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What if Louisiana had two SEC teams all along?

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Tulane had a path to remaining something like LSU’s football peer. Why didn’t that happen, and what could’ve been?

Huey Long
Former governor Huey Long with LSU’s band in 1934
Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images. Banner Society illustration.

No matter when you are reading this, imagine it is January and you are in New Orleans. Welcome! I hope you enjoy your visit for the National Championship.

As it turns out, the pride of NOLA is in the game! That’s right. Tulane’s at home for the title game.

Everyone in the French Quarter is wearing green beads. Legions of LSU fans are annoyed that their rival, the SEC’s only other Louisiana team, is here. But all around the Bayou State, people are pulling for the Wave.

OK. None of that happened. But maybe it could’ve.

For the first half of the 20th century, LSU and Tulane were on parallel paths. After starting as independents, they joined the Southern Conference together in 1922, then left in 1933 as charter members of the SEC. Tulane called their trophy game the Victory Flag, LSU the Tiger Rag.

In some respects, Tulane was better. The Wave won a Sugar Bowl 24 years before LSU did, made a Rose Bowl (something LSU’s never done), and up through the mid-‘50s, were comfortably ahead of LSU in SEC and SoCon championships. And if you picked certain time spans, you could see Tulane above .500 against LSU.

Then LSU became the LSU we know today, and Tulane became Tulane.

The first thing that set different roads was Louisiana’s government. The state wanted to make LSU a behemoth.

By “the state,” I mean Huey Long, the governor from 1928 to ‘32. Long, who once marched alongside LSU’s band, wanted the Tigers to have a great football team. Sports Illustrated’s Ross Dellenger calls Long “the grandfather of LSU football.”

Long hosted football recruits in the governor’s mansion, delivered speeches to players and often marched with the LSU band down Baton Rouge streets. He was a fixture on the LSU sidelines and sometimes got involved in mid-game disputes with coaches over play-calling. One coach, Biff Jones, quit in 1934 over an argument with the politician. Over what, you might ask? Long wanted to give the halftime address to the team.

Long set up Louisiana to make sure the Tigers would never be short on resources. In the most popular example, when the 1936 legislature refused to increase Tiger Stadium’s capacity but did give him money to build new dorms, he had LSU build those dorms inside the stadium, with seating on top.

Of course, Tulane’s a private school. It’s not near the state capitol in Baton Rouge. It’s not a major symbol that naturally attracts fans from every background, like LSU has become. To the contrary, Tulane’s campus stands somewhat apart from the rest of New Orleans.

If one team was going to become the state’s official team, it probably wasn’t going to be the Green Wave. There might be an alternate universe in which Tulane exists for the long haul as a public university, and Long — seeing the Wave as better than LSU around the time he took office — decides to back a different horse. But that’s not this alternate universe.

Still, Tulane had a path to viability in the SEC.

Private-school programs can be huge deals, but usually with relatively little government help. For instance, Miami’s gotten little aid from its city, aside from a lease on the old Orange Bowl, as State of The U’s Cam Underwood puts it.

But the Canes built a dynasty anyway. They cast themselves as the team of a city, despite Miami’s alumni base not looking a lot like South Florida. With that branding, they recruited brilliantly in their ultra-talented backyard. Maybe an SEC-powered Tulane could’ve done this in the New Orleans gold mine. It would’ve required a Howard Schellenberger-like figure, for one thing.

In this version, NOLA natives like Ed Reed might have stayed home at Tulane, as Reed nearly did.

Or, without that Schnelly figure, Tulane’s SEC floor could’ve been as something like the modern Vanderbilt. It’s difficult to say how this would’ve gone, because Tulane decided not to find out.

Tulane deliberately foreclosed any possibility of remaining a power.

In December 1951, Tulane president Rufus Harris urged his SEC colleagues to “deemphasize” athletics, worried the league had become a sports factory.

The AP reported Harris wanted to cut football scholarships to 75, limit offseason practice days to 30, assistant coaching staffs to four, and travel rosters to 38. He wanted to scale back recruiting and get rid of the platoon system, which allowed mass substituting and led to bigger rosters.

This might’ve appealed to him because Tulane was smaller than most of its SEC counterparts and cared a lot about school. Harris told the AP that Tulane had lost $46,000 on athletics in 1950 – nearly $500,000 in 2020 money.

The rest of the SEC, as you can guess, did not want to deemphasize sports.

But Harris went ahead with his cuts at Tulane itself. When the 75-scholarship Green Wave took a tiny roster to Georgia Tech in 1952, a Birmingham News reporter checked the hotel registry to make sure it was really only 38 players. It was.

Georgia Tech won 14-0 against Tulane’s small roster. The Wave went 5-5 in 1952, then won two games total the next two years. They’d have a handful more seasons of three or fewer wins before going independent in 1965.

A 75-scholarship team couldn’t compete in a conference where teams were handing out more than 100. Even now, in the most regulated version of college football ever, FBS teams have 85.

After time in the wilderness, the Wave settled into Conference USA. They won it once in 18 years: in 1998, when Tommy Bowden went 11-0 before riding off to Clemson ahead of bowl season. The Wave got an upgrade when the AAC came around in 2014, and they’ve shown a few signs since then. They’ve hung on to one thing from their past: their logo, among the best in sports.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 16 Tulane at Temple

There was one year, just before Tulane gave up, that might’ve kept the Wave a decent (or better) SEC team forever.

In 1948, Tulane finished 9-1, and #13 made for its second best AP finish ever. In 1949, Henry Frnka’s Wave started 3-0, which included convincing wins at Alabama and at home against Georgia Tech. Tulane was #4 heading into its fourth game.

The Wave got their asses kicked in South Bend, 46-7. #1 Notre Dame scored four touchdowns in the first quarter and out-rushed them 280-23. This was the senior year for Notre Dame’s World War II-produced class of 1946, the most dominant recruiting class ever. The Irish crushed pretty much everybody.

So it’s extra unfair that Tulane’s pivotal moment had to involve a team of veteran ringers.

Then the Greenies were 7-1-1 and #10 ahead of their rivalry game with #13 LSU. One AP reporter wrote, “All Tulane must do to clinch the conference crown and probably get a Sugar Bowl bid is beat Louisiana State.” Another said Tulane was “figured a favorable opponent” by the Sugar Bowl committee if they won.

LSU won, 21-0, and went to the Sugar. Some Tulane historians figure missing that bowl gave Harris, Tulane’s president, cover to chop up the program.

In 2002, the New Orleans Times-Picayune, drawing on interviews with historians who’d been around at the time, connected those 1949 losses with the program’s gutting.

“Considering the popularity of the Green Wave at the time, and how good we had become on the field, that might have been difficult [if the team had reached the Sugar],” the program’s PR person from the era said.

Tulane remains stuck on one Sugar Bowl win — over Temple on New Year’s Day 1935, the game’s first playing.

There’s a crackling alternate reality in which Long puts his muscle behind LSU and Tulane becomes Louisiana’s version of The U.

All throughout the 2010s, you saw how ferociously obsessed LSU was with getting past Alabama, where ex-Tiger Nick Saban was racking up titles, and how huge it finally paid off.

Now imagine Tulane had also thrown a modern-era title or two into the mix.

With that much pressure to win, would LSU have offered Saban, like, a billion dollars to never leave for the NFL? Would the Battle for the Rag be one of the five or six best rivalries? Would LSU have fired Les Miles years earlier?

We’ll never find out. And instead of Tulane representing Louisiana in New Orleans’ biggest games, LSU does. Every time, forever.