The thing Lester Ricard Jr. remembers most about the summer of 2005 is a rising certainty: It was going to be his season. The former Parade All-American quarterback had transferred to Tulane from LSU two years earlier, then won the starting job as a sophomore, and was now returning for his junior season to head up a team believed to be among the best in school history. They weren’t ranked — Green Wave football wasn’t a program that got a lot of attention in the polls, not since 1998’s 12-0 run — but everything was setting up for another climb into the limelight.
They had a wealth of returning talent on defense, four experienced starters on the offensive line, and they had Ricard, who was starting to see his name pop up on NFL draft message boards, and all of them were humming their way through training camp. Tulane’s coaches had scheduled two daily workout sessions that summer, one early and one late to accommodate dozens of work and class schedules, and a sophomore running back named Matt Forte was running with both groups. “Going through spring,” said Ricard, “we believed that this was going to be the most amazing season at Tulane.”
Another notable thing about Green Wave football around that time was that there was a Division I-A schedule ahead of them in the first place. The team was just two years removed from a university review that had pondered dropping its athletic programs out of college sports’ highest echelon. Outright elimination of the football program had been under discussion. After feverish campaigning by staffers and alums to shore up and display public support for Green Wave programs, the school’s board of trustees eventually voted to carry on in the top tier, and by 2005, the athletic department had stabilized internally to a degree. “We had tripled our season-ticket base,” said athletic director Rick Dickson, “and we were coming back with a good team, and coming into ’05 maybe the best team that had been there since the undefeated season.”
On the last Friday night before fall semester began, August 26, the Saints had a preseason home game against the Ravens. Ricard’s cousin Alan was playing fullback for Baltimore, and he’d gotten Lester tickets. The crowd was sparse; the Saints lost 21-6. “And then Bruce Katz, who works for Fox 8, he does a weather report during the game,” said Ricard. “And he says, you know, ‘Get your stuff ready; looks like a hurricane’s coming through.’ And I get home and it doesn’t look good.”
A native of Baton Rouge–adjacent Denham Springs, Ricard was used to storm warnings. The year before, the team had evacuated in the path of Hurricane Ivan, and he’d brought two teammates to his parents’ house for a relaxing couple of days. “We just barbecued the whole time,” said Ricard. “Got out there and got out on the grill.” That Friday night, he got back to his on-campus apartment and turned on the TV for his first look at Hurricane Katrina, still a ways off, out over the Gulf of Mexico. “We were all kind of sitting there, like, ‘Man, this looks like it might be coming for us.’ But we’d always had those scares. We were thinking it’s gonna turn, like it usually was.”
“Living in New Orleans,” said Bubba Terranova, a senior receiver on the 2005 team, “you’ll go to sleep thinking a hurricane’s gonna hit in the morning, and then you get up in the morning and the storm’s gone.”
That Saturday morning, August 27, was move-in day on campus, and the football team was traditionally tasked with hauling luggage for their fellow students. “Obviously, I was wanting to go where all the girls’ dorms were,” said Ricard. “They needed help, and that’s what I was here for. I’m a strong guy.” He remembers limiting the number of suitcases he was trying to pick up at one time, in fear of having to tell his coaches he’d messed up his back trying to impress a bunch of freshmen.
“Then right after lunch, Scott Cowen, who was the president of Tulane at the time, he gets on this platform in the quad area, and he shouts on a bullhorn, ‘You need to evacuate campus and get out of New Orleans.’”
You can make the trip from Tulane to the football team’s evacuation point in Jackson, Mississippi, in about three hours. The bus ride for Tulane’s football players that Sunday took 10. Terranova estimates they sat in traffic on the streets of New Orleans for seven hours before their convoy managed to crawl its way out of the city. At Jackson State University, the team bedded down on mats and air mattresses in a gymnasium. Katrina hit New Orleans that Monday morning, August 29, as a Category 3 storm, and by nightfall had reached Jackson as a Category 2. The squad was just finishing an indoor workout when the lights went out in the gym. “And we’re trying to shower with flashlights,” said Ricard. “We got guys yelling, ‘C’mon, man, turn it over here so I can get my back.’” Terranova dropped his phone in a toilet trying to light his way through a bathroom.
