New Orleans — Few schools face a greater challenge in playing major college football than Tulane University. A winning season, along with an occasional bowl appearance, is sprinkled here and there, but the Green Wave generally swims against the tide. That clearly was the case in the season opener, when Florida State swamped Tulane 38-12.
What makes life so difficult? Size for one.
Tulane is a small, private institution of approximately 6,400 undergraduates going against schools three, four, even five times its size.
Then too the strong academic orientation keeps many hot playing prospects away.
Furthermore, interest in the program is hard to sustain because Tulane doesn't belong to a conference, plays off campus (in the Superdome), and generally finds itself in the shadow of the city's pro franchise, the Saints, and to some degree Louisiana State University, which is up the road a piece in Baton Rouge.
The picture can be pretty discouraging, but Tulane isn't about to throw in the towel, especially not now that the school has dropped men's basketball. The university disbanded the basketball team last spring after point-shaving and illegal recruiting activities came to light.
Football and basketball are generally the most visible, well-entrenched sports on any campus, as well as the major bread winners for the overall athletic program.
Without one, the other naturally assumes heightened importance in the eyes of the college community. Thus, instead of scaling down it commitment to football, the administration remains supportive of playing at the big-time, or Division IA, level.
``I don't think it's a question of keeping up with the Joneses,'' says Dr. Eamon Kelly, Tulane's president. ``To me it's more a question of a hundred years of tradition in a collegiate decision making environment.''
Football, in other words, has a long history at Tulane, a 150-year-old institution that began playing the sport in 1893. This history is worthy of respect, and Kelly is convinced that the football program has been and will continue to be run cleanly. So Tulane will stay its present course, competing at the top rung of the college football ladder despite all the challenges.
``I felt the football program was declining in success and popularity,'' Tulane's chief executive confesses, ``but now I feel there is an enthusiasm in the community as the result of the force that Mack Brown brings to the position of head football coach.''
Brown is courteous, articulate, energetic, and a dynamic leader. He also is a young man with tremendous responsibility. For besides accepting the head coaching job last December, the 33-year-old Tennessean took on the athletic directorship following Hindman Wall's resignation in April. That's a pretty tall order, but one his brother, Watson, handles at Rice University.
Brown, who has spent 13 years in college coaching, mostly as an assistant, is enthusiastic and positive about wearing two hats. Still he admits that tending to Tulane's entire athletic flock makes difficult decisions inevitable. ``I will have to make some decisions that will affect our football program in a negative manner budget-wise, and that's tough.''
Brown, who has been given a five-year contract, understands his mandate is to run a program that reflects the university's overall integrity. He has no fear of being fired based purely on Tulane's record, but feels winning is important ``for the betterment and self esteem of the young men.''
A former Florida State running back, Brown has served only one year as a head coach, that at Appalachian State in 1983. The team went 6-5, turning in its first winning season in years.
Prior to his arrival, Tulane had three losing seasons, and none of his eight predecessors left with a winning record. With five opponents that went to bowls a year ago, Brown says he expects some ``rocky spots.'' Whether he's enlisted for duty in a quarry remains to be seen.