Players and coaches from the Tulane and New Orleans baseball programs have retreated to Texas Tech and New Mexico State, respectively, as they attempt to regroup after Hurricane Katrina flooded their city. The host schools have provided dormitories, food and practice facilities to their guests and allowed the students to enroll in fall classes.
Tulane coach Rick Jones and New Orleans coach Tom Walter each offered strong praise for the administration and athletic departments at their schools and the host institutions.
Most of Tulane's players flew from Dallas to Texas Tech's Lubbock campus Sept. 6 and began classes three days later. Jones said all of his 37 players would be in class by Sept 12. None of Tulane's coaches lost their homes to the flood, and they expect their wives and children to join them in Lubbock soon.
New Orleans players will fly Saturday from Baton Rouge, La., to New Mexico State in Las Cruces, N.M., on a private jet owned by Russ Ramsey, the CEO of Ramsey Asset Management. Ramsey, a George Washington alumnus, befriended current New Orleans coach Tom Walter during Walter's tenure at GW. Ramsey stocked the plane with toiletries, bedding and school supplies as well.
"It's going to be good to have a home again," Walter. "I think we're all getting tired of just watching CNN everyday."
The New Orleans coaches plan to stay in dorms with the players. Walter's children went with his wife to her parents' home in Milan, Mich., and began school there. He said they had "pretty much written off" their home as a flood casualty.
Not every player decided to re-join their teams, but the defections haven't come in large numbers and there hasn't been any of the player poaching that reportedly threatens UNO's basketball team.
"We were worried about (losing a lot of players), but the kids have been great. They've got that foxhole mentality," Walter said. "They were like let's (get to New Mexico State), we need to get back together."
Catcher Paul Smyth, a senior from Temecula, Calif., who transferred to New Orleans last season from Cypress (Calif.) Junior College, returned to California in hopes of enrolling at a state school and walking on to a baseball team there. Two other players left the program, but Walter said each had discussed leaving school for unrelated reasons prior to Katrina. Left-hander Scooter Hicks, a freshman from Houston, was the only Tulane player who opted not to return.
"The kids said, 'Coach, wherever you are, we're going to be there. We signed to be at Tulane and we want to be there and play for you,' " said Jones, who stayed with family in Cary, N.C., after evacuating.
After getting their teams back together and acclimated to their new environments, the coaching staffs have to update plans for luring future players. Recruiting just got a bit harder.
"Has it been complicated a little bit? Absolutely," said Mark Kingston, Tulane associate head coach and recruiting coordinator. "When the dust settles, Tulane will still have been ranked No. 1 for weeks last year and still offers a top 50 education ...
"Every contact we have had so far the player has said, 'Coach we're with you 100 percent.' They want to come visit us at Texas Tech. They want to be a part of Tulane, whether it's in California or Texas. I'm very encouraged by our commitments."
Tulane looked to be in prime recruiting position coming off a season in which it won a school-record 56 games, advanced to the College World Series and held the No. 1 ranking for nine weeks. It started a renovation project at Turchin Stadium in July that included a new press box, concession stands, covered seating and private suites. A levee break put the field and the campus under about 2 feet of water.
"It's changed dramatically, but it's changed dramatically for everyone in the New Orleans area," Jones said. "The momentum of our program was at its highest level, and all of a sudden we take an impact that's unprecedented."
Because New Orleans' campus sits at a higher elevation, its campus didn't receive much damage. Maestri Field is dry and its scoreboard still stands. Still, second-year coach Walter knows the damage to the city and the images of it people watched on TV might sway players' opinions as he attempts to put together his first full recruiting class with the Privateers, who went 20-39 in 2004.
"There's no doubt it's going to hurt," he said. "This was really our first class -- we got in a little late last year and had to go more the JC route. We're going to be up against it with these kids. I haven't even tried to call them yet. I wanted to see where our team was going to be first.
"We certainly understand if you've got other interests. Some of the kids on the fence, I think it's going to be tough. If they're going to choose the other (school), I certainly understand that."
Jones, Walter and everyone associated with the two programs are looking forward to the upcoming season. Tulane and New Orleans should be able to conduct fall practice at their host schools and fully expect to be back on campus in time for the regular season. And any time spent on the field should provide a welcome respite from the worry and uncertainty they've faced recently.
Once on the field, they're no longer hurricane survivors, just players and coaches.
"When we left Rosenblatt Stadium after the Baylor loss last year, I really felt we could come back this year," Jones said. "Nothing's changed. Nobody's going to feel sorry for us out there playing. We're not going to feel sorry for ourselves."