NEW ORLEANS (AP) - The University of New Orleans is being granted membership to the Southland Conference, marking another major step for an athletics program that has struggled to stay afloat since Hurricane Katrina.
League and school officials have scheduled an official announcement Thursday. Former UNO basketball standout Gabe Corchiani, now one of the program's top boosters, says officials have already disclosed the decision to him.
"It's wonderful. It's a big step for University of New Orleans athletics because of the predicament the university has been in for the last year and a half," Corchiani said. "It's going to be a great day for the university to go ahead and put a foot forward in the rebuilding process, staying Division I and now getting into a good conference."
UNO has fielded Division I sports for decades and its history includes appearances in the NCAA men's basketball tournament and the College World Series.
Shortly after the storm, Corchiani was instrumental in renovating Lakefront Arena with a new court, locker rooms and basketball office, including a theater-style room for reviewing video.
However, university finances as a whole after Katrina became so tight that officials drafted an unpopular plan to leave the Sun Belt Conference and switch to Division III, which does not offer athletic scholarships.
After the NCAA had approved that step, the university changed course and applied instead for Division II. The NCAA approved that change as well, but before the transition was complete, the university got new leadership with the hiring of President Peter Fos and Athletic Director Derek Morel.
Fos and Morel said they believed that remaining in Division I was in the school's best long-term interest.
"Derek has done a wonderful job," Corchiani said. "So has Dr. Fos in hiring a good, credible athletic director who is enthusiastic enough to go ahead and say, `Hey, we don't need the university going to D-II. We need to keep it at D-I, where it's been so many years and has been successful in the past. We need to be able to build on that."'
Corchiani said the Southland Conference is an ideal fit because fellow league members Nicholls State and Southeastern Louisiana offer natural rivals within driving distance, which should save on travel costs while boosting attendance.
"Playing those types of schools can build your attendance," said Corchiani, "And every person in a seat is valuable to a university trying to build a program again."