Scott Cowen will leave complicated sports legacy at Tulane

Tulane President Scott Cowen’s retirement announcement elicited a gamut of emotion from Green Wave fans, coaches and former players Friday.

Although he isn’t actually stepping away from his post until July 1, 2014, the reaction to his announcement, much like Cowen’s treatment of sports at Tulane, was polarized. As president since 1998, he had an intimate role in some of the school’s loftiest accomplishments, but he also oversaw some of the athletic department’s darkest days.

Cowen instigated a review of the athletic program’s Division I viability in 2003, but he also helped champion the department as a necessity in the tumultuous aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, played an instrumental role in its invitation to the American Athletic Conference (then known as the Big East) and assisted in the creation of Yulman Stadium, which will bring football back to campus for the first time since 1974.

“What he did after Katrina was absolutely incredible in so many ways,” said Tulane baseball coach Rick Jones, who has held his post since 1994. “There was no manual about how to lead a place in those kinds of times, and he basically wrote the book. Someone had to lead, and that was his position.”

Before the hurricane, Cowen oversaw the resignation of former athletic director Sandy Barbour and in 2000 hired Rick Dickson, who still holds the position. The Green Wave has mostly struggled in football and men’s basketball, with the exception with the 2002 football season, which ended with a victory in the Hawaii Bowl.

Tulane has had 10 straight losing football seasons since then, and the men’s basketball team has never reached the NCAA Tournament in Cowen’s 14 years. And both programs have hired three coaches in Cowen’s tenure.

While baseball flourished for many years under Jones, reaching the College World Series in 2001 and ’05, it also has fallen on hard times, missing the past five NCAA tournaments.

“I think people can look at the results and have a reason to think that he may not have done everything he can in terms of getting Tulane to a place where it was competitive at a championship level,” said Jimmy Ordeneaux, a Tulane alum, former player and current football sideline analyst. “But if you talk to him, you get the feeling he knows what’s going on in the athletic department and wants to win but hasn’t gotten there. However, we have increased our budgets drastically over the past few years for athletics — without taking in any more revenue — and that speaks to his commitment and the commitment to the university as a whole.”

Nowhere is that effect more evident than in the progress of Tulane’s sports facilities since 2008. Not only is the construction of Yulman Stadium a bellwether project for the athletic department, but the university and its donors entirely rebuilt baseball’s Turchin Stadium, renovated Fogelman Arena into the sleeker Devlin Fieldhouse and built the Hertz practice facility for basketball and volleyball.

Yet none of those projects have produced success to match. And fans’ critiques have focused on Cowen’s stringent academic standards — above NCAA minimums — for athletes as an impediment in recruiting

“We have been looking at whether our admissions standards are so out of line,” Cowen said in October. “The fact is we have a process that allows what we call ‘exceptions,’ and to date we haven’t even used the maximum number of exceptions. My feeling is some of the things that people complain to us about are tools that are already available to us.”

Cowen’s most notable splash on the national sports scene came for his work outside of Tulane. He was a vocal proponent on behalf of schools left out of the Bowl Championship Series, forming the Presidential Commission for Athletic Reform with the goal of equalizing the payouts from massive television and bowl contracts. His efforts helped bring a window of opportunity for BCS access to schools in the non-automatic qualifying conferences, and that will continue in the new playoff system starting in 2014.

“When I talk to other coaches around the country, they still remember him from that and remember what a role he took by just saying, ‘What about us?’ ” football coach Curtis Johnson said. “He’s part of the reason we can be relevant.”

Cowen unquestionably leaves behind a lot of losing seasons, plenty of empty seats and a noticeable absence of Green Wave gear in New Orleans — all obvious signs of a downtrodden program. But to Dickson, Cowen has unquestionably left the Green Wave in position to succeed going forward.

“It has not been easy ... but when you look at what he’s accomplished and what we’ve got coming up, we are in a great position,” he said. “Scott got us through some really hard times, and we had to hang on for life a couple of times, but now when you look at the support we have from the school and the facilities at our disposal and the league we are entering, I can’t help but be extremely optimistic. Tulane fans have him to thank for a lot of that.”