At some colleges, calling it a tradition would be selling it short. Religion might be a better word.
The college football experience has woven its way into the tapestry of America, becoming as fundamental to higher education as late-night cram sessions or throwing a Frisbee in the quad.
It’s all-day tailgates and the buzz of pregame beers and barbecue. It’s the student section roaring the fight song, nervous chatter before kickoff and the ear-popping din after a touchdown.
As 30,000 Tulane fans prepare to pile into Yulman Stadium for the first time Saturday, one of the central questions is how the new stadium might transform the university’s once deep but recently tepid relationship with football.
For years, Tulane football has been more of an afterthought than an asset, with many students feeling the trek to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for home games was more trouble than it was worth — an opinion that seemed validated by the sea of empty seats.
But with a sparkling new $73 million stadium to be unveiled during Saturday’s home opener against Georgia Tech, watching the Green Wave on the gridiron could soon become an essential part of the Tulane experience.
It might even spark an uptick in admissions, if Tulane garners the reputation of a university with serious academic chops and a competitive football team to boot — much as a top-notch basketball program has helped raise Duke University’s profile.
Research by Harvard professor Douglas Chung has shown that success in major sports often boosts a school’s desirability and selectivity.
“The primary form of mass media advertising by academic institutions in the United States is, arguably, through their athletic program,” Chung said in an interview with Forbes last year.
Chung’s research centers on the “Flutie effect,” named after former Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie, whose dramatic 1984 Hail Mary pass against the University of Miami immediately raised the profile of his school.
Within two years, applications at Boston College had shot up by 30 percent.
David Soto, director of content development at the Princeton Review, said that while Tulane is ranked highly by students for quality of life and student happiness, it doesn’t get much love for its game-day experience. The new on-campus stadium could change that, making the school more of a draw for non-athletes as well as football players.
“Certainly, I do think that from a school spirit perspective, having an established stadium on campus would benefit that overall experience,” Soto said.
Campus spirit high
Morgan Wittenberg, Tulane’s student body president, said in an interview this week that school spirit on campus has risen to meteoric highs as students gear up for the game.
“It has been just remarkable seeing the passion and the excitement for the Green Wave,” she said.
During last week’s away game at Tulsa, Wittenberg said, a large number of students gathered on campus to watch the game, an unprecedented show of enthusiasm. New university President Michael Fitts even stopped by to root on the Green Wave.
The convenience factor of having the stadium next to campus will change everything, Wittenberg predicted. Previously, students either had to catch shuttles or rely on their own transportation to make it down to the Dome.
“For some students, it was disorienting to have to go so far from campus,” she said.
Greg Feiling, associate director of student programs at Tulane, agreed that the commute to the Superdome was a hugely limiting factor in support for the football team.
“It is a big difference for a freshman in the dorm who might have to get out of bed early, get on a shuttle and bring whatever tailgating supplies they need,” Feiling said.
The ability to walk to the game will provide a “much more student-centered experience,” he said.
Feiling hopes the new stadium will lead to a culture shift on campus, with athletics in general becoming a more prominent part of the Tulane experience.
He pointed to his own experience at Middle Tennessee State University as an example of such a transformation. There, he said, a renovated on-campus stadium revitalized the school’s relationship with the football team, a change that bled over to other sports as well.
Tulane has played in the Superdome since 1975, and though the 75,000-plus capacity stadium has been a boon for the New Orleans Saints, students described it as overwhelming for Green Wave games.
The sheer size of the Dome made Tulane crowds seem minuscule, as even headline games rarely drew more than 15,000 fans. Less-heralded match-ups drew a fraction of that.
Lindsey Pratt, a 2010 Tulane graduate, said that despite dating a football player, she made it to only a handful of games.
“I really can’t stress how few people there were,” she said. “They would bus us down to the Superdome, and there would be, like, three rows filled and that was it.”
Pratt said students looking for a more robust football experience would often take the drive to Baton Rouge to watch LSU.
Wittenberg said the Dome’s cavernous size made it hard to feel that the crowd had much of an impact on the game.
“You can’t make the Dome feel loud and exciting when you’re pulling from such a small constituency,” she said.
Benjamin Hochman, a former Times-Picayune sportswriter who used to cover the Green Wave, said the lackluster attendance often made him feel sorry for the Tulane faithful.
“I would feel bad because I really got to know a lot of the passionate, diehard Tulane fans,” he said.
Hochman, now a columnist for the Denver Post, said crowds were small even when Tulane had success, such as in the 2002 season, when the Green Wave finished 8-5 and defeated the University of Hawaii in the Hawaii Bowl.
A fresh start
Hochman said it was apparent university administrators had to do something to jump-start the program if they ever wanted football to be an essential part of the Tulane experience. He said a new stadium was really the only choice.
“The stadium helps recruiting; recruiting can lead to bowl games; and bowl games can lead to a sustainable program,” he said.
LSU, a perennial national championship contender, likely owes part of its success over the years to the electric atmosphere of “Death Valley,” recently characterized by ESPN as the toughest place to play in the country.
“It’s hair-raising,” said Chet Hilburn, author of a book about Tiger Stadium. “There’s a huge energy force that comes alive on Saturday night. I’ve had many people say it makes the body tingle and people come alive.”
The experience is a far cry from the empty seats and small tailgating scene Tulane students experienced when the team played at the Dome.
Tulane supporters said it’s too early to well whether Tulane will ever become a “football school” in the sense that it was in decades past.
But they hope that in the future the university might be considered a high-performing academic school with strong athletic spirit as well.
“I hope the casual kid in 2004 who might have only gone to one home game will only miss one home game in 2014,” Hochman said.