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A Leap of Faith

August 26, 2003

Mark Miester
mark@tulane.edu
Michael DeMocker

It was the biggest story to hit Tulane in years. In the end, thanks to an unprecedented outpouring of support by alumni and fans and an intensive study of the national athletics climate, the Board of Tulane reaffirmed its commitment to Division I-A athletics. Only time will tell whether that decision was the right one. April 2003 was shaping up to be a good month for Tulane athletics.

tulsum03_leap_1The womens basketball team had recently finished a successful season, culminating in its ninth straight NCAA tournament appearance. The baseball team was headed for an NCAA regional bid. The mens tennis team was on its way to a No. 15 ranking in the final poll, and the womens tennis team was en route to a ranking of 28th, its highest finish ever. Green Wave fans were riding high.

So it was with considerable skepticism that, on the afternoon of April 7, readers of Nola.coms Tulane football forum discovered a message alleging that the Board of Tulane was on the verge of changing the universitys athletics program from NCAA Division I to Division III, which has fewer requirements, including no athletics scholarships.

On April 21, after two weeks of intensifying rumor and speculation, Tulane President Scott Cowen issued a statement acknowledging the board was engaged in a comprehensive review of intercollegiate athletics at Tulane.

The review, Cowen said, centered on one fundamental question: Given the changing landscape of Division I intercollegiate athletics and the academic mission, goals and resources of Tulane University, what type of intercollegiate athletics program is in the best long-term interests of the university? The board had formed an ad hoc committee to help with research and fact-finding, he added, and the committee would present its findings to the board at a meeting later in the spring.

By the time John Koerner, chair of the Board of Tulane, announced the boards unanimous vote in support of Division I-A athletics on June 10, Tulane athletics had become the talk of the sports world and the focus of local and national media. From Internet chat rooms and talk radio airwaves to local lunch counters and watering holes-- wherever Tulanians or sports fans gathered --Tulane athletics was the topic of conversation. Long-dormant Green Wave fans shook off years of apathy and stepped forward with an unprecedented show of support for Tulane athletics.

To some, Tulane demonstrated leadership and courage in confronting a system increasingly at odds with the mission of higher education. To others, Tulane flirted with disaster by talking about reorganizing a program that represented the ideal of Division I athletics. At the eye of the storm was Cowen, who bore the brunt of harsh criticism for even suggesting that the university take a hard look at athletics. What was good about this was it got a lot of people engaged in some very significant issues about the future of the institution, says Cowen.

This wasnt about whether we liked or disliked intercollegiate athletics. It was about determining the appropriate role for intercollegiate athletics on a college campus given the mission, goals and resources of the university. Despite the fact that it was a difficult process at times, Im proud that the board undertook this review. They stayed the course and the decision they made was the right one for everybody concerned. This process peeled away layers and layers and decades and decades of apathy and unexpressed emotion and support, adds Rick Dickson, director of athletics.

So if it accomplished that, then its a good thing. But it didnt come at an easy price. While fans and the media viewed the work of the ad hoc committee as breaking news, in fact a study of athletics had been on the drawing board for years. A review of intercollegiate athletics was to be the final component of Creating Tulanes Future, a multi-year strategic- planning process initiated by Cowen in 1999.

Beginning that year, the administration identified areas of the institution for review, including the 11 schools and colleges, the universitys administrative units, undergraduate and graduate education, and athletics. Its important to note that athletics wasnt singled out, Cowen says. When we put the strategic plan together in my second year here, we focused on the academic enterprise first, but we said sooner or later we would review intercollegiate athletics. It just took us three years to get to this point.

The ultimate goal of the process, Cowen says, was to better align the universitys resources with its mission, priorities and aspirations as an institution, a theme that would be repeated again and again during the athletics review. In May 2002, Cowen and Yvette Jones, senior vice president for external affairs, took Dickson to dinner and outlined for him the process they envisioned would take place over the next year. They basically laid out what was going to occur over the next year and put it in the context of the complete university review, says Dickson. They said it could go anywhere from 12 to 18 months.