Instant communication was possible in 2005, but not quite mainstream.1 Several 2005 Tulane staffers recall learning for the first time during Katrina that their phones had texting capabilities. Phones were down throughout the New Orleans area; the university’s email server had flooded. The players, told they’d either be back on campus in a couple of days or would go straight to Hattiesburg from Jackson for their first game, had packed for just a couple of days away, and the team’s resources were dwindling fast. The next day, Tuesday, the decision was made to postpone the Green Wave’s first scheduled football game and to bring the team to Dallas, where it could be housed near — and receive organizational assistance from — the Conference USA offices.
The full impact of the storm became clear before the team got to Texas, when the buses pulled off the road at an Interstate 20 rest area. “Coach lets all the guys off to let their legs out, grab something to eat if they want to,” said Ricard. “And when we go inside, it hits. There’s TVs all over the truck stop. And all of a sudden you see the damage. And we’d been getting the wildest stories, that there were alligators running around downtown New Orleans, anaconda snakes, that the chief of police had been murdered. We get on the bus, and you can hear a pin drop. No one’s talking.
“And that’s when it hit that this could be not over for football but just everything. This was gonna be different, you know?”
They pulled into Dallas in the early hours of Wednesday, August 31. While the Green Wave resumed football practice at Jesuit College Preparatory School of Dallas, athletic department and conference officials set to the unwieldy mission of reproducing their institution on the road. “There was no playbook to go to,” said Dickson. “There was nothing really to reference.”
“I think everyone probably had some moments where it was like, look at what’s happening in our city, is it right to continue? Is this something we should be doing?” said former assistant athletic director Donna Turner.
Poaching feelers had been put out to star players on the football team as early as two days after the storm, by coaches who saw a potential shortcut to securing a Lester Ricard or a Matt Forte. For Dickson, this was a new bottom of a new barrel. “I’m screaming, saying either the AD calls me back or it’ll be splattered all over SportsCenter tonight.”
Initially inclined to call off the season for all the school’s fall sports teams, Dickson says he changed his mind after speaking with the athletes, including Ricard and his own daughter Kelly, a senior volleyball captain for the Green Wave. On Friday, Tulane canceled classes for the semester and announced its athletic teams would continue to compete as a functioning arm of the university.
“I went to Scott [Cowen] and said I think we can provide a role,” said Dickson. “I think we can do something that will serve a greater good here. We’ll be the fresh front-door reminder, all throughout the fall, of what’s happened not just to Tulane but to New Orleans, with all these kids being out there.”
“I couldn’t have imagined not playing with those guys,” said Ricard. “My sanctuary was the football field. To go out there and practice and have Matt Forte, and have Damarcus Davis and have Bubba Terranova and Matt and Joe Traina and Michael Parenton around me, that’s — I was home.”
Decision made, the department began combing through the logistical tangles great and small. Tulane had had six home games scheduled to be played in the Superdome,2 and the players had to be placed in school somewhere. And in the meantime, the entire team was still living out of overnight bags. “You can’t imagine,” said Turner, “trying to coordinate just buying socks.” Donated goods began to roll in from nearby schools and restaurants, and from strangers turning up with paper grocery sacks. “People were dropping off toothpaste at the Campbell Centre DoubleTree in Dallas, you know?” said Dickson. “It was just that basic.”
