It was, in the words of Tulane Athletic Director Rick Dickson, “a reach” — in two directions.
A reach up for the Green Wave in November 2012 when it accepted an invitation from what was then the Big East Conference at a time when the school’s athletic fortunes were at a low ebb.
And a reach down, at the time, for the league, so much that it drew head-scratching criticism from national pundits.
But Tuesday, when Tulane’s membership in what is now known as the American Athletic Conference becomes official, the gap has closed considerably.
This fall’s opening of Yulman Stadium, the crown jewel of $125 million in completed or planned facility upgrades; the football team earning its first bowl berth in 11 years last season; increased staffing within the athletic department, finally bringing the strength back beyond its pre-Hurricane Katrina level; and, most importantly, a strong commitment from the school’s Board of Trustees to be as competitive as possible have combined to present the image of a program on the upswing.
“Whatever reputation we had, we had earned it,” said Rich Schmidt, chairman of the board’s athletic committee. “But by any way you measure it, not only are we in better shape than we’ve been in 30 or 40 years, but we’re committed to the long term, even if it did take us a little longer to get there. We are now giving our coaches and athletes the support they need. Our expectation is to win championships.”
Coincidently, Tuesday is the day University of Pennsylvania Law School Dean Michael Fitts becomes Tulane’s new president.
“From what we’ve been able to tell so far, he is well supportive of athletics,” said board member Jerry Greenbaum, who is also a member of the athletic committee. “He seems like the kind of guy who listens and does what’s best. He already knows how important sports is to the university. And the whole board is very strong in its support of athletics.”
In the meantime, Tulane’s new conference is drastically different from two years ago.
An exodus of the Big East’s leading schools, which was already in progress, continued the day after Tulane’s admittance when Louisville jumped to the Atlantic Coast Conference. Two weeks later, the nonfootball members — the schools known as the Catholic 7, plus Notre Dame — split, eventually taking the name Big East with them, although the Fighting Irish wound up in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Even more debilitating, the league, which sent teams to three of the first five BCS national championship games, didn’t make the cut for the Power Five — the conferences that control the new College Football Playoff. The result is that the AAC doesn’t have a guaranteed spot in a major bowl game or a say in pending NCAA governance changes.
So much has changed that the AAC looks very much like the league Tulane had belonged to since 1995. Of the 10 full-member schools in the AAC (Navy comes on board for football only in 2015), eight have been fellow members of Conference USA within the past 10 years — including Tulsa and East Carolina, whose membership also becomes official Tuesday.
That makes the AAC very much a work in progress, especially for those schools left behind in realignment.
“It’s sometimes been confusing and troubling,” said Warde Manuel, a New Orleans native who is the athletic director at Connecticut, the only charter member of the old Big East remaining. “But we are unified in being committed to participating at the highest level. As someone from New Orleans, I know the sense of excitement Tulane has about making this move. We’re looking forward to competing with them.”
Manuel’s school may not have made the move to the Big Ten or ACC that it had hoped for, but the Huskies did provide a high point of the AAC’s first year by winning the NCAA titles in men’s and women’s basketball.
Central Florida provided another. The former C-USA member earned the league’s final BCS bowl berth and upset Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl, finishing 10th in the final Associated Press poll.
“This is a league that thinks it’s as good as anybody else, which is a different attitude from what we were in,” Tulane football coach Curtis Johnson said. “The level of competition is very tough. We’re going into a first-class league where you’ve got to play well or you’re not going to win.”
The accomplishments of UConn and UCF are extolled over and over again by AAC Commissioner Mike Aresco, who is constantly plugging his league to be thought of as belonging with the Power Five — rather than the Group of Five (AAC, C-USA, Sun Belt, Mountain West and Mid-American) to which it has been relegated.
“That’s my nature and personality, plus I owe it to this group to be as dynamic and energetic as possible,” said Aresco, who became commissioner in August 2012 after a long career in TV, most recently as executive vice president of programming for CBS Sports. “But the last year was far better than anybody expected. We’ve got a good group of schools who have moved quickly to establish this conference in a strong position for the future. Now we have to see how things play out.”
