Sometimes dreams are realized in ways we never imagined. Certainly that's been the case for Dave Dickerson, who finally got a head coaching job at Tulane at age 38, only to find his--and many other people's--world turned upside down.
Only now, months after Hurricane Katrina devastated downtown New Orleans, have Green Wave basketball teams returned to Fogelman Arena to play their Conference USA home games. The women opened there in mid-December. Competitive exile ended for the men against Richmond on Dec. 27. The Green Wave won, 64-41, a nice Christmas present for athletes and coaches who found a hospitable refuge 370 miles from home in College Station, Texas.
Katrina caused the cancellation of Tulane's fall semester. Students, administrators and athletic personnel scattered after floodwaters and the subsequent breakdown of society made campus life untenable at the private university nestled along Broadway and St. Charles Avenue. The football team played 11 games in 11 different cities, winning twice.
Texas A&M accommodated about half the Tulane athletic program. E-mail kept head coaches spread across several states abreast of efforts to return the school to normal function. Regular athletics department conference calls maintained a rudimentary sense of cohesion and common purpose.
"I don't know what kind of effect this will have on my team," Dickerson, the men's basketball coach, said by phone prior to the season. "There are some things I'm not experienced enough to know yet."
The Green Wave won its opener against the University of New Orleans in College Station, then proceeded to lose four straight. A second win came over Texas Christian, followed by a decisive loss at Seton Hall, perhaps the weakest member of the Big East. That sting was salved by beating St. Edwards, a Division II school from Austin, Texas.
Meanwhile, aftershocks from Katrina continued to shake Tulane as an institution. Early in December, financial difficulties required the school to lay off academic and athletic personnel.
Harkening to 2003, when the university seriously considered exiting costly Division I-A athletics, trustees suspended eight programs affecting approximately 100 athletes. Gone were several groups that had fled to Texas A&M--women's swimming and soccer, and men's and women's tennis--along with men's track and cross-country and men's and women's golf. "Today is a day of great loss," Rick Dickson, the Tulane athletics director, said in announcing the downsizing. "As far as I am concerned, no student-athlete is any more important than any other."
Of course some programs are revenue-producing and some are not, and Tulane derives about $2 million annually by competing in major sports in Conference USA. The school that abolished its basketball program amid scandal in 1985, then reinstated the sport in 1989, recognizes that, as Dickerson said, "sports is the best, or the freest, form of advertising."
The NCAA granted Tulane a five-year waiver that allows it to compete at the I-A level despite playing with half the required complement of teams. School administrators said all scholarships would be honored, but many affected athletes, particularly golfers, are seeking transfers.
Dickerson could hardly have imagined more unexpectedly difficult circumstances in which to launch his head coaching career.
The nine-year Gary Williams assistant at Maryland had become increasingly aggressive in seeking a quality head coaching job as he reached his mid-30s. He turned down at least one mid-major position, and was considered for the Clemson job that went three seasons ago to another African American, Oliver Purnell, a former head coach at Radford, Old Dominion and Dayton.
Tulane gave Dickerson his big chance this past spring in a league a step down from the ACC. Following a raid by the Big East (precipitated by ACC expansion), Conference USA is comprised of Tulane, Alabama-Birmingham, Central Florida, East Carolina, Houston, Marshall, Memphis, Rice, Southern Methodist, Southern Miss, Texas-El Paso and Tulsa.
Intelligent and unassuming, and for years the only black member of the Maryland coaching staff, Dickerson was present for many of the more momentous events in his alma mater's modern basketball history. Those experiences helped land the Tulane job, and came in handy as he steadied an unfamiliar and discombobulated squad of 13 youngsters displaced by natural and man-made disaster.
During his days as a Williams assistant, Dickerson had been an island of calm on a bench often swept by tongue-lashings and paroxysms of emotion. Sideline rants were nothing new to the native of Olar, S.C., who was brought to College Park by bombastic Charles "Lefty" Driesell.
Dickerson played sparingly for Driesell as a freshman in 1986. That was Len Bias' senior year, which was capped with the Terrapin great and two-time ACC player of the year dying of a cocaine overdose. "The people who went through it as student-athletes those years," Dickerson told the Washington Post, "all of us got our degrees and are all doing what we want to do. And we're the type of people we've become because of having gone through that situation."
Two decades later, Dickerson cited the experience to help his new team overcome the trauma of dislocation, confusion and loss. "Now is the right time for us to show who we really are," the coach said.
Bias' death, which spurred Nancy Reagan's "Just say no" anti-drug campaign in nearby Washington, D.C., rocked Maryland basketball.
The tragedy brought to light deficiencies in Driesell's program, including the execrable academic performance of many players. Driesell was fired. "For decades, athletics dominated this university," said the head of the school's Board of Regents. "Now we're interested in a better balance."
Enter Bob Wade, the first black head coach in ACC history.
Wade jumped straight from Baltimore's powerful Dunbar High (which produced Wake Forest star Tyrone "Muggsy" Bogues, among others) and landed with a crash. His first Terp squad finished 9-17, 0-14 in the ACC. Dickerson, a sophomore, appeared in every game that year and was voted the team's most improved player. A winning record (abetted by cheating) came in 1988. The team resumed the ACC cellar in 1989 with a 1-13 mark, 9-20 overall. Dickerson's playing time increased and the 6-6 forward served as team co-captain.
Dickerson graduated, and two years later became a coach. He returned to Maryland in 1997 to work for Williams, another alum hired in 1989-90 to replace the disgraced Wade. Dickerson was on hand when the Terps reached their first Final Four in 2001, won their only NCAA title in 2002, and captured Williams' sole ACC championship in 2004.
Tulane came calling shortly after the Terps concluded a disappointing '05 season. Dickerson moved to New Orleans, and several months later wife Laurette and son Dave III, age 5, joined him in a newly purchased home on the West Bank of the Mississippi River. Life looked good.
Hurricane Katrina hit on Aug. 29, some six weeks later.
The Dickersons evacuated ahead of the storm. Their house sustained a bit of wind damage but escaped the flooding common on the East Bank.
Tulane and the city closed while Americans witnessed and vicariously endured New Orleans' nightmare. The gloom was periodically illuminated by perseverance and acts of heroism and kindness, but was often tinged with the stink of incompetence and enduring, Deep South racism. "I was shocked for about a week," Dickerson said. "I couldn't believe this was happening--to a city, period."
Dickerson was somewhat less stunned when coaches from other basketball programs tried to recruit away his players. None succeeded. Recruiting has been a different matter. Campus visits are out of the question, and the feedback from prospects has been mixed. "They will have to have blind faith in our city and our school and me," Dickerson said.
His first squad, comprised of inherited players, is controlling the backboards and holding opponents to 41.4 percent shooting, signs of strong defense and of the toughness and conditioning the new coach hoped to instill. But the Green Wave struggles to make shots and to score, and will have trouble posting a winning record.
"When coaching has gotten tough for me, the wins and the losses and other ordeals, I'm like anybody else," Dickerson said. "I revert to my love of the game. The game hasn't changed, so if you love the game, that keeps you going."
And that's true whatever your game may be.