As outlined by Cowen and Jones, the boards review of athletics would involve two phases. The first, which took place between May and December 2002, focused on the landscape of the NCAA. With Dicksons help, Cowen and Jones hoped to bring the 29 members of the Board of Tulane up to speed on the fundamentals of intercollegiate athletics, everything from the structure and divisions of the NCAA to the vagaries of conference alignments and the Bowl Championship Series alliance.

At the boards meetings in May and September, Tulane athletics was never discussed. The focus was on landscape issues. But at its last meeting of the year, which took place on Dec. 11, the board turned its attention to Tulane, and what it saw was troubling. The problem wasnt the quality of the program. The board largely took for granted that athletics operates an exemplary program in terms of the academic performance of student athletes (with a 79 percent graduation rate for student-athletes) and the competitiveness of teams.

The problem was financial performance. Athletics was running a $7 million annual deficit--$5 million in operating funds plus $2 million offset by an annual subsidy the board had approved in the mid-90s-- plus $7 million in scholarship monies. The board concurred that, given the limited resources of the university, an annualized loss of $5 million within a $20 million program, with no relief in sight, threatened the ability of the university to fulfill its academic mission. It was unacceptable.

The numbers brought into stark contrast a question that had smoldered within the university for years: Given the universitys resources and the changing landscape of intercollegiate athletics, can Tulane viably operate a financially sustainable Division I-A program? When the board looked at the universitys financial situation and realized athletics was losing $7 million a year, there was a movement to act on this and act quickly, says board member Philip Greer, who sits on the boards intercollegiate athletics committee.

Thats when Scott [Cowen] stepped in and asked the board to form a committee to study this more carefully. Following the meeting, Cowen called Greer and asked him, at the request of the board, to chair a special ad hoc committee to help with research and fact-finding. The committee was to report its findings to the board at the May 29, 2003, Board of Tulane meeting. Greer, the retired senior managing principal with the investment management firm of Weiss, Peck & Greer, had become involved with Tulane through his daughter and son-in- law, both of whom attended the A. B. Freeman School of Business.

Cowen, Greer and board chair John Koerner (UC 65, L 69, B 70) asked seven members of the board to serve on the ad hoc committee: William Goldring (B 65), chairman of Magnolia Marketing Co. in New Orleans; Douglas J. Hertz (B 76), president and CEO of United Distributors Inc. in Atlanta; Jay Lapeyre (B 78, L 78), chairman of the Laitram Corp. in New Orleans; James J. Reiss Jr. (B 60), manager of Reiss Companies in New Orleans; William A. Slatten (A&S 61), chairman of Bisso Towboat Co. in New Orleans; James W. Wilson Jr. (B 57), head of Jim Wilson and Associates Inc. in Montgomery, Ala.; and Linda S. Wilson (N 57), former president of Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Mass.

When news of the review broke in April, athletics boosters criticized the makeup of the committee for its alleged anti-athletics bias, singling out Greer in particular. The committee was biased, Cowen admits--toward athletics. When the ad hoc committee was put together, we purposely put on that committee people who we thought were pro-athletics, Cowen says.

Everything we did was geared so that it would be fair and complete. Dickson agrees with Cowens assessment. The makeup of the committee was never a cause of alarm, Dickson says. I thought they were all very capable people and would give serious consideration and review to everything they looked at. The ad hoc committee met once a month from January to April and several more times as the May 29 board meeting approached. Typically, Greer worked with Yvette Jones to provide the committee with data for review and discussion.

Meetings ran a minimum of three hours and several stretched as long as six hours. Dickson was present at all but one of the meetings to answer questions and provide information. Phil Greer took this job extraordinarily seriously, says Lapeyre. He put in literally hundreds of hours helping to outline what information would be relevant and ensuring that the information had integrity. We chased all the iterative implications of the decisions, not just the financial impact but what Ill call the foreseeable implications of the choices and options. That took an immense amount of time and work.

There was a huge amount of preparation for the meetings just to digest the information so youd have a coherent discussion. It was a very extensive, thorough, careful, meticulous process with everyone in the room focused on trying to understand the issue, which is what we agreed we wanted to do before we tried to make a decision.

