GUILBEAU: Superdome is "Comeback of the Year"

The Southeastern Conference players of the week awards should look a little different this week.

Instead of going to football players, they need to go to those who rebuilt the Louisiana Superdome, which in turn should win the comeback arena of the year award.


Never has the Dome seen a better two-minute offense than the forces of humankind that got it ready in just nine months in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed its roof and just about everything inside when it hit New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005.


Now the 30-year-old Dome, which has been tied in some way to the SEC since it opened in 1975, looks brand new. It stole the show on Monday Night Football last week as the New Orleans Saints shook the new and sturdier roof in a 23-3 win over the Atlanta Falcons.


The Sugar Bowl's old home is back and better than ever. LSU won the SEC's last national football championship in the Dome on Jan. 4, 2004. Florida won its 1996 national championship in the Dome on Jan. 2, 1997. Alabama upset Miami on Jan. 1, 1993, to win its last national championship. The Crimson Tide also won national championships in the Dome on Jan. 1, 1979 and on Jan. 1, 1980.


After having to move to the smaller, staler and less aesthetically pleasing Georgia Dome last year, the Sugar Bowl will be back in New Orleans where it belongs on Jan. 3, 2007.  


The Dome, which hosted SEC teams in the BCS Sugar Bowl in the last five years it had the game and was associated with the league for most of its history before the BCS, is brighter and shinier than ever with 22,000 new seats, new scoreboards, improved suites and the smell of fresh paint and new carpeting everywhere.


And the MVPs are ... Dome vice-president Doug Thornton, a former quarterback at Woodlawn High and McNeese State University; Tim Coulon, chairman of the Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District (LSED); attorney Larry Roedel, who represents LSED; Glenn Menard, the Dome's general manager; Jerry Jones, the state of Louisiana's chief architect; and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco.


"They kept saying we did it in 13 months," Jones told John Hill of the Gannett News Service. "But we did it in nine months."


Those are the people that did it, basically on their own. They did not wait for the federal government. They took action themselves, and the Sugar Bowl's link to New Orleans will go on because of them.


Just a week after Katrina hit, Thornton, Coulon and Roedel met in Baton Rouge – also known as evacuation central – and planted the seeds for the rebirth of the Dome and probably subsequently New Orleans itself. Other state officials as well as Saints officials and national and local media at the time thought the Dome was done. They were wrong. Perhaps the strongest symbol of New Orleans could not be imploded. Rebuild it. The rest will follow.


Blanco, who struggled in the days after Katrina to think on her feet, as did President Bush, the National Guard, the Army Corps of Engineers and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, did do something right in December. She issued an executive order that was crucial toward speeding up the Dome's rebirth by cutting gobs of red tape. It also streamlined the selection of architects and construction companies.


Had the state gone through the normal process, "We would never have made it," Jones said.


It was Thornton who remained in the Dome throughout the horrible ordeal that 30,000 evacuees lived through for nearly a week after the storm, as Bush and his forces and resources dropped the ball over and over again, as if they were a third-world nation.


Bathrooms overflowed. Power went out. Sewage arose on the Dome field near the goal line. All people could do was be miserable and wait.


"I can't describe the smell," said Associated Press writer Mary Foster, who lived in the Dome for the duration. "But I'll never forget it."


Somehow, everything was cleaned up. Somehow, the Dome was rebuilt better than ever. The cost is expected to be $185 million, but that was no gift. The Dome team got most of this money through FEMA, just as many homeowners in New Orleans have in the last year. The state gave $13 million, which was tied to FEMA's contribution. They got $15 million from the NFL. The Dome management, LSED, put up $41 million of its own money after some refinancing arrangements.


"I never thought it would look this good so fast," Thornton said. "There's a fresh feel."


The Saints sold out all of their 68,000 season tickets for their eight home games in the Dome before the season started. There have already been two games played in the Dome. The Saints-Falcons game drew the highest rating in ESPN history with an 11.8 and an audience of nearly 11 million. Tulane played SMU over the weekend. Major college football will be back in the Dome on Jan. 3, 2007.


"The Dome is an iconic symbol for New Orleans," Thornton said. "It gives me great pride to be a New Orleanian. I thought we may have seen the last of the Dome. What a lot of people have done has exceeded my wildest dreams."




Glenn Guilbeau covers LSU and the Southeastern Conference for Gannett News Service. Read him at  or in the Shreveport Times, Monroe News-Star, Alexandria Daily Town Talk, Lafayette Advertiser, Opelousas Daily World and occasionally USA Today. You can contact him at

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