Tulane honors unbeaten 1998 team on 20th anniversary
NEW ORLEANS – Tulane celebrated perfection Saturday night.
On the same night that the 124th Green Wave team defeated Nicholls, 42-17, in Yulman Stadium, the best Green Wave team in history was being feted on the 20th anniversary of its 12-0 season.
Only three other Tulane teams went undefeated. The 1900 team went 5-0, the 1925 team went 9-0-1 and the 1929 team went 9-0.
But the 1998 team was unique.
It won its games by an average of three touchdowns and finished the season ranked seventh in the country.
It didn’t have a chance to compete for a national championship, but it did everything it could have to earn that opportunity.
The BCS title match-up was determined by pollsters and bureaucrats and they chose Tennessee and Florida State, both of whom had gone undefeated against much stronger schedules than the Green Wave played.
Tulane was never in the BCS conversation.
“It was Tulane,” center Torie Taulli said. “The world did not want us to go undefeated.”
But undefeated they went, though the perfect season started with a series of imperfect circumstances.
Just days before the opener at Cincinnati, 10 players who were academically eligible by NCAA standards were declared ineligible by the university, which served as a reminder of why it’s even more difficult for a team at a school such as Tulane to go undefeated compared to schools with lower academic requirements.
Six of the players would ultimately be reinstated but four, including one starter, would miss the entire season.
Two starters missed the flight to Dallas for the second game at SMU because flooding from a tropical storm prevented them from getting to the airport on time.
After the home opener against Navy, the Green Wave dispersed as New Orleans was evacuated because of the threat from Hurricane Georges.
When the team reconvened the Tuesday after the game it was discovered that the injury that starting quarterback Shaun King had suffered against Navy was a broken left (non-throwing) wrist.
The following week against Southern Mississippi, King played with a soft cast and split time with Jeff Curtis, who entered the game when Tulane ran plays that required the quarterback handling a snap under center. The defense caused six turnovers and Tulane prevailed 21-7 to go to 4-0.
“That was a springboard into the rest of the season,” Curtis said.
A week later the perfect season was seriously threatened by Louisville, which drove to the Tulane 3 in search of a winning touchdown in the final seconds. On the final play of the game, defensive back Tim Carter broke up a pass that preserved a 28-22 victory.
After that the academic difficulties, severe weather, major injuries and even stressful conclusions abated. The Green Wave won their last six regular-season games by an average of four touchdowns, none by fewer than 10 points.
Tulane put the finishing touch on the perfect regular season with a 63-30 victory against Louisiana Tech on Thanksgiving night.
The lower two levels of the Superdome were mostly filled, a metaphor for the season – not quite up to elite-program standards, but exceptional by Tulane standards.
“The place was on fire,” offensive lineman Jimmy Ordeneaux said. “We put on a show and that performance was a culmination of all the hard work we put in.”
The Green Wave went on to defeat BYU, 41-27, in the Liberty Bowl on New Year’s Eve.
Four days later, Tennessee defeated Florida State, 23-16, in a sloppy title game in the Fiesta Bowl.
“On December 31st 1998,” cornerback Michael Jordan said, “I think we could have beaten anybody.”
We’ll never know what might have been, but we do know that Tulane won every game it played. The best any championship team can ever do is match that.
Current Tulane coach Willie Fritz experienced a 12-0 season twice when he was head coach at Blinn College (1995-96), winning a national junior college title both seasons.
“It’s very, very difficult to do,” Fritz said. “That’s why at the end of the year, you’ve got one, two, three teams that have the possibility of doing that at the Division I level. Coach (Tommy) Bowden, his staff and the players did a good job of bringing their A game every single week.”
The success led to Bowden being hired as head coach at Clemson and he left before the Liberty Bowl. In nine-plus seasons at Clemson he never lost fewer than three games.
His offensive coordinator, Rich Rodriguez, was the de facto head coach for the Liberty Bowl even though the title went to Chris Scelfo, who had been named Bowden’s successor.
Rodriguez, who thought he would succeed Bowden until Scelfo was brought in at the 11th hour, stayed for the bowl game out of respect for the players before joining Bowden at Clemson.
He would go on to be head coach at West Virginia for seven seasons, Michigan for three seasons and Arizona for six. In 2005 his West Virginia team was undefeated into late November, but couldn’t duplicate what the ’98 Tulane did, losing its season finale to Pittsburgh.
Bowden and Rodriguez weren’t at Yulman on Saturday, but on the 10-year anniversary of the undefeated season, when the ’98 team was inducted into the Tulane Hall of Fame, Bowden said, “You really find out how hard (going undefeated) is to do as you continue down the road.”
Though the most recognizable coaches weren’t there, defensive coordinator Rick Smith and dozens of the players were.
But the prefect team’s celebration wasn’t perfect.
The leading receiver on the team, JaJuan Dawson, drowned while tubing in Texas three years ago.
Dawson’s widow and two daughters were honorary captains Saturday night.
One of his roommates at Tulane, running back Jamaican Dartez, wore Dawson’s No. 20 jersey.
“It’s bittersweet,” Jordan, another of Dawson’s roommates, said. “I miss that guy. We were like brothers. It’s hard thinking about. He was definitely a big part of this.”
The team members on hand were recognized on the field at the end of the first quarter. On the next play from scrimmage the Green Wave’s Corey Dauphine sprinted 69 yards for a touchdown while the ’98 team jumped up and down and screamed from the sideline.
Among them was Taulli, who said he used to carry with him his freshman student I.D. card before it “fell apart” as the intervening years took their toll.
His head shot was taken shortly after the team returned from a brutal preseason camp in Covington. He had shaved his head and his face carried cuts and bruises.
Taulli said he “looked like a criminal,” but he hung on to the I.D. because “it gave me perspective.”
“Nothing we do in life will ever be that tough,” Taulli said. “And nothing we ever do will last forever.”
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Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. His blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists and Louisiana Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association. You can follow…