Tulane Athletics and the Katrina Semester
Nov. 21, 2005
BEFORE THE STORM
For the players, coaches and staff of Tulane Athletics and all the residents of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, there was little warning that Hurricane Katrina would have a far-reaching effect on not only the fall 2005 semester, but on the rest of their lives. On Friday, August 26, the Green Wave volleyball and soccer teams opened their 2005 seasons on campus. The next morning, the Green Wave football team helped Tulane students move into their campus dormitories in an annual community service event. With classes not slated to start until Wednesday, August 31, the team's preseason workouts continued with practices Friday and Saturday, while Sunday's morning session at the Louisiana Superdome would take place prior to the team's annual Fall Fan Day.
Sunday, neither the practice, nor Fan Day, ever happened. By Friday night Hurricane Katrina, a massive (then) Category 3 storm, was taking a westward track directly toward New Orleans while continuing to strengthen. On Saturday afternoon, the university was closed and students arriving on campus for orientation were told to evacuate. Meanwhile, Tulane athletics administrators scrambled to secure buses to take the football and soccer teams to the university's evacuation home at Jackson State University in Jackson, Miss.
Sunday morning, Katrina was upgraded to Category 5 status while continuing on a track toward Tulane's home city. Even the most stubborn New Orleans residents headed for the highways. At 9:30 a.m., the mayor and governor ordered a mandatory evacuation of the region. Originally scheduled to depart campus at 12:30 p.m. Sunday on three buses, the Tulane football and soccer teams, coaches and staffs instead loaded onto two buses and several vans and pulled out at 10:30 a.m., leaving their cars and nearly all their belongings behind.
Like the players, the Green Wave equipment staff packed for the week, prepared to travel directly to the team's first game in Hattiesburg, if necessary. That game was scheduled for Sunday, Sept. 4 versus Southern Miss, but even the idea of going straight to the game seemed far-fetched.
Traffic along the evacuation route turned a four-hour drive to Jackson into a 10-hour odyssey. Still, after a 10-hour drive and a meal in their new temporary quarters at T.B. Ellis Gymnasium in Jackson, the team went through a late-night workout to prepare for Southern Miss.
After spending their first night in Jackson on air mattresses and sleeping bags, the two Tulane teams awoke Monday morning to a rainy, blustery day as the first gusts of Hurricane Katrina approached Jackson. Team members furiously took turns charging cell phones in the few electrical outlets available before the power went out for good that afternoon; soon, cell service to the area was almost completely cut off.
Still not knowing the status of their city and school, the team went through a workout inside the darkened gym, punctuated by "Beat Southern Miss" shouts. After a dinner of cold sandwiches and showers in the dark, temperatures in the gym rose and rain continued to beat down on the city. Then, in the middle of the night, a fire alarm sent everyone outside - in their pajamas, in the rain.
Within hours, transportation had been secured and the Green Wave were on another bus trip - this one eight hours long - to Dallas. At a rest stop in northern Louisiana, Tulane players caught their first glimpses of the wreckage in their home city; they saw the holes in the roof of their home stadium, flooded streets near their New Orleans neighborhoods and people being rescued off rooftops.
"They were talking about a guy on top of his roof," said Tulane quarterback Lester Ricard. "His wife in his right hand and his three babies in the other hand, and his wife is slipping. The current from the water was pulling her. And she said 'Just let me go and make sure my babies are safe.' I broke down in tears on that bus ride."
Yet as they arrived in Dallas at 3:30 a.m. Wednesday, unsure of their future, the status of their homes and university, and for some, of the fate of their relatives, they were grateful - for power, for air conditioning and for the opportunity to remain together.
"It's kind of like we're unfortunately fortunate," said Tulane defensive end Michael Purcell. "You go through emotions that we have so much to be grateful for. Then you go to your room and turn on CNN. Those images are personal to us."
