Tulane AD Dickson: “Now the focus is purely on us … winning championships”
A recent morning inside the James W. Wilson Jr. Center could best be described as calm, and certainly a 180-degree change from this time last year.
In early June 2014, Tulane athletic director Rick Dickson and his administrative team were in the midst of three major projects: overseeing the completion of Yulman Stadium, the on-campus football facility scheduled to open in less than 90 days; transitioning Tulane’s programs to the American Athletic Conference after two decades in Conference USA, and hiring a head baseball coach for only the second time in 40 years.
It’s early June 2015, and Dickson sits in his corner office on the third floor of the Wilson Center, where in one glance he sees the latest two additions to his athletic plant, the Hertz Center – the day-to-day home of the Wave’s volleyball and basketball programs – and Yulman Stadium. Without those bold-faced items on his to-do list, a weight has clearly been lifted off his shoulders, and he can look ahead to 2015-16 and beyond.
“Now the focus is purely on us and ramping up our competitiveness – winning championships,” Dickson said earlier this month. “I don’t think there’s any question now: Tulane’s in it and committed to compete. Now we have the foundation and resources to expect to compete.”
Of the three items he was dealing with, Yulman was clearly Priority A … and probably Priority B and C, too.
“The stadium dominated everything,” Dickson said, “just because everything banked on that being ready to open Sept. 6. (In June 2014), we were really into the nuts and bolts. We were hopeful, but not certain, that (it would be ready on time).”
It would get completed on schedule, of course. Just days before the opening, Dickson would say he has “never been as proud.”
While Yulman was being completed, Devlin Fieldhouse, Greer Field at Turchin Stadium and other facilities were undergoing cosmetic changes to reflect the Green Wave’s conference affiliation. And Dickson was in the process of trying to replace Rick Jones, who retired last May after 21 years on the job.
He found that replacement in Sam Houston State coach David Pierce. His introductory press conference came exactly one year ago Friday.
“We had a lot of great candidates involved, but I think we absolutely got the right guy for us,” Dickson said. “College baseball has changed in the last decade. We needed somebody that was adept at the challenges of a private (institution). What stood out most to me was (Pierce’s) tenure at Rice, with similar parameters.
“We feel like we came through that with the right answer.”
Dickson called his program’s first year in The American “a good first step.”
“We knew this first year would be a learning curve,” he said. “When you’re competing in one neighborhood for 20 years and all of a sudden you shift, we had to acclimate and focus on that really quickly, everything from scheduling to the level of competition.
“Across the board, we can compete in this league.”
The impact of Yulman and the new league has reverberated across many fronts.
“In my March report (to the Board of Tulane),” Dickson said, “we did a presentation that showed the impact of the stadium, in terms of attendance, finances, donations and sponsorships, and it was dramatic.
“The second thing was the conference. From 2004 until last fall, our entire sports program had been on national TV a total of 23 times. Kicking off from this year until March 15, we had been on 47 times. Think of that – 6 1/2 months doubled a decade. All of our programs were showcased more prominently than any point in our history. I think that’s the most dramatic impact.”
The trickle-down impact: Prospective student-athletes are noticing the changes.
“Seeing all of our incoming freshmen just walking around the facilities,” Dickson said, “(the new facilities and conference have) made a significant impact. If you look at the recruiting, a lot of it is attributed to those two things.”
The shift to the American has not only brought about more national exposure, but better competition. Which has proven to be more important to recruits?
“Absolutely both,” said Dickson. “Those two things have caught the attention of recruits not only in our area, but nationally.”
The exposure and competition opened doors to showcase the improvement in facilities, Dickson added.
“They didn’t feel like they were making a sacrifice or compromise,” he said. “What for too long had been a show-stopper for us for getting those kind of kids all of a sudden became an asset.
“Tulane has an allure that, until you’ve seen it and experienced it, people don’t realize it’s such a unique university. If you don’t get them through the first two layers, you don’t get that kind of conversation.”
Dickson said the 2014-15 academic year was his program’s best since Hurricane Katrina, and he credits the new conference affiliation in part for a return to the postseason in women’s basketball and baseball.
