This story originally appeared in the Times Picayune on 10/24/02. I think it's very important for all Tulane fans to know how our program evolved into what it is today. It is a great summary for those wanting to learn about the major decisions concerning Tulane football over the last 60 or so years. Marty Mule and Ted Lewis have done an excellent job in recaping those years. Note: we avg'd a legit 47K plus in the Superdome during the 1979 season when we went 9-3.
By Ted Lewis and Marty Mule
Staff writers/The Times-Picayune
At 2 p.m. Oct. 15, 1949, Tulane was perched near the pinnacle of college football.
But 10 minutes into a much-anticpated game against Notre Dame, the Green Wave had been convincingly and permanently dislodged from the ranks of the sport's elite. And that calamitous day has colored -- perhaps haunted -- Tulane athletics ever since.
In the following years, Tulane's program tumbled in prestige and popularity as a result of several decisions -- including a de-emphasis on sports and dropping out of the powerful Southeastern Conference -- that many university officials, albeit through the benefit of hindsight, today consider wrongheaded. It all can be traced to a resounding defeat in South Bend, Ind., 53 years ago.
It was expected to be a battle of titans, witnessed by legendary sportwriter Grantland Rice and a horde of his brethren from all corners of America eager to tell the story of what was clearly the national game of the week. Tulane coach Henry Frnka's No. 4-ranked Green Wave were taking aim at the No. 1 team in the country. Fighting Irish coach Frank Leahy saw -- even feared -- Tulane as a formidable obstacle to his team's 31-game unbeaten streak. The winner of that game was widely perceived to be the odds-on favorite to win the mythical national championship. These were two of the premier college programs of the time. Notre Dame had been No. 1 the previous two seasons. Tulane, a power of the 1920s and 1930s, was in the midst of a major football resurgence.
Green Wave football also enjoyed what was in those days strong fan support, having led the Southeastern Conference in attendance in 1948 with an average of 37,058 fans per game. The team was coming off a 9-1 season and entered the game on the crest of 11 consecutive wins. The Sporting News had selected Tulane its preseason choice for the national championship.
But it fell apart quickly for the 3-0 Green Wave. The Irish scored four touchdowns in its first four possessions on their way to a 46-7 victory. And the magnitude of that defeat, despite an eventual SEC championship and a 7-2-1 record, cost Tulane a Sugar Bowl berth.
There was no SEC tie-in during that period, and a season-ending 21-0 upset at the hands of arch-rival LSU gave the selection committee a reason to bypass conference champion Tulane. Runner-up LSU, which gained national attention by beating three conference champions and earning a No. 8 ranking with an 8-2 record, was the surprise pick. "The Sugar Bowl was against taking Tulane because of its miserable loss to Notre Dame that season," said the late Hap Glaudi, then the sports editor of the New Orleans Item, and the successor and confidant of Sugar Bowl founder Fred Digby, in George Sweeney's history of the Tulane football program. "But the Sugar Bowl was backed into a corner. Had Tulane won over LSU, the Greenies would have played Oklahoma instead of LSU." Green Wave athletic history likely was altered because Tulane didn't play a more competitive game against Notre Dame, didn't beat LSU, didn't finish the reason ranked among the elite and didn't play in a major bowl. Had the Green Wave lived up to the expectations of a true national contender that season, the decision that most affected Tulane sports in the second half of the 20th Century -- a reigning in of athletics by university officials -- may not ever have happened.
"Considering the popularity of the Green Wave at the time, and how good we had become on the field, that might have been difficult," said Ed Tunstall, who returned from World War II to go to school and work as Tulane's publicist and later became editor of The Times-Picayune.
Yet the seeds of Tulane's retrenchment were sown in the excesses of its success.
Tulane president Rufus Harris had long been an advocate of scaling back intercollegiate athletics. But he also hired Henry Frnka as Tulane's coach in 1946, and that brought in a major football upgrade. Respected national sportswriters considered Tulane under Frnka the epitome of a football factory. "Henry was a winner, and Henry really would do anything to win," Tunstall said.
