Weathering the Storm: The story of Tulane tennis and Hurricane Katrina

by: Dan Johnson | October 31, 2017

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(Tulane Athletics)

There was no blueprint left behind for Mark Booras to follow when he accepted the job as head coach of the Tulane University men’s tennis team in 2008. 

Following the catastrophic destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which displaced more than a million people in the Gulf Coast region, Booras was stepping in to rebuild a program that hadn’t played a match in three years. It was also a program steeped in success: Tulane won the NCAA Championship in 1959, claimed 18 Southeastern Conference team championships from 1939 to 1964, and five Conference USA titles from 1997 to 2005. 

In 2005, Tulane was nationally ranked in the Top 20 and competing in its ninth consecutive NCAA tournament. Three years later, Booras was starting back at zero. He didn’t have any tennis balls, let alone players to fill his roster.

“We had to do everything we could just to find people to come and attend the school at first,” says Booras, who is now in his ninth year as head coach. “The image of New Orleans that people had was that the city was underwater, and that Tulane wouldn’t be a school again. We had to fight against that perception and tell our story of how the city and Tulane were rebuilding, and if a kid chose to be a part of this, they were going to be a part of something special.”

A year later, Tulane men’s tennis was back in action. With a lineup featuring nine freshmen—six of whom were walk-ons—the Green Wave went 3–16 for the season. Of course, they could have lost every match and it would still have been a successful year. Tulane had a team again, and simply competing was a necessary step on the long road to restoring the program’s legacy.

“From the beginning, it was important to find the right guys that fit our mission,” says Booras. “The guys that were part of the first couple of seasons have paved the way for the current players to enjoy the success they’ve had. 

“We knew if we found players with good character, good academics and the right kind of energy that we could build something special.”

Now, more than a decade removed from Katrina, the Green Wave has rediscovered its winning ways. In 2016, Tulane qualified for the NCAA Tournament for the first time since its hiatus. It reached the tournament again in 2017, finishing the season with 19 wins and ranked 30th in the country by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association.

“The history they are trying to make pushes the guys to work and compete harder,” said Booras. “We had Top 15 tennis programs before Katrina and then were shut down. I’ve never heard of a program that came back from a situation like that. 

“Sometimes I have to remind the guys where we came from, and all the steps we had to take to get to this spot.”

Not all of those steps were pleasant. With the campus and its athletic facilities unusable due to flooding, Tulane’s teams dispersed to various parts of the country to finish out the 2005 season.

Operating under staff and budget reductions, the school’s athletic department had to make some difficult decisions. Eight programs were temporarily suspended, including tennis.

Rick Dickson, the athletic director at Tulane during Hurricane Katrina, delivered the unpleasant news at a meeting with the coaches and student-athletes.

“Being the guy to stand on a gymnasium floor and tell the guys and girls in that room that they’d just completed something that no one else had taken on in collegiate athletics history—going to other campuses, never being home and competing—and the reward for that is that your program is was a heartbreaking time,” says Dickson.

It was a challenging time, too. After receiving waivers from the NCAA and Conference USA, Tulane was allowed to maintain its Division I and conference status, but it would have to find a way to bring its suspended programs back within the designated five-year window.

No one would’ve faulted Dickson for taking another job, but he wasn’t going anywhere.

“I made a vow to myself that once the decision to suspend the programs was made, I’d see this thing through and that all of the programs would come back,” says Dickson. “Women’s tennis was part of the first group of four teams that we brought back after year three, and men’s tennis was in the second grouping that returned a year later.

Booras says Dickson’s ability to put Tulane athletics back on the map is a testament to his remarkable leadership and determination. He raised more than $130 million for the programs and, against all odds, refused to let the department falter. 

“To see things coming back full circle is gratifying, says Dickson, “and tennis is a great example of that.”

“Rick is a true visionary,” says Booras. “He had a successful athletic department literally get washed away.

The investment he made to turn programs around and keep Tulane at the Division I level is unparalleled. 

“His vision for Tulane athletics was amazing and contagious. He brought people on board that said Katrina wouldn’t beat us and that Tulane would be back, and back in a big way.”

Even though Tulane has come a long way, work continues. The university has shown a serious commitment to tennis, with a new facility on the horizon and a new women’s coach, Maria Brito, leading the Green Wave in 2017-18. Her team will be overseen by Booras, who was promoted to Director of Tennis. He’ll continue to coach the men’s team.

“We are going to keep working every day to improve,” says Booras, who cites the team’s loyal fanbase as an integral part of its recovery.

The school remains a symbol of resilience, offering hope to those who are facing similar situations in the wake of difficult circumstances. 

“We didn’t want to look at the situation as a disaster; it happened and it’s behind us,” says Dickson, who retired in May 2016. “Mark is a glass half-full guy. He looked at this as a great challenge and opportunity. I’m so proud of him for how he’s been able to build back Tulane with tennis.”

For generations, and for generations to come, tennis has positively impacted the young and old, on and off the court, in countless ways. In this year’s Heroes special, we’ve selected 30 such stories, including a 10-year-old amputee’s life-changing moment with Roger Federer, the rebuilding of a college program after Hurricane Katrina, a former prodigy’s important message as an adult, and a 78-year-old coach’s enduring influence on the pros. Taken together, these 30 stories illustrate how people grow up, grow as individuals and grow old with tennis—the sport of a lifetime. Click here for more Heroes stories.

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