Lewis: UNO rebirth gets going

NEW ORLEANS — Dale Hoffpauir has been around UNO since it was still called Louisiana State University at New Orleans and the Chamber of Horrors was just a gym without a name.

That’s why his voice was almost choked with emotion before Friday’s basketball doubleheader at Lakefront Arena that doubled as a celebration of the Privateers’ sometimes torturous path back to Division I.

“This is like a resurrection,” said Hoffpaiur, who retired in 2000 after 31 years in the Health & P.E. department and has worked uninterrupted with the basketball scoreboard crew since 1969, the first year of athletics at the school. “There’s been some turbulent times.

“But we never quit.”

Actually, the athletic department prefers “renaissance” to “resurrection,” but the message is the same.

After the school announced in 2009 that it was dropping to Division III in the wake of post-Katrina budget problems and then shifting its intentions to Division II, new President Peter Fos determined earlier this year the school would remain in D-I after all.

To some, it might have seemed too little too late to save an athletic program that used to matter in the city from its decline into total oblivion.

But Friday, even though the turnout was modest for the women’s game against Northwestern State followed by the men’s game against San Jose State, Lakefront Arena had the look of a first-class D-I facility.

There was a new court with a silhouette of the school logo replacing the old Privateer head, new banners commemorating past postseason appearances by the basketball teams, an LED display board, and, most importantly, Southland Conference insignias on either end of the court. UNO will join the league in 2013 after spending this year a Division I independent.

To first-year athletic director Derek Morel, that was the final piece of the puzzle.

“To me, that was the most significant thing to happen to this program in years,” said Morel, a West Bank native came to UNO from Wake Forest. “It gives us an identity, and it gives our student-athletes something to work for.”

The Southland, Morel added, also is a realistic level for a football team, which Fos has said is part of his long-term athletic vision for the school, especially as a drawing card for increasing enrollment.

But first, the rest of the department must be rebuilt.

While UNO is back to the D-I minimum of 14 sports this year, the department is still understaffed, lacking, among other things, a compliance director, an academic support director, a senior women’s administrator and a strength coach, although there’s an ongoing hiring process for all of them.

The Privateers could use fans, too. Not many folks are born bleeding Blue & Silver, and as Morel said, presumably unintentionally, he meets people who “admit” they’re UNO grads.

“We know when people see we’re doing things the right way they’ll come out,” he added.

Maybe the students, too.

UNO’s chapter of Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity used Friday’s pregame festivities outside the arena as a way to invite alums back to campus.

“It’s going to take some time to build it back up,” said junior Brandon Bonds from Baton Rouge. “But now that the confusion’s over, you’re going to see more people caring.”