In an era when there were no scholarship limits, Frnka typically carried close to 100 athletes on scholarship and tried to get in as many as 123. Those numbers were not unusual in the SEC, but they were high at a relatively small school such as Tulane, especially at a time when GI Bill benefits for World War II veterans were running out, leaving the university to pick up the difference. Many of Frnka's athletes did not engage in the academic rigor Tulane wanted its students to pursue. According to the book, "Tulane: Evolution of a Modern University, 1945-1980," football players were often funneled into physical education, a curriculum that at Tulane required no academic major and allowed an exorbitant 50 hours of P.E. courses.
Period of de-emphasis (1950's)
In 1951 Harris swung a heavy ax on the athletic department, slicing football grants-in-aid to 75, reducing staff and coaching salaries, and curtailing scouting activities. Physical education became a minor, and -- for the rest of the decade -- athletes were required to follow academic tracks leading to standard B.A. or B.S. degrees. Reformation may have been appropriate, but the extent of it set in motion events that would shape Green Wave athletics for the ensuing half-century. Over the next 14 years, the so-called period of de-emphasis produced just two winning seasons and got three coaches fired -- excluding Frnka, who resigned shortly after Harris announced the new parameters.
Andy Pilney, an assistant under Frnka and head coach from 1954 to 1961, said the changes were impractical at a school that already had tougher admission requirements than most opponents.
"You had to be in the top half of your graduating class to even be considered for a scholarship," he said. "It became ridiculous because the deans would turn down a boy who was in the middle of his class at a solid school academically, yet accept one at a school with a weak scholastic history because he was in the top half of his class. We would have to take these kids and some of them wouldn't make it in the classroom.
"Bob Whitman, one of my assistants, used to come into my office crying because we were losing players to other schools who wanted to come to Tulane, but couldn't meet the admission requirements. These same athletes were beating us." "The thing is," said Whitman, who both played and coached at Tulane in that era, "some SEC teams like Georgia Tech and Ole Miss were recruiting twice the number of players we could, and then we were being asked to compete on an equal footing against them."
The cutback in scholarships left as few as 38 players on the varsity one year. "That would not have accounted for all the backs on some of Frnka's teams," sportswriter George Sweeney wrote.
Leaving the SEC (1960's)
The cutbacks affected Tulane's ability to compete in the SEC and led to the most second-guessed decision in Tulane sports history: departing the conference of which the Green Wave had been a charter member.
During the period of athletic de-emphasis, 1952 to 1965, the Green Wave went 37-95-8, an average of 2.9 victories a season. It was even worse in the SEC, where Tulane was 16-71-5, a winning percentage of .185. Tulane produced just two first-team All-SEC athletes, halfback Tommy Mason in 1960 and linebacker Bill Goss in 1965.
From the late 1950s, there was growing talk that the Green Wave could no longer compete in the SEC. A "Southern Ivy League" consisting of schools like Rice, Southern Methodist, Duke, Vanderbilt and Tulane was constantly advocated, but each of the other schools decided to stay in their league.
On June 1, 1966, Tulane withdrew from its athletic home of 35 years, ostensibly to play a national schedule against more like institutions. Some said Tulane could become the "Notre Dame of the South," an independent with the flexibility to meet quality opponents from all points of the college football map.
"That wasn't it at all," said Rix Yard, Tulane's athletic director at the time. "The purpose was to lighten the schedule. We had to have some relief on the field. Those were tough days. Remember we had an 0-10 season in 1962. I remember going to (then-SEC Commissioner) Bernie Moore and pleading to allow us to reduce our schedule. He wouldn't allow it."
So Tulane left the league, and for a while began to regularly play schools such as Stanford, Notre Dame and Michigan. The Wave had four winning seasons in the next eight after leaving the SEC, two each under former coaches Jim Pittman and Bennie Ellender.
Still, Pilney said in Sweeney's book, "I thought it was a mistake getting out of the SEC. You lose your identity as an independent. There's always that goal of shooting for the conference championship every year. It also makes scheduling in the minor sports very difficult."
It caused other problems in football. Tulane had no athletic port, no natural conference rivals, no share of television revenue. And of course, no one at the time envisioned the Bowl Championship Series, which pays millions of dollars each year to the top conferences, including the SEC. Vanderbilt, by comparison, never has won the SEC football crown, but each year cashes a multimillion-dollar check just for being in the league.
