The crowd is jammed in shoulder-to-shoulder at Bruno’s Tavern on a mid-January Wednesday evening. Patrons stand in near silence as they try to listen to speakers who are standing atop a plywood box-turned-makeshift stage.
This isn’t the typical Uptown happy hour.
Instead, it’s a group of Tulane’s most ardent supporters, eager to hear when their investment, financially and chronologically, in Green Wave athletics will finally pay off. For most, it’s been more than 15 consecutive years of disappointment in football and men’s basketball.
And yet the guy with the microphone is eliciting toothy smiles, wide open eyes and occasionally raucous cheers from the perennially downtrodden audience.
That’s why Troy Dannen is the athletic director at Tulane.
“I got the opportunity of a lifetime,” Dannen said. “I’m not going to let you down. I always take ownership. We’ll always be in a position to win.”
In those 26 words, Tulane’s fans heard everything they’ve waited for.
Unlike his predecessor, Rick Dickson, who fought through calamitous circumstances — highlighted by a 2003 athletics review and Hurricane Katrina among the countless external obstacles — Dannen enters Tulane with no preconceptions of the Green Wave’s shaky past. Also, unlike Dickson, he has a full gamut of sparkling facilities on his campus and the American Athletic Conference he can sell to coaches and players alike.
“Look, I know how far Tulane has come with all of that stuff, but to me, I’m looking at today as the absolute baseline and I’m here to drive things forward so Tulane never has to worry about that stuff again,” Dannen said from his office in the Wilson Center. “I expect us to be competitive the same way Duke and Stanford and other elite academic institutions have leveraged that success into athletics. We have everything we could possibly need right now for us to win and win at a very high level.”
A month into his tenure, Dannen has received rave reviews for at least acing the first part of the job.
Hiring football coach Willie Fritz and his winning background to replace struggling Curtis Johnson earned high grades from national outlets like CBS Sports (A), USA Today (B-plus) and Bleacher Report (B-plus). He’s also communicated with far-flung fans and locals alike by sending tweets, attending booster club meetings and openly addressing the media with direct language and clear benchmarks for success.
“You can’t do anything in life without passion and enthusiasm and you can see his is translating to our alumni, students and fans,” said Darryl Berger, chairman of Tulane’s Board of Administrators. “There has been unbelievable energy brought here by Troy Dannen and Willie Fritz. We have the commitment from everywhere in the university to be as excellent in athletics as we are in academics.”
But Dannen also recognizes the work that awaits him when the microphones click off. Even with new stadiums, Tulane’s attendance and revenue numbers are among the worst in its conference, while its coverage in local media and general visibility has diminished greatly.
The fan base that remembers sustained, relevant success continues to grow older and the younger generations have been unwilling to show up in significant numbers as programs (except for baseball and women’s basketball) annually struggle to compete.
Dannen recognizes winning is the only cure to those ailments.
“You can’t market yourself into a favorable public light,” Dannen said. “Perception, no matter how good the foundation is, depends entirely on whether you win or lose. You have to acknowledge and understand that if we want the public to care about us, we have to give them success.
“But there’s a lot for us to do. I told Willie that he’s a championship-level coach, but if we don’t have championship level development, marketing, media relations, academic support and compliance behind him, he won’t win championships. We have to reach that level of support underneath our coaches.”
It starts with people.
Dannen is re-shaping roles inside the administration and has communicated a clear purpose to those on Tulane’s payroll so the foundation and expectation of results is set. He also won the favor of many of Tulane’s most significant donors during the search process, where he was recommended by heavy-hitting donors Jill Glazer, Doug Hertz and Bill Goldring amongst others.
It may only be the first step of a long journey back to relevancy, but those around Dannen are confident he has the tools and energy to get the Green Wave to a better place.
“This is a wonderful moment for Tulane athletics and Tulane University,” president Mike Fitts said while looking around the crowded room at Bruno’s Tavern. “It’s clear Troy Dannen is at the top of his game. He’s so excited about being at Tulane and making the most of what Tulane has done so we can take advantage of it for the years ahead.”