NEW ORLEANS — A year into the job and New Orleanian Derek Morel has yet to hang the first picture in his office at the UNO Athletic Center, a small, nondescript building near an old, majestic oak at the corner of Franklin and Lakeshore Drive.
Blank walls are the least of his problems.
The 42-year-old athletic director and father of three has been given a Herculean assignment from UNO President Peter J. Fos, an impossible mission a cynic might say.
Simply put, Morel is charged with helping a once floundering athletic department make a smooth re-entry into the world of NCAA Division I sports, beginning in August as a new dues-paying member of the Southland Conference.
“Friends in the business have asked me, ‘Is UNO rebuilding?’ ’’ said Morel, a graduate of Archbishop Shaw and LSU who has held senior leadership jobs at Georgia, Pittsburgh, St. Bonaventure, Tulane and Wake Forest. “I tell them it’s not rebuilding, it’s a new construction. We are pouring the slab, and we’re building this thing from the ground up.
“We have a blank canvass to kind of re-create this thing and make it as great as it can be. We want to embrace our great history. But, we also want to create a new path for the kids who are here now, the prospective student-athletes who will be here in the future and for our alumni. We have some 40,000 in the metro area alone, and we want all of them to be proud of our school.’’
A quick glance at the win-loss records of the Privateers’ bread-and-butter programs this season suggests Morel has his work cut out for him. Consider:
On a positive note, of UNO’s 14 sports, a school-record 10 sports posted team grade-point average of 3.0 and higher in the fall semester.
“I know Dr. Fos wants to win as much as anybody; so do I,’’ Morel said. “Being from New Orleans, it would be great to be part of the renaissance of this university and the program.
“Knowing how important this university is to the city and how important this city is to the university, I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a little fire burning inside of me to get it going in the right direction.’’
Morel recently sat down in a far-ranging interview and discussed the past 12 months and the present and future of UNO athletics under his leadership.
You have a three-year contract as athletic director, and May 18 marks your one-year anniversary. Give yourself a grade on a scale of A through F.
Morel: I would say a C or B minus. Every day we as a department have gotten better, not because of me, but because we are a team. Some days are better than others, but we have turned the corner on a lot of things.
Joining the Southland Conference for starters. We were lucky. Within the first week on the job, I’m in Galveston (Texas) with Dr. Fos and (UNO men’s basketball coach) Mark Slessinger petitioning for membership in this league. Most schools don’t have that opportunity after going through such a tumultuous time as we did. That two-year hiatus away from Division I was a setback for the whole university. It was a setback for athletics certainly. This is the change we need to push us forward.
Would you be at UNO today if it had not rejoined the ranks of NCAA Division I?
I would not have been interested in the job had Dr. Fos not made that commitment and if that commitment had not been firm. My entire career has been in Division I. But it was a not a shoo-in that we would be taken in by the Southland Conference.
What were their concerns?
There were questions of us like ... how do we know there won’t be more financial issues. ... how do we know UNO can support Division I? And so on. Here I am a week into my job ... I wasn’t even under contract yet. As we drove to Galveston from Houston, we thought, ‘what if this doesn’t happen?’ What then? We can’t go to the WAC (Western Athletic Conference)? That’s a fine conference, but we can’t afford that. That became a viable option after the fact. But we sold UNO to the Southland Conference, largely because of our New Orleans market. We definitely played on that because we couldn’t play on what we had accomplished as a university in the last few years as a reason why they should take this.
How important in the big picture was it for UNO to join the Southland Conference?
It is the most critical thing we have gotten accomplished in the last four years, maybe since Hurricane Katrina.
Because of identity. We are a part of something now. We are part of a group that is like us. We are competing against schools with like issues, like challenges and like successes and competing against schools where a lot of people in New Orleans have sent their children or attended themselves. So the rivalries are natural, and travel becomes a little bit easier. But we are associated with a league that has an established tradition over a long period of time with good name recognition.
Because of that two-year hiatus from Division I, have you essentially been forced to start from scratch in the athletic department?
Yes. The ground is fertile now. We embrace the good part, the historical tradition, that’s a key part of who we are. I came to games when coach (Ron) Maestri was in the third base coaching box. I came to games when Benny Dees was on the sidelines (in basketball). I remember what it was like and how people in the city associated with the school.
I knew where we’ve been, and I know people care about this school. I just didn’t expect there was so much loss; the absence of fan support, the absence of donors, the absence of alumni who care.
So how do you erase the apathy and re-energize those lost fans and donors?
We have to make visual change because people have to believe in us, and they have to see that we are not going back to where we were. With that, you have to make an investment.
If finances are involved, then you have to make decisions like to renovate the baseball facility, which we’re doing for $3 million, or re-design our basketball court, which we’re doing. We had two logos removed in the middle of our basketball court.
Speaking of logos, I understand UNO is going to introduce a new logo soon?
We are going through a re-branding campaign. I can’t tell you, but we’ll have something to announce before July 1 in conjunction with our first year in the Southland Conference. Our colors will stay the same. We need people to be excited about us.
Is a Division I football program at UNO a pipe dream?
No, not at all. We’d love to be part of the Southland Conference in football. But as we’re building we have to be strategic about when that’s going to happen. I’m sure our student body of approximately 10,500 would vote overwhelmingly to have Division I football. Every student body wants it. Dr. Fos wants it; I want it. But we also understand the financial investment is significant, and we’ve got to be a little healthier before we tackle that sport. Certainly, right now, today it would be a challenge for us from an infrastructure standpoint. Sure, I could put a plan in place in four hours but it would take three-to-five years from the point of announcement to get it off the ground. We have said — and we stand by it — that football is part of the long-term strategic plan at UNO, part of the long-term vision. What long-term means is hard to say because our admissions team is being put in place, and we have to grow the student body. I could say that we could start football and that would be the catalyst behind growing the enrollment but that’s a major multi-million dollar investment right out of the gate. Right now, it’s all about priorities.
You have a solid reputation as a fundraiser. Are you making inroads in that department?
Once our shop is in order, I can spend more time focused on that. We’ve got to get fund-raising moving in the right direction. People are going to give when they feel connected, when they feel engaged, when they feel like there is growth. I always believe that people want to be part of a progressive organization. When they see positive change, they want to get on board.
We need to show people that the University of New Orleans is not going anywhere. That we’re back, and this whole thing is moving forward. We want to show the public and the community that UNO is important to our city and the city is important to us and we want to be bonded. We want our alumni to feel pride and an attachment.