As the process wore on, Dickson presented the committee with several plans for reducing the deficit. While on paper the plans got Close--but never achieved--the goal of reducing the deficit to $2 million by 07, Greer says the committee was inclined to believe, based on the operating history of athletics, that Dicksons projections were overly optimistic.

Its one thing to look at numbers, its another thing to assess the likelihood of numbers were projecting five years into the future, says Greer. We never got a plan that we could have a high level of confidence in. There was optimism there we werent willing to bank on. Hertz adds, Given the initial information we had gotten back from the athletics department, we really didnt see a model that we thought, given the present levels of support, would get us to the allowable subsidy number.

Dickson initially approached the process with ambitious capital plans, hoping to convince the committee of the potential revenue impacts of a new basketball arena and renovations to Turchin Stadium. At the very least, he expected the process to run into the fall. I think there were some assumptions made without probably a full feeling or grasp of what could be done differently here, Dickson says. It was more like, okay, if we operate in this manner, heres what the likely results will be. It was probably around that April meeting where they felt like, okay, it cant be done going this way.

In a matter of days, the whole process started leaking and then what probably would have gone another six or nine months had to evolve at a much different pace. On April 4, the ad hoc committee brought in athletics directors from Emory University and Washington University to talk about operating a Division III program. Greer admits that, by that point, after reviewing several plans from Dickson, a majority of the committee was leaning toward Division III.

The outcome was far from certain, however, and a public phase, in which information about the various options would be presented and opinions from fans and alumni solicited, was still planned. It was following the April 4 meeting that someone began to leak information about the process to fans and the media.

For the next two months, Tulane athletics was literally the talk of New Orleans. The Monday after that April 4 board meeting I realized things had taken a definite turn, Dickson says. From my perspective it was kind of a leap, but we might have been on different paths because I kept expecting at some point the subsidy issue to be discussed.

Hertz agrees that the news leak, which suggested that a move to Division III was imminent, was premature. Much of the hysteria revolved around the belief that a decision on the future of athletics would be made at the boards May 29 meeting before fans had a chance to weigh in. Initially, the timeline was going to be a much longer process, Hertz says. It didnt make any sense to do anything until after the fall seasons. The news leak created a public relations nightmare for the university, which was forced to play catch-up with fans who accused Tulane of secretly plotting the disbanding of athletics. Fans deluged talk radio stations and Internet chat rooms with conspiracy theories.

Cowen was vilified as anti-athletics and hell-bent on doing away with Division I-A athletics at Tulane. It was always envisioned that there would be a public phase to this, says Cowen. But the timing of the public phase was so critical because if it came too early in the process, the ad hoc committee would not have been up to speed on the issues. Secondly, it would have come down at a cycle in the calendar that would have had an adverse effect on recruiting. We always envisioned that there would be a public phase in the latter part of April and May.

Once the news was out, the administration acted quickly. It set up a website (http://feedback.tulane.edu) to provide information about the review process and solicit responses. A telephone number was set up to receive calls. Two public forums were held to discuss the issues and allow the public a chance to speak. The transcripts of those forums were added to the website as well as links to all news media reports about the issue. Between April 21 and June 10, Tulane received 1,839 e-mails and 185 telephone calls, the vast majority in support of Division I-A athletics.

Suddenly, the activities of the ad hoc committee, which were still far from being concluded, were being played out under a microscope. Certainly, it made it much more difficult and more complex, so it was initially troubling, says Lapeyre. As it turned out, it may have been for the best based on the fact that we uncovered a groundswell of passion and support for the Division I-A program. Fomented by the perception that Tulane athletics was seriously in jeopardy, the long-dormant passion of Green Wave fans boiled to the surface.

A sleeping giant had been aroused. Would it stay awake? That was what the board had to decide. On May 5, Dickson went public with a new plan for achieving the objective of reducing the deficit to $2 million by 2007. It featured ambitious goals for season ticket sales, Tulane Athletics Fund giving and donations to the athletics endowment. The campaign was dubbed Think Green. (See "Tulanians Think Green".)

Complementing Dicksons efforts was a full-scale blitz from highly placed supporters of athletics. Prominent New Orleans alumni Ashton Ryan (A&S 69, B 71), Thomas Wicker (B 49, L 49, L 69), Dalton Truax (A&S 57) and Charles Giraud (B 82) appeared on television and were interviewed in the Times-Picayune about their support for Division I-A athletics at Tulane.

