Waving goodbye

After saving Tulane sports, AD Rick Dickson to call it a career
Brett Duke, Times-Picayune/NOLA.com

Not too long ago, Tulane University faced the darkest of days when many of the school’s programs, including athletics, were in serious existential crisis. But through the vision of Athletics Director Rick Dickson, who announced his retirement this week, effective at the end of this academic year, Green Wave sports were not just saved, but forever transformed.  

“I felt this was a good time to begin my transition away from Tulane to a life of leisure,” Dickson said in an e-mail. “My 16 years at Tulane have been some of the best of my life. It is hard to say goodbye, but the time just feels right for Brenda and me to embark on the next chapter in our lives. However, I will be here for the next nine months and there are still lots of things left on my to do list!”

Amidst the devastation of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, Scott Cowen, Tulane’s president from 1998-2014, was faced with closing academic programs in order to keep the school alive. It was a scary time for the university. Included in potential cuts was the possibility of Tulane’s sports dropping from Division I, the top level of college athletics, to Division III or even being eliminated altogether.

After dropping its engineering program, many wondered if athletics was where the school needed to focus much needed funding. Instead of shutting down or moving to a lower level, Dickson believed the school should invest in sports. His vision included the construction of an on-campus football stadium. At the time the plan seemed questionable at best, but Cowen bought in and the two became important allies in leading the school’s recovery.

Dickson’s career reached its high-water mark last year when Tulane football returned to campus after 40 years of play in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Alumni, students and friends of the program immediately took to the on-campus experience, complete with the pageantry of a traditional college football environment lacking at the dome.

Remarkably, Tulane was able to raise nearly half of the funding for the $50 million stadium project within a year of its announcement in 2011. When construction ran $20 million over budget, stadium namesake Richard Yulman, former Serta owner and Tulane Board member who gave $15 million toward the 30,000-seat stadium’s construction, issued the “Yulman Challenge” to raise the additional money. Last month Dickson announced the school has received enough pledges to pay the stadium in full.

 “There’s a lot of buzz and excitement. I’m very optimistic,” Dickson says about game days on campus. “There’s an energy that we weren’t able to provide before.”

Yulman Stadium is the crown jewel of Tulane’s athletic program and symbolic of Dickson’s drive to transformation Green Wave athletics. But it’s not the only area of improvement. The 16-sport athletic program, which includes 10 women’s and six men’s teams, now competes in the American Athletic Conference, formerly The Big East. The impact of joining a stronger conference has had an immediate impact. From 2004-2014, Tulane was in Conference USA. In that 10-year span, 24 Green Wave games were nationally televised, roughly 2.5 broadcasts a year. After joining the American last September, Tulane had 69 national broadcasts in the following seven months.

A decade after Katrina, Dickson has been proved right. His vision and leadership were integral in saving Green Wave Athletics. In its darkest hour, he invigorated donors, alumni and friends of the program to rally around the athletics team and move the program forward. Dickson has the Wave rolling into the 21st Century with improved facilities and new as well as renewed vigor.

On behalf of Tulane fans as well as lovers of New Orleans, thank you, Rick for your part in making the university and the city better and raising expectations for Tulane’s and New Orleans’ next leaders.   

 

 

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