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Brent St. Germain / Houma Courier

Training camp is just around the corner for the New Orleans Saints.

In a few days, Saints players will begin reporting to The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.But 15 years ago, the Saints had their sights set on opening training camp much closer to home.

Instead of traveling about 900 miles to West Virginia, the Saints made the short 60-mile trip to Thibodaux for training camp at Nicholls State University.

The Saints made Thibodaux their summer training camp home for the 2000, 2001 and 2002 seasons.

'Most of us are lifetime Saints fans, so the possibility to have them in Thibodaux and watch them workout was pretty exciting,' said Mike Davis, Nicholls' vice president of facilities. 'There was a sense of pride in having them here.'

Hundreds of fans traveled to Nicholls to watch the team practice, and it attracted media from across the country.

Davis said it was a major boost for Nicholls and the entire area.

'You can't buy that kind of publicity,' said Davis, who served as the university's training camp coordinator. 'It was not only a big plus for Nicholls but for also the city of Thibodaux. Every time someone mentioned Nicholls, they mentioned Thibodaux. People started finding out what was going on here.'

But before Nicholls and Thibodaux could get that kind of publicity, the college had to persuade the Saints to come.

MARCHING INTO THIBODAUX

At the conclusion of the 1999 season, the Saints decided it was time to clean house.

Saints owner Tom Benson fired the entire coaching staff, including head coach Mike Ditka and general manager Bill Kuharich. Benson also decided it was time to bring training camp closer to New Orleans. The Saints had held training camp in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, for 12 straight years.

But the competition to lure training camp to Thibodaux was tough. In addition to Thibodaux, the Saints were looking at sites in Hammond, Lafayette, Baton Rouge and Mobile, Alabama. If a different deal could not be reached, the team was likely to return to LaCrosse.

'I thought Nicholls was a mid-range shot to get the camp,' Raceland-based NFL analyst Mike Detillier said. 'Nicholls had a lot of practice fields, but it wasn't developed like it is today. They had a shot for it, but they were by no means a frontrunner for it.'

Twenty-five years earlier, the Saints held the camp in Thibodaux, but they had to cut it short because of excessive rain and problems with mosquitoes.

After weeks of negotiating, the Saints and Nicholls announced on March 9, 2000, that the team was returning to Thibodaux.

The Saints and Nicholls officials made the announcement at a news conference in front of Elkins Hall on campus.

'I'm really excited about this, and I am glad it worked out here in Thibodaux,' Benson said at the news conference. 'I thought this was very important, and after I think after a while both (new head coach Jim Haslett and new general manager Randy Mueller) and everyone figured it out. Even the players know the fans are more important to us than being a little hot, and I think everybody is feeling good about it.'

Donald J. Ayo, then university president, said it was win-win for the Saints, Nicholls and the surrounding area.

'The results are going to be something great for the state of Louisiana and the Houma-Thibodaux metropolitan area,' Ayo said at the news conference. 'We're excited about this. It's a good example of how a regional university along with business leaders can work together to bring something like this to not only the area but the state as well.'

But getting the deal finalized was tricky.

Davis said there were many complications that slowed negotiations, and university officials didn't give final approval until the start of the news conference announcing the deal.

'It came very close to the contract falling through, and they may never have come here,' Davis said. 'It took a lot of hard work and a lot of negotiating to get this deal done. It was quite rewarding to see them sign that contract and to see everyone get excited about it.'

The deal was for one year, which could be extended into a multi-year deal with penalties to be paid to Nicholls if the Saints opted to leave early.

After a dismal 1999 season in which the team finished 3-13 and traded numerous draft picks for Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams, Detillier said the team was looking for something to help connect with its fan base.

'When they moved the training camp, the Saints were excited because it gave fans a chance to see the team practice,' Detillier said. 'But there was a lot of nervousness on the Saints' part because of how they would handle the heat and humidity and how they would handle the rain days.'

WEATHER HIGHS AND LOWS

When camp opened on July 15, 2000, Nicholls and the Saints shared the same concern the weather.

But with the exception of the heat typically associated with Louisiana summers, the Saints had no problems with the rain in the first year. The team had to cancel only one practice late in training camp because of the weather.

'It was hot,' Detillier said, 'but that is what you would expect in July and August. Everything was handed well in that first year, and the Saints were fortunate to get every break in the world from a weather standpoint.'

But rain plagued the final two years of training camp in Thibodaux, forcing the Saints to either practice inside Nicholls' Stopher Gym or bus to the Superdome in New Orleans.

Despite having a crew covering the practice fields on call 24 hours a day, Davis said it was not enough to keep everything dry.

'Unfortunately, it hurt us the following year as we got a lot of rain, and it exposed our Achilles' heel,' he said. 'Even though we had made some capital improvements to the football practice fields and it drained really well, when you get a thunderstorm that sits over you for a while, it's going to cause problems.'

Davis said there was even talk of building the Saints' current indoor practice facility on the Nicholls campus to keep training camp in Thibodaux. Area legislators appeared to have the support to get it done, but the New Orleans delegation made a successful late push to get the facility built at the team's Metairie headquarters.

After that fell through, Davis said Nicholls officials knew it was only a matter of time before the Saints moved training camp to their Metairie headquarters, which happened in 2003.

MARCHING BACK ONE DAY?

When the Saints decided to leave Thibodaux, Detillier said it was not a complete shock.

'During the 2000 season,' he said, 'taking training camp on the road was in vogue in the NFL, but a few years later, more teams were moving camp to their team facilities.'

Though the Saints left Nicholls, Davis said it was boost for the university and led to many on-campus improvements to athletic facilities and residence halls.

Davis said it was a lot of work, and there were times he spent up to 16 hours a day making sure everything ran smoothly. But in the end, Davis said, it was worth it because at the time Nicholls was one of only 31 locations to hold an NFL training camp.

If the Saints ever wanted to return to Thibodaux for training camp, Davis said Nicholls would definitely look into it.

'I think the university would always be interested in anything that would benefit our student athletes, the university and the community,' he said. 'I don't think we would want to never say that we would never be interested. '
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