Tents are popping up in Uptown New Orleans. Cans are cracking on the Lavin-Bernick Center quad. Music is playing on McAllister Drive.
It’s Mardi Gras on a college campus. Nearly 40 years after it left, college football is back home at Tulane.
Words like community, festivity, event and celebration have been injected into the Green Wave nomenclature for the first time in generations, as Tulane’s most valued stakeholders drummed up the effort to make privately financed, $75 million Yulman Stadium a reality.
Beyond money, the stadium’s opening is the result of a decade’s worth of proactive imagination, determination and persuasion. Its momentum crests at 3 p.m. Saturday when the Green Wave kicks off against Georgia Tech.
“We wanted a place Tulane alumni, students and fans could call home,” former university President Scott Cowen said. “This is the place. Yulman Stadium is our home, and it’s going to be great to be home.”
As fans meander from tailgating villages to their seats, a glance around the stadium reveals some of the detailed planning necessary. The stadium sits on a squeezed-in sliver of land between two previously existing city streets and a pair of athletic buildings.
But the snug confines hardly reveal the lobbying, brokering and bare-knuckle negotiating it took to even put a stake in the ground. Nor does it show the newfound financial life being pumped into the program, after decades in the college football wilderness.
The process began on the notion that in order for Tulane’s football program to thrive, a long-term plan was necessary. Months after a controversial 2003 internal review nearly knocked the Green Wave out of Division I athletics and dropped football altogether, Cowen and Tulane Athletic Director Rick Dickson set out on the mission of making Tulane football something capable of sustained success.
But after a few feasibility studies had scantly moved the wheels into motion, disaster struck New Orleans in August 2005. The devastation caused to Tulane’s physical plant, financials and city in the wake of Hurricane Katrina put any facility plans on hiatus and set up another critical decision about whether Green Wave athletics should be in the school’s future.
While Tulane scrambled to attract prospective students to a city shrouded in uncertainty, the NCAA and Conference USA allowed the Green Wave to compete with just five programs, buying time before reinstating a full 16-sport athletic program.
“Post-Katrina, we had to make a fundamental decision whether to continue Division I athletics,” said Doug Hertz, a member of Tulane’s board of trustees. “Once we got back on our feet after a few years and enrollment started to pick up again, we quietly considered what the future of athletics was. From my perspective we were in no man’s land.
“We were in no-man’s land with conference affiliation. We were in no man’s land with regards to backing from the university. We were in no man’s land, certainly, with facilities. So the committee, the board and President Cowen had to make a decision to either make a commitment to build the facilities to give our athletic program and give us a real chance, or we have to go the other way and end this thing.”
Tulane chose life.
Its journey back from the brink began by opening a 5,000-seat baseball stadium in 2008 and followed with discussions on a new basketball facility to replace 80-year-old Fogelman Arena. But when initial estimates of construction projected a 6,500-seat arena would cost nearly $55 million, the conversation shifted.
Dickson’s belief in the benefits of an on-campus football stadium and the higher-than-expected cost of a basketball arena spurred the athletics director toward a new approach. In his next meeting with architects on the basketball project, Dickson requested an altered design at the site and created initial plans for a football stadium.
As the college athletics landscape increasingly favored football powers, Dickson viewed the ability to draw from multiple revenue streams while creating a tailored and inviting experience for Tulane fans as critical in rebuilding the Green Wave’s tattered budget and shrinking fan base. Those options were impossible if Tulane continued to rent out space in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
In the arena’s place, Tulane built a new practice facility for basketball and volleyball, led by a donation from Hertz, who insisted the design fit in with a larger commitment to Tulane athletics.
“I knew we ought to have it somewhat connected to a football stadium,” Hertz said. “Frankly, unless we were going to do the whole thing, I probably wouldn’t have stepped out. But I felt I needed to, in order to get the whole thing going. If we just built a single facility without a real plan around it in place, that would not have been smart. The design was set up and the building was placed with the football stadium in mind.”
Dickson wanted to illustrate what was possible on Tulane’s small footprint, so he traveled with Cowen, Hertz and Richard Yulman to tour basketball and football facilities at Georgia Tech, Miami, Florida Atlantic and Florida International. By the trip’s conclusion, a decision had to be reached.
“It was right there in a conference room FIU had set up, and (Yulman) asked (Cowen) what he thought,” Dickson said. “And he said, ‘This could be the game-changer we have been looking for.’ From there, we had the mandate to do this.”
Then, Tulane had to pay for it.
The school’s long-standing conservative approach to facilities meant a large portion of financing would need to be raised prior to public campaigning. So, Tulane turned to its board.
Jill and Avie Glazer, whose family owns the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers and English Premier League’s Manchester United, knew the power of sports in a community and stepped forward with a $5 million donation challenge and allowed Tulane to publicly kick off its appeal to fans.
“Ever since we moved to New Orleans, I would go speak with people at coffee shops, I heard all of these great stories about Tulane Stadium and what it meant to the community,” Jill Glazer said. “So I knew this was the kind of project that can really have an impact for everyone here and mean something. It came up at a board meeting, and I went home and told my husband that if we get involved, there was a way we could help make this actually happen.”
