Friday, September 4, 2009

Green Wave, We Hardly Knew Ye

- Chasing the Tigers in an empty stadium. What else is new? -

The Tulane Green Wave 2009 football campaign ends tonight around 11:00 pm Eastern, as the Green Wave finish their opening game against the Tulsa Golden Hurricane. An already sparse audience, dwarfed by the massive Louisiana Superdome, and a national television audience provided by ESPN will be on hand to witness the season's conclusion.

It's not just that Tulane is a two-touchdown underdog at home, though that does help. Anyone familiar with Tulane's performance over the past six years or so knows the truth: this is a doomed squad. Look at last year's eight-game losing streak. Look at the myriad of special teams miscues -- blocked punts, missed field goals, touchdowns allowed on kick returns -- that dogged the team all season. Look at the collection of NFL-grade talent that has donned the olive and blue (JP Losman, Mewelde Moore, and Matt Forte as the most prominent examples) since the Green Wave's last bowl game in 2002.

You'd be hard pressed to find the best symbol for Tulane's nearly decade-long stretch of futility. Is it Lester Ricard, the LSU transfer so excited to play against his old squad in Tiger Stadium, who fumbled the first snap from scrimmage when the "rivalry" was renewed in 2007? Is it the 2006 home opener, the first Tulane game in city limits since Hurricane Katrina, where Tulane fell flat early en route to a 33-28 loss to SMU? Maybe it's the 2003 homecoming game against Houston, organized by MTV and featuring OutKast, played in a depressing drizzle at a half-filled Tad Gormley Stadium (capacity: 30,000). Even OutKast was disappointing, as only one of the two members showed up and he played "Hey Ya" twice so the cameras could get a good take.

But maybe the best symbol is former head coach Chris Scelfo. As Cajun as a crawfish pie, Scelfo enjoyed limited success in assistant coaching stops at Georgia and Marshall before his hiring. Named the head coach at the end of Tulane's only undefeated season, Scelfo's record barely scratched the surface of the miserable luck he endured. I'd like to think it was his lovable aw-shucks demeanor and perennial quotability that allowed him to keep his job until the end of the 2006 season; in reality, it may well have been departmental fatalism. Either way, how can you hate a guy that toured the South with a vagabond collection of college football players in 2005, continuing to play and "carry the torch" for a drowned school, record be damned? Or who punted on third down in a game because he couldn't stand watching the offense go backwards any more? Or who said about his offense, "We pissed down our leg for 60 minutes"?

Fairly or not for some who endured what he did, Scelfo was let go after the 2006 season. Even in his final press conference as Tulane head coach, Scelfo kept his sense of humor: asked what was next, he replied, "I'm gonna go home, take a nap, pick the kids up from school..."

But back to the present day. Maybe Tulane will hold their own against Tulsa tonight, and it is physically possible that they could win. But with nowhere near the resources of the LSUs and USCs and Michigans of the world, what's a small-budget program to do to escape from this death spiral of losses and apathy?


  1. You had my sympathies until your last sentence, Cole, but nothing riles me more than complaints about budget or market-size, which are ostensibly the same thing: I'm surprised I never stabbed Lee over this when I was living in NOLA. I'm sure I came very close. This is particularly irksome in college football: I'm sorry, you'd rather your university, ranked in the top-50 nationwide this year, spend its money on the football program than the academics? There's a reason that people scoff at the degrees of the football factories: they have a university to support a football team, not the other way around.

    Allow me to transition to the marginally-related topic of professional sports for a moment: I know that with you, I am spared the labor of ranting about market size, but I'll do it anyway. Contrary to what backwater morons might believe, the media coverage bestowed upon professional sports teams isn't based on some equation of fairness: in truth, larger population=more fans=more money=more coverage by the media. After years of living in the Midwest and a year in the South, I've had it with trying to coddle addlebrained people on this issue: sport is a business, like any other. I consider myself just as rabid a fan as any other when it comes to my teams, but I'm also smart enough to know what should drive the decisions concerning them. I've been accused of not understanding the "plight" of small-market fans when taking such a pragmatic view; perhaps, but I'll chalk that up to the better education systems in larger "markets."

    This brings us back to Tulane. A long, long time ago, Tulane athletics could be competitive nationwide while remaining a top-tier university, but some schools have since devoted their funds and efforts to athletics at the expense of their academics. Tulane can not, and will not, ever compete at that level again, because they are too busy bestowing an actual education. This is the harsh reality of Tulane sports: isn't it also the ideal?

  2. Mike,

    What a comment. Let's see if I can do it justice in my response.

    I am in fact glad that my university is in the top 50 academically and that my degree holds some val -- wait, they did what to my department? Huh.

    Okay, regardless, I see your point about academics. But look at
    that list of top-50 schools
    . The three schools listed right above Tulane are Texas, Florida, and Penn State. Notre Dame's on that list. Michigan's on that list. USC's on that list. And so on.

    I appreciate that Tulane has a comparatively limited budget and (correctly) feels the best business decision is to invest the lion's share of said budget in its academic facilities. It goes without saying that I object to the fact that Jim Calhoun is the highest-paid employee of the state of Connecticut, or that Les Miles is the highest-paid employee of the state of Louisiana, a state so woebegone you could say it fell out of the unlucky tree and hit every branch on the way down. But "our priorities are in order" isn't much of a rallying cry or recruiting pitch (though maybe they could use it in that 30-second admissions clip they show on TV at halftime).

    What I'm really asking at the end of this article is, given the constraints placed by budget and academics, is there any way for a school in Tulane's position to become a major player in "bowl-level" college football? If there isn't, why continue to compete at this level? This isn't a question just for Tulane either, but for any school not truly in the BCS system. What type of exposure are you gaining by showing up on national TV once a year to get blown out by 24 at home? Is it worth the astronomical price tag, especially in this economy?

  3. The problems with the BCS system are certainly numerous, including the recent foray into the bizarre territory of antitrust law amid accusations that the system constitutes a monopoly ("Do not pass go, do not collect $2mil BCS revenue-sharing payment"). Besides the lack of a true, proven champion, the BCS system works fairly well: dozens of schools get to participate in postseason bowls, milking boosters and selling tickets, and I trace most of the inherent problems to a deeper issue. As bowl-level college football is concerned, there is ever-decreasing room for the "student-athlete" among the ranks of NFL prospects. In my opinion, the only way to fix the BCS is to enforce more stringent NCAA standards for academics, but this will never happen. Even now, the standards are frequently fudged, unless you believe that every SEC or Big-12 team is completely comprised not only of people who aren't failing classes, but who are taking full 12-credit semesters and are making "satisfactory progress towards the completion of a degree," as stated in the NCAA Compliance Regulations. Just think: with stricter regulations and tougher enforcement for student athletes, the football factory schools would have to either change their ways or face frequent, season-damaging suspensions; all of a sudden, athletes with the brains to go to a more academics-focused school like Tulane would find stability on such a team; enforcing such compliance with substantial fines would benefit academic-minded schools, as they would almost certainly be subject to fewer. The list goes on. BCS, playoff system, I don't particularly care, because the BCS system isn't the root of the problem: the true shame of the BCS system isn't the lack of a clear-cut champion, but the erosion of the marriage between academics and athletics. Fix that, and everything else will change for the better.

    I'd also like world peace. And a pony.