As they returned to civilization and to communication with the outside world, the Tulane student-athletes and coaches checked in with family members for the first time. The team held its collective breath as six players awaited word on missing relatives, including Ricard's uncles, linebacker Brandon Spincer's brother and receiver Kenneth Guidroz' father. Others saw images of their New Orleans' neighborhoods on television or discovered that parents or grandparents had lost their homes. Assistant coaches living just blocks from the levee breaks feared, and realized, the worst.
Over the next two days, players walked around the hotel in a daze, surfing the internet for news and watching as images on television showed conditions in New Orleans deteriorating. Slowly, the possibility that the team might not be able to return to the city hit, along with the realization that this would not be a "normal" season.
"A lot of this is just settling in for all of us," Dickson said. "We're still absorbing everything that happened - the realization."
Meanwhile, the national media descended on the team as it became a visible symbol of Hurricane Katrina to the sports world. The city of Dallas and SMU reached out to the Green Wave, with invitations to Cowboys' and SMU football games, while restaurants around the city offered team meals. Other people and organizations dropped off clothes, toiletries and workout gear. The team escaped thoughts of New Orleans and questions about its future on the practice field each day at Dallas Jesuit High School.
By Friday, all of the players' relatives had been located. While many team members and staff still did not know the state of their homes or apartments, the knowledge that the team members and their families were all safe, viewed alongside the lasting images of devastation and desperation on television, made all other questions unimportant.
"THE TORCH, THE FACE, THE NAME"
As the team settled into its temporary headquarters at the Doubletree Campbell Center in Dallas, the status of the 2005 season, and of Tulane University, was still unknown. Tulane Athletic Director Rick Dickson awaited word from University President Scott Cowen, who had remained on the Tulane campus in New Orleans during the storm, as to whether the Green Wave teams would compete in 2005.
Late Friday, that word arrived. Cowen, in a university press release, announced that although no classes would be held on the Tulane campus during the fall semester, the Green Wave teams would continue to compete, to "carry the torch, be the face and represent the name" of Tulane University while its students, faculty and staff were displaced around the country.
"Every time Tulane athletics goes out there...it will remind people to say, 'this team and all the students are not at the university. They are, in a way, homeless," Cowen said. "[They] will be a constant reminder. And one of the things I want to make sure is that people in the United States don't forget the devastation that occurred to New Orleans and how people have been impacted by it now and for the rest of their lives."
Team members embraced the opportunity to play for a greater cause.
"It's something we want to do for New Orleans," Wave linebacker Antonio Mason said. "A lot of people look at us as not only representatives of Tulane, but of New Orleans. People can look at us and say, wow, look at that team. They're going on the road, going through all that adversity and still getting the job done."
"I told the team this isn't about winning or losing," Scelfo said. "At the end of the year, our message has to be that we persevered. If we go 11-0...if we go 0-11...they're not going to know our record. They're going to know we persevered. For the millions of people affected in our environment - the ones who survived - it's going to give them some hope."
Upon receiving the go-ahead to compete, Dickson and his administrative team went to work. Their immediate goal was to find a place where the entire athletic department could assemble, attend school and compete. They fielded calls from athletic directors around the country who offered dorm space, classes, office space and practice facilities.
Tulane first looked to Houston, home to a pair of Conference USA schools as well as the relocation site for thousands of Louisiana residents. In addition, Cowen and his administrative team had set up shop in the city. However, after a closer look, Dickson realized that Tulane would be unable to provide quality housing and transportation for 250-plus student-athletes for the entire semester in the enormous city.
In fact, it became apparent that no single site could accommodate the entire athletic department and all of its student-athletes, teams and services. The idea of setting up a series of temporary homes for Tulane student-athletes moved to the forefront. By Sunday night, Sept. 4, five schools had emerged as likely sites for Green Wave teams - Louisiana Tech, Texas Tech, Texas A&M, Rice and SMU. With school already underway, timing was critical. Tulane student-athletes needed to get into class and onto their new campuses as soon as possible. Dickson identified five priorities and stressed that the coaches and staff would concentrate exclusively on providing its student-athletes with these five necessities:
1. The Ability to Enroll in Classes
3. Food (through a university meal plan)
4. Access to Counseling
For the Tulane football team, Louisiana Tech University in Ruston offered all of the above with one advantage - the quarter system. Classes were not scheduled to start at Tech until Sept. 12th, meaning that the football team would not miss any class time. In addition, Tulane would have use of an empty dorm, the Bulldogs' practice fields and space in the school's basketball arena for video equipment, offices, a makeshift locker room, weight room and meeting rooms.
