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After the Vote

September 8, 2003

Michael Strecker
Michael DeMocker

What's Next For Tulane Athletics--and Intercollegiate Athletics in General?

When the Board of Tulane voted June 10 to continue Tulane University's athletics program at the Division I-A level, Green Wave fans hailed it as the successful end of a long and arduous process. Actually, it was just the beginning. As President Scott Cowen told reporters gathered at a news conference where the decision was announced, the vote did not mean business as usual.

tulsum03_vote_1"What we did not do was endorse the status quo. If anyone thinks this is the status quo that is a huge mistake on your part," Cowen said.

While the board's resolution reaffirmed Tulane's commitment to a Division I-A program, it also called on the administration to implement a plan that would erase the annual $5 million shortfalls that have plagued the department and adopt measures to ensure that the athletics program operates at an allowable subsidy not to exceed $2 million beginning in fiscal year 2007.

The allowable $2 million is not included in the $5 million operating deficit figure. To achieve such fiscal stability the resolution also called on the administration to take steps to better position Tulane's intercollegiate athletics program for the long-term. These steps included:

  • Exploring conference affiliations that will best position Tulane to fulfill the goals of its athletics program;
  • Working with other universities to get the NCAA to support higher academic standards, while lowering the costs of competing in Division I-A; and
  • Joining with other universities to alter the current arrangement of the Bowl Championship Series.

Two days after the adoption of the resolution, Cowen sent a letter to the presidents of the 53 other universities that are excluded from the Bowl Championship Series urging them to join him in an aggressive effort to alter the system that governs postseason play in college football as defined by the BCS alliance.

"We need systemwide changes in intercollegiate athletics," Cowen said. "These changes will be possible only if my fellow university presidents come together to take definitive action to change the BCS and its adverse effect on Division I-A athletics."

Noting that the BCS contract expires after the football season ends in 2005, Cowen said the time to act is now. The Bowl Championship Series alliance is not Cowen's only quarry. Athletics reform, in the broadest sense of the term, is his main goal.

"We have about 12 months to develop strategies that will allow us to make the compelling case that a system that has divided Division I-A football into two camps--haves and have-nots--and which essentially prevents 54 universities from competing for a national championship, should be dismantled," he said.

Cowen hosted a teleconference with his fellow non-BCS presidents on July 22 to begin the dialogue on this issue. As of July 18, 44 presidents had already agreed to take part in the discussions. NCAA president Myles Brand also agreed to join the non-BCS leaders throughout their discussions. To ensure that the proposed reform is undertaken in a collegial manner and to avoid an "us-versus-them" scenario,

Cowen also has sent a letter to the presidents of BCS schools informing them of the teleconference and seeking their input in the process as well. "I know that you believe as I do that we, as presidents and chancellors, have a responsibility to ensure that intercollegiate sports operate according to the highest ethical standards and the noblest principles of equity and fair play, and within the values that bind us together as a system of higher education," Cowen wrote. "I realize this is a complex and controversial issue to address but I am confident that we, as a community of presidents and chancellors, can find a way to mitigate the circumstances that lead to financial disparities," he added.

Cowen's challenge to the BCS alliance has attracted media attention around the country. An opinion piece he wrote outlining his thoughts on how intercollegiate athletics has lost touch with the goals and values of higher education appeared in the June 21 edition of the New York Times. Since then Cowen has been a guest on sports talk shows from coast-to-coast, including ESPN's "Rome Is Burning," Atlanta's 790 TheZone, San Diego's Mighty 1090, ESPN Radio with Brian Shactman, Sporting News Radio with CBS analyst Tim Brando and WXYT-AM with ABC analyst and former National Football League quarterback Gary Danielson.

He has also been interviewed by numerous New Orleans sports analysts as well, including the self-proclaimed dean of New Orleans sport commentators, Buddy Diliberto. Additional editorial and opinion pieces have appeared in NCAA News and the college football preview issue of The Sporting News. While some have cast Cowen's mission in quixotic or David-versus-Goliath terms, the president is quick to point out that he is operating under a mandate by his board and is hardly taking a "go it alone" approach. Moreover, the BCS alliance is not his only quarry.
Athletics reform, in the broadest sense of the term, is his main goal. "The athletics review we conducted was not only about sports and finances. It was about the proper role of intercollegiate athletics at an institution of higher learning," Cowen said. "We want to operate a model program in terms of academic performance and graduation rates that is financially viable on a sustainable basis and supports the academic mission and goals of the university."

The Tulane student-athlete graduation rate, at 79 percent, was the highest among all NCAA schools participating in postseason play last season. Several schools had graduation rates of less than 10 percent. Besides the need to achieve financial viability and philosophical harmony with the mission of higher education, Cowen said college athletics, on a national basis, needs to return to its original spirit and purpose.