Offers of help for the team started with necessities and worked their way up from there. Jim Wilson, a real estate developer and former Tulane letterman,3 sent the team to a mall and paid for every player to be outfitted with T-shirts, underwear, dress shirts and shoes, and khakis. Dickson’s wife, Brenda, checked them all out at the Dillard’s counter, summer-camp-style. USC athletic director Mike Garrett called to say he’d put a $50,000 check in next-day mail. (“I said, ‘Great, Mike, because I’m opening a checking account tomorrow,’” said Dickson. “Everything at Tulane was frozen. We didn’t know how people were going to get paid, any of that.”) When Dickson called the Naval Academy to say he wasn’t sure the team would be able to play anything beyond its conference schedule, AD Chet Gladchuk4 informed him the Midshipmen would be picking up the tab for the Green Wave’s hotel rooms, were upping Tulane’s guarantee for the game, and would feed the team. Dickson’s former equipment manager at Washington State, then at Arizona, shipped blank uniforms to Dallas so the volleyball squad could participate in that weekend’s tournament.
While all of these parties were at work day and night to stabilize the Green Wave, the players themselves had nothing to occupy their time but practice. One evening, after a visit to SMU’s campus, where Mustang sorority sisters had cooked them all dinner, the team got the bright idea to throw a party in an empty ballroom back at the hotel. “Just to have everybody, with what we were going through, have everybody forget for two, three, four hours,” said Terranova. That year’s roster had multiple players from Texas on it, a few of whom lived nearby, and somebody dug up massive speakers, party lights, and a disco ball, and Club DoubleTree was born. “One of the weirdest and greatest nights of my life,” said Ricard. “The swim team drove up, my girlfriend was with them, we had the lights down and we were clubbing in there like there was no tomorrow.”
By mid-September, Tulane’s athletic teams had all been farmed out as visiting students to SMU, Louisiana Tech, Texas Tech, and Texas A&M. The football team was sent to Ruston, where they took over a Louisiana Tech dorm that had been previously scheduled for demolition. With the Southern Miss game pushed to the end of the season and a Week 2 bye, the Green Wave had about a week and a half to prepare for their new season opener versus Mississippi State, to be played at Independence Stadium in Shreveport. By this point, the half-dozen players with missing relatives had all located their family members, all of whom had survived the storm, and a little of their tension had drained away, buoyed by the out-of-state players on the team. “A lot of guys came from Texas or Florida,” said Terranova, “so not to take anything away from them, but they didn’t go through the stuff the locals went through. But they were there to help us cope with everything.”
The team reveled, to an extent, in the chance to give their bodies over to muscle memory for a day. Shreveport and Ruston are about an hour apart, making the MSU contest one of the closest things the players would have to a home game all year. “It was a little bit of a release for me,” said Forte, “because all we were thinking about outside of football was what had happened. Football was like a little peace of mind, being able to get away from it. It was kind of a relief from what real life had to offer.”
The Green Wave lost by a touchdown, 21-14, but rebounded the next week in Dallas with a 31-10 victory over SMU, where they found themselves being cheered on by Mustangs fans. “I still remember seeing them all in the stands,” said Terranova, “all the people we’d hung out with. That was pretty cool. They were good to us.”
Tulane would eventually play 11 football games in 11 different stadiums in 11 back-to-back weeks in 2005, and though it wasn’t like they were the Saints,5 their strange situation didn’t go unnoticed. But after an initial flurry of media attention, the fervor died down, the coverage abated, and the Green Wave settled into their new nomadic state of normal. “Later on,” said Turner, “it was just, ‘Oh, Tulane is on the road again.’” While the extent of damage to New Orleans was still being felt out, New Orleans’s college football team was crisscrossing the Southeastern United States, Lafayette to Ruston to Orlando to Mobile, and finding outstretched hands at every stop. “I don’t think you can say enough about how not just the NCAA but really the whole athletics community reached out to us,” said Turner. “All these other offices would help us man things, and send their stat crews to us, and feed people. It continued everywhere we went. It didn’t stop.”
At 1-1 following the Mississippi State loss and SMU win, the Green Wave were headed back into near orbit of home for their third game, playing Southeastern Louisiana on October 1 at LSU’s stadium in Baton Rouge, on what should have been homecoming weekend at Tulane. Head coach Chris Scelfo had arranged for the team to spend the night in a country club event space near his home. He also released the players for a few hours to let them go back into New Orleans and try to retrieve what belongings they could. “When we got here, when we got over the spillway and into Kenner [a suburb of New Orleans]?” said Ricard. “That hurt us. Our mouths were hanging open. Could not believe how bad it was.”
