By the shores of Lake Pontchartrain and in the shadow of the Bali Hai eatery lies the New Orleans campus of Louisiana State University. This weekend LSUNO (the students adamantly prefer UNO, as in University of New Orleans) enters the first round of the NCAA College Division basketball tournament. It is the nation's No. 1 team, an assertion that surprises many and which some absolutely refuse to accept. But among the undaunted is Ailene Greene, whose biggest concern is how, in the Privateers' next to last game, after 22 wins, did her team finally lose. Otherwise, the season has gone just the way her premonition said it would.
Ailene is the wife of Privateers' Coach Ron Greene. Only three years ago he started the basketball team with an assortment of intramural ragamuffins, the best of whom were given a pair of $250 scholarships donated by the Student Government Association and Phi Kappa Theta fraternity. Last season was the school's first full one in intercollegiate competition. Its record was 18-5. As this season began Ailene Greene woke up from a dead sleep predicting 24-0. Although that is not quite what happened, it was close enough for Mrs. Greene's Delphian qualities to bear noting.
"It's really scary at times," she said recently, as the team practiced in the cramped, ringing gymnasium, referred to by the faithful as the House of Horrors. "I once dreamed our dog was run over and the next day it was. Ron and I were talking about his grandmother one night and the fact that she was in such good health. But I mentioned that she probably wouldn't live much longer, and a few days later the phone rang and we were told she had just died. And there is what happened the other day on the school playground where I teach phys ed: It was over 70 degrees outside but I asked someone to bring me my blue coat. Right after I got it, one of the students fell and broke his arm. When he said he thought he was going to pass out I gave him a whiff of smelling salts. They had been in the coat pocket."
Mrs. Greene may know what is going to happen but she is as confused as opposing coaches in explaining why her husband's teams are so successful. Not all the coaches, in fact, believe the Privateers are that good. While Bill Foster, whose UNC-Charlotte team lost to both LSUNO and major college independent Georgia Tech, rated the Privateers better, Van Washer of Samford, following a 22-point loss to Greene's team and an 18-point defeat by Loyola of New Orleans, said, "LSUNO is the best of the 13 small-college teams we've played this year, but they're in a different league from Loyola. There's no comparison."
The judgment angered Greene considerably, especially since he was fired from Loyola five years ago. "I should have left the dogs in all the way," he said, "and we would have scored 150 instead of 121."
Greene says he does not know why the Jesuit fathers cast him out. "My first year we won 11 of our first 12, beat Michigan State and everything seemed great. Then I had to dismiss four of the players—two starters and the two top reserves—because they got drunk in the school cafeteria. After that we had nothing left."
Greene left Loyola with a two-year record of 23-24 and the intention of returning to his native Midwest.
"I hoped I could find an assistant's job in Ohio or Indiana," he says. "Then Tom Nissalke, who at the time was an assistant at Tulane, suggested that I apply for the LSUNO job, which had just been created. Frankly, I wasn't at all interested, but I went there anyway."
Though LSUNO is 13 years old and has 11,500 students—it ranks as the state's second largest and fastest-growing university—Chancellor Homer L. Hitt was slow to plunge into intercollegiate athletics.
"Other university presidents used to congratulate me for not having to worry about it," Dr. Hitt says, "but I know now they would never give theirs up. It's just that in the beginning we were in no condition to support athletics. We didn't look into it until the students began complaining about six years ago."
Greene, as athletic director, oversees a four-sport program (basketball, baseball, gymnastics and golf) whose budget has grown from $26,000 to $200,000 in three years. That first basketball team was 6-9 and played impersonators like Mid City Junior College and Keesler Air Force Base wherever it could beg a high school gymnasium. Greene preserved one of the wins by calling for a late-game stall when the foul-prone opponent was down to three players.
"We weren't taking any chances in those days," says Duane Reboul, a 5'7" guard who is the only holdover from that first, uncomplicated year. Reboul has been joined in the starting lineup by a sophomore and three junior-college transfers, the best of whom is 6'4" senior Butch Webster.
Greene did not really recruit Webster; he invited him to campus on the recommendation of a Florida State assistant when the Seminoles found themselves with one prospect too many. "I was easy to sell," says the quick-smiling Webster, who sneaks some 30 kids into each game. "I looked in one of those doors on Bourbon Street and said, 'Wow, where's the pen and paper?' "
Webster is just one of three Privateers averaging over 20 points. The other two, John Hamilton and Mel Henderson, will both be back next season when LSUNO steps up in class to university division status.
"I'm a very impatient person," says Greene, who also ranks high in grimacing and subtle referee-baiting. "I want things to happen fast. That's why our being No. 1 so soon does not seem that unusual. Heck, everyone came back from last year's team. I didn't think it was so impossible. It was just a matter of keeping things simple. Our biggest problem has been a tendency to free-lance when the play should be better controlled."
Greene believes in keeping schedules simple, too. He does not complicate them unnecessarily with strong teams, which is why a three-man committee from the South Region refused to nominate the Privateers for the College Division tournament. "That," boiled Greene, "was a real slap in the face and a big disappointment to the kids. At the time we were still unbeaten and No. 1—what more could we do?"
Higher NCAA authorities agreed there was not much more Greene's boys could do, and later extended LSUNO an invitation. It will play its opening tournament game Friday night against the South Region host team, Southwestern Louisiana.
Greene's regular-season schedule avoided such nationally ranked opponents and also kept two-thirds of the Privateers' games in the House of Horrors, where, if Butch Webster did not wreak havoc, the pep band did. The team's only home loss in two years came in the first game ever at the House and that is also the only game the mad minstrels missed.
When you are young and anonymous you get away with things. Dave Schaller, a senior reserve, made that discovery on the road last year when he started signing Pete Maravich autographs for those who thought LSUNO was the LSU. Even Mrs. Greene knows that must come later.