For Louisiana State University and the citizens of Baton Rouge, Hurricane Katrina was initially no big deal.
"A few downed trees. A lot of rain. Just another hurricane,’’ LSU athletic director Skip Bertman said.
But as the devastation to New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast became apparent, Baton Rouge quickly became a safe haven, a triage center, a staging area for relief — just about everything but a place to play a football game against Arizona State tonight.
So early Friday afternoon, the fifth-ranked Tigers’ contingent landed at Sky Harbor International Airport — as the guests of the Fiesta Bowl — to prepare for their 2005 football season opener, albeit one week late and 1,444 miles farther west than planned.
The Tigers got the redcarpet treatment Friday, the same welcome banners and rousing applause the Fiesta committee normally has waiting for its bowl teams. But coach Les Miles, who will make his LSU debut tonight, knows the welcome wagon will come to a screeching halt outside Sun Devil Stadium, where the 15th-ranked Sun Devils will be the designated road team in their own home.
"As I look around the crowd, I see no Arizona State players or coaches so I’m expecting that a first down will have to be earned (tonight)," he said. "But this is a great welcome, and Arizona is an example of a nationwide spirit and reaction to a terrible tragedy that has befallen New Orleans and the state of Louisiana."
While about 35 LSU players were directly affected by the hurricane, no one on the team had any direct family members among the dead and all those who initially couldn’t reach relatives have now made contact. "But everybody knows somebody who has lost a home or been displaced," Miles said. "This football team, like the state that it represents, has been through an enormous, difficult time.
"But every day for about two hours, they could step across those white lines (at football practice) and concentrate on the task at hand. I’m proud of them. They stepped in to volunteer time and sought articles of clothing to give and filled a tractortrailer. They are a great example of fine young men, and they are ready to play football."
All proceeds from the game, expected to top the $1 million mark, will be donated to the hurricane relief efforts.
Of course, that won’t make up for the millions lost by the LSU athletic department, which was expecting a crowd of over 90,000 for the ASU game, but the bottom line wasn’t on anyone’s mind Friday. It was about normalcy, and the chance to be the first team from Louisiana to take the playing field in what is a brand-new, post-Katrina world.
"There are times when the outcome of a game isn’t as important as the game itself, when athletics take center stage for a greater good," Bertman said. "This started out as a football game and has become a telethon, and 25-30 million people will hear on ESPN during the game what has been done, what needs to be done and how to help and donate."
Baton Rouge and LSU has given much already. A city of 350,000 people has more than doubled in size in one week ("30 years of growth in eight days," Bertman said) and the Pete Maravich Center on campus became the largest triage hospital in U.S. history, with some 28,000 patients passing through in the first six days.
With evacuees and patients still within 200 yards of Tiger Stadium and hotels filled with homeless, insurance adjusters and construction crews, it became obvious on Monday that the ASU-LSU game had to be moved.
Baton Rogue will see a lot of football this year, with the NFL’s New Orleans Saints, the Sugar Bowl, the Bayou Classic between Southern and Grambling Universities and various high school state championship games held at the now-crippled Superdome all looking for new homes.