Dickson drove down from Dallas the next day, and said, “They were different kids than I’d seen the week before.” Even taking into account the anxiety of being uprooted from their campus by a natural disaster, starting school in a new town without much in the way of belongings, and continuing concern for displaced family members, the players had still been insulated to some extent by the imposed routine of practice and games, and the hospitality of their temporary communities. The rhythms and ritual of football had normalized daily life, but like any other balm in crisis, it could work only so far and so long. After a 7-0 first half against what should have been an overmatched squad, the Green Wave hung on for a 28-21 win, “but they were done,” said Dickson. “It was real. And they realized, in waves, wait a minute: This is just a damn train wreck.”
Tulane didn’t win another game that year. The players were geographically and spiritually unmoored, and the season that should have been theirs slid further and further out of focus. Trying to feel fortunate stopped working; the thought exercise that once came naturally to them all, getting fired up for a game day, felt suddenly and understandably unnatural. “A lot of these guys had a lot of different things on their minds,” said Forte, “worrying about their families or their homes. It was tough on them.”
“We were exhausted mentally, you know?” said Ricard. “We tried to play for one another. We tried to rally for one another. We tried to rally for the school. We tried to rally for Rick Dickson, because we knew he was there for us.”
Senior night came and went in a 38-14 loss to Tulsa played in Louisiana-Monroe’s mostly empty stadium. Relationships between the staff and players frayed. “It might have been three weeks left,” said Terranova. “I was just done. I was ready for the season to be over.”6 The Green Wave lost the postponed Southern Miss game, 26-7, to finish with a 2-9 record.
In early December, in the College Station airport, on the fourth leg of a four-campus swing to tell his athletes that Tulane was cutting half its varsity sports as part of a schoolwide cleaving,7 Dickson got a call. A compliance director of another school, allegedly egged on by several coaches and without the knowledge of his athletic director, had contacted Dickson’s office and requested a blanket release for all 325 athletes that Tulane still had on scholarship. Poaching feelers had been put out to star players on the football team as early as two days after the storm, by coaches who saw a potential shortcut to securing a Lester Ricard or a Matt Forte for themselves, but for Dickson, this was a new bottom of a new barrel. “I’m screaming, saying either the AD calls me back or it’ll be splattered all over SportsCenter tonight.”
Just existing turned out to be a tall order for Tulane football in 2006. The Superdome reopened just in time for the Saints to host the Falcons on Monday Night Football on September 25; five days later, the Green Wave played their home opener against SMU. Ricard and Forte each shook off multiple transfer offers, including come-hithers by at least two schools in the SEC, to remain with the team, the bonds of 2005 holding fast. “My teammates, you know?” said Ricard. “I loved them. And I loved Tulane, with all my heart.”
“To each his own,” said Forte, “but I’m from Slidell and I didn’t want to just leave. I wanted to see the city come back.”
It wasn’t to be. Tulane managed just a 4-8 record in 2006. Forte injured his knee and missed the final three games.8 “We had a great team my senior year,” said Ricard. “But we never got over that season. We never got over what happened.” Scelfo’s relationship with the team deteriorated, culminating in an infamous punt call on third down, after which he stated, “I was just saving them more embarrassment.” (In the press conference announcing his firing, Scelfo said, “I probably should have punted on second down, looking back at it.”)9
“Even a year later,” said Dickson, “it was felt that we had not rebooted or reenergized, and it’s completely understandable. Our coaches, just like the kids, went through a traumatic experience. No one could have gone through that and not been affected. Everybody reacted differently. It affected everybody differently.” Today, he says he’d recommend Scelfo, who most recently worked as the tight ends coach on Mike Smith’s Atlanta Falcons staff, for another college gig. “Just a remarkable occurrence, all of it.”
