Lewis: David Pierce’s hiring shows Tulane still takes baseball seriously

Baseball still matters at Tulane.

As it needs to.

The hiring of Sam Houston State coach David Pierce to take over the program run for the previous 21 seasons by Rick Jones, which was formalized Thursday with his introduction to local media and fans, was further proof that, as the school goes into the American Athletic Conference in less than a month, there is a new attitude on Ben Weiner Drive.

The on-campus football stadium, which is opening in just two months, the basketball practice facility and the beefing-up of athletic department staff levels beyond their pre-Katrina levels are all signs that Tulane is committed to prove it deserved the lifeline thrown to it two years ago by what was then the Big East.

In this case, Athletic Director Rick Dickson make the decision that it was time for a complete change in the program, no matter how much was owed Jones for bringing it to a status rarely achieved by any Green Wave sport.

And in Pierce he brought in a current Division I head coach with three NCAA tournament regional appearances in as many years at Sam Houston but also a nine-year apprenticeship at Rice under Wayne Graham, making him well-versed in what a private university must do to stay relevant in the modern landscape of college baseball.

Think about this:

When was the last time Tulane was able to hire a coach with that kind of résumé, who so perfectly fit the profile of what the school was looking for?

Try Roy Danforth, who became the men’s basketball coach in 1976, just a year after guiding Syracuse to the Final Four.

The soft-spoken Pierce went beyond that Thursday, setting his expectation level at winning the College World Series.

Well, we’ll see about that.

A good start would be getting Tulane back to the NCAA tournament, something the Wave hasn’t accomplished since 2008. That made Jones’ departure necessary, his unfortunate health problems notwithstanding.

Certainly competing for an AAC title within a year or two is something Tulane should be able to do. The league has only one returning NCAA tournament team from this season, Houston. The Cougars may have ruined LSU’s season, but this was their first tourney appearance since 2008.

And Pierce was savvy enough to get promises for extra scholarship support as a condition for taking the job.

As much as anything, the failure for the school to come through in that area was responsible for the Wave’s six-year tournament drought.

“Our dugout doesn’t look like it did in 2005,” Dickson said.

So Pierce is being given the tools to succeed in a winnable conference. Now it’s up to him to make it happen, although Thursday he emphasized that would be accomplished by “us,” not “me.”

And if it turns out that this winds up being a steppingstone job for Pierce rather than a destination one — Graham and Texas’ Augie Garrido can’t coach forever, can they? — then it will mean Pierce will have brought the Tulane program back, maybe not to its 2005 level when the Wave went to the CWS as the No. 1 seed but at least to where it’s one of the best in the AAC.

That’s important.

In speaking to conference officials and folks from other schools in the league, they talk about what Tulane brings to the AAC in academic reputation and its TV market.

The Wave’s high level of play in any sport isn’t mentioned. In fact, it takes prodding to get much of any mention about Tulane from anyone extolling the AAC’s strengths.

Obviously there are good reasons for that, starting with the Wave’s athletic history in this century. And while football did go to a bowl game last season, a schedule upgrade for this year makes qualifying for another one a likely struggle.

Men’s basketball may have gone to a minor tournament the past two years, but the program is so far behind the rest of the league in talent and interest level that it’s hard to see significant success happening soon.

Both the UConn men’s and women’s teams were honored at the White House for winning national championships. Can you ever see Tulane there? The Wave is in UConn’s conference now.

Nobody’s paying much attention to the other sports, but the next step in facility improvement is an athlete “village” to replace the track and tennis venues displaced by Yulman Stadium, another needed commitment to remain competitive rather than being near the bottom across the board.

The AAC isn’t the SEC. But it’s on a higher plane than Conference USA.

But on this day, the focus was rightly on baseball and the hope that a new coach can bring back the glory of the not-too-distant past.

“When we hired Rick Jones, I sat on the selection committee and thought it was a great hire at the time,” longtime major baseball supporter Waldo Otis said Thursday after viewing Pierce’s introduction. “But we haven’t been wining, and the support is down to a few of us diehards.

“This hire shows that Tulane is still extremely serious about baseball. All it’s going to take is a bunch of wins, and we’re going to have this place back like it was before.”