As Tulane’s Scott Cowen prepares to step aside, he shares his thoughts on the demise of the BCS, how the school moved past its athletics review and the football team’s surge under Curtis Johnson
In 1998, the year Scott Cowen became president of Tulane University, the Green Wave football team capped a perfect season with a victory in the Liberty Bowl, and the BCS was created.
Now, as Cowen prepares to retire next year, Tulane is back in a bowl game for only the second time since then. And the BCS, which Cowen led a drive to reform, is in its final season, to be replaced by the four-team College Football Playoff.
With the Wave’s New Orleans Bowl matchup with Louisiana-Lafayette coming up Saturday night, The Advocate discussed both subjects with Cowen:
The playoff picture
Advocate: It has been 10 years since you set out to bring down the BCS, and now both you and it are exiting together. What took you so long?
Cowen: I’ve always been a little slow. It’s interesting that in many ways we’re headed in the right direction and in other ways we’re not. On a positive side, we’re now moving to a four-team playoff system. But I think that a lot of the damage caused by the creation of the BCS has now been institutionalized, and you can’t eliminate that damage. We’ve created a two-tier system of the power conferences vs. the other conferences. With the branding and the money, the gaps really began to form dramatically in 1998. Those gaps have gotten larger and larger. And the playoff system isn’t going to undo those gaps.
Advocate: You did achieve better access during the past eight years, and there is guaranteed access going forward. Wasn’t that worthwhile?
Cowen: I think the answer is yes, because of no other reason than the access issue. We always said that was our No. 1 goal. If you have access, then you could prove yourself on the field. The other thing is that we’re getting a bigger slice of the financial pie. Of course, the pie is larger, too, so the dollar gaps are still large between the two. But for at least one moment in time, a group of colleges got together and said, “Enough is enough.”
Advocate: Is a four-team playoff enough, or do you think there will be pressure to increase it to eight or even 16 teams before the current 12-year agreement expires?
Cowen: I would have preferred an eight-team or 16-team playoff, but a four-team playoff is a good start. They made this a 12-year lock-in because they didn’t want to go through these discussions again. This is a good start, though.
Proud to be in the American
Advocate: Tulane is joining the American Athletic Conference next year. How do you think that will work out?
Cowen: It’s going to be a very strong conference in football. It will be extraordinarily strong in basketball and very good in all of the other sports. For Tulane, it was a nice step forward.
Also, we continue to compete against SMU and Memphis and Houston, schools we had been with before. But it also makes us a little more East Coast-centric with Connecticut and Temple, which is where so many of our students come from. We’re also more academically akin to them. And I think success will continue to make us an attractive school for perhaps other conferences.
Advocate: With the new system, unless a team from the American finishes in the top four in the nation, it will have no chance to play for the national championship. There is a guaranteed spot in another BCS-level bowl for the best team from the group of five, though. Is that a fair trade-off?
Cowen: It’s going to be tough to make the playoff. But that will encourage all of us to upgrade our nonconference scheduling and to be part of the strongest conference you can be in. At least we do have the guaranteed spot, and that’s going to be exciting.
Advocate: You’re doing a book that is set to be published when you retire. Will your BCS/review experiences be part of it?
Cowen: No. It’s really about the entire rebuilding of New Orleans, from education to housing to what’s happening with crime to the entrepreneurial system that’s being set up. However, I am starting to think about my next book, and it could be about sports or at least reflections on universities and having chapters about athletics. That could be a pretty provocative topic.
Advocate: Along with being the 10th anniversary of the coalition, this is also the 10th anniversary of the review. In retrospect, was it worth it?
Cowen: In my view, we had to do the review. It would have been irresponsible not to. We were losing a lot of money in athletics, and nobody was coming to the games. You had to ask yourself, “For whom are you doing this, and why?” I have no regrets that we did it. Yes, it probably hurt us for a couple of years in terms of recruiting. But in terms of setting a tone and a direction for the future — which to this day we continue to think about all the time — I think it was the right thing to do.
Advocate: When it was over, you said, “It got personal, ugly and very painful.” Do you still bear those scars?
Cowen: It’s not with me, but it’s with many of those same people who to this day think I’m the devil incarnate. For me, it’s always thinking about what is best for the institution. I felt it was the right question to ask back in 2003.
Advocate: Is it going to be a question your successor will have to ask anytime soon?
Cowen: I don’t think so. We’re in pretty good shape. For the first time in decades, we basically have all new or renovated facilities: the football stadium, the basketball/volleyball practice facility, Devlin Fieldhouse. Secondly, I think we’ve turned the corner in football, and I think we’ll continue to be successful. What I mean by that is competing every year for a conference title and going to bowl games. I think we’re headed in the right direction in basketball, although it was very unfortunate with all of the transfers. But (coach Ed Conroy) has brought in a lot of talented young guys who will go through a learning curve. So I feel that athletics is in pretty good shape and, with the new conference, that just adds to all of it.
Advocate: Was Katrina more damaging to the athletic department than the review?
Cowen: Without a doubt. I don’t think people realize how much that storm profoundly impacted the university and for how long it impacted the university. For several years, we didn’t have the resources to invest in athletics because we needed them to rebuild the academic enterprise and the campus. So athletics suffered. But as soon as we got ourselves on a pretty solid footing, we started to invest in athletics, and you can see the results of it.
Advocate: How gratifying has this football season been?
Cowen: First of all, I’m very pleased for (coach Curtis Johnson), his staff and the kids. We knew when we hired CJ he was going to be successful. But quite honestly, it’s coming faster than we thought. Going into a new conference will increase the competition, but with CJ’s recruiting and the talent he has already and the coaching staff, I think he will be successful. It’s extremely satisfying to go out with them in a bowl game right here in New Orleans in front of the hometown crowd.
Advocate: It’s often been said that, to compete in football, Tulane needs to make some academic accommodations for athletes, both in admissions and in available majors. Has that been done?
Cowen: People have already misunderstood the standards. We’ve always had the flexibility to admit the student-athletes that we felt could be successful.
We have some majors options for them we didn’t have before, especially in the School of Continuing Studies. But most are still taking the standard majors.
I’m very proud of how our athletes are doing academically.
Advocate: Next year, the football team will be in Yulman Stadium. Do you look at that move as a gamble?
Cowen: No. It will bring football back to campus and be a great resource for the community.
It’s going to further enhance the esprit de corps among the students, and it will bring together the neighborhoods who will remember the days when people walked to the games. It’s a win-win-win for everybody.
Somebody told me the other day that my biggest legacy here will be the football stadium.
I always thought it was rebuilding after Katrina, but it shows you how some people think.
Advocate: You do realize, though, that your fans have been spoiled by 38 years in the Superdome and haven’t had to sit in the heat or the cold or the rain at home in ages. How do you think the ones who aren’t in suites will respond to that?
Cowen: It’s going to be a new experience. But my view is that it’s the way college football is meant to be experienced. I’d played in lot of cold games at UConn, and that’s the way it supposed to be played.
I think people will love it because we’ll be on campus, we’ll tailgate, and we’ll watch the games together.
Advocate: The New Orleans Bowl will be your last as president. Can your hair stand one more dye job?
Cowen: Absolutely. And I’ll let the players decide what color they want.