"Well, 20/20 hindsight is pretty good," said Yard, who said Tulane already was moving to leave the SEC when he came aboard in 1963. "I can't say it was a mistake because in those days conference membership wasn't what it is today, it wasn't lucrative, there was no real money in television. We had to lighten the schedule." Perhaps the most telling statistic of Tulane football since it left the SEC is that four of six coaches who guided the Green Wave to bowl games then left for other jobs.
Saints march in
The dream of an NFL team in New Orleans and a domed stadium being built to house it came to fruition in 1966, further marginalizing Tulane football.
The announcement added direct competition to Tulane for the city's entertainment dollar, but it gave the Green Wave a windfall, since the Saints would rent Tulane Stadium for $500,000 to $600,000 a year until the new venue could be built. Ultimately, the Wave also would play in the new home, with a sweetheart lease and without the expenses of keeping up its own stadium.
New Coach Jim Pittman's first Green Wave team in 1966, the first season after the university officially discontinued de-emphasis, posted Tulane's first winning record in 10 years, 5-4-1. The excitement prompted an average attendance of 38,844 -- buoyed greatly by 82,567 at the LSU game.
But the Saints were gearing up, and some at Tulane felt it was at the expense of attention that normally would have gone to the Green Wave.
"The impact of the Saints on Tulane football was tremendous," Yard said. "We had just gone through our first winning season in a long time, the players and coaches were recognized, and then the Saints came in and all of a sudden, we're the orphan on the street. All the publicity, all of the adulation went to the Saints. I think that was a blow to Pittman and more so to his players. They felt let down by all the attention given to the Saints."
It did not, however, affect attendance at Tulane football games. In the four years before the Saints' inaugural season of 1967, Tulane had an average attendance of 23,241. In the four seasons afterward, which also included one team with a winning record, attendance was 24,977.
These days there is no lack of Tulane fans who say moving to the Superdome was a mistake because it lacks a college football atmosphere. In the late 1960s, however, when Tulane committed to playing in the Dome, nobody was saying it would be a mistake. They were looking forward to playing in a world-class facility that could attract major athletes, a combination some believed would spring the Green Wave back to the pantheon of college football.
In reality, though, Tulane had little choice. "It was a political decision, very political," Yard said. "Tulane's old stadium needed repairs. It was going down, Tulane didn't have the money (to restore it to top condition), and the Sugar Bowl was going to the Superdome. They weren't going to put money into Tulane Stadium."
"The Superdome is a terrific venue, and a good recruiting tool," said former Wave coach Mack Brown. "The only problem with it is that Tulane is a small, private school with a scattered alumni base, and its fans rattle around in it."
Yet for a while Tulane did better than anyone could have imagined.
The Wave pulled in average crowds of 35,559 in the first eight years it played in the Dome, from 1975 to 1982, despite not having a winning season for the first five. That's comparable to the 35,429 Tulane drew from 1970 through 1974, seasons in which the Green Wave compiled winning records four of the five years -- although those figures were bloated by three LSU crowds of 81,233, 85,372, and 86,598.
Strong marketing and an excellent 9-3 Tulane team in 1979 accounted for a spectacular rise in attendance that season. Tulane crowds grew to 47,645, a gain of 23,294 over the average of 1978.
Critical error (1980's)
Tulane then entered one of the longest and blackest periods of its athletic history.
The Green Wave was riding relatively high with three straight winning teams from 1979 to 1981, and including 1982, enjoyed the immense satisfaction of beating arch-rival LSU three out of four times.
After the 31-28 victory over the Tigers in '82, one of the greatest victories in the annals of the Wave, which had been a four-touchdown underdog, Coach Vince Gibson asked for an extension of his contract. It was denied and Gibson resigned, setting in motion events that would give Tulane what Chuck Knapp, then a university vice-president, termed "a succession of black eyes" as an ongoing item in the national press.
In what Wall said was the "worst decision of my career," he hired Wally English, an assistant with the Miami Dolphins, to replace Gibson.
The crisis began just before the '83 season. A Tulane graduate assistant sent by English's first assistant, Bob Davie, was caught spying on the practices of Mississippi State, the Green Wave's opening opponent. The story made headlines throughout the sporting world.
The following season, with future NFL quarterback Bubby Brister on Tulane's roster, English wanted his son Jon under center, despite the fact he had already played at five schools and the NCAA had ruled him ineligible. Jon English sued the NCAA and the Wave, with Jon at quarterback, upset No. 9-ranked Florida State 34-28. The victory was eventually forfeited for the use of the ineligible player, leaving Tulane with a 2-9 record and without a coach. English was quickly gone.
