Tulane football program seeks to rediscover 2002 stride

N EW ORLEANS — Tulane University President Scott Cowen takes a deep breath, peers across his conference room onto St. Charles Avenue, curls his lips and shakes his head.

With homecoming festivities in full swing on campus and around the Superdome, one can’t help but think back to this weekend 10 years ago, when Green Wave fans filled Tad Gormley Stadium to watch Tulane clinch a bowl appearance in its first outdoor game since 1974. Athletic director Rick Dickson called the 2002 homecoming win over Navy “proof Tulane can throw a party,” and enthusiasm in the program bubbled under the City Park oak trees.

But in the ensuing decade, the optimism and zeal in Tulane’s football program has rarely reached the same level.

“It has been a very turbulent decade,” Cowen said. “I think it would be impossible for others to relate to what we’re going through.”

A series of damaging events, some self-inflicted and others born of natural causes, threw Tulane football into a decade-long tailspin. Since hoisting the Hawaii Bowl trophy on Christmas Day of 2002, Tulane has failed to achieve a winning record or postseason appearance, compiling an alarming 33-82 mark under three different head coaches (not including an interim).

So, what happened to shatter the optimism following the Green Wave’s second bowl win in five years and sink the program to its dead-last FBS ranking (by USA Today) just one month ago? Through it all, two of the Tulane’s most prominent decision-makers have been held responsible for the Green Wave’s direction: Cowen and Dickson.

Like any struggling football program, misfiring on coaching hires and miscalculating progress played a role. Tulane extended the contract of Chris Scelfo two years before firing him in 2006, and Bob Toledo’s deal was extended seven games before relieving Toledo of his coaching duties midway through the 2011 season.

There were hurdles off the field as well, starting with a 2003 university review to decide whether to maintain the program’s existence, then fighting for it, along with the rest of the school, in Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath. Stringent academic standards also forced coaches to recruit on uneven ground, above changing NCAA minimums, thus losing talented prospects to competitors.

And as college football revenue grew to staggering heights, some of Tulane’s Conference USA peers fled in pursuit of more lucrative television contracts and BCS dollars, leaving TU behind.

Now, the Green Wave is devising a way to climb out of the cellar.

In the past two years Tulane sharply increased funding to the athletic department to afford increased salaries and bolster its academic support for athletes, and the school is in the process of adding competitive academic majors (including the possibility of sports management). The school is even set to begin its most significant athletic infrastructure addition, starting construction on Yulman Stadium in the upcoming months with the intention of bringing football back to campus.

Yet critics are left asking, what took so long to reach this point? How did Tulane’s football reputation spiral so far down before remedial action was taken? Was the past decade of hardship necessary?

It began in the summer of 2003, when Tulane football was considered by its fans to be a program on the rise. An undefeated season in 1998 marked an unprecedented high in recent Tulane athletic achievement. The Hawaii Bowl victory, along with a contract extension, allowed Scelfo to pull in a highly regarded recruiting class.

The landscape wasn’t perfect, but for Tulane, it was better than it had been in a while. So when news trickled out that Green Wave football was suddenly on the brink of self-destruction, it shocked the Tulane community.

During the university’s periodic review of each department’s feasibility, athletics fell under harsh scrutiny by the board of trustees. Rising costs and flailing revenues spurred a vote on whether to drop football altogether, move athletics to Division III or maintain the status quo.

“I was stunned to know that was happening, because we were just coming off of a pretty successful season, and we have a tradition at Tulane of playing football at this level going back to the 1890s,” Green Wave broadcaster Todd Graffagnini said. “I found out like most people did, which was message boards and through the radio. So, not only am I a Tulane fan, but I’m also on the broadcast team, and I had no idea this was happening. It was a crazy time for everyone.”

Although the board eventually voted unanimously to maintain the status of Tulane’s athletic department, it planted seeds of doubt and mistrust among some of its most ardent supporters. Many of those sentiments never faded, as evidenced by airwaves full of elaborate and mischievous conspiracy theories on Tulane-centric talk radio shows to this day.

“Me and a lot of the other longtime fans have never forgiven Tulane for that, because it felt like we were being extorted just when we finally had momentum,” said Tim Sweeney, a 1981 Tulane graduate and member of The Greenbackers booster group. “It made it so hard to trust Cowen and everyone at Tulane, because we never know if they’re going to pull the rug from under us again. And at the time, it damaged our football program, and our recruiting was never the same after that. I don’t think Scelfo ever had a chance once we had that review.”