Similar arrangements were made for Tulane teams around the state of Texas. Baseball and women's basketball were welcomed at Texas Tech in Lubbock, men's and women's golf remained in Dallas at SMU along with Dickson and a small staff, while six teams - men's basketball, women's swimming & diving, men's and women's tennis, women's volleyball and women's soccer - headed to Texas A&M. Part of the women's track and field squad joined the football team in Ruston.
"I can't say enough about the outpouring of support we have received from every single person we have spoken to over the last several days," Dickson said. "Our priority was to continue to provide a high quality academic and athletic experience for our athletes. This plan could not have come together without their help."
Dickson announced the plan on Tuesday, Sept. 6, by which time many of Tulane's coaches and student-athletes were already heading for their temporary homes. Meanwhile, the football team, with its only open date of the season scheduled for that Saturday, remained in Dallas as final preparations were made for the move to Ruston.
EVERYTHING IS NEW -- TULANE SETTLES IN
On Thursday, Sept. 9, the Green Wave football team traveled to Ruston to view its new dorm, register for classes and go through a hastily-arranged orientation on the Louisiana Tech campus. Greeted by the Louisiana Tech band, as well as university president Dan Reneau, the Green Wave immediately felt welcomed.
After a final weekend in Dallas, during which many parents and family members visited the team for the first time since the evacuation, the Green Wave was on its way to Ruston where they moved into Caruthers Hall, albeit with few possessions of their own. The dorm, which had been taken off line by the university and scheduled for destruction, had been thoroughly cleaned. Mattresses for the beds had been carried into the dorm by Louisiana Tech football players and a La Tech sorority had provided new linens and towels for the Green Wave students.
In Caruthers, some of their neighbors were evacuees from New Orleans as the lower floors of the dorm were opened to family members of Tech employees who had evacuated the city. Their presence served as a reminder to the Tulane players, not only of how much things had changed, but of how fortunate they were and of what the season would represent.
Most of all, the chance to "settle in" at La Tech - where Green Wave seniors walked around campus with maps like freshmen - offered the chance to return to a routine.
"Probably the most heartfelt feeling I've had since I've been in athletics was when I woke up [Tuesday] and knew that we had a semblance of normalcy back in our lives," said Tulane Head Coach Chris Scelfo. "The players and coaches can't thank enough people. It would take us all day."
While the players adjusted to longer class periods and earlier practice times, Green Wave coaches and staff moved into apartments and homes donated by members of the community. The Thomas Assembly Center, home of the Tech Athletic Department, was reconfigured; an academic center was turned into the football offices and video area, and a storage room became the Wave's equipment room. Temporary walls were erected for meeting rooms, and a banquet hall was turned into the Green Wave's locker room.
And while the importance of the season and what it represented would not be forgotten, that first day at practice in their new temporary home at Louisiana Tech brought football back to the forefront.
"It was a great day," Scelfo said that day. "I thought the effort was good, but we were a little sluggish after five days off. The kids seemed to have a smile on their faces; it was the first time in five days the coaches have had some enthusiasm. It was great."
As the football team and staff prepared to move to Louisiana Tech and Dickson's five priorities were checked off, the Tulane athletic director turned his attention to competitive concerns, namely, finding a place for the Green Wave football team to play its six home games.
