From Chaos, Conference USA

Conference Commissioner Britton Banowsky talks about the days and decisions in Katrina's wake

Tulane's Jovon Jackson and his teammates will return to the field on Sept. 17 in Shreveport's Independence Stadium.

Tulane's Jovon Jackson and his teammates will return to the field on Sept. 17 in Shreveport's Independence Stadium.

Sept. 11, 2005

By Jessica Garrison

CSTV.com

 

College sports commissioners have plenty of worst nightmares, NCAA rule violations and corruption among them. The destruction and devastation of Hurricane Katrina, however, makes those nightmares pale in comparison, as schools and their communities were virtually wiped off the map by the storm's fury.

 

At a time when college sports seemed like the least important consideration, CUSA commissioner Britton Banowsky and Tulane University leaders thought differently - as a result, sports have become the symbol of the survival of Tulane, even as the school's students scatter around the country

 

With the magnitude of disaster that Katrina created, "there are contingency plans for keeping people alive," Banowsky said. "There are no contingency plans for how you keep a sports program alive."

 

Banowsky was at the center of the effort to do both those things - to find new homes and relief for the student athletes displaced by the storm, and to determine whether it was advisable, even possible, to continue their fall seasons. Now, it seems, the Tulane show will go on. On the road, in fact.

 

Blown Apart

 

CUSA officials knew that Katrina was going to dramatically affect the New Orleans area. Banowsky was out of the area for meetings, but flew back soon after the storm hit.

 

Banowsky remembers spending all day Tuesday trying to contact Tulane AD Rick Dickson to no avail. Dickson eventually got a call out to Banowsky by collecting cell phones of his group of evacuees and trying each of them until one non-local number got through (all cell phones with the 504 New Orleans area code had been rendered useless). Dickson and almost 600 other members of the Tulane community (more than 100 student-athletes among them) were holed up in a gym at Jackson State College in Mississippi.

 

Dickson and the Tulane football team had followed a plan that sent them to Jackson, where they thought they would be out of the storm's path, safe enough to practice there and head to Hattiesburg for the scheduled season opener against Southern Miss. But Katrina reached Jackson as well, battering the city. They had escaped a Category 5 only to be faced with Category 3 force.

 

In Jackson, "they had 100 inflatable beds for 600 people," Banowsky said. "There was one guy making pizza for them, but when they lost power there was no more hot food." The group watched through glass double doors into the gym as a church across the street blew away.

 

Banowsky, meanwhile worked with the president of Southern Methodist University, R. Gerald Turner, in Dallas, to relocate the evacuees there. Busses came from Dallas all the way to Jackson to pick up the team and bring them back.

 

The evacuees arrived in Dallas before dawn on Wednesday morning. Banowsky remembers them tired -- worn out with little or no sleep -- and hungry. They ate, then they slept, but even in relative safety there was still a shock awaiting them when they woke up.

 

Cut off from phone service and all power, the student athletes had missed all of the news and images the rest of the country had been watching. From their hotel, they saw the scenes of their school, their homes and possessions, destroyed.

 

Pulling Together

 

The first concern of the Tulane coaches and CUSA officials was to restore whatever sense of normalcy they could to the student-athletes' lives.

 

"We got them into a practice routine at SMU," Banowsky said. "Everyone stepped up. Jerry Jones stepped up and they went to a Cowboys' game Thursday night."

 

By Friday, Banowsky started to make contact with Tulane's administrators, who had evacuated to Houston to plan from there. Tulane President Scott Cowen immediately made a global agreement for enrollment of Tulane students at other schools, regardless of their grades or status, forgiving tuition payments they had already made to Tulane. Cowen made the decision to cancel classes for the fall semester, allowing students to immediately begin taking advantage of the open enrollment agreement wherever they had settled after evacuating. Student athletes in spring sports who had not reported to campus had long since been told to stay away from New Orleans, but the fall athletes' fate was still an open question.

 

"It became apparent that we could keep these teams together and even play," Banowsky said, with a quiet air of triumph in his voice. Continuing the fall season would give Tulane a public face even with the campus deserted, keeping one part of the university community alive while the rest healed. The difficult decision, in hindsight, was not whether to keep fall sports alive, but how to make it happen.

 

Originally, CUSA officials hoped to take advantage of offers from the University of Houston and Rice to take all of Tulane's athletes and consolidate them into one community that operated over the two universities. The city of Houston, however, has been inundated with evacuees - by some estimates, an extra 100,000 people have populated the city in a matter of days. Houston and Rice had the classroom space, but the city did not have the bed space to house the student-athletes.

 

Instead, Tulane teams have been dispersed between four schools: men's and women's golf at SMU, Texas A&M playing host to men's basketball, volleyball, soccer and swim teams, Texas Tech has become home to women's basketball and baseball, and Louisiana Tech, with a recently closed dorm available for reopening, took in the Green Wave football team.

 

Now that each teams' basic needs are being met, officials are turning their attention to the many details still left unresolved - everything from practice and game sites to team uniforms has to be replaced. In the case of Tulane football, the team's season opener with Southern Miss. was postponed, and the Green Wave will open their season in Shreveport, La., where they will "play host" to Mississippi State in the Independence Bowl on Saturday night, an hour from their new home in Ruston. The "Big Game for the Big Easy" will be telecast live on CSTV.

 

Other concerns, such as student-athletes defecting to other schools in the wake of the disaster, were taken up by the NCAA. Under the direction of Miles Brand, the NCAA kept the league's strict transfer rules in effect, declaring "athletic looting" of affected schools intolerable.

 

"The college athletics community is a family that takes care of each other," Banowsky said. Indeed, in addition to the offers of housing and enrollment that schools have tendered, some schools are offering financial help. Mississippi State, for example, has given back its money guarantee for playing Tulane. The $200,000 guarantee and the ticket sale money from Saturday's game will go right back to rebuilding the Green Wave campus.

 

Beyond these logistical decisions, "it's all the human side here," Banowsky said. Although no athlete or coach connected to Tulane has reportedly lost a close family member in the disaster, Banowsky and other officials "became aware that there would be an emotional impact, needs of these people that had to be met." With help from other university experts, officials are also looking into broad strategy for counseling.

 

For now, "No coaches, to my knowledge, disagreed" with the decision to continue the Tulane season, Banowsky said. "The kids are unbelievable. That team is strong."

 

Strong enough to survive their own worst nightmare.

 

Jessica Garrison is an Assistant Editor for CSTV.com and will be on assignment in Louisiana this week. She can be reached here with comments or questions.

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