As the Tulane football team practiced this week on a hot but breezy Tuesday morning, every sound was audible as they bounced around the new Yulman Stadium, from the loud clacking of helmets colliding to the soft thwack of passes meeting receivers’ gloves.
In years past, this was the team’s gameday experience. The Superdome was consistently cavernous on Saturdays during Green Wave home dates, a far cry from the raucous Saints games that would take place the next day. Forget the sounds on the field; a fan in one end zone could probably hear someone in the other checking for ticks.
And whatever cheering did come mostly wasn’t coming from the people the players saw every day as they walked campus and attended class.
“In the Superdome, you looked around and the average age for fans was 50, because there was only 50 students at the game,” safety Sam Scofield said. “Now, there’s thousands.”
For seniors like Scofield, this season’s home games have been much closer to what they dreamed of when they were in high school. They walked across campus toward their first game in Yulman past tailgates populated with their green-clad peers clapping and screaming. There was no begging to follow. When they came out of the tunnel, all 30,000 seats of their new stadium were occupied.
Five-thousand of them were in the end zone pointing at campus. Sections 131 through 127, plus a few extra for the special occasion, were packed with students. Tulane sports information director Roger Dunaway said 2,000 student tickets had been picked up as of mid-afternoon Wednesday, and expected around 4,000 students to be in the stadium before kickoff.
“(The players) talk about getting in that student end zone,” coach Curtis Johnson said Tuesday. “Everybody wants to score a touchdown down there, so if we can go four quarters that way, I think we may win the game.”
Johnson was addressing reporters for the first time in a fancy room on Yulman’s ground floor. There was a black, circular leather couch in the back, opposite his Plexiglass lectern and the seats set up for the press. He apologized before starting the conference late because he didn’t yet know how to get there without help from his handlers.
He continued, speaking on an excitement that’s also recognized by his players and the school’s students. He said he sees it when he walks around campus and pokes his head into classes.
“It’s just a renewed atmosphere around here,” Johnson said. “These (players) hadn’t seen it. The campus is very much more engaged. … The kids on campus are much more pleasant and more excited. They have a place to go.”
The students are chatting up Scofield and his teammates more often.
“They stop us and say, ‘Who we got this week?’ or ‘How they look?’ We can tell they’re definitely more excited,” Scofield said. “It brings an extra buzz to campus.”
Senior Justyn Shackleford said it finally feels like the team has a home, that the Dome was just a place they were using. Now, when he walks out of meetings at the stadium with the other receivers, they marvel at their fellow students picking up their tickets at the box office.
“It’s like ‘Oh, they’re coming to see us,’ ” Shackleford said. “You never knew who was going to be at the game at the Dome.”
There were so many students trying to get tickets to that first game that the box office had trouble keeping up with demand. The original allotment sold out in two days, so they announced an additional 500 tickets would be available the morning of Aug. 28. According to an opinion article in The Hullabaloo, Tulane’s student newspaper, some students were lined up as early as 4 a.m. for a chance to get in on game day.
“I can’t think of one thing that would get Tulane students out of bed (that early),” said Jonny Harvey, the Hullabaloo’s sports editor. “Maybe if President Obama came.”
A D.C. area native, Harvey began following the team when he applied. Ryan Griffin and the explosive offense he helmed got Harvey excited to get on campus and take a game in at the Superdome. The school “really sold” the Dome, too, and its claims were convincing.
They were right, he said. It was cool watching the Wave in a professional stadium. But it wasn’t everything it was cracked up to be. When he arrived, the “tailgating” consisted of four tents atop the parking garage, with mostly alumni milling around them. After the game, he walked out onto the field and the amount of empty seats were overwhelming.
In the words of 21-year-old senior Matt Hagerty, it was like “watching a sad concert in a mega-church. You know that the venue was meant for more, so it swallowed the people that were there.”
Harvey said that has all changed. Students on campus felt the need to cheer, rather than actually caring. It still wasn’t enough to get them there on Saturdays. Now, when the student tickets sold out before the opener, people were “freaking out.” He got “dozens” of texts and tweets asking if he, the objective journalist, could pull nonexistent strings. Twitter interaction for the sports page is “way up” as a whole.
“The intimacy of Yulman, the appropriate size of 25-30,000, is perfect,” Harvey said. “Before, no one cared about the quarterback situation. Now people ask me, ‘Is Tanner (Lee) playing this week?’ ”
Maggie Bishop, a 19-year-old sophomore, went to two games her first season on campus. She’s always loved sports, but not even her acquaintance with several of the players could keep her from feeling disconnected from the program. Getting downtown was a hassle, and the quarter-full stadium was deflating. That’s not so this year.
“I and people around me definitely care more about Tulane football,” Bishop said. “Tulane and New Orleans know how to throw a party, and our tailgates are no exception to this. On football weekends, I plan around the game.”
Andrew Lemoine, 20, has only missed one game in his three years at Tulane. Among many other campus organizations, Lemoine is part of a five-person student government committee, the “Game Day Coordinators,” that was formed in April to help establish the anticipated game day scene.
He and his roommate pitched their tent at 7 a.m. that first game. He watched as student organizations and fraternities arrived and set up their own, filling up the quad.
“You can walk across campus and actually know there is a game,” Lemoine said. “The atmosphere is amazing and everyone is pumped up. It has finally turned into a full day’s experience, versus going about your day, leave for the Superdome about an hour before kickoff, then heading back to campus to continue your day.”
That day the team was 0-1, the loss coming after two overtimes at Tulsa. They would go on to lose the home opener 38-21 to ACC contender Georgia Tech in front of 5,000 students.
Team media liaison Roger Dunaway said more than 4,000 watched them beat FCS powerhouse Southeastern Louisiana 35-20. After blowout losses at Duke and Rutgers, many students who went home for fall break missed them defeat UConn, 12-3, but the figure “was still better than any homecoming in the Superdome in the past few years,” Dunaway said.
After a close loss last weekend at UCF, the team sits at 2-5. The home advantage has helped produce their only wins of the season. It’s an advantage the team has never had before, but it does seem to be dwindling as the preseason hype has died down.
This week, the team competes with Voodoo Fest, which targets the exact demographic as the people trying to fill the student section, and Halloween festivities going on all around the city. Program officials are trying to use the holiday to their own advantage, dubbing the new digs “Ghoulman Stadium” for the occasion. Also, promising quarterback Tanner Lee will be back under center and the coming exposure from playing on ESPN has the students pumped, Harvey said.
But there’s only one surefire way to keep the momentum going.
“I think, for the student body, passion and interest have been renewed, but faith seems to be growing a bit more slowly,” Hagarty said. “I think tangible results will change that.”
While this is not lost on the players, they can’t help but recognize and appreciate that they’re in a better spot than they’ve ever been.
“If we start winning games, we’ll see even more students here,” Scofield said. “It’s a progression, but we love what we’ve seen so far.”