"The constitution of the NCAA states that intercollegiate sports exists first and foremost for the betterment of the student-athlete, to promote his or her educational leadership, physical fitness, athletic excellence and to enhance his or her overall participation in college life. Somehow we have lost sight of that," Cowen said, noting that commercialization, ever-increasing coaches' salaries and the attitude of winning at all costs, even at the price of academic integrity, are all culprits.

"We have to rethink our notion of college athletics. We have to turn away from an entertainment- centric notion to a student-centric notion. Such a model does not preclude winning games and breaking records but it does preclude the exploitation, excess and misplaced priorities that have, unfortunately, come to define college athletics," Cowen said.

Another clause of the board's resolution called for the formation of an external advisory board to encourage sustainable support and contributions for Tulane from the community and to develop ways of better connecting the university and its athletics programs to New Orleans.

New Orleans Hornets owner George Shinn and prominent New Orleans businesswoman Pat Denechaud will serve as co-chairs of this board, which will also include former Green Wave quarterbacks Roch Hontas (A&S '80, M '84) and Shaun King (B '99), basketball All-American Johnny Arthurs (A&S '69), former baseball lettermen David Stokes (B '80) and John Leblanc (A&S '75, B '76), and Barbara Olivier (N '71).

Each will lead future revenue efforts in terms of season ticket sales, donations and outreach in his or her respective former sport. Olivier will head the campaign for the Wave's women's athletics teams. Tulane great Bobby Duhon (A&S '68) will chair the annual fund campaign. Numerous other community, business and political leaders, alumni and former student-athletes have also signed on to help spearhead the effort. In July the new board kicked off a campaign dubbed "Perpetual Wave," whose goal is to convert the recent outpouring of support and affection for Tulane athletics into long-term support that will stabilize the athletics program and allow it to grow in perpetuity.

The "Perpetual Wave" campaign is an outgrowth of the "Think Green" campaign initiated in early May by Tulane athletics director Rick Dickson (see "Tulanians Think Green"). That effort outlined goals for season tickets and donations to the Tulane Athletics Fund.

The department met many of its "Think Green" campaign goals for the entire year in just five weeks, selling more than 12,000 football season tickets, and taking nearly 7,000 new season ticket orders. The athletics endowment also increased from $10 million to $14.5 million, and the Tulane Athletics Fund reached its 2002-2003 goals while establishing a base of $2.1 million for the future with five-year pledges received on nearly all gifts and ticket sales.

The "Perpetual Wave" will begin on the heels of Phase Two of the "Think Green" campaign. "The goal of this group is to take the momentum from the Think Green campaign and turn it into a long-term action plan for Tulane athletics," said Dickson. "We want to develop a comprehensive and sustainable long-term plan for excellence which will build a foundation of support across many areas. Specific goals and targets will come from the chairs of the different areas in concert with the athletics staff."

The advisory board will also focus on capital projects, alumni outreach, endowments and special projects. Louisiana State Senate President John Hainkel (A&S '59, L '61) and New Orleans City Councilman Jay Batt will head up the capital projects effort while Milt Retif (A&S '55), Ashton Ryan (A&S '69, B '71), Jim Wilson (B '57) and Bob Devlin (A&S '64) will take the leadership of the endowments and special projects programs. Perry Leslie (A&S '91, B '94), Trey MacDiarmid, Bob Vorhoff (E '72, B '77), Jimmy Nieset (A&S '64, L '67) and Mike McNulty (A&S '73, L '76) will be charged with alumni outreach.

Tulane has now emerged as a leader in the field of athletics reform, having been one of the first schools in the country to undertake such a thorough and exhaustive review of its athletics department and having come close to being the first athletics program to fall prey to the "BCS and its adverse effect on Division I-A athletics," in Cowen's words.

In addition to the national media attention it has attracted, Tulane also has been contacted by a top official with the highly influential Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, a group of college presidents and other national leaders who came together in 1989 to suggest ways to reform college sports. The official lauded Cowen's efforts. NCAA President Myles Brand, Mellon Foundation president Bill Bowen and other recognized experts and stakeholders in the national conversation over the future of intercollegiate athletics will be among the panel members of a major conference that Tulane will be hosting on Nov. 11.

Cowen says applying academic expertise and discussion to the issue of athletics reform through efforts such as the conference underscores the united effort that is necessary for effective, lasting change. "This discussion should never be defined in terms of academics versus athletics. Intercollegiate athletics will always be an important part of Tulane and an important part of most schools throughout the country. What we need to do now is work to ensure that university athletics, on a national and local level, always puts the interests and future of the student-athlete first."

Michael Strecker is assistant director of public relations at Tulane; he can be reached by e-mail at


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