In the wake of a 7-44 baseball season and a change in command, University of New Orleans officials swung for the fences Tuesday with the rehiring of former Privateers’ coaching legend, Ron Maestri.
Though contract details have yet to be finalized, the 72-year-old Maestri was introduced at an afternoon news conference inside a jam-packed Privateer Room at Lakefront Arena.
Maestri, who will step down as executive director and chief operating officer of the New Orleans Zephyrs, last coached the Privateers in 1984 when they finished fifth at the College World Series. He succeeds Bruce Peddie, who was fired May 31 after going 40-161 in four seasons.
Initially a member of the school’s search committee, Maestri became the overwhelming choice of UNO President Dr. Peter J. Fos and Athletic Director Derek Morel after they completed the interview process with an unspecified number of finalists.
Tuesday’s announcement comes one day after UNO officially rejoined the ranks of NCAA Division I as a new member of the Southland Conference.
“This (hire) was more than about wins and losses,’’ Morel said. “Right now, it’s more than about balls and strikes. This is about a program and the foundation for a program. What does that mean? We can field a team tomorrow. (But) we need to build a program which has deep roots and takes time and effort and commitment and will lead to consistency, stability and a championship mentality for years to come.
“As we looked at it,’’ Morel continued, “we decided we need more than a baseball coach right now. We need somebody who is going to make a difference in our community, who’s going to make a difference for our university and who’s going to lead us to championships in the very near future.
“It was clear that there was really one man who can do that. We believe this is a great move for our university, a great move for our program and a great move for the community and our city as we raise the profile of the University of New Orleans and raise the profile of our baseball program.’’
Maestri spent nearly 30 minutes Tuesday retracing the steps he took during his 30-year tenure at UNO as coach (1970-84) and athletic director (1979-2000). Addressing family members, friends, athletic supporters, school administrators and former and current Privateer players, Maestri explained his decision for returning to college coaching.
Under Maestri, the Privateers went 518-247-1 (.677 winning percentage) and never had a losing season in 14 campaigns. The Privateers qualified nine times for NCAA Tournaments and became the first Division I school from Louisiana to reach the College World Series.
“Why am I back?’’ said Maestri, a member of the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame. “Well, I’m back because this is where I spent 30 years of my previous life; 30 years of building a great tradition with the help of these guys in the room. I’m back because I believe in Dr. Fos and his administration and Derek Morel and what they want to do.
“I have no idea what our schedule is. I don’t know who’s coming back. I don’t know who we’ve recruited but I can tell you one thing — I am excited and I’m going to give you guys the best that I’ve got and hopefully it will be more than a few more years. I’m back because I want to give something back.’’
Morel said he is working on a multi-year contract for Maestri, who gave no clear indication how long he wants to coach.
“This partnership is in place as long as it takes to get this right,’’ Morel said. “He’s committed to that and we’re committed to that.’’
“I want to do this as long as I’m physically capable,’’ Maestri said. “I still got a lot of zip and the Good Lord has been kind to me. if I can keep my health I want to do it as long as I can, as long as I can help this program. When I really feel we got it on a good, solid basis, and the time comes to move aside, then I’ll do it gladly.’’
At 72, Maestri is among the oldest college baseball coaches but not the oldest. That distinction is believed to belong to Wayne Graham of Rice University who turned 77 on April 6.
“I got a call from AARP last week and they’ve signed me to a five-year deal and I think that’s a hell of thing,’’ Maestri joked. “If I’d have known that this was going to happen I’d have applied for the Auburn (baseball) job because that guy is getting paid $650,000! I cannot believe it: I told Dr. Fos I want one more dollar than he’s got.
“It wasn’t about the money. I’m back because we got to get that Privateer Pride back. This is going to be fun. We’ve got a lot of work. But with all of us pulling together, and it’s all about team, we are going to do something and we’re going to have fun doing it.’’
The fun officially begins Feb. 14-15 with home-and-home games scheduled against LSU. The Privateers will play at Alex Box Stadium on Feb. 14 and the teams will play at UNO the next day to mark the unveiling of the $3 million renovation at Maestri Field at Privateer Park.
LSU coach Paul Mainieri, a former player at UNO under Maestri, said he planned to throw ace right-hander Aaron Nola on opening night.
“This isn’t going to be easy,’’ Maestri said. “I didn’t think it was going to be easy. I didn’t take it because it was going to be easy. But I’ll tell you what, it’s a hell of a lot easier than when I started here at UNO in 1971.’’