The Struggles of the Tulane Football Program
Following the success of head coach Larry Smith in the late 1970s and the uncanny knack of head coach Vince Gibson to defeat LSU in the early 1980s, Tulane fans had little to cheer about for many years. Even future national champion coach Mack Brown could never garner a winning season at Tulane. But in 1997, Tommy Bowden was hired as head coach of Tulane and instantly transformed the program into one of the nation’s best.
1997: A Portent of Things to Come
Following in the tradition of his father Bobby Bowden, the legendary head coach of Florida State, Tommy Bowden brought a winning mentality to Tulane. And it didn’t hurt that Tulane had a future star on its roster in QB Shaun King. Following a 2-9 season in 1996 under Buddy Teevens, Tulane improved to 7-4 in 1997. It was Tulane’s first winning season since 1981 (6-5) and its best season since 1979 (9-3). But as great as 1997 was for Tulane, it paled in comparison to what was to come.
Tulane Wins Conference USA and Much, Much More
With Shaun King returning for his senior year, Tulane fans were dreaming of a bowl bid and a first ever Conference USA title. Early in 1998, the Tulane offense was unstoppable. Shaun King, under the direction of offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez, was torching defenses and accumulating unheard of statistics. Early victories over Cincinnati (52-34), Southern Methodist (31-21) and Navy (42-24) showed that Tulane fans were in for a wild ride. But the next two victories foreshadowed how special 1998 would truly be.
Always a tough test for Tulane, Southern Mississippi looked to knock the upstart Green Wave off its pedestal. Although USM held Tulane to its lowest point total of the season (21), the Tulane defense also had its finest showing of the season, holding the Golden Eagles to just seven points. The following week, Tulane had another tough test in Louisville. Leading 28-22, the Tulane defense stopped the vaunted Louisville Cardinals offense from scoring on a last second goal line stand. From here, Tulane’s confidence soared and the Green Wave was not tested again in the regular season. Not only did Tulane win Conference USA, but they also went 11-0. However, the drama was far from over.
Tommy Bowden Departs
It came as no surprise that Tommy Bowden attracted a great deal of attention following the 1998 regular season. Despite the university’s best efforts to keep him, Tommy Bowden accepted the head coaching position at Clemson before Tulane’s Liberty Bowl game. At this point, most Tulane fans expected the university to hire the mastermind of its incredible offense, Rich Rodriguez. However, fearing that Rodriguez would soon leave like Bowden did, Tulane hired Georgia assistant Chris Scelfo as its new head coach.
Tulane Wins the Liberty Bowl and Goes Undefeated
Although he was passed over for the head coaching position, Rodriguez stayed on for Tulane’s Liberty Bowl game against BYU. Despite its undefeated record, Tulane was not ranked high enough to garner a BCS bowl berth. Tulane played inspired ball in an effort to prove they should have received more respect. Tulane won the Liberty Bowl 41-27 in a game that was much more one-sided than the final score indicated.
According to databasefootball.com, Tulane moved up three spots in the AP poll and finished the season ranked seventh. Also, Shaun King had perhaps the greatest season in collegiate history. According to baynews9.com, King set the NCAA record for the highest passer rating in history at 183.3. 1998 was the greatest season in Tulane Green Wave football history.
“1998 Final A.P. Poll,” databasefootball.com
“Shaun King, Football Expert,” baynews9.com
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