”

During the 2006 Men’s Final Four in Indianapolis, Cicero met with Brand, who threw his support behind Cicero and New Orleans in submitting a bid for future championship events.

“There was no hesitation in his voice at all,” Cicero said of the conversation with the late NCAA president. “He understood what we were going through and that the NCAA could play a major role in the recovery of New Orleans through sports. He was taking a risk and it required faith. When the hotels came back and the airport came back, clearly Dr. Brand’s leadership and vision came true.”

Tulane and New Orleans will host the 2012 Men’s Final Four. The city will also host the 2013 Women’s Final Four. 

The Division I Women’s Basketball Committee’s confidence in the city has never wavered.

Sue Donohoe

New Orleans is an experienced host and a proven partner of the NCAA,” said Sue Donohoe, NCAA vice president for Division I Women’s Basketball. “The committee’s decision to conduct a regional there in 2008 and award the 2013 Women’s Final Four to the city indicates its confidence in New Orleans and the city’s ability to underline the importance of these events in the community and provide the essential elements for a memorable experience for our student-athletes, fans and coaches. New Orleans and its residents are resilient. People find a reason to go back to New Orleans time and time again to enjoy the hospitality that this unique and historical city provides.”

Cicero credits those commitments and the NCAA’s vocal support of the city in the months after the storm with attracting dozens of other events to the city. The support meant more than the actual events themselves, he said, and led to major conventions, along with the 2008 NBA All-Star Game and the winning bid for the 2013 Super Bowl.

“The NCAA stepped up when everyone else was hesitant. That meant the world to us,” he said.

Building a home with Habitat

The Association also helped to rebuild in a literal way. In the months after the storm, the NCAA formed a partnership with Habitat for Humanity International. Division II put up $1 million as a lead gift, and the Association followed with another $1 million. The financial gift was just the beginning, as the Association took advantage of Habitat’s “Home in a Box” program to build the frames of homes at different marquee events throughout the country and ship the frames to the Gulf Coast.

The Association built more than 60 homes over the three years of the relationship and brought awareness through builds at 25 different events, including the 2006 and 2007 Men’s Final Fours, the 2007 and 2008 Women’s Final Fours, the 2006 and 2007 College World Series, the 2007 and 2008 NCAA Conventions and many other championships.

Joe Mulvey, Midwest development director for Habitat for Humanity International, said the partnership was natural for both organizations.

“It was complementary to many things we were already doing, but took it to a much deeper level,” he said, noting Habitat’s strong presence in youth outreach throughout the country. “There was a strong youth component we were able to leverage with the NCAA program. We invited NCAA student-athletes to go out on builds.”

Those student-athletes were following the lead of their institutions and conferences, which almost immediately reached out to help the schools affected by the storm.

Rick Dickson

Tulane Athletics Director Rick Dickson sent many of his staff and student-athletes in fall sports to Jackson State (student-athletes in other sports were sent home). Millsaps University provided practice accommodations. When it became clear that returning to New Orleans would not be an option for some time, the traveling party moved to Dallas (with the exception of soccer, which moved to Birmingham, Alabama, for a tournament).

When plans to move to the University of Houston and Rice fell through because of government need for accommodations in Houston, Dickson remained in Dallas and the student-athletes were spread across four Texas universities and Louisiana Tech. They lived that way for nearly five months.

Sun Belt Conference Commissioner Wright Waters, who left New Orleans for what he thought was a quick weekend trip to see his daughter in Birmingham, ended up working out of temporary offices in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, after a plan to go to Lafayette, Louisiana, dissolved, also because of the need to house the government’s first responders. He said every commissioner he called, including Doug Elgin of the Missouri Valley Conference and Mike Slive at the Southeastern Conference, offered to help without hesitation.

Wright Waters
Sun Belt

Because no one was anticipating the extent of the storm, apparel donations were invaluable. Waters had brought only three shirts and two pairs of shorts to Alabama when he left.

“We realized real quickly that when Americans are at risk, other Americans will come to their aid every time,” Waters said. “The outpouring of help was incredible. During our temporary stay in Tuscaloosa, we would have ‘NCAA Day’ and ‘SEC Day’ and ‘Mountain West Day’ and Missouri Valley Day,’ ” Waters said. “All those groups had just sent us these huge boxes of shirts and shorts, and that was all we owned. We’d say, ‘OK, everybody, tomorrow is Mountain West Day.’ And we’d all wear those clothes.”

The support for the University of New Orleans, a member of the Sun Belt until its reclassification, also was overwhelming. Women’s basketball coach Amy Champion said she, her staff and her players were practicing at Texas-Tyler (where the student-athletes lived, enrolled, and played the 2005-06 season) in Iowa State’s warm-up gear, sleeping in Penn State’s sweats and using other gear donated from dozens of schools all over the country.

“I will be indebted to these people for life, because they really came through,” Champion said.