Among other things, the AAC has pledged to meet whatever NCAA governance changes the Power Five favors, including paying the full cost of attendance for football and basketball players, although he acknowledges that they probably will gain autonomy in some matters.
He also has secured contacts with ESPN and CBS that assure all conference football and men’s basketball games will be televised nationally.
While the financial return to the schools is nowhere near what the Power Five is receiving for its regular-season games plus the CFP, to Dickson, it’s a major boost for Tulane since 82 percent of the school’s alumni reside out of state.
“Tulane has a passionate national following that unfortunately sometimes has become less passionate the closer in we get,” he said. “We constantly see a lot more of our fans on the road than we see of other school’s fans here. So the visibility and exposure we’re getting is tremendous because it allows us to showcase all of the things we’ve been striving to regain.”
That’s a rare moment of moment of satisfaction for Dickson, who saw things get so low that, in the aftermath of Katrina, there was serious consideration for suspending athletics for up to five years, a move he now says he wouldn’t have lobbied against.
At one time, the entire athletic department consisted of eight sports and 50 staff members. It wasn’t until 2012 that the full complement of 16 sports was reached.
“We had to physically rebuild the core of the university,” Dickson said. “We had lost faculty and majors, so athletics was at the end of the line of that rebuilding. Our legs might still be wobbly in a couple of areas, but we feel like we’re going to be competitive in all sports in this league in short order.”
In its first nine years in C-USA, Green Wave teams won 32 conference championships, fourth-most in the league. Since Katrina, there have been only nine championships, all in women’s sports.
That lack of success, particularly in football and men’s basketball, has caused a dramatic erosion of support, resulting in embarrassingly small crowds for home games.
“We’re at a point where we can’t just tread water anymore,” Schmidt said. “Either you’re in or your out as far as being in Division I sports. We’re not trying to be LSU or Alabama. We’re trying to be Tulane to compete in the environment we’re in.”
The attitude is much like that of SMU, which suffered mightily from the football team receiving the NCAA’s death penalty in the 1980s and then not making cut for the Big 12 when the Southwest Conference broke up in the 1990s.
But the hiring of June Jones in football helped break a long bowl drought, and the addition of Hall of Fame basketball coach Larry Brown has resulted in a huge resurgence in that sport, too.
“There was a commitment made to compete at a high level,” SMU Athletic Director Rick Hart said. “We knew that Dallas is a tough market to penetrate, but certainly our investments in coaching and facilities are yielding a return because we have our highest visibility in years.”
In Tulane’s case, the new contact for Johnson, putting his salary in excess of $1 million, and commensurate raises for his staff got significant attention, as has the hiring of new baseball coach David Pierce to replace Rick Jones, whose once elite program had gone six years without an NCAA tournament berth.
But women’s basketball coach Lisa Stockton, now the school’s longest-tenured coach at 21 years, said there is an overall attitude change.
“The stadium and other facilities prove that we’re taking the program to another level,” she said. “You see a desire to rise up above what we’ve been. And getting into the American shows we were not just sitting back and hoping for something good to happen.”
Tulane wasn’t the first choice for AAC membership. C-USA members Memphis, Houston, UCF and SMU all received the nod in 2011.
And when Rutgers got a surprising bid to join the Big Ten, BYU and Air Force reportedly turned down invitations before one went to the Wave after quick work by Dickson and outgoing President Scott Cowen, who termed the move the most significant thing to happen to Tulane athletics since the school left the Southeastern Conference in 1966.
But Tulane wasn’t the last option, either. East Carolina’s initial bid was for football only. Tulsa’s followed San Diego State and Boise State returning to the Mountain West before their membership took place.
“We saw what had happened for Houston, SMU, Tulane and the others, and we were afraid of being left behind,” Tulsa football coach Bill Blankenship said. “The perception of which conference you’re in is very important.”
“There’s more of a foundation under us than we’ve had in the school’s history in terms of resources and facilities,” he said. “And membership in the AAC validates all of the work we’ve done to get here.”