Rabalais: More and more Louisiana players calling Tulane home

Tulane football may be building a new house, but it’s sticking with the old neighborhood.

This fall, for the first time in 40 years, the Green Wave will play its home games on campus. Tulane will open the gates Sept. 6 on brand-new Yulman Stadium, a gleamng 30,000-seat facility wedged into the sliver of Uptown New Orleans Tulane’s campus calls home.

It’s a heady time for Green Wave football, the new facility paired with Tulane’s entry into the American Athletic Conference. AAC games will take the Green Wave to Tulsa and UCF and Houston and East Carolina this season, and eventually to Connecticut and Cincinnati and Memphis and Philadelphia to play Temple.

But the guys making the trips are, increasingly, players who call Louisiana home.

According to Tulane, its undergraduate students come from all 50 states and 58 countries.

That’s fine as far as diversity goes, and a football team should positively reflect its student body.

But over the years, Tulane’s roster perhaps became too splintered, too far flung, and less identifiable for the local fans. It was a legitimate factor in the program’s waning attendance.

That has changed under third-year coach Curtis Johnson. This year’s Tulane roster includes 70 players from Louisiana, 65 of them from the southeast corner of the state. Their hometowns are places like Amite, Belle Chasse, Destrehan, New Iberia and Port Sulphur.

It’s a conscious effort on Johnson’s part to build a team that can win, yes, like last year’s squad that went 7-6 and played Louisiana-Lafayette before nearly 55,000 raucous fans in the New Orleans Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome — Tulane’s old address. But he also wants a team that has strong ties to the community just outside its locker room walls.

“The Superdome is a pro venue,” said Johnson, animated and crackling with energy as he spoke Thursday during his team’s football media day, but in a way that was completely endearing and charming. “Now we can walk to the games. Everyone can see us play. The community is behind us.

“The stadium will be a big boost for us — and the uptown community.”

Tulane running back Sherman Badie, who played his high school football for prep superpower John Curtis, said he was drawn to play for the Green Wave by the sense of family that courses through the program.

“It’s a brotherhood,” he said. “We feel if we recruit a lot of Louisiana prospects to come here, we can draw more attention to New Orleans people will come and support us more.”

Tulane was the last scholarship offer for former University High linebacker Jarrod Franklin, but the Green Wave quickly went to the top of his list. The chance to play football in his backyard and receive a world-class education was too good to pass up.

“There’s no saying no to Tulane with the academics and it being just an hour from Baton Rouge,” Franklin said.

Redshirt freshman quarterback Tanner Lee of Jesuit never really intended to go anywhere but Tulane. This was always where he felt most at home.

“I think it’s a natural-born chemistry on our team,” said Lee, the favorite to take the first snap when Tulane opens Aug. 28 at Tulsa. “In our locker room we’re all talking about the times when we played against each other in high school. It’s such a family.”

Like any family, this one isn’t perfect. It’s got some baggage.

History may be the biggest obstacle of all for a Tulane program trying to re-establish a winning culture. Tulane has posted back-to-back winning seasons only four times since 1950. Only once in that 64-year run has the Green Wave had three straight winning seasons (1979-81).

But you have to start — or rebuild — someplace. Doing so with homegrown players is to Johnson’s thinking the best way.

Even after one winning season he said he’s gotten folks to stop and recognize him in the grocery store.

“It’s great,” Johnson said. “They’re paying attention. We’re getting to be relevant. It kind of feels good.

“At least we’re not an afterthought.”

With a homegrown roster like this, there’s little chance of that.

Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.