The chain of command to the top of the Tulane athletics department has turned from a spider web into a straight line.
The addition of Chief Operating Officer Barbara Burke to the Green Wave’s executive administration changed the way internal procedures are moving forward at the Wilson Center, adding a layer to the bureaucracy in hope of boosted efficiency.
With multiple new ventures on the horizon for the upcoming academic year, highlighted by the opening of Yulman Stadium and the school’s induction into the American Athletic Conference, Athletic Director Rick Dickson said it was time to put the final touches on an athletic reinstatement process six years in the making.
After working with a bare-bones staff of 50 employees in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Dickson and Tulane President Scott Cowen laid out a plan to ramp up the athletic department as it grew from five to 16 programs between 2008 and 2012.
“We didn’t have full time sports assistants or dedicated people to help like full-time directors of operations,” Dickson said “We didn’t have a robust training staff, strength and conditioning staff or academic staff like we do today. We built out those first as part of this reinstatement program because those directly impact the student-athletes.
“The last piece was to build out the administrative staff of it. That’s now what we are completing. We always wanted to have a clear-cut No. 2 who ran the whole operation just to make things more efficient.”
And by selecting Burke for the COO position, Dickson gained a confidant on staff who possesses executive experience and can serve as a filter for the variety of daily issues which have stalled or slowed in recent years.
Burke served as Athletic Director at Eastern Illinois for the past six years, after a stint as deputy athletics director at Wyoming.
“It’s helpful that I have seen these issues from that 30,000-foot perspective but also know how to get it done on ground level,” Burke said. “So, it’s up to me to help the staff to see how each day is leading toward that big picture that Rick and everyone else is pushing for.”
With Dickson travelling nearly 200 days per year in the multi-year run-up to the privately funded Yulman Stadium, days inside his Wilson Center office are scarce. While he’s drumming up funds from supporters across the country, Dickson admitted managing the growing department’s numerous issues from his cell phone had become increasingly difficult and occasionally untenable.
The fundraising and touring aren’t coming to an end when Yulman is unveiled in September. When it’s paid off, Dickson will shift his focus to the proposed off-campus athletics village, which is expected to serve as a home for Tulane’s Olympic sports and add to its line of facilities.
“There’s a lot of travel involved and because of circumstances, what existed here for a long time here was trying to manage everyone from an iPhone or email,” Dickson said. “Now, this allows me to focus on things that advance us — like fundraisers, conferences, coaches and so many other things — and it allows our staff on hand a proven and experienced person working with them every day. I would say that’s the biggest impact.”
While it took 15 years for Dickson to gain an official COO under his wing, it’s a standard practice across the American Athletic Conference. All 10 of Tulane’s future peers list a full-time staff member in charge of internal operations.
Now, it’s Burke’s duty to get the Green Wave up to speed. Before she even had time to hang personal pictures on the walls of her office, Burke had already met face-to-face with a majority of the support staff to get an understanding of where help was most needed, so proper resources could be addressed immediately.
“My objective is to relieve some of the stress because no one person can do it all,” Burke said. “It’s good to get up, get out of the office and actually talk to people. It’s so easy to get bogged down in big meetings but communication is so important, and it’s important to work with people individually.”
The most significant task will be ensuring Tulane smoothly operates its first home football game since 1974. Yulman Stadium and its potentially 30,000 visitors invite obstacles and challenges many members of the Tulane staff have never experienced before.
Burke recognized the events in and around Yulman — including sales, marketing, seating, tailgating, promotions and customer service — will be the most high-profile item for her to attend to and is aware of the positive or negative impression it can send to the public.
“It’s extremely important because it’s a window into our department,” Burke said. “When you think about 30,000 people who will be coming to this area six or seven Saturdays, it’s our best chance to put our best foot forward and sell people on Tulane athletics and the commitment we have to excellence. That helps every one of our programs and all of our student-athletes. There’s a pride in that and motivation to do it the right way.”
As the summer creeps forward and gives way to a watershed year in Tulane athletics, Dickson said he’s relieved to have a Burke by his side keeping the details in order as the Green Wave’s landscape shifts and trimming that formerly endless web of communication into a simple line.
“It doesn’t have to be lower or higher levels of importance that she can handle, but it’s more the idea of daily items,” Dickson said. “Because when I am travelling, she and I can correspond every day a lot easier than I can correspond with 10 people. It makes all of it operate smoother.
“Now, everyone has a reference point to go to. Trying to manage that in pieces, especially when I’m not even present, I ended up spending more time working on the logistics than working on the actual issues.
“This is going to be better for everyone.”