BOWLING GREEN, Ohio - There was a time when independents roamed the college basketball landscape, happily feeding off the crumbs of the conferences, some of whom did so extremely successfully, content and able to do their own thing. Notre Dame? Brigham Young? These were big, strong forces that could compete for national titles on good years.
The nomads are largely extinct, though, confined to museums and stories from ancient relatives which may or may not be apocryphal.
I recently got an e-mail telling me that there were a couple of independents might still exist, although they wouldn't for long. Finally, on Feb. 21, after months of searching, I shockingly found one in the wild Thursday night in Bowling Green.
It wasn't a pretty sight, the last independent looked small and barely getting by. Clearly, it wouldn't survive long, and that might be it. As tough as it was, at least I can say I saw a real-live independent basketball team. The question is, will anyone believe me in 20 years when I tell them? Well, for posterity sake, here goes nothing:
The University of New Orleans wasn't directly hit by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but it took an indirect wallop, a previously booming student population suddenly gutted. With revenue down to a trickle, the powers-that-be needed to make budget cuts, and athletics were an obvious target. Who could blame them, really? Students needed books and professors before they need sports, right? So in November, 2009, New Orleans announced they were reclassifying to Division III (later Division II).
Little did they know, Division I athletics is a little like the mafia, you try to get out, but they pull you back in.
The break wasn't as clean as those with only a rudimentary understanding of college athletics would think. What to do with scholarships? Coaching contracts? Tradition?
Pressure built, administrations changed, the university started to get back closer to pre-Katrina enrollment levels, and last March, New Orleans announced they weren't completing the transition after all, it was going to stay in Division I. Their timing was good, with conference realignment, it took only five months to get scooped up by the Southland Conference (they used to be in the Sun Belt).
(You can't help but feel for former coach Joe Pasternack
, who made news for the wrong reason last year
, and his players, who all left, only to see the school reverse course a couple of years later.)
But for one season, New Orleans would have to play the role of the dreaded independent, picking up games wherever they could, including late February in 20-degree Bowling Green.
At least they got to play in a nice gym, Stroh Arena is now in its third year of operation, and I loved everything except for some of the sightlines, which remained how they were in deference to other events that might take place there.
Of course, I'm a fan of any campus that has a curling sheet or two on it.
I was surprised at the lack of success for Bowling Green historically, the last Falcons NCAA appearance was 1968 when they were coached by Bill Fitch, losing a one-point game to Al McGuire and Marquette, a great independent of the by-gone era. Nine years after that game, McGuire and Marquette won the national title, beating North Carolina in the title game. As an independent.
I knew their women's team had put together somewhat of a dynasty in the MAC. When I was at Syracuse as an undergrad doing women's radio broadcasts, they had one male assistant, Curt Miller, so on road trips, the radio guys and Curt were natural companions after hours. He was the second or third assistant back then, but by 2001, he was head coach at Bowling Green. A decade later, he had five MAC titles and a Sweet 16 appearance in 2007 before jumping the Red Line to take on a rebuilding project at Indiana. Good for him.
The Privateers - despite being horribly outsized - did their best to hang out, getting within 23-18 late in the first half, but 10 straight points by 5-foot-6 point guard Jordon Crawford late in the half put the competitive portion out of reach.
Second-year coach Mark Slessinger took the job a few months before the move back to Division I, so either he was fortunate or saw the potential. He didn't, however, see too much to be positive about in the second half, as the Falcon lead never got below 30 after the early portions. Slessinger has tried to keep everyone happy in a season with no end-game, 11 Privateers have averaged at least 10 minutes per game.
I tried to watch the two seniors - Rarlensee Nelson and Lovell Cook - who were both Louisiana natives, and both started elsewhere before being brought in by Slessinger. Still, their careers would end without a chance to even compete for the NCAA Tournament, even though I guess that was the assumption when they signed on.
The Falcons - under former Syracuse star (and Seton Hall coach) Louis Orr, probably can't match up with Ohio or Akron this season, but stranger things have happened than them making a run in March.
Slessinger kept on the referees until the very end. In coaching, you start to figure out the different ref-types, but it appeared Slessinger might have made a misread Thursday night. The more Slessinger seemed to get on a particular official, the more calls seemed to go against his team (the game was obviously out of hand by this point). But Slessinger kept going, maybe trying to get a technical foul that was never going to come.
The fairly sparse crowd at Stroh was able to see walk-on Damarke Lyshe hit a #superhoop, and they were on their way, waiting for a visit from D.J. Cooper and Ohio next Saturday.
I saw a few people in New Orleans shirts milling around and asked them if they had come all the way from warm Louisiana. Of course not, they were Slessinger's relatives, including his parents, who are are Bloomington, Ind. natives. I've heard they have some big hoops fans there. Slessinger was an assistant at current Southland leader Northwestern State for a decade, which means if you look close enough at this video
, you might actually see him sitting on the bench. Well, maybe not sitting.
With New Orleans and Cal St. Bakersfield joining leagues next season, and most of the members of the disintegrating Great West all finding homes, the next couple of weeks may be the end for the barnstorming and once proud independent.
Decades from now, people will see them in museums and on the Internet, and when I say I really saw one in the flesh, I'll be laughed off as a crazy old man.
But I know what I saw. And you do, too.