Losing football programs are always waiting for a pivot.
It could be a season, a game or even a moment that provides the long-anticipated launching point toward success.
For Tulane’s football program, that moment has been at least a decade in the making. But the upcoming season arrives with the team on the cusp of unprecedented transition.
Brand new Yulman Stadium in the heart of Uptown and an invitation to the American Athletic Conference greet the Green Wave a year from now, leaving one last season in a watered-down Conference USA.
Players report to preseason camp Friday, with an opportunity matching the magnitude of its cavernous current home, the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Following four straight years of last-place C-USA finishes, 10 consecutive losing seasons and more than a half-century of failing to win consistently, this season — combined with the radical changes coming in 2014 — could provide the sought-after paradigm shift at Tulane.
“There’s a synergy that we are anticipating and banking on,” Tulane Athletic Director Rick Dickson said. “Look, we know the stadium itself will generate some talk and buzz, but if we couple it with a high-quality league and the direction of winning, and those things all build on each other, it makes this exponentially bigger.”
The hope of a streak-snapping, culture-shifting season isn’t just the product of a hopeful administration, desperate fans or a drummed-up marketing campaign. It’s not even the result of coach Curtis Johnson’s expectant improvement entering his second year.
While the arrival of junior-college transfer quarterback Nick Montana and three all-conference preseason first-team selections should be enough to drastically improve last year’s 2-10 team, the belief in victory is grounded in a schedule of opponents who have struggled as much as the Green Wave.
Conference realignment removed perpetual C-USA headaches Houston, Central Florida, Memphis and SMU. Since the league’s previous realignment in 2005, Tulane compiled a 5-18 record against the departing quartet. Conference USA replaced those dates on the schedule with ground-level programs North Texas, Florida Atlantic and Texas-San Antonio.
Add in nonconference games against Football Championship Subdivision squad Jackson State and Football Bowl Subdivision upstart South Alabama to start the season, along with a C-USA game against scuffling UTEP in late November, and Tulane’s path to six wins and a bowl game becomes realistic — even if the actual progress is viewed pessimistically.
“We know it’s on us to win these games. Nothing is going to be handed to us, no matter what the schedule says,” Johnson said. “We were still picked to finish close to last (sixth of seven teams in C-USA’s Western Division), so everyone is looking at us and saying the same thing about us that our people are saying about those smaller names on our schedule. It doesn’t mean anything at this point.”
Considering the new investment and deteriorated Tulane fan base, which long ago lost patience with the on-field product, the jolt provided by a bowl invitation this season could immediately justify Tulane’s decision to devote more than $60 million toward Yulman Stadium.
The combination of a winning season, more respected conference affiliation and new stadium has the potential to firmly push Tulane football back into the local sports consciousness for the first time in at least a decade. It’s a potential break everyone in the university is eyeing, from ticket sales to major gifts.
“We are seeing the momentum from the new stadium already carry into new season ticket sales because anyone who buys them this year automatically gets a chance to buy them next year,” executive associate athletic director Brandon MacNeill said. “Now, the more successful we can be on the field and hopefully get into a bowl game, well, it could really catapult it for us.”
The confluence of events also could shorten the typical timetable on rebuilding the fan base, Dickson said. He cited winning seasons in 2000 and ’02, which only slightly boosted attendance in the Superdome, claiming it normally takes years of consistency to recapture people’s attention and affection after long losing spells.
But in producing momentum by winning over the next four months, Dickson believes Tulane has a chance to immediately double down on its investment and rejuvenate the Green Wave in a flash.
“I think what will make this stadium an absolute no-brainer is not only the novelty of reconnecting our fans with our campus and history, but a genuinely competitive and successful team,” he said. “In the end, a quality product on the field is what we need to sustain all of this.
“I’m confident we will be fine next year, whether we have a great season this upcoming year or not. But this season can really have a huge catalyzing impact on what we do, going beyond the stadium opening and well into our future.”