NEW ORLEANS — The most successful coach in the history of UNO baseball was so upset about the direction of the athletic program a couple of years ago that he wasn’t sure he wanted Maestri Field to be named after him anymore.
On Friday, the silver-haired Ron Maestri stood behind the dugout from which he’d coached the Privateers to the 1984 College World Series, holding a gold-painted shovel and talking about how honored he was to be included in the groundbreaking for a rebuilt infield grandstand.
“It was a difficult situation a few years ago,” Maestri said, referring to the university’s since-abandoned plans to drop Division I sports. “There was a lot of negativity.”
The new stadium, coming after a recent promise to maintain Division I baseball, “is very positive not just for the naming, but for what it’s meant over the years to the university,” Maestri said.
“Our former players are excited about it,” he added, alluding to several who’ve played Major League Baseball, such as Jim Bullinger, or more recently, Johnny Giavotella. “They’re going to contribute to the program.”
The Privateers have made 14 appearances in the NCAA tournament since 1977, the last in 2008, three seasons after Hurricane Katrina had swamped neighborhoods surrounding UNO’s campus along the southern shore of Lake Pontchartrain.
Yet even as the baseball team remained strong, the financial blow the storm delivered left administrators questioning the wisdom of maintaining Division I athletics. Enrollment had dropped substantially at the school, which serves large numbers of commuting students.
UNO left the Sun Belt Conference in 2010 while applying for NCAA approval to drop to non-scholarship Division III. In 2011, UNO adjusted the plan, deciding instead to compete in Division II, which allows partial scholarships.
Many of UNO’s top athletes and coaches left, but baseball coach Bruce Peddie remained, in part because he had twin daughters in high school.
For Peddie, the future began to look more hopeful when the university was permitted to leave the state’s LSU system and join the University of Louisiana system, giving the campus more independence and a new administration.
Then in March of last year, UNO President Peter Fos announced that the school’s athletic program would remain in Division I.
Now UNO is set to join the Southland Conference in the 2013-14 academic year, and its new $3 million grandstand, with 800 new chairback seats, will open next Feb. 15, when the Privateers host the LSU Tigers, who are coached by former UNO player Paul Mainieri.
“An important part of what we’re trying to do is bring our alumni, fans and former athletes back into the mix,” Athletic Director Derek Morel said. “We understand trust is an issue because of where we’ve been. So for us to regain their trust, to get them to believe in what we’re doing, believe in the growth of the university and our program, is a really important priority.”
The groundbreaking, he said, will “show people that we’re serious.”
For now, the construction site consists of little more than mud and pilings, but for Peddie, having renderings to show off, along with the promise of Southland Conference play next season, helps in recruiting.
“Better days are coming,” Peddie said. “We now need to be able to go out and win — and there’s no reason not to.”