Opener nod to Tulane’s ’05 legacy
Come Saturday morning, the Tulane football team will trot onto Owen Field. The Green Wave was scheduled to host the Sooners, but Hurricane Ida had other ideas.
Much will have gone into making this quick-change athletic event possible. Long days and short nights, million-dollar negotiations, logistics untold, compromises and concessions, and no small amount of humanitarian efforts.
With power only now being slowly returned to New Orleans, and residents scrambling for food and water, and no telling when the Tulane athletic operation will return from its temporary headquarters in Birmingham, Alabama, a question rises.
Should Tulane be trying to play a football game?
But from the east end of the Turner Turnpike comes the answer.
Yes. If Tulane can play football, it should play football, because the Green Wave on the gridiron is a symbol of perseverance and restoration.
“There’s a light at the end of this thing,” said University of Tulsa interim athletic director Rick Dickson.
Dickson knows best. He was Tulane’s athletic director when Hurricane Katrina swamped New Orleans in 2005.
Katrina was one of the worst natural disasters in American history. Eighty percent of New Orleans flooded. Almost 1,500 people died. The city took years to return to anything resembling normal.
Tulane University shut down until 2006. Students, faculty and employees were scattered.
But most Saturdays in autumn 2005, the Tulane football team took the field somewhere in America, complete with a uniform patch with a flame imprinted over a backdrop of the Superdome, the New Orleans skyline and the Tulane campus.
“If the decision had been made to shut the door as they did on the university … most of that next decade would have been starting from the ground up,” Dickson said.
Bad enough as it was. The university cut its budget 50%, including athletics. For Dickson, that meant dropping nine varsity sports, getting a special exemption from the NCAA to remain in Division I.
Tulane athletics seemed in peril. But the Green Wave persevered. The athletic department slowly built back. Facilities were restored, including a $10 million renovation of baseball’s Turchin Stadium and construction of football’s $75 million Yulman Stadium. In all, Tulane and its boosters made a $200 million to $250 million investment in the athletic department.
“All the things that were long, long, long overdue,” Dickson said. “Put an infrastructure under them that hadn’t been there in 50 years.”
Tulane administrators told Dickson to give the university time to build back, then athletics could have the runway to do the same.
The plan worked. In 2009, Tulane began bringing back varsity programs that had been suspended. Over a four-year period, all were restored. In 2014, Tulane joined the new American Conference.
“It truly became a decade long journey and rebuild,” said Dickson, who called it “the defining point of my career. That kind of put the final straw in the drink … that’s when I knew I had put in my last ounce.”
Dickson retired in 2015. He returned to Tulsa, his hometown, and TU, his alma mater, as interim AD a year ago.
One more thing Dickson left behind. An evacuation plan for hurricanes.
Tulane football coach Willie Fritz twice has referenced the Green Wave’s constant plans in case of emergency.
When Tulane’s athletic department packed up Saturday evening, it knew precisely the plan. Tulane already had an agreement in place with a Birmingham, Alabama, hotel.
“We got enough clothes for a few days and told the guys to pack up enough through Tuesday,” Fritz said. “Obviously, that was wishful thinking. We’re going to be over here quite a bit longer than that.”
The 2005 evacuation was not quite so orderly. The fall-semester Tulane athletic teams set out for Jackson, Mississippi, and spent a few days in a hotel without power. They relocated to Dallas, with the help of Conference USA, and the football team eventually settled in Ruston, Louisiana, for the semester.
Dickson, who arrived at Tulane in 2000 after six years as AD at Washington State, already had went through a few 24-hour evacuations.
“Follow the track of the storm and you go the other way,” Dickson said. “Thought that’s what we had in store until the very last day.”
Communication with New Orleans was sparse, because cell-phone service was gone. Tulane administrators used out-of-state athletes’ cells to communicate.
“We’re just getting our bearings,” Dickson said. “Literally in a cave for a week. We were the last two know, in detail, what the whole rest of the world” knew.
Over four days in Dallas, Dickson hatched a plan to continue athletics, particularly football. Athletic directors from rival schools offered help. Athletes from other sports flew in to Dallas.
“We wanted the opportunity to represent Tulane and New Orleans,” Dickson said.
University president Scott Cowen had been trapped in New Orleans but by the end of the second week of chaos had been helicoptered to Texas. Cowen and Dickson met. “While he’s trying to salvage what’s left of the university, I said, ‘Look, we’ve got our whole crew in Dallas,’” Dickson said. “‘I think we can serve a role. He green-lighted it.”
Dickson distributed his 17 teams across four campuses (Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Southern Methodist and Louisiana Tech). He ran a satellite operation out of Conference USA’s Dallas-area office.
“Daily, we’d do triage calls,” Dickson said. “It was very, very basic.”
They helped get athletes enrolled. Mental health specialists were lined up. Equipment and uniforms were found.
“Almost like Little League again,” Dickson said. “I’m getting stuffed dropped in from schools, vendors all over the country. My wife and I are driving vans all over, getting uniforms.” That patch with the flame? “Every kid wore that patch on their uniform,” Dickson said. “Something to the effect, be the face, represent the name, carry the torch. That’s what we were doing. Our whole purpose was to say look, this place has been devastated beyond anything our country’s ever seen. And we can’t forget about it. Our job was to be that ambassador and serving that role.”
Three weeks after Katrina hit, that Tulane football team opened its season on Sept. 17 in Shreveport, Louisiana, against Mississippi State. The Green Wave put up a fight before losing 21-14.
The next week, Tulane routed SMU 31-10 in Dallas, then beat Southeastern Louisiana 28-21 in Baton Rouge. But the turmoil took its toll. The Green Wave lost all eight Conference USA games, including playing home games in Louisiana cities Lafayette, Ruston and Monroe, plus Mobile, Alabama.
Tulane finished 2-9, having played 11 games in 11 cities.
And Thursday, Tulane announced that its Sept. 11 “home” game against Morgan State will be played at Birmingham’s Legion Field.
Hopefully, the Green Wave can get back to New Orleans soon. But just trotting onto Owen Field this Saturday is a testament to determination and the pedigree of the Tulane spirit.
Berry Tramel can be reached at 405760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1.