“To see women’s basketball and baseball back in the tournament, I think that’s a direct reflection of the respect and competitiveness of our conference,” he said. “There’s an expectation that multiple teams will compete in postseason. We benefited from that.”
The newest item in intercollegiate athletics is offering scholarships that include “cost of attendance.” Dickson said all of his scholarship athletes will receive cost-of-attendance stipends, beginning this fall, but the university isn’t certain what the actual stipend will be.
“We’re pretty close to our final number,” he said. “I’ve heard anything (nationwide) from $1,400 to $6,000-7,000. We’ll be somewhere in the middle of that. Like most of the other privates, their published cost of attendance is lower because they always have to be mindful of a high sticker cost of tuition, books and fees. To stay affordable for families out there, they work hard to keep the margin between full scholarship and actually going to school as a low number.
“We’ll do it across the board. Everybody in the conference is committed to it. Some are phasing it in; some are doing it for flagship or revenue sports. We’re doing it across the board. It will begin with this fall’s grant-in-aid. Their accounts will be credited. We’ll have some parameters or criteria to maintain they’re in good standing academically and behaviorally. It’s going to be a nice step in enhancing the grant-in-aid.”
Tulane’s non-conference scheduling philosophy is a balancing act and has been modified somewhat with the change in conference.
“What we’re trying to be is thoughtful and strategic,” Dickson said. “Our bread and butter (conference schedule) changed. That’s always going to be two-thirds or more of any schedule. You look at the other third (non-conference), and how do we put that together that advantages us in the most beneficial way? Lisa (Stockton) and David (Pierce) were able to do the best job of it this year, and the outcomes reflect that. You’re always wanting to do a balance from the strength side, from the interest, financial.
Recent updates to future football non-conference schedules in the last month include the dropping of a 2016 game at Mississippi State and the additions of Oklahoma, Ole Miss, UMass and Southern to the schedule.
“When we added the Georgia Tech, the Duke and we had a three-game series with Rutgers, it was in part because Conference USA was weakening,” Dickson said. “We wanted to get a little more aggressive on what we were doing out of league. Just about the time we start to play them, all of a sudden, the league changes. It made the overall (schedule) tougher than we intended.
“Mississippi State, we had one game left, which was a return game. We weren’t going to benefit there again. When the Oklahoma deal came about, from an interest and a financial standpoint, it advantaged us more than going and playing a road game with a fairly low guarantee. It also allowed us to clear our schedule a little bit and some balance.
“I think going forward, you’ll see a balance. The one neat thing with UMass, when we play there, we’ll play at Gillette Stadium. With our support base in the northeast, that’s something that people can rally to and can be a nice attraction.
“We want a combination of something that gives us a competitive advantage, but also an interest advantage. We want to sell 20,000-24,000 season tickets. Part of that is having some marquee names come through as well. It’s a balance, but at the same time, your goal is to position and advantage your teams to go to the postseason.”
What’s next from a facility perspective? An off-campus “athletic village” that has been on the table for several years.
“Our intent is to build out across the board,” Dickson said, “and the athletic village, as we’re referring to it, will start next. Every program will have either a new or upgraded facility or practice facility.”
But more immediate on Dickson’s schedule was heading into a session for his incoming student-athletes.
“We do a mandatory class for all of our incoming freshmen called Athlete Essentials 101,” he said. “It’s really just teaching them how to acclimate. Even if you lived five miles away or 500 miles away, you’re coming into a different environment.
“We can’t afford for kids not to be successful, whether it’s academic reasons or disciplinary reasons. We’re putting a lot of time and resources into it and seeing good results from that. I think we’re doing a great job on the front end of getting kids’ feet on the ground.”
And after the frenetic pace of this time last year, Rick Dickson’s own feet as well.
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Lenny was involved in college athletics starting in the early 1980s, when he began working Tulane University sporting events while still attending Archbishop Rummel High School. He continued that relationship as a student at Loyola University, where he graduated in 1987. For the next 11 years, Vangilder worked in the sports information offices at Southwestern Louisiana (now UL-Lafayette) and Tulane;…