Tulane athletic director Rick Dickson announced Friday that he will retire in May, creating hope that he is leaving the program in better position to win than it ever was under his watch.
Hired in 2000, Dickson, 61, has a legacy that includes consistent losing in football and basketball but with the possibility of a brighter future thanks to dramatically improved facilities, a conference upgrade and fewer roadblocks.
The crowning jewel of his tenure is Yulman Stadium, a 30,000-seat facility that brought football back on campus for the first time since 1974 and Dickson worked tirelessly to make happen. The Green Wave also left deteriorating Conference USA in 2014-15 for the American Athletic Conference, a higher-profile league that increased television exposure and revenue.
“He has brought us to the point where we can choose to be as competitive as we would like to be,” said Doug Hertz, a major donor who contributed to the Hertz Center, the $13 million basketball practice facility that opened in 2011 and bears his name. “Before Rick, we didn’t have a chance. Everybody wants to win, but we didn’t have any of the resources or anything in place to win.”
Dickson guided the athletic department through a pair of potentially crippling events. In 2003, right after the Tulane football team had won the 2002 Hawaii Bowl, former president Scott Cowen ordered a review of the athletic department, in large part to determine whether continuing to play Division I football was worthwhile.
The answer was yes, but the review killed any momentum.
Two years later, Hurricane Katrina devastated the community and campus, damaging facilities and forcing the shutdown of several sports.
By 2007, the school had restored a full complement of 16 sports, but the disaster had a lingering effect on the athletic program.
“There are very few athletic directors, if there are any, that could have gone through two things like that and come out on the other side in such a positive way,” said Cowen, who hired Dickson. “He handled them with great skill and professionalism.”
Still, Tulane has struggled in football and basketball throughout Dickson’s tenure. The football team has finished above .500 three times in 15 years, going 60-118 from 2000 to 2014. Two of the three winning records came in 2000 (6-5) and 2002 (8-5), before Cowen announced the review.
The men’s basketball team, which played in the NIT a few weeks after Dickson arrived, has not been in the NIT or the NCAA tournament since then, posting a record of 208-251 that included 10 losing seasons and only one with more than 17 victories. The Wave went 20-15 in 2012-13.
Dickson’s initial hires did not pan out. Veteran football coach Bob Toledo arrived in 2007 and lasted 41/2 years, receiving a contract extension after 2010 despite a 13-35 record. He stepped down when the Wave slipped to 1-6 midway through 2011.
Shawn Finney, who replaced Perry Clark as basketball coach in the first year of Dickson’s tenure, produced no record better than 16-15, getting fired after a 10-18 mark in 2004-05. Next up was Dave Dickerson, who managed two winning records in his first four years before sliding to 8-22 in 2009-10.
The jury is out on the current coaches. Football’s Curtis Johnson guided Tulane to its first bowl game since 2002 in 2013, finishing 7-6, but the Wave is 4-11 since then.
Basketball’s Ed Conroy brought in by far his highest rated recruiting class this season but has not been above .500 in conference play during his five-year stint.
“I know the thing that fans ultimately care about is wins,” Cowen said. “But quite honestly, everything Rick has done makes it easier for those wins to come in the future.”
Counting all sports, Tulane won 41 conference titles in Dickson’s tenure. The baseball team reached the College World Series in 2001 and 2005 under former coach Rick Jones, who started long before Dickson arrived, and the women’s golf team has played in the NCAA championships the past three years.
Dickson’s first baseball hire, David Pierce, took the Green Wave to a regional this past spring in his first years as coach after a six-year drought.
Insiders believe the potential is there to extend that success to football and basketball.
“We will miss Rick and (wife) Brenda,” said Jill Glazer, a Tulane board member and a lead benefactor for Yulman Stadium. “He always put the student-athlete first and is leaving us with first-rate facilities and stadiums and a great foundation for the future.”
Before coming to Tulane, Dickson was athletic director at Washington State (1994-2000) and Tulsa, his alma mater.
“When I look back on my 29 years in this business, my fondest memories are those I made at Tulane,” he said in a university news release. “I am most proud of what this program has done to transform the lives of so many of the young men and women who have worn a Green Wave uniform during my time here. I will miss them, my staff and the coaches the most.”
Possible successors include Barbara Burke, who has been Tulane’s deputy assistant athletic director since April 2014 after spending six years as Eastern Illinois athletic director; and former Saints executive and former New Orleans city council member Arnie Fielkow.
“It’s a little premature for me to say,” Burke said Friday when asked about her interest. “Obviously I have a lot of respect for the program and the community. It’s a really good athletic director’s job, and there will be a lot of interest in it.”
Reached Friday, Fielkow said he had no comment.
The next athletic director will enter a different environment than the one Dickson inherited.
“The sky’s the limit,” Hertz said. “It’s going to take a dynamic leader. In some ways the job will be harder for the next person because now there’s a higher expectation for Tulane athletics than there was 10 years ago.”
For the first time this century, Dickson won’t be a part of those expectations. With a contract a source said was set to expire next July, he decided he was ready to move on.
“I tell you one thing,” said Jerry Greenbaum, a board member and chair of the intercollegiate athletics committee. “I don’t think there’s any question that, if he had wanted to stay longer, he would have certainly been renewed.”