On May 7, New Orleans Saints head coach Jim Haslett and general manager Mickey Loomis announced that the Saints had purchased $20,000 worth of season football tickets. Former Tulane football standouts bought 1,000 season tickets to donate to local disadvantaged youths. State Sen. John Hainkel (A&S 59, L 61) voiced his support for Division I athletics, and a state senate resolution was passed. Under the leadership of councilman Jay Batt, the New Orleans City Council also passed a resolution in support of Tulane athletics.

While the moral support was significant, the ad hoc committee was looking for tangible support that indicated an aggressive--and Feasible--plan to reduce the athletics department deficit by 2007. Between May 2, when Dickson issued his public call to action, and June 10, when the board voted, the athletics department sold more than 12,000 football season tickets, increased the athletics endowment by $2.5 million and exceeded the Tulane Athletics Funds $1.2 million goal for 20022003. It was an unprecedented show of support and it made a big impact on the board.

A huge factor in this was the belief that this passion could be converted to financial support, says Lapeyre. While Dickson says he never doubted the departments ability to meet the goals he set to demonstrate tangible support, he didnt know if the board would buy into the plan until the morning of June 10. About 100 athletics supporters gathered outside the Diboll Complex conference center, chanting and waving Think Green signs as the board members entered to consider the future of athletics at Tulane.

Adding to the excitement was a surprise guest at the meeting --New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin (B 94), an ex officio member of the board, who showed up to voice his support of Division I athletics. The mood was tense, and a bank of television reporters waited to break in live with the news.

Moments later, on live television, board chair John Koerner read a statement. The Board of Tulane today passed a resolution by a vote of 27 for, 0 against and one abstaining, affirming its commitment to the continuation of Division I-A collegiate athletics at Tulane University.

The crowd outside the Diboll conference center erupted into cheers that temporarily drowned out Koerners words. Inside, Dickson was almost in tears. Koerner went on to delineate the plan the board endorsed for athletics, which turned out to be far from the status quo. The board resolved to operate a program consistent with the mission, goals and aspirations of the university while at the same time assuming a primary responsibility for ensuring that the athletics department successfully implements the operating plan it submitted in May 2003.

The board also resolved to play a more active role in better positioning Tulanes athletics program by exploring conference affiliations, working with other universities to influence NCAA policies and actively working to alter the BCS alliance (see the board resolution on page 14 of this issue, and turn to page 30 to read more about efforts to change the national intercollegiate athletics landscape). The boards decision represented a huge victory for supporters of athletics, but now that the sense of urgency has faded, everyone involved with the process hopes fan support doesnt fade as well.

It took something like this to stand up to that 50-year history of apathy, says Dickson. The absolute key to this is that people dont see June 10 as the conclusion. We didnt secure our future that day. What we secured was the opportunity to secure our future. There was a leap of faith made that day that said theres a good foundation in place, but its a long way from being complete.

Anyone that was passionate and enthusiastic about this has to put their money where their mouth is, Greer says. I am going to be very focused on meeting the target deficit in 07 in a timely manner and measuring it every single year. Weve got to get it down. Thats part of the resolution, and Im not shy about it. My biggest concern about the decision we reached was--and it still is--is the support by the different constituencies surrounding athletics sustainable? Hertz says. Because if it is, then we made the right decision. If its not, weve just delayed the inevitable.

Someone made an interesting analogy to me, Cowen says. They said its sort of like the New Orleans streetcar. We sometimes take the streetcar for granted. Very few of us ever ride it. But if they ever tried to take that streetcar away, wed be upset because its an integral part of the community and the culture. Thats how people feel about Tulane athletics. The good news is, I do believe all that passion and commitment out there will translate itself into sustainable support, and if it does, its a win-win for everybody.

Mark Miester is an editor with Tulane publications; e-mail him at mark@tulane.edu. A Q&A with President Cowen about athletics can be found at http://www2.tulane.edu/article_news_details.cfm?ArticleID=4743.

Tulanian

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000 website@tulane.edu