AUGUST 31, 2017

Tulane is in a football renaissance

The Green Wave eyes a new future

By Les East

It seems Tulane is always chasing its past.

The Green Wave and their followers have yearned for a return to a more successful era in their football history.

Imagine a charter member of the Southeastern Conference playing its games in an 80,000-seat stadium on campus. A long time ago that was Tulane football.

But things changed dramatically in 1966 when the Green Wave withdrew from the SEC and nine years later they left Tulane Stadium for the Superdome.

That left the Green Wave languishing for much of the last several decades, struggling as an independent or member of a fledgling conference and playing in the cavernous and mostly empty Superdome devoid of virtually any atmosphere.

I've covered a lot of Tulane teams and games during that time, chronicling the university's constant and mostly futile attempts to regain some semblance of its heyday, trying to land in a relevant conference and find a way to lure students, alumni and other New Orleanians to the Dome or bring the mountain to Mohammed with an on-campus facility.

I remember writing about Tulane's candidacy to join the old Southwest Conference nearly 30 years ago. The Green Wave didn't make the cut and the SWC schools were absorbed mostly into the Big XII some time later.

I remember writing about Tulane becoming a charter member of Conference USA not long after the SWC courtship fizzled.

Marketing plan after marketing plan was implemented in a vain attempt to suddenly convince people to head downtown to watch the Green Wave play. Kickoff times were moved from Saturday night to early afternoon to late afternoon. None of them made any difference.

I covered the undefeated season in 1998 when Tommy Bowden and Rich Rodriguez and Shaun King and the late JaJuan Dawson and others made Green Wave football a national story.

They built an offense and a team that finished No. 7 in the country but only a modest number of additional fans negotiated their way downtown to watch Tulane outscore C-USA foes.

Periodic hand wringing over the departure from the SEC and the demise of Tulane Stadium, which was demolished in 1980, contributed to the malaise surrounding the program.

In 2003, there was the heated in-house evaluation of whether Tulane football and the rest of the athletic programs should continue to compete in the highest level of NCAA sports.

Finally -- even reluctantly in some quarters -- it was determined that Tulane would soldier on with football at the same level with the same conference and stadium issues. Two years later Hurricane Katrina nearly washed the whole thing away.

In 2011, I was transferred to Baton Rouge and didn't cover Tulane at all for five years. I returned to New Orleans shortly before last season and covered one Green Wave game last fall.

This season I'll be reunited with Tulane football and things are much different from the last time I covered it.

The Green Wave now belongs to the American Athletic Conference with rivals stretching from South Florida to Hartford to Dallas and Tulsa and various points in between.

The SEC it ain't, but in the current landscape of college football it seems a good fit for Tulane.

Then there's Yulman Stadium. It's not the Superdome, but it is on campus. It's not the size of Tulane Stadium, but nowadays that would be a waste of space on a campus that can't spare an inch.

The Green Wave are beginning their fourth season in the American, which coincides with their time in Yulman.

They're beginning their second season under coach Willie Fritz, who has won on three different levels of college football.

This time of year a lot of us feel nostalgic about Tulane Stadium and the SEC and a time when Tulane football was very different. But college football too is very different nowadays.

The Green Wave's glory days are gone and they aren't coming back. But I don't think it's an overstatement to say that we've entered a sort of renaissance for Tulane football.

Look at it this way:

Green Wave fans can spend Fall Saturdays tailgating on campus, watching the Green Wave compete in an appropriate conference in a new stadium. A coach who's a proven winner is rebuilding an FBS program that represents a university whose well-regarded academic reputation remains intact.

All in all that seems like a pretty good deal.