To replace Scelfo, Dickson tapped a New Mexico offensive coordinator and former UCLA head coach, the delightfully witness-protection-named Bob Toledo. His West Coast offense proved an ideal match for Forte, who waged a 2,000-yard rushing campaign his senior season and would go on to be drafted in the second round by the Chicago Bears. Despite Forte’s feat, the Green Wave won just four games in 2007 and never bested that total in three subsequent years. Halfway through the 2011 season, Toledo resigned.
For this coaching search, Dickson cast his eyes closer to home, and what more indelibly New Orleans selection could have been made than a member of Sean Payton’s first Saints staff? Curtis Johnson Jr., a native of St. Charles Parish and a career wide receivers coach, became the first African American in school history to head up the program on December 5, 2011. That same week, a campaign was announced to build a small on-campus stadium for the football program, removing the Green Wave from the cavernous confines of the Superdome.
Today, both quests have borne fruit. Johnson’s first Tulane team went 2-10. His second squad, in 2013, jumped out to 7-5, making for the first winning Green Wave season and bowl appearance since 2002. Tulane lost the New Orleans Bowl, an entirely hometown affair, 24-21, to the Ragin’ Cajuns. Hindered by widespread youth (Johnson played at least 23 freshmen in 2014) and a stingier schedule in the team’s first season in the AAC, last season’s Green Wave averaged a dreadful 16 points per game, didn’t field a defense capable of backing that number up, and dropped back to 3-9.
This season, he’s working on managing his expectations as he shepherds a group that gained invaluable on-field experience as underclassmen last year, but is still composed mostly of 19-year-olds. Another bowl appearance, he believes, is within the Green Wave’s grasp. “We always try to keep it in perspective,” said Dickson. “Mickey Loomis, the Saints general manager, the one thing he told me: There’s been 50 years of coaches that haven’t won at Tulane. It’s not going to be a quick fix.”
One permanent change for the Green Wave program is already in place: that long-sought game-day home on campus. Last year, the team played its first season in brand-new Yulman Stadium, an intimate 30,000-seat venue nestled within the footprint of the university’s uptown campus.10 In overhead photos, Yulman looks like a little jewel box. One corner bears a raised “18,” in honor of Devon Walker, the Green Wave strong safety who was paralyzed by a spinal injury during his senior season in 2012. From the upper concourse, you can see the team’s former home the Superdome, the Smoothie King Center, the Metairie skyline, the Mississippi River. “For this little place,” said Dickson, “it feels like the top of the world.” Johnson’s favorite part isn’t even inside the stadium. It’s just getting off the bus on campus. “I think the players just love being home,” he said. “A place they can call home.”
One of Johnson’s goals when he was hired was to reshape the Green Wave into a team with a distinct identity of state. On the 2005 roster there are 35 Louisiana natives listed, just four from Orleans Parish and two from Jefferson. Today’s roster boasts 67 in-state players, including 19 from Orleans Parish and 12 from Jefferson. And one year after its first homecoming game, Yulman Stadium will play host to a special few more. In June, Dickson wrote a letter to the 2005 class of Tulane athletes, informing them that they’re being inducted en masse into the university’s Athletics Hall of Fame this November. “It should be like the ‘Tulane Football 2005 Season Stadium,’” said Ricard. “That is ours. That is ours.”
“You always talk about it. Any team you play on, from high school, to college, to pro, every offseason, you never play with those same guys again, you know? That next season it’s a whole different cast of individuals. And you always say you’ll never get back together. And now we will be.”
Tulane football is more at home now, geographically and demographically, and it’s not just the venue that feels more specifically of New Orleans than before. There was no Steve Gleason punt block for the Green Wave, no analogue to the Saints’ Super Bowl victory for the city to rally around. The team isn’t instantly emblematic of the city in the way its pro team is, but that’s the thing with sea changes. You can’t ever tell just from looking at a few waves whether the tide is coming in or going out. You have to stand still, play close attention, sink your feet into the ground a little.