Yet Cowen contends the review only strengthened the university’s belief in the program and should be seen as a point of pride rather than a low-water mark in its football history. As a testament, Cowen claims he’s never again approached the idea of dropping football, even in the uncertain days following Hurricane Katrina.

“We had done the analysis in 2003 — very unpopular obviously — and to this day I have never second-guessed that decision,” Cowen said. “If we hadn’t done it, I would say, ‘Why haven’t we stepped back and really reaffirmed our commitment to what we’re doing?’ And if we’re reaffirming it, why can’t we really build it? That was the road we were on, and I think Katrina once again just sidetracked us.”

Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters caused millions of dollars in damage to Tulane’s campus, and New Orleans’ battered reputation created trepidation among potential students and their families. Those fears were feasted on by recruiting foes in the cutthroat world of college football.

The Green Wave’s recruiting floundered, fighting against widespread uncertainty and horrific images of the city on television. Some of its players were targeted by neighboring schools, happy to snap up any Tulane players who were skeptical if there would even be a Tulane to attend in the spring of 2006, after playing 11 games in 11 stadiums during the 2005 season.

“The problem wasn’t just that we were recruiting against CNN and the city was hobbled, it’s that Tulane University took a huge hit in terms of operating capital,” said Jimmy Ordeneaux, a prominent Tulane supporter and former Green Wave offensive lineman. “Tulane didn’t have a lot of cash on hand while it waited on insurance payments and was still trying to boost its undergraduate population and pay its staff. Managing the athletic department without that cash on hand was a huge challenge, considering it’s an enterprise that doesn’t lend itself to quick turnarounds.”

Even when the Green Wave returned to New Orleans in 2006, there were only minimal improvements on the field and even fewer in the stands, leading to Scelfo’s dismissal. Tulane’s administration recognized the unique challenge its next coach would face and selected an affable, confident 60-year-old Bob Toledo to take the reins, because of his experience as a head coach at three other programs.

Toledo earned the job after finalist Jim Harbaugh of San Diego University (currently coaching the San Francisco 49ers) was chosen to lead Stanford and Mike London, an assistant at Virginia (currently the Cavaliers head coach), was passed on due to a lack of experience, Dickson said.

But Toledo’s tenure failed to pull Green Wave football out of the doldrums. In fact, the hole grew deeper. In his first four seasons, Toledo compiled a 13-35 record and previously restless fans became infuriated as blowout losses — 21 defeats by at least 20 points — became routine.

In meetings with the press, Toledo was frequently critical of Tulane’s situation, negatively comparing it to his experience as UCLA’s coach from 1996-2002. Following a 44-13 loss to Army in 2008 at Tad Gormley, he blasted the playing surface, scoreboard, press box and locker room — even though Army faced identical conditions. He claimed Tulane was devoid of any home-field advantage in the Superdome after a 44-16 loss to Houston in 2009.

Toledo often qualified his remarks as “reasons, not excuses,” but they still drew ire from many Tulane supporters who believed he was deflecting blame. Nonetheless, Tulane controversially extended his contract following the 2010 season, bringing Toledo back for a fifth year.

“We didn’t do it out of loyalty to a coach; we did it because we thought it was best for Tulane football,” Dickson said. “Winning football is about building, and it takes putting proper layers on top of itself. We thought the incoming signees combined with the young nucleus we already had would get us on solid ground.”

Seven games later, after compiling a 2-5 record and four more losses by more than 20 points, Toledo was asked to resign. Under interim coach Mark Hutson, the Green Wave failed to win a game, breaking a school record with 11 losses.

Predictably, critics were widespread, citing Toledo’s tenure as a display in Tulane’s apathy about its football program. But Cowen points to the final decision to force a midseason resignation as a counter to their argument.

“Monday morning quarterbacking is wonderful, especially when you have no accountability,” Cowen said. “But for those of us at the university who live with these decisions every day and take them seriously, I could tell you it was a tough one. But we made a decisive decision once we decided that this wasn’t going to turn around.

“We stopped it right then and said we’re changing course.”

