Lewis: Time might be right for another dicussion on Tulane athletics

A decade ago, they were dancing on Willow Street.

On this day in 2003, after a painful, divisive six-month evaluation of the Tulane athletic department, the school’s board of trustees voted that the Green Wave would remain in Division I, thanks primarily to an unexpected outpouring of support that manifested itself in a joyous celebration outside the trustees’ meeting room.

“People came out of the woodwork whom I thought had forgotten about Tulane,” board member emeritus Bill Goldring said at the time. “I think it was the greatest thing that ever happened to Tulane athletes.”

Added another longtime board member, the late Larry Israel: “From the response I saw, the apathy seems to be over.”

School president Scott Cowen called throwing his support for staying the course “a leap of faith,” thanks to his epiphany over the level of passion fans had shown.

But there were caveats out there, as well.

“We’ve uncovered something that’s been buried for decades,” said Rick Dickson, then and now Tulane’s athletic director. “We can’t allow it to go back underground.”

Ten years later, Dickson’s admonition has come true.

It’s hard to find much public passion for the Green Wave these days. Tulane athletics don’t seem to matter much, at least not like they did not too long ago.

Even good news is tempered. Admission to the Big East was followed by the conference disintegrating so much that it will have a new name — the American Athletic Conference — by the time Tulane comes on board next year.

And Yulman Stadium, which will bring football back to campus in 2014 after a 40-year absence, has been criticized for the logistical problems its location will cause and size, or lack thereof, which, if you think about it, should be mutually exclusive.

It’s easy enough to blame the review, and by extension Cowen, who recently announced his retirement effective June 1, 2014, for the reasons things are at such a low state.

But if Cowen was the instigator of a conspiracy to do away with Tulane athletics, it takes another leap of faith to believe he had the patience to allow so long for it to come to fruition. As president, he did and does have a fiduciary duty to the university.

No, Tulane’s current status can be laid on the greatest natural disaster the area has ever endured, the city’s growing disinterest in college sports in general and missteps within the athletic department since then (No. 1 — Extending Bob Toledo’s contact in 2011), pretty much in that order.

Katrina knocked Tulane — the university, not just the athletic department — to its knees. It’s almost forgotten that in the summer of 2005, the Green Wave football team had 17 starters back from a 5-6 the year before, baseball had gone to the College World Series that spring and Dave Dickerson was heading into his first season as the men’s basketball coach.

It’s not hard to see a different path for all three sports in a world where Katrina never happened.

And if you think it’s just a Tulane thing, look at how UNO athletics almost disappeared since Katrina and are still operating on a shoestring, plus how the Sugar Bowl and Bayou Classic are being played before thousands of empty seats, along with embarrassingly low turnouts for NCAA tournament events (other than the 2012 Men’s Final Four).

New Orleans is a Saints town, and to a lesser extent a Pelicans town. Selling a second-tier college program that doesn’t win to the masses when the alums and current students don’t seem to care much is an uphill climb — especially when there’s been a long disconnect between the city and its largest private employer.

Not that Tulane impresses anyone with its marketing efforts. A seeming lack of accountability within the department (baseball has now gone five years without an NCAA appearance, and Georgia and Auburn just fired their coaches after less fallow periods) will cause acute cynicism.

So was the wrong decision made 10 years ago?

Hindsight’s always a cheap commodity. But as Cowen admonished everyone at the time: “I can’t reiterate enough — we need the support of the community. Not just next year, but year in and year out. You have to stay with us.”

Perhaps that was never going to happen.

Many of the football season ticket pledges at the time were from out-of-towners who were never going to use them, a sure way to assure nonrenewals. Fundraising has hit the same snags.

Outside forces — mainly the storm and a recession that’s hit discretionary spending on all fronts — didn’t help, either.

But certainly it would have been useful to have had a fuller discussion of the issues in 2003.

And it could be time to have one again.