But even with the Glazer’s momentum-pushing challenge, a lead gift was still necessary to pull the project along. Cowen targeted an array of potential donors before reaching out to an admittedly “reluctant candidate” in former chairman and owner of Serta International, Richard Yulman. The board member had previously discussed giving a large gift to the university for an entirely different capital project but wasn’t completely sold on a football stadium.
“Richard Yulman’s gift was originally for something we wanted at the university that, without his money, we couldn’t do,” Tulane VP of external affairs Yvette Jones said. “But we couldn’t quite come up with the project. Then, we started talking to him about the stadium. Talk about something we couldn’t do without him, this was it.”
It took some time, but eventually Yulman and his wife, Janet, were on board. His change in attitude was so abrupt, it even caught Cowen off guard. In the midst of a committee meeting, following a report on the fruitless search for a lead gift, Yulman discretely gave Cowen the green light.
“I whispered in his ear that it may not be exactly what I want to do, but if he can’t find anyone else, I’ll be there to make sure this happens,” Yulman said. “It was not my goal to have a stadium named after me. Now, I’m happy I did it, because I’m so humbled by the excitement and enthusiasm in the city for it and seeing just how much it means to people in the community.”
A renewed partnership between Tulane and the Saints helped bring owner Tom Benson and his wife Gayle into the fold, donating $7.5 million for naming rights on the field. Months later, Gayle was added to the Tulane board and is a vital member of the school’s upper-level decision making.
While the large gifts came in, opponents of the stadium began to organize.
Upon its initial introduction to the public, a neighborhood group consisting of residents on adjoining Audubon Boulevard and across the university area rose in anger to protest Tulane returning home football games to its own campus. By May of 2012, the group’s grievances successfully reached the New Orleans City Council, which issued an interim zoning district to potentially block construction on any university-built building over 250,000 square feet — aimed at delaying Yulman Stadium.
Tulane sprung into action to qualm the neighbors’ concerns, before presenting a compromised package to the city council. Four community meetings and more than 500 attendees forced Tulane to reduce the height on the press-box side of the stadium and redesign its sound and lighting systems while outlawing potential concerts, limiting its hours of operation and enforcing strict street parking restrictions.
It also delayed the start of construction, which forced Tulane to pay crews overtime. Building schedules plowed through nights and weekends for over a year in order to make up the gap, as the stadium’s price tag swelled from $55 million to more than $75 million.
“I never doubted we would get it done,” Cowen said. “I still think (the fight with the neighbors) was very unfortunate, because it cost us almost $3 million and three months of time. It did not need to happen, and it shouldn’t have.”
While nearly $20 million is still left to be raised, the 12-year climb from an athletic department twice on the brink of Division I death, to one littered with new facilities and a board of trustees with open checkbooks, is the sea change capable of altering the trajectory of Green Wave sports.
“You can just look at the names on the big projects for athletics, and it’s clear the board is fully behind the idea of a successful Tulane athletic department and with more than their words,” Glazer said. “The support is unbelievable. When people say the support from the school isn’t all the way there, I really don’t know what they are talking about.”
Dickson estimated the move into the American Athletic Conference and primarily Yulman Stadium — with its various revenue sources and donation requirements — will help increase football-generated revenue five-fold. Season tickets have boosted more than 600 percent since 2012.
The contract with media rights holder IMG has tripled. Complete sponsorship, concession and parking revenues will all belong to Tulane for the first time since 1974.
In all, it’s expected to double the entire department’s budget.
“We are in the best shape for the future of athletics than Tulane has been for decades,” Cowen said. “One of the things Rick and I always wanted to do was build a program that can sustain success over a long period of time rather than wait for the occasional great season and then have to start over. This is a turning point, because we have our own stadium, are in a great new conference and have the support of everyone.”
Now, it’s the athletic department’s job to take advantage of it.
Coach Curtis Johnson piqued fans’ enthusiasm by leading the Green Wave to its first winning season in 11 years in 2013, earning himself a new contract valued at $1.2 million annually — the highest coaching salary in the school’s history.
Dickson admitted, despite the generosity of donors and the grind of getting Yulman Stadium to become a reality, only a successful on-field product will allow it to pay full dividends. Buildings get old; winning doesn’t.
“We are positioned for success,” Dickson said. “It no longer is a reach for us to match up with our competition. We are whole, and we are ready to win. It’s come a long way.”
As fans pack up tailgates, walk through campus, file past ticket takers and settle into their seats at the onset of a new era in Green Wave football, Tulane’s stakeholders are beaming at the thought of it. Neighbors, students, alumni, supporters and parents are all on campus to support Tulane football again.
To some, it’s déjà vu. For others, it’s literally a dream come true.
“This is what we worked for and envisioned,” Dickson said. “We’ve pushed it through every step of the way, and I can’t believe it’s really here.
“I’m ready to enjoy it and use it and see our fans appreciate a true home-field advantage.”