Young, charismatic Mack Brown replaced English, but just before his first spring training Tulane made another splash in the national news: a point-shaving scandal engulfed the Green Wave basketball team, an embarrassment made worst by revelations of payments to players, along with academic unsuitability.
"We probably had the worst Division I athletic program in the United States" at that time, said Gary Roberts, then the Tulane faculty representative. "It was terribly, terribly embarrassing. We didn't have real high-quality people in the program, we didn't have adequate facilities, we didn't have any academic standards. It was just a mess."
The basketball program was disbanded on the opening day of Brown's first spring practice, and Wall resigned as athletic director. Tulane made the 33-year-old Brown AD, but he found he had even more problems than he thought. After weeding out some of the holdovers from the English regime -- players not interested in going to class, attending team meetings, or willing to take random drug tests -- Brown had a working roster of 59 athletes, 41 of whom were on academic probation.
"On top of that," Brown recalled, "we found credit card problems. Some of our players had individual charges to the university in excess of $41,000. That fall we were going to play six teams that had been in bowl games the year before -- and that was the least of our problems."
Drop Football Vote Taken (1985)
A 14-member blue ribbon committee studied Tulane football for the next few months and voted the night before the 1985 Green Wave-Southern Miss game whether to drop the sport. The vote was a tie.
A week later, before the season-ending game with LSU, another vote was taken, and Tulane football survived by one vote.
After the Wave went 1-10, and with Tulane's severe financial concerns, assistant athletic director Wright Waters proposed bringing in a consulting team to evaluate the program and see if Tulane had a realistic chance of succeeding.
The upbeat evaluation was Brown had a chance at success with some changes, including $2 million more in the budget. University administration wanted to cover that by including anticipated revenue from bowl games and television in the estimated budget.
"We had just finished 1-10," said Brown, now the coach at the University of Texas. "We couldn't count on going to bowls or being on TV. They did think, though, we were on the right track and could win at Tulane."
It wasn't a unanimous conclusion. Darrell Royal, the head coach at Texas who served on the committee that evaluated Green Wave athletics, told Brown that Tulane could not compete with a large state school: "I'd get the hell out of here as fast as I could, because you've got no chance. And I would go to a university that has The in front of it, because that's the only way you're going to make it."
The other guys said, "Darrell, you can't say that." And he said, "The boy paid me to come here and be honest, so I'm being honest. He needs to get out of here as fast as he can."
Two years later, the Green Wave was the 11th-ranked scoring team in the nation with a 32.5 point average. After it went to just the fifth bowl game in its history with a 6-5 record, Brown took Royal's advice and went to the University of North Carolina.
Home in C-USA (1990's)
In the 15 years since, Tulane has had four head coaches and four athletic directors. Through the major efforts of university president Eamon Kelly and AD Kevin White, Tulane was at least able to find another football home with the formation of Conference USA.
Unfortunately, C-USA is not perceived as a premier league. It is not a member of the Bowl Championship Series (BCS), the upper crust of college football that controls the sport's major bowls and purse strings.
For the past 50 years, since de-emphasis began, Tulane always seemed hapless on the college football scene. That was never more apparent than in 1998 when Coach Tommy Bowden's Green Wave stunned the sporting world with a 12-0 record -- but received little credit.
In the BCS standings, Tulane finished 10th in the nation, which was good, the highest finish ever for any non-BCS team. Not nearly good enough, though, to be considered in the running for the national title or to play in a lucrative BCS bowl.
Critics pointed to the cumulative 45-80 record, a .360 winning percentage and Tulane's opponents, only two of which finished with more victories than defeats. For all its accomplishments, the Green Wave got little national acclaim for its record against a schedule rated 96th in the nation.
Yet perhaps Tulane's reputation as a football also-ran was a factor. Consider this: In 1984, before the BCS, Brigham Young University forged a 13-0 record. The Cougars' opponents' cumulative record was 55-79-3 (.396), the 85th most difficult schedule in college football.
BYU was declared the No. 1 team of 1984.
Tulane School of Business Class of 1981
Loyola MBA Class of 1988
Conference Realignment "is like changing seats on the Titanic."