Meanwhile, as Tulane’s next coaching search was under way, various members of Conference USA were running for the exits. Athletic directors at several league schools made public pleas to join other conferences, desperate to grab a piece of record dollars funneling into BCS automatic-qualifying leagues.

In some cases it worked. SMU, Central Florida, Memphis and Houston accepted invitations to the Big East, leaving Tulane as one of just four schools remaining in C-USA from the 2003 season. To fill the void, Conference USA announced it would invite Texas-San Antonio, Old Dominion, North Texas, Louisiana Tech, Florida International and Charlotte.

Despite the drop in membership prestige, Cowen said the new formation of the league offers an array of opportunities with new markets and budding programs. Still, he recognized fans’ frustrations with the unknown quantities and expressed interest in discussing a change in affiliation, even mentioning previous talks with the Big 12.

“We are prepared to talk to any conference who would like to talk to us about joining,” Cowen said. “Our aspiration is to be in a conference that fits us best both academically and aspirations. We have never closed the door, and we are in constant conversations with them.

“So, I think anyone who thinks we aren’t open to discussion and talking with other leagues is naïve. I also think people are naïve if they think we should put a ‘For Sale’ sign in the newspaper. That’s not the way we operate, nor the way we should operate.”

Still, with the 2013-14 academic year approaching, Tulane is tied to Conference USA. But that doesn’t mean news turned stale around the Green Wave.

Within the same week last December, Tulane officially announced the hiring of former New Orleans Saints assistant Curtis Johnson as its next head coach and intentions to build a stadium, which, as news conference this week unveiled, is to be named Yulman Stadium. Both decisions, while publicly heralded by Cowen and Dickson, were met with staunch criticism in various circles.

A series of publicized rejections by coaching candidates, including high-profile prospects Rich Rodriguez, Tommy Bowden and Mike Leach, left the perception Johnson was a consolation prize. It’s a notion strongly denied by Tulane’s administration.

The stadium announcement was a watershed moment for the university and athletic department, a multi-million dollar infrastructure addition to transport Green Wave football back to its Uptown roots. But skepticism clouded the following months as neighborhood groups and even Tulane fans earnestly questioned the planning and foresight of the project.

Tulane held a series of meetings to discuss the stadium’s feasibility and impact, even tweaking some construction designs to reach a state of peace with neighboring residents. The compromises rankled skeptical Tulane fans, some of whom insist the estimated 30,000-person capacity is too small for a major college football program and lacks commitment to winning at anything above the Conference USA level.

Both Dickson and Cowen insist the stadium is being built with potential expansion in mind, and attracting a more prominent conference affiliation is a top priority.

“We are building this stadium to stand up on our own two feet,” Dickson said. “And it was important to me that if and when we do get on our feet, we have the ability to grow with it. I can assure you, we do.

“Anybody that doesn’t understand what the commitment that planning a stadium does at a place with a history and perception of not committing, well, there’s no bigger answer to that question and concern.

“Is it the perfect answer, now? No. Can it grow with us to meet our highest goals? Absolutely. We can’t build it the exact way we want now, because our program isn’t there yet. But we have put the past behind us and are growing the right way, in the right direction. This stadium confirms that, and the increased support in academics and financial ways reaffirms it.”

Whether or not the past is behind Tulane is still up for discussion. Full sections of empty seats still surround the program’s loyal supporters left in the Superdome, and the enthusiasm emanating from Tulane’s fans after homecoming 10 years ago has long since faded.

The events of the past decade have undoubtedly transformed the Green Wave’s history, and depending on whose perspective stands out, it is either a black cloud blocking future success or a lightning bolt providing a jolt of energy into a dormant and forgotten football program.

“There were a few times when we could have turned out the lights on this whole thing,” Dickson said. “It’s been tough the past seven or even 10 years. A long time ago, I made a vow to not leave a place that was laid flat on its back and had done nothing wrong. First, we needed to rebuild our programs — from five to 16 — and get our staff up to speed. That took until 2011 to get there.

“Then, it was my responsibility to convince those who needed to be convinced that it is now time to invest and follow through on the commitment that was made in ’03. We can demonstrate that given the right stage and staying the course with proper support, there’s nothing we can’t do.

“I know better than anyone that it’s been hard, and we’ve been through a lot, but we are finally getting to a stage and platform to operate on that hasn’t been here in generations.”