On a day when it would have been natural from him to be looking back, Ron Maestri was looking ahead.
And it wasn’t so much about himself — although as he approaches his 75th birthday, Maestri doesn’t necessarily consider stepping down as baseball coach at UNO as meaning he’s permanently retired.
It was more about the school whose baseball program he founded in 1972 and to which he came back to two years ago after a 28-year absence from the playing field to take it over again.
“It blows my mind how we can absolutely destroy a great institution throughout,” Maestri, who was the baseball coach through 1984 and athletic director from 1979-2000, said Monday after formally informing school President Peter Fos of his intentions. “I know the kind of education players and the other students at this school have received over the years and they’re doctors, and lawyers and engineers and all other important people in our community.
“We had 17,000 students before at the school and now we’re down to 8,000. If the politicians aren’t going to do it, we need the alumni to step up in a positive way.”
Maestri, who was the baseball coach through was referring to the cuts to the state’s higher education budget which have forced faculty and staff layoffs with more threatened.
“We’ve got a great faculty; we’ve always had one,” he said. “And there are people out there hurting because they’re getting laid off.
“It’s not President Fos’ fault. He’s trying run a business.”
The decline in enrollment, which has been steady since Hurricane Katrina, now almost 10 years ago. In 2009, the failure of a student referendum in 2009 that would have increased the activity fee for athletics led to the decision to drop out of the Sun Belt Conference and Division I.
At the time of the announcement about leaving D-I, Maestri made a similarly impassioned speech during a news conference by then-President Tim Ryan saying, “I don’t hear anybody in the community talking about the University of New Orleans.”
Once becoming president in 2012, Fos recommitted the school to Division I in 2012 along with a move to the Southland Conference.
However, the athletic department had been brought to financial low by the enrollment decline and other factors.
That was why Fos asked Maestri, then the chief operating officer of the Zephyrs after an earlier stint with the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation, asked Maestri to take back the baseball reins.
“We needed someone to come back and stabilize the baseball program,” Fos said. “And he’s got us back on a solid footing.
“Coming back like that shows how much he cares about the school. I wish we had a lot more people like him.”
Maestri said Monday he and his coaching staff have been able to restore the baseball program to financial stability through intensive fund-raising and upgraded the facilities along with a stress on improving the team’s academic performance.
The team had a cumulative GPA of 3.0 in 2014 and 3.3 this year. Eight players graduated last week and two more will receive their degrees this summer.
However, the team’s performance on the field has not been good.
The Privateers were 25-78 in Maestri’s second stint, including a 14-40 record this season which ended in an 11-game losing streak and a last-place finish in the Southland.
“Whenever you’re a coach, you’ve got to believe that when you go out, you’ve got a chance to win,” he said. “But realistically, we knew it was going to be difficult.
“But the kids have done everything we’ve asked of them and we’ve been a lot more competitive than our record might indicate. I don’t like losing, but it didn’t bother me as much as it did the first time around.”
That’s because UNO was the state’s premier college baseball program during Maestri’s initial tenure.
From 1972-84, the Privateers went 518-247-1 qualifying for the NCAA tournament nine times. In 1974, UNO was the runner-up in the Division II World Series, and in 1983 the Privateers became the first school from the state to reach the Division I World Series.
“UNO was the big dog back then,” said former LSU coach Skip Bertman, who became the Tigers’ coach in 1984, Maestri’s last season at UNO. “And not only were they very good, but they were doing a lot of the promotional things Ron Frazier was doing at Miami (where Bertman was an assistant).
“And then, when his school needed him again, like an old warhorse he answered the call. You’ve got to commend and admire him for that.”
And, as Maestri said, he’s not really retired.
“I want to keep doing something,” he said. “It might be for the athletic department or for the school in general.
“I may not have graduated from this school, but I want to do everything I can do help it, especially now.”