Ten years after review, Tulane’s sports woes linger

Ten years after ending a controversial athletics review by deciding to stay in Division I, Tulane has little success to show for it.

If the mindset going forward was supposed to resemble the University of Miami, the results have been more like Rice — minus the Owls’ recent baseball success. And even the Rice football team has been to three bowl games in the past decade, winning two of them.

Tulane’s football team, which was coming off an 8-5 bowl season in 2002, has posted 10 consecutive losing records. The men’s basketball team did not sniff a postseason bid until reaching the lower-level CollegeInsider.com tournament this March. The baseball team, after reaching the College World Series for the second time in 2005, has failed to reach the regional round for five straight years, easily its longest drought since the 1970s.

But outgoing Tulane President Scott Cowen, who last month announced he will retire in July 2014, and athletic director Rick Dickson, now in his 15th year, insist the pieces are in place for a turnaround. After the program was sidetracked for several years by Hurricane Katrina, they say the review was a catalyst rather than a curb for future success.

“It was a very painful review for everybody, internally and externally,” Cowen said.

“But I absolutely think it was the right thing to have done for athletics and for the university, and I have no doubts about that at all. We had to raise those questions that were raised, and by raising those questions, it gave us a better sense of the pathway we had to go to build athletics.”

Cowen had been at Tulane 4½ years when he ordered the review because of an annual athletic budget shortfall of nearly $7 million. Dickson was in his fourth year.

Some of the options the school’s board of trustees considered were to forego football entirely or drop to Division III in all sports, eliminating the need for scholarships. Ultimately, they voted unanimously to stay in Division I, but not until Tulane’s athletic future was in serious doubt.

“For the negatives that came along with it, the positives outweighed it,” Dickson said. “We went through very painful steps, but it was probably like any radical surgery. You either come out much stronger, or the prognosis isn’t good. We came out much stronger. The purpose was to thoroughly, once and for all, make the decision: Is Tulane committed to athletics, given the landscape out there nationally, as it keeps evolving and as the bar keeps getting higher?

“Even though we had to go through radical surgery to get that answer, the answer came out overwhelmingly yes.”

Commitment or not, the results have been underwhelming, with dwindling attendance as the losses mount.

The Tulane Hullabaloo, the student newspaper, reported a turnstile attendance of 2,119 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for the Green Wave’s 27-26 victory against SMU in October.

The men’s basketball team never came close to filling tiny on-campus Devlin Fieldhouse (capacity: 3,600). The season-high listed attendance of 2,637 was for a Friday afternoon game against Nebraska-Omaha that was a “School Day at Tulane” promotion, with busloads of kids from local schools in the building.

Tulane has not been able to keep successful Olympic sports coaches from leaving for lesser jobs. Women’s golf coach Andrew Pratt, whose team finished a program-best ninth at the NCAA Championships last month, took an assistant’s job with Auburn last week. Sand volleyball coach Alan Segal, whose team was ranked as high as No. 9, departed for local De La Salle High School.

Cowen and Dickson point to recent positives in the physical plant. Tulane opened a sparkling basketball and practice facility, the $13 million Hertz Center, in November 2011. And the school is building an on-campus football facility, Yulman Stadium, that will debut in 2014. That will end a 40-year stay in the Superdome, which was decidedly lacking in atmosphere.

Tulane also is leaving Conference USA, which has been marginalized by multiple defections, for the American Athletic Conference in 2014-15. The November announcement caused a much bigger stir because the new league then was still known as the Big East instead of what is essentially a reconstituted C-USA.

But the competition level and exposure will be significantly better than if the school had remained in its current league.

“The answer (to critics who say Tulane is not committed to winning) is not a rhetorical one now,” Dickson said. “We’re pouring well over $100 million and, before it’s over, maybe $150 million into revamping and rebuilding. We’re really building a foundation under this athletic program that syncs up with the (review) decision.

“It’s one thing to say you’re committed, but if you’re not making the commitments, you’re not invested in it. Now we’re invested in it.”

Still, without winning, the pluses are nothing more than window dressing, and Tulane has lost at an alarming rate in all of its major sports in the past 10 years.

