Lewis: Tulane’s Rick Dickson clearly cared — maybe too much — but he faced one heck of an uphill battle _lowres

Advocate staff photo by RUSTY COSTANZA --Tulane University president Scott Cowen, left, and athletic director Rick Dickson, right, hold up a Big East Conference banner during a press conference announcing Tulane's move to the Big East Conference.

Say this for Rick Dickson: He cared about Tulane’s athletes.

Although he spent much of the last half of his 15-year tenure as the Green Wave’s athletic director on the road raising funds that helped build the $100 million worth of facilities that weren’t on the campus five years ago, Dickson, who announced his retirement Friday, was known for his ability to greet every one of the school’s 300 or so athletes by name.

Even if they were wearing a uniform at the time, that’s remarkable.

On an individual basis, Dickson’s emotional involvement with paralyzed football player Devon Walker was extraordinary.

And despite offers from other schools in much better shape, he stayed on after the havoc Katrina brought to the department mainly to honor those for whom sports were at least temporarily eliminated after the storm. That included his son, Doug, who was a freshman decathlete on the track team at the time.

Finally, don’t forget the work Dickson did during the review of 2003, which threatened to end the school’s Division I status. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone so drained as he was the day the board of trustees voted to stay in D-I.

Dickson also was known for the good way he treated coaches and other staff members.

But therein lay one of his biggest shortcomings. A good AD can’t afford to be tenderhearted about his coaches all of the time.

Bringing back Bob Toledo for the 2011 season when things were clearly bottoming out is an albatross Dickson will always wear. Toledo was gone midway though the season when the team revolted and the program suffered an unnecessary setback.

And while the games still have to be played, a firm AD would have strongly urged Curtis Johnson to make staff changes after last year.

Failing that, a firm AD would have made sure CJ got the message that, if he didn’t shake things up, then be prepared to make the call that may be necessary at the end of this season in any case.

A firm AD also would have taken a hard look at the declining situation in volleyball a year ago. The Wave was 5-6 going into Friday’s American Athletic Conference opener against Tulsa.

At least Dickson did make the right move when it came time to change baseball coaches. David Pierce guided his team to Tulane’s first NCAA tournament appearance in seven years this spring and has his program in strong position to do even better this season.

Also, facility-wise, Tulane obviously is in far better shape than it has ever been.

There were a lot of compromises made in getting Yulman Stadium built. But in bringing football back to campus, it’s paying huge dividends.

There also are now more people on athletic department staff than a decade ago, and salaries are more competitive than ever. And don’t forget the work Dickson and former president Scott Cowen did to gain AAC membership. It’s not the “Power Five,” but it certainly beats being left behind in Conference USA.

But in traveling to keep the coffers full, Dickson seemed to have lost touch with the Wave’s small-but-still-faithful local fan base. He just wasn’t as accessible as he should have been, mainly because he was seldom around.

That’s going to be one of the first tasks for Dickson’s successor. Find a way to reconnect Tulane athletics with the community, both fans and sponsors.

When 80 percent of your alums live out of state and seemingly all of the local attention is eaten up by the Black and Gold — or, even worse, the Purple and Gold — that’s not an easy task.

The new AD also must at least give the impression that if a “Power Five” league opens the books for membership, Tulane will be in the discussion, and not just because of its academic standing and geographic advantages.

Rest assured that’s the goal of every other school in the AAC. No reason it shouldn’t be Tulane’s, however remote.

Truly coaching the coaches, not just enabling them, is another job requirement. Tulane may not win championships across the board, but it should at least be competitive and, if not, doing things to get there.

Tulane’s not an easy job. While the school’s athletic fortunes during Dickson’s tenure haven’t been that successful, there certainly have been two extraordinary extenuating circumstances, either of which could have wrecked a program permanently.

Even when things go right for Tulane athletics — such as coming through the review — it can result in a false positive.

Anyone remember the “Think Green” campaign?

And it’s not like the Green Wave has been a consistent winner in the 133 years of its existence to begin with.

While Dickson’s retirement has been rumored for several weeks, the school Friday did not announce a timetable or any other plans for finding a successor.

Dickson will be around until May, although any major decisions between now and then likely will be left to the board and school president Mike Fitts.

After that, Dickson will be off into either a well-deserved retirement — although he’s only 61 — or finding another challenge.

On balance, the school will do well to find someone of the caliber it did with Dickson in 2000.

At any rate, after the challenges Dickson has faced, he deserves the best wishes of the Tulane community, even if it was time to move on.

Hopefully at homecoming, no one will be hiring a plane to fly over the stadium with a “Fire Rick Dickson” banner, as was done a year ago.

No need for that anymore.