Austin Claunch is 31 years old, 800 miles from home and lying in a dorm room bed at 2 a.m. waiting for the college students chatting outside his door to go to bed.
It’s a scene that he could never have imagined a month ago, but Claunch is fine with it. Well, mostly.
“I was tired as hell this morning,” he says with a laugh.
These aren’t ordinary college students making a bit too much noise in a hallway. They’re men's basketball players from Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, La., and Claunch is their coach. And for the last 17 days, they’ve called the eighth floor of Palmer Hall at Eastern Kentucky home after evacuating from Thibodaux due to Hurricane Ida. While the team is set to head back home this week, a trip borne out of necessity after one of the most destructive storms to ever make landfall in Louisiana has turned into quite the team bonding experience for one of the least-wealthy programs in Division I men's hoops.
Nicholls State is a small public school of just more than 5,500 undergraduates in rural Louisiana, about 60 miles west of New Orleans. It’s located in the northern part of Lafourche Parish, which was perhaps the most heavily impacted area by Ida's devastation after the storm made landfall on Aug. 29. Parish sheriff's office captain Brennan Matherne told NPR that “100% of structures in Lafourche” sustained some kind of damage, and the area lost power, running water and cell service because of the damage. Lafourche Parish president Archie Chaisson estimated that 25% of houses in the Parish are either completely gone or unlivable. Fortunately for Nicholls, the campus sustained only “moderate” damage, partially due to the fact that it’s slightly further north of the Gulf of Mexico than other areas in Lafourche. And while the cleanup process isn’t complete yet, in-person classes begin on campus again Monday.
Hurricane scares are an annual occurrence in Thibodaux, much like they are in many parts of the state. But as the final week of August wore on, Claunch and the rest of the Nicholls coaching staff started to realize that the worst was coming.
“I was sitting with my roommate [Friday], looking at stuff, and [we] turned to each other and said, ‘I don’t know if we should stay here, man. It’s coming,’ ” Nicholls director of basketball operations Stevie Repichowski says.
After making sure the whole team had places to go, Repichowski evacuated to Hattiesburg, Miss. Players scattered around the country, some crashing with teammates or family members within driving distance. Claunch hunkered down in Thibodaux through the storm before eventually heading to Mobile, Ala., after the storm passed and the extent of its damage became evident.
Before that, though, Claunch drove to campus to try to assess things for himself the day after Ida made landfall. Trees and power lines were down all across the town. When he finally made it to campus, he was turned away by first responders at the scene who wouldn’t let him go to his office or the arena. At that point, he realized this would be a long-term disruption, so he called a staff meeting on FaceTime to discuss options for the team. The goal?
“Let’s see if we can get somewhere quickly, and we can make it like a 2–3 week training camp and really benefit from it, almost like a team retreat,” Claunch recalls.
The staff split up, with all five coaches working the phones with friends throughout the southeast to try to find a temporary home for 16 players and the coaches to sleep, eat and practice. It also had to be affordable: Nicholls State has the smallest men’s basketball budget of any non-HBCU in Division I at just under $800,000 annually, sixth-smallest in all of D-I. The five most recent programs to transition from Division II to Division I each had higher budgets in D-II than Nicholls has in D-I.
Perhaps no one in college sports understands Nicholls’s budget challenges better than Matt Roan, the athletic director at Eastern Kentucky. Roan got his first AD job at Nicholls in 2016 and was the one who hired Claunch in '18 before becoming the AD at EKU in '20. So Claunch and associate head coach Nick Bowman called Roan that Wednesday morning. Roan’s response was immediate: He wanted Nicholls to join them in Richmond.
“We didn't want to put a timeline on it. We didn’t want to add pressure or add stress to them,” Roan says. “Really, it was an open invitation that said, ‘Come use our residence halls, use our dining facilities, use our athletic facilities,’ and fortunately we had the capacity.”
As for the financials of it all, Roan says they’re only charging Nicholls for what they have to be charged per NCAA rules, using pricing figures for food and housing comparable to a summer camp.
“We were not interested in creating revenue or trying to seize on an opportunity,” Roan says.
“Matt understands what we don’t have,” Claunch says. “ ‘You guys get here, we’re going to charge you what we have to charge you, pay us when you can pay us and we’re going to figure this all out.’ ”
It was settled. The coaches called players that night and passed along a message: Get to Richmond, Ky., on Sunday. A bus would make the 12-hour drive from Thibodaux Sunday morning, but some players chose to drive themselves or fly instead.
Repichowski took the bus with the team, but first he had to pack as much gear as possible from the team’s locker room to make sure players were equipped for practice. After convincing the National Guard to let him into the arena for 30 minutes, he stuffed duffel bags with shoes, practice jerseys, the team’s video camera and anything else he could find in the pitch-black, with only his phone flashlight guiding him.
“You don’t realize how dark it really is when there are no street lights, no power anywhere,” Repichowski says. “When I walked into our gym, I could barely see my hand in front of my face.”
Once in Kentucky, the team quickly settled in its new digs at Palmer Hall. Each player and coach has a dorm room to himself, and the team has the eighth floor to itself in what is otherwise an all-freshman dorm. One EKU student told Repichowski on the elevator he had heard the eighth floor was haunted, but the team hasn’t experienced any paranormal activity.
So, for the last 17 days, the Nicholls players and coaches have lived like EKU students. They have practice as often as allowed by NCAA rules, then head back to the dorms and hang out together. They eat in the dining hall together. Groups of players will head to the movies or the mall, and the team played in a beach volleyball tournament with EKU fraternities and sororities last week. When EKU had its football home opener last weekend, Claunch was on the sideline with Roan and the players sat in the student section with their new friends.
“When I saw them [in the student section], It was clear that they knew people, that they had met people,” Claunch says. “It was like another home campus for them.”
Now, the team is on the road back home. Its final practice at EKU was Tuesday afternoon, and the long bus ride back to Thibodaux began Wednesday morning. Claunch is giving the team the rest of the week off to see family and get reestablished in dorms and apartments before restarting team activities next week. Repichowski called players’ landlords to make sure everyone’s power had been restored before the team heads back, and fortunately the whole roster will have power. The program is also planning to help the Lafourche Parish community rebuild once back in town. It's finalized an agreement with LSU’s men’s basketball team to come to Thibodaux for a charity exhibition game on Oct. 23, which will raise money for hurricane relief in the region. Claunch expects the team’s 3,800-seat gym to be packed that day.
But while a return home is welcomed by all involved in the program, players and coaches alike say they’ve loved the experience in Richmond.
“We’ve built really good relationships with people around the campus,” senior forward Ryghe Lyons says. “We had to go take pictures with people because they wanted something to remember us by.”
Perhaps more importantly, the trip strengthened bonds inside the team.
“At first, I didn’t know how it was going to go because we all have our own apartments and our own things, but it worked out,” Lyons says. “We became very close as a team; we spent 95% of the day together. The trip helped us in ways that us staying in Thibodaux wouldn’t have done.”
Meanwhile, Roan is simply grateful to have been able to lend a helping hand.
“That place, it means everything to me,” Roan says. “Any time that I’m in a position that I can positively impact a place and a people that I care so much about, I won’t hesitate.
“It’s great to be able to have that collegiate experience; we’ve just been able to do that [for them] from about 12 hours away.”
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