In consultation with Scelfo, he fielded calls from cities, stadiums and colleges around the country. Florida State, Alabama and Little Rock were just a few of the many to contact Dickson, offering the Green Wave a "home" for a day. Dickson considered several factors in deciding where the Green Wave would play: proximity to New Orleans and to Ruston, for the sake of both the team and its fans; the opportunity for the athletic department to maximize revenues despite not playing at "home"; and later, even simple considerations such as the ability to find hotel rooms in the host city. Tulane fans were spread from Houston to Dallas to Memphis to Florida and points beyond.
Still, 10 days before the Green Wave's first scheduled home game versus Mississippi State on Sept. 17, Tulane had not yet announced where it would play the Bulldogs.
That changed on Sept. 8 when Shreveport's Independence Stadium was announced as the site of the Tulane-Mississippi State game. As with all of its subsequent stadium arrangements, Tulane would receive all ticket proceeds from the game, while working with stadium management to minimize costs. Many workers volunteered to work the Tulane games for free.
"This game is important in our efforts to rebuild and maintain some stability and normalcy for our student athletes and staff," Dickson said in announcing the game. "Once we were given the charge by our president to carry the torch, be the face and represent the name of Tulane University, then the step-by-step process of putting our programs and student athletes and coaches in place took precedence. Now, the ability to compete will be symbolic."
As one site was announced, Dickson would go to work on the next. The day after the game in Shreveport, Tulane announced that it would play Southeastern Louisiana on Oct. 1 in Baton Rouge, although all "homecoming" activities originally scheduled for that date would be postponed. A week later, Lafayette became the site of the Oct. 8 contest versus Houston. A Friday night ESPN game with UTEP was scheduled for the Green Wave's temporary home in Ruston on Oct. 14. On Oct. 5, nearly a month prior to its Oct. 29 game versus Marshall, Mobile, Ala. was named as the only non-Louisiana game site for a Tulane 2005 "home" game. Tulane completed its 2005 schedule when Monroe, La. became the host site for the Green Wave's home finale versus Tulsa on Nov. 19.
In effect, Tulane would be playing 11 road games in 11 stadiums in 11 straight weeks in 2005. With its New Orleans fan base as well as its student population scattered, Tulane would play in front of sparse but spirited home crowds throughout the season.
Since the day they evacuated New Orleans, Tulane players, coaches and staff had learned to live day-to-day. Planning for the future meant the next week, not the next month. Once they found out where the next game would be played, questions like how will we get there, where will we stay and when will we travel still needed to be answered.
Shreveport, located just 70 miles from Tulane's temporary home in Ruston, turned out to be an "easy" trip for the Green Wave. The team took the hour-long bus ride to and from the stadium on game day, similar to a "normal" game. However, the Green Wave still looked like a team of evacuees wearing their practice cleats and plain green helmets with no logo. The coaching staff dressed in everyday practice coaching gear of shorts and T-shirts.
The following week, Tulane bused back to Dallas for a true road game at SMU, the team that had played host to the Green Wave during its evacuation. As plans to return to Dallas were made, another hurricane threatened to disrupt the Wave's season when Hurricane Rita bore down on the Texas/Louisiana coast. SMU moved the game from 6 p.m. to 1 p.m. to avoid the storm. Meanwhile, Tulane and SMU officials monitored Rita's progress and made plans for the team to spend the night at an SMU gym, just in case the path of the storm disrupted the team's trip back to Ruston.
Rita caused additional problems for the Green Wave over the next two weeks, filling already packed hotel rooms in Baton Rouge and Lafayette. For its "home" game versus Southeastern Louisiana in Baton Rouge, there seemed to be no answers. Every room within a two-hour radius of the state capital was filled.
Then Coach Scelfo decided to go home. By this time, Scelfo knew that his home had seen only limited damage from the storm and that his neighborhood, located on English Turn Golf Course, had power and running water. So Director of Football Operations Dennis Polian called English Turn to see if the team could "camp out" in its banquet room the night before the game.