The football team has finished below .500 in C-USA games every season since the review. The men’s basketball team has finished 4-12 or worse four times in Conference USA even though the league became significantly weaker after the departures of Louisville and Cincinnati. The baseball team, which reached two College World Series and the regionals in 12 of coach Rick Jones’ first 15 years, bottomed out at 30-28 this year, the fewest wins of Jones’ tenure.

Many, but not all, of the problems can be attributed to Hurricane Katrina, which forced the most promising Green Wave football team of the century (17 starters back from a 5-6 team) to play 11 games in 11 cities in 2005 (result: 2-9) and left the athletic program reeling.

Dickson presided over a barebones staff that he said was cut to 52 from 110, and Tulane went from 16 sports to five for the next few years. Last year, Tulane fielded 16 teams for the first time since Katrina.

“Katrina set us back at least four years before we could start reinvesting in athletics,” Cowen said. “I feel good about where we are in athletics, and I expect the next thing to happen is to have competitive teams in all the major sports every single year.”

Questionable coaching hires have hurt just as much. Dickson has hired three basketball coaches (Shawn Finney, Dave Dickerson and Ed Conroy) and two football coaches (Bob Toledo and Curtis Johnson).

Finney lasted from 2000-05 and went 60-86 before getting fired. Dickerson, a Maryland assistant whose first year coincided with Katrina, never recovered from that horrendous beginning. He was 68-84 in five years, ending with an 8-22 season.

Unlike in basketball, Dickson went for experience in football, hiring former UCLA coach Bob Toledo before 2007. That move backfired, too: Toledo never won more than four games in a year. After receiving a surprising reprieve in 2011, he resigned at midseason and Tulane went on to lose a school-record 11 games.

“Certainly you learn (from each experience), but it’s not like there’s a magic formula,” Dickson said. “I always vet real closely the quality people they are and the quality professionals they are, and then you try to help them manage the circumstances they’re facing.”

The troubles are unique to each sport.

Baseball coach Rick Jones, whom Dickson is bringing back for his 21st year, has struggled with new scholarship rules the NCAA adopted for 2009 that disproportionately hurt private schools with high tuitions.

Basketball coaches have to recruit around Devlin Fieldhouse, which received a facelift this past year but remains antiquated and small.

Football coaches have to recruit to Tulane’s academic standards, which are higher than many of its conference competitors.

At least they are getting more academic support once they arrive. Tulane is adding majors that are more athlete-friendly this summer; Dickson cited physical therapy, exercise nutrition and homeland security as examples. And for the past few years, athletes have been able to register for classes before the rest of the student body, an almost universal practice in college sports but not previously an option at Tulane.

“When I started there, I wanted to have Italian as my minor, but I couldn’t have priority registration and I couldn’t take it in the spring because it was during football practice,” said quarterback Ryan Griffin, who spent five years on campus. “It’s come a long, long way.”

Conroy and Johnson also walked into tough situations.

Conroy inherited little talent or depth when he took over before 2010-11. After two years in the C-USA basement, he guided the Green Wave to a 20-15 record (6-10 in C-USA) this season — then had six players transfer, including 2011-12 C-USA freshman of the year Ricky Tarrant and 2012-13 first-team all-conference selection Josh Davis. The Wave will try to reload with a seven-man signing class.

Entering his second year, Johnson has changed Tulane’s recruiting philosophy, concentrating on local talent while selling his winning connections as a former assistant with the Saints and University of Miami. He dealt with impossible obstacles as the Green Wave went 2-10, including a horrifying cervical spine fracture to starting safety Devon Walker; the preseason arrest of star linebacker Trent Mackey for allegedly setting up an armed robbery; and a shoulder injury that cost Griffin three games.

History says Johnson faces an uphill climb, but Cowen, whose image among Tulane fans never recovered from the 2003 review, said the summit is in sight. The Wave went 12-0 in 1998, Cowen’s first year as president, but has finished above .500 just once since then.

“I thought (going undefeated) would happen every year,” Cowen said. “Little did I know it was a fluke. It will be my luck: I suspect I will leave, we will go undefeated in football and they will say, ‘See? Once he left, we went undefeated in football.’

“But you know what? I hope that comes true.”