When the Louisiana State University Board of Supervisors voted to allow the University of New Orleans to pursue dropping from Division I to Division III sports, the vote, with only one dissent, must have been delightful for the supervisors. The LSU Board had long ago established its willingness to diminish UNO whenever it can.

As a Division I university, UNO plays in the lower ranks of the highest level of college sports. In Division III, where there are no scholarships and little funding, the level doesn’t get any lower. As Joe Pasternak, UNO’s head basketball coach, says, “Division III is a glorified intramural team.”

There are some genuine cost concerns behind the move. The university, already bleeding financially, would save an estimated $2.5 million per year. Also, attendance at UNO games, through goods times and bad, has usually been poor.

In modern America a sports identity is part of a university’s signature. It is why Harvard plays Yale or Army plays Navy. That identity has schools being shown on ESPN highlight reels and their names on crawls at the bottom of the screen.

There are compelling arguments that retreating to Division III isn’t all that it seems. One of our readers, writing anonymously but who’s obviously knowledgeable on the matter, dealt with the subject in a message to our Web site:

People who don’t know any better always think Division III is the answer, only seeing the ‘no scholarships’ part and none of the rest. Like scheduling: Who will they play? How many Division III schools are there in the vicinity? …

And to be competitive at even the Division III level, they are still going to have to attract student-athletes, which is more difficult without scholarships, so does the recruiting budget go up? And even though there are no ‘athletic scholarships’ per se, most D-III schools give ‘performance awards’ or whatever they choose to call them, so they aren’t saving that much on scholarships. This doesn’t even begin to touch on the loss of prestige and therefore school morale that results from such a precipitous drop in stature of the athletic program.

Schools who do this almost always regret it almost instantly, and frequently return to Division I status at a greater cost than it would have been to maintain the program they had in the first place (Villanova and their ill-conceived decision to drop football in the 1970s comes to mind).

Like it or not, athletics are an integral part of college in America. Period. Nobody expects the Chemistry program to make money; the fact that athletics brings in money and students should count for something, even if the gate doesn’t cover the cost of the sport.

I’m amazed that a board that clearly does not have UNO’s best interests at heart is allowed to govern it. Another example of Louisiana governance at its finest.

 If a funding package cannot be found to save UNO athletics than the sports program should be allowed to decline.

(With that UNO will be playing at the lowest level of all the state’s four year public universities.) But where’s the Privateer spirit? Where’s the fight? In February, the UNO administration, which is behind the downsizing proposal, is supposed to present a transition plan to the LSU Board. Time is wasting. We need a special committee to come up with a plan. Make former UNO Athletic Director Ron Maestri the nominal head, but get some big names with access to money. Present a plan to rescue the university.

UNO’s importance to this community is practically beyond comprehension. It isn’t enough to say that the university gave New Orleans a middle class (which it did) but it did so by being a damn good school despite the indifference of its parent governing board.

UNO is about New Orleans – it’s about us. We won’t get leadership from City Hall so it’s going to have come from the private sector.

Please someone take the lead – do it for the city, the university and for pride and, by the way, do it to ruin the Board of Supervisors’ day.

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