English Turn agreed to serve as the overnight site for the Green Wave, warning only to get to the facility prior to the 6 p.m. curfew. On the ride to English Turn, the Tulane players caught their first in person glimpses of New Orleans for the first time since the hurricane. With only a few areas of the city open, the players were stunned to see their once vibrant community empty and lifeless. Tulane enjoyed one of its largest "home" crowds of the year in Baton Rouge as Green Wave fans in the area, as well as a large number of Tulane students and players' friends and families were able to see their team play, some for the first or only time. The Wave responded with a win to improve to 2-1 on the young season.
The next week brought new travel challenges. Lafayette, home of Louisiana-Lafayette, was also overwhelmed with evacuees from both Katrina and Rita and offered no hotel rooms for either team. With the game versus Houston scheduled for a 7 p.m. kickoff, Scelfo eschewed the air mattresses and decided his team would take a five-hour bus ride on the morning of the game. Despite playing Houston to a 7-7 tie in the first half, the Wave broke down in the second and fell 35-14 to the Cougars, then endured a five-hour bus ride home.
The following week's game in Ruston offered a welcome respite from the weekly travel schedule, but the Friday night ESPN game still demanded a short week for the weary Green Wave. UTEP scored the final 21 points of the game to hand Tulane its second straight loss. After three straight "home" road games, Tulane looked forward to a true road game in Orlando and planned a traditional road trip - a flight on Friday, hotel room stay on Friday night and return trip after Saturday night's game. But once again, Mother Nature intervened. This time, Hurricane Wilma lurked in the gulf, forcing UCF to move the game up to Friday night as the hurricane was expected to hit Florida late Saturday.
Once again, Tulane was forced to travel and play on the same day, although this time by air. Rain showers fell intermittently during the game, but Wilma remained safely offshore until Monday. Tulane could not get untracked, turning the ball over five times as UCF handed Tulane its third straight Conference USA loss. The Wave flew back to Monroe, La., then drove to Ruston, arriving at 2 a.m. The phrase "nothing is easy" characterized the Green Wave's trip to Mobile, Ala. for its next "home" game. Working with a low-cost charter group which offered the Wave a great rate on a flight to Mobile, Tulane got caught coming and going. First, Polian got a hurried call on Wednesday from the charter operator informing him that the team would have to leave for Mobile on Thursday for Saturday night's game. After the company agreed to pay for the extra night of hotel rooms, Polian informed the team and staff of the last-minute change in plans, called the hotel to arrange for the extra day of rooms and meals, gathered the group and packed everyone off to Mobile.
While the extra day was relaxing on the front end, the fact that the team did not arrive back in Ruston until 6 a.m. Sunday, certainly was not. After Marshall scored in the last three minutes of the game to earn a comeback win over the Green Wave, the Tulane team arrived at the airport in Mobile at 10 p.m., only to be told their airplane was delayed...and delayed...and delayed. After five-plus hours of waiting, the team finally boarded the plane at 3:30 a.m. Sunday. By the time they flew back to Monroe, loaded the equipment and drove to Ruston, it was 6 a.m.
By contrast, the Green Wave's trip to Navy ran with almost military precision. The most unusual feature of that particular road trip was the extreme generosity of the Naval Academy, which not only increased its guarantee by $50,000, thus picking up most of the charter cost, but also arranged for Tulane's team meals to be provided for free AND worked with the Wyndham Baltimore to provide the Green Wave traveling party with free hotel rooms. The Naval Academy Foundation provided each member of the team with a gift bag containing snacks, clothing and toiletries. Unfortunately, the generosity did not carry over to the playing field and, after falling behind 28-0 in the first quarter, the Green Wave dropped their fifth straight game, 49-21.
After games at Rice in Houston, versus Tulsa in Monroe in the last of Tulane's six "home" games, and at Southern Miss in Hattiesburg, Tulane will have played 11 games in 11 stadiums in 11 weeks. The game in Monroe will mark "Senior Day" for a remarkable group of 16 Green Wave seniors. With the season finale in Hattiesburg on Nov. 26, Tulane will have, in a way, come full circle. After all, back on August 28 as they left for Jackson, the Green Wave imagined Hattiesburg would be their NEXT destination this season, not their last.
