Tulane’s breakthrough 1979 baseball team returns this weekend
College baseball in 1979 was nothing like you see today. The facilities weren’t comparable to minor-league parks. In a time where virtually every game is either televised or live streamed, even radio broadcasts were few and far between.
When the Metro Conference Tournament championship game between Tulane and Florida State was televised by a public TV station in Tallahassee – and also shown in New Orleans – it was a big deal.
That Tulane team, which won the title to earn the school’s first-ever NCAA Tournament berth 40 years ago this spring, is being honored at Greer Field at Turchin Stadium Saturday afternoon.
Though the external amenities of college baseball may not have been what they are today, the talent level of Joe Brockhoff’s teams were well above average.
Five Tulane players went in the first 20 rounds of the 1979 Major League Baseball amateur draft – third baseman David Stokes, first baseman Chuck Melito, outfielder Brian Butera and pitchers Kenny Francingues and Joe Tkac. Melito, Butera and Francingues were first-team all-conference selections.
Francingues was not only the ace of the Green Wave staff, but the Metro Conference pitcher of the year, as he set a Tulane record with 13 victories – a mark that still ranks tied for second in school history, four full decades later. His ERA was a remarkable 1.91 in better than 115 innings of work.
“Coach Brockhoff and I sat down and talked about my job that year”, said Francingues, who is still active in the game as the head coach at John Ehret. “We weren’t even sure if I was going to start or not. I thought I might be a reliever.
“My thoughts whenever I was pitching was I wanted to have a three-pitch inning. I knew our guys were going to score some runs for us. If I could keep my walks to a minimum, that we were going to be pretty successful.”
Pitching staffs were managed much different four decades ago, Francingues said.
“Today, you have Friday night starters, Saturday starters,” he said. “Back then, I pitched on four days rest. You didn’t have relievers like you have today. When I started the game, I was expected to go nine.”
After opening the tournament with an 11-4 victory over Louisville and a 4-3 win over Virginia Tech, the Green Wave faced the host Seminoles in the winner’s bracket final. Tulane moved into the driver’s seat with a 10-5 victory.
Florida State – which was coached in 1979 by the late Dick Howser, who would leave Tallahassee later the year to manage the New York Yankees – came out of the loser’s bracket to reach the title game, but Francingues shut down the high-powered Seminoles offense in a complete-game, 5-2 victory.
“We were all so focused on doing our best and representing Tulane,” said Francingues, who pitched on short rest in the title game after working in the tournament opener. “The Florida State fans were obnoxious during the game, but they were the first ones shaking our hands after the game. It was a great atmosphere.
“Not many teams were very successful going into Tallahassee, but for those years in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, I think we had a winning record against Florida State.”
Automatic berth in hand, Tulane was on to an NCAA Tournament that looked much different than it does today.
There were barely half of the teams in the 1979 tournament (34) as there are now. Super regionals were still 20 years away. Since ESPN did not go on the air until later that year, the 1979 College World Series was the last one without full national television coverage.
The 1979 team played its home games at Tulane Diamond, which had bleachers, no lights and a scoreboard that showed only score, inning and the count – and that was when Ball 3 would light up. The mound where Francingues pitched is roughly in the atrium of the neighboring Wilson Center, which holds administrative offices.
When that team returns to campus Saturday, it will set foot in a 5,000-seat stadium with box suites, artificial turf, lights, a video scoreboard and other amenities that were only a dream to the players in Francingues’ era.
“That’s just how baseball was back then,” said Francingues. “There’s always a part of you that wishes you could play on the newer (facilities), but we felt pretty comfortable playing on our ‘beach’ – that’s what we called it back then.”
Brockhoff’s recruiting philosophy was local first. The Green Wave starting lineup in 1979 included players from five Catholic League schools – Brother Martin, Shaw, Rummel, Holy Cross and Jesuit.
“It was a close-knit group that wanted to represent our city and our school,” Francingues said.
While Tulane’s initial foray into the postseason was not successful, it set the stage for what was to come. It was the first of six trips in 10 seasons for Tulane teams coached by Brockhoff, and from that year through 2011, a player who spent four years Uptown was assured of making at least one NCAA appearance.
“It’s something that nobody can ever take from us,” Francingues said. “To be the first ones to do that, we took great pride in that.”
Lenny has been involved in college athletics since 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;…