That was how much time Thomas Gibbs spent at Loyola University before he had to leave. After what had seemed like a lifetime of preparation for college, the freshman’s plans were thrown into turmoil, and his future was uncertain.
As Hurricane Katrina roared across the Gulf of Mexico in the late days of August 2005, picking up steam, New Orleans braced for impact. When the storm was upgraded to a Category 5 on Sunday, Aug. 28, officials at Loyola were forced to evacuate the campus. Leaving behind everything but his laptop and a backpack, Gibbs returned home to Alexandria, Va., where he watched as Katrina slammed into the city that was supposed to be his new home.
“It’s kind of hard when you spend the last two years of your high school life figuring out what college you want to go to,” Gibbs said of the sudden transition.
With Loyola forced to close for the entire fall 2005 semester, Gibbs made plans for emergency enrollment at Georgetown. He was one of 83 students from Loyola and Tulane University to transfer temporarily to the Hilltop. With no warning and hardly any orientation, he was thrust into a life that had previously been reserved for the Georgetown freshman: meals at O’Donovan Hall, Problem of God and EuroCiv.
But aside from his clothes, classes and any sense of normal life, Gibbs was one of 36 Loyola students who left something else in New Orleans: baseball. Expecting to spend the fall semester training and getting to know their new teammates, the Wolfpack were scattered at over 25 schools nationwide, ranging Miami to San Francisco.
The waning weeks of summer in 2005 were no less hectic for Head Coach Doc Beeman: His wife was nine months pregnant with their daughter, Alex Elizabeth Beeman, when Katrina hit, and the couple was forced to move to Colorado to stay with Beeman’s wife’s family. For Beeman, then at the start of his second year at the helm of the Loyola program, trying to manage his team in Katrina’s wake proved a unique challenge.
The challenge was not made any easier when the NCAA took a stance restricting Loyola athletes from involvement with teams at their temporary schools. The policy was intended, Beeman said, to prevent NCAA schools from raiding the talent of teams from Loyola, an NAIA school.
But the rules nonetheless presented a roadblock for Gibbs, who met with some members of Georgetown’s baseball team and coaching staff but could not practice with them. Georgetown Head Coach Pete Wilk said the Athletic Department lobbied to the NCAA on Gibbs’ behalf, but without success.
“My hands were tied,” Wilk said.
Gibbs, a pitcher, said he had assumed he’d have no trouble practicing at Georgetown, but tried to keep on top of his game in spite of the unanticipated hurdle. He looked for time to work out between classes and his daily commute to Georgetown, which required three modes of transportation and took over an hour each morning.
The future of the Loyola squad was no less tenuous when Loyola reopened for the spring 2006 semester. Although all but one of Beeman’s players returned to campus, the enduring effects of Katrina were inescapable. The surface of their home field, at an off-campus site across the Mississippi River, needed to be replaced, and the team did not play there again until late February. More significantly, the NCAA’s regulation and the loss of an entire semester of practice put the team at a disadvantage as the new season approached.
Gibbs said that an entire semester away from his teammates created difficult circumstances when the team reunited for the first time.
“We didn’t really know each other that well,” he said. Still he said that he never considered transferring from Loyola.
Despite the struggles, the Wolfpack played their entire 2006 season, finishing with a 20-32 record. Beeman said that although the team recovered from the difficulties created by Katrina, the Loyola community confronted more daunting obstacles.
“It wasn’t a great place to be last spring,” he said.
Now midway through their second post-Katrina season, it is less certain whether the team can overcome the storm’s long-term impact on Loyola, measured through so many different statistics. As negative perceptions about New Orleans, particularly crime still occurring there, resonate across the country, applications to the school are down sharply – and so is funding.
This year, Beeman coaches a team of just 24 players. The team has struggled to find adequate funding, as all of its money comes directly from fees paid by enrolled students.
But as he confronts a challenge facing no other coach in the nation, Beeman has drawn strong support from Georgetown’s Wilk. Before arriving at Loyola in July 2004, Beeman served as an assistant coach under Wilk at Georgetown for two seasons. The two speak at least once a month, Beeman said, and he has sought advice from his former boss on team management, hoping to replicate the strategy Wilk used to advance Georgetown’s program in the Big East – what Beeman calls “utilizing the strength of the Georgetown brand.”
Wilk said that he has tried to give Beeman any help that he can, though he said Beeman faces unique circumstances.
“I’m not sure who’s giving who advice,” he said.
But Wilk said that he has tried to ease Beeman’s transition from an assistant to head coach. “You’re not the guy giving feedback; you’re the guy pulling the trigger,” Wilk said of Beeman’s new role.
Gibbs, who said he has started five or six games this semester, said the team has high hopes, looking to turn things around and try reemerge as a contender for the Gulf Coast Athletic Conference championship. But the signs of the trials the team has faced are inescapable. Gibbs notes that on the way to practice, the team passes through a neighborhood that is still flooded with 6 feet of water.
“I think it’ll come back, but right now it’s still reeling from Katrina,” Gibbs said of New Orleans.