THE GOOD IN PEOPLE
Throughout the Hurricane Katrina ordeal, Tulane student-athletes, coaches, staff and administrators have been buoyed by an overwhelming outpouring of support from the college athletics community.
The list is staggering. Training rooms sent tape, coolers and other supplies; volleyball teams sent uniforms; opponents paid for meals or handed Tulane coaches a check; tournament hosts provided free room and board, or like Navy, picked up the tab for Tulane teams' trips to their locales. Mississippi State donated its entire football guarantee -- $200,000 - to the Green Wave cause. In Dallas, SMU and Conference USA opened their doors to the Green Wave - feeding them at their dining hall, doing laundry and making their weight room available. UAB did the same for the Tulane soccer team.
At Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Louisiana Tech and SMU, Tulane student-athletes and staff members were "adopted" by their hosts, with fans, pep bands and cheerleaders showing up for volleyball matches, women's basketball games; former President George H.W. Bush was among the crowd at a Katrina "Fundraiser" Tennis Tournament in College Station. Staff members were provided with living quarters, offices, phone lines, computers, courtesy cars and more. Student-athletes were offered the use of bikes to make it easier to traverse the large campuses.
"It's unbelievable that we are able to open offices, conduct practices, have an athletic department," said director of equipment operations Pete Maglieri. "It's a credit to us, but also to the people [at A&M]. There are no strangers here. Whatever we need, it's found for us."
The same was true at all of Tulane's temporary homes, and at the Tulane football game sites as well. Without a host school in Shreveport, the staff of Conference USA acted as hosts for the Wave's first "home" game; in Mobile, nearly the entire media relations staff of Southern Miss traveled two hours to serve as the Green Wave stat crew, while the South Alabama staff pitched in to help too.
The athletics staffs at LSU, Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana Tech and Louisiana-Monroe treated the Tulane home game as their own - arranging for everything from ushers and ticket takers to the chain crew, scoreboard operators and public address announcer.
Equipment companies small and large sent clothes, uniforms, strings for tennis rackets, swimming caps, sports bras and more. Golf courses in Dallas opened their facilities to the Tulane squads. From sweats, to collared shirts to practice gear, replacement items poured in as the originals sat in water in New Orleans, or were overtaken by mold.
"This isn't about professionalism," said Dickson of the response from the college athletics world, "it's about humanitarianism. I'll never in my lifetime be able to express the amount of appreciation we have."
Although the losses have piled up and the national spotlight no longer shines on Tulane Football, at least to the extent it did immediately after the evacuation, the Green Wave's saga goes on.
Tulane remains a team without a home. Four assistant coaches have no homes to return to, players' off-campus apartments and dorm rooms flooded and many have no idea where they will live in New Orleans come January. The Wave's home stadium, the Louisiana Superdome, suffered extensive damage during the storm, as did the home of Tulane Athletics, the James W. Wilson Center. In fact, the first floor of the Wilson Center, which houses the football locker room, training room, weight room, academic center and ticket office, was nearly a total loss as four feet of water filled the facility. The Green Wave's practice fields were covered by floodwaters.
But on December 18th, the Tulane women's basketball team will play in their home arena in New Orleans, with the men at home on December 27th. On January 17th, classes will begin on the Tulane campus. The university is working to provide housing for its students while preparing for orientation and has even created a "lagniappe" (or extra) semester so that students can catch up on missed credits. A crew of workers is in the Wilson Center beginning the restoration process, tearing out carpet, walls and sheet rock so that the athletic department can return in early January.
Challenges, some large, remain. Unable to play a true home schedule, Tulane lost hundreds of thousands of dollars this football season. New Orleans will be a vastly different place than the one the buses left on Aug. 28th. Through it all, coaches have continued to recruit, student-athletes have continued to compete, and Tulane Athletics has grown as a family while continuing to live its core academic and athletic values. On Nov. 19, Tulane will bid farewell to 17 football seniors and this February, a new group of football recruits will sign to play football for the Green Wave. The cycle goes on.