After successful runs at Washington State (1994-2000) and Tulane (2000-15), Tulsa athletic director Rick Dickson was basking in retirement before he came back to TU for a second stint in the top role in 2020.
Nearly three years to the date of his return, 30,000 fans will pack a sold out H.A. Chapman Stadium Saturday afternoon for Oklahoma’s Week 3 visit to the Golden Hurricane. For Dickson, the occasion represents the latest milestone in a mission he’s been pursuing since stepping back into the job he previously held from 1990-94.
“One of the things I‘ll always remember about Tulsa is that we can rise to the occasion,” Dickson said. “Whether Monday through Friday we’re the smallest FBS in the country. On Saturday, we’re not. We’re here. We’ve got a history. It’s time to refresh it and rengage it and relaunch it. This is a pretty emphatic testament to that.”
Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. will mark the program’s first sellout since fifth-ranked Boise State visited Tulsa on Oct. 14, 2009. Before the Sooners’ trip across the Turner Turnpike, I spoke with Dickson to learn more about a day that holds significant meaning for TU, first-year coach Kevin Wilson and for the future of the school’s football program.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Eli Lederman: Starting broadly, what does Saturday and a 30,000 people inside Chapman Stadium represent for TU?
Rick Dickson: It goes beyond just the normal football rollout. I’m coming up on being back here three years. This is kind of a culmination. It’s a high water mark for a lot of work and energy that that many, many — both in athletics and on campus — have put into bringing ourselves back to relevancy, putting a stake in the ground and saying that we’re that we’re relevant and that we’re invested in those things. It’s important.
University of Tulsa athletic director Rick Dickson
EL: How so?
RD: It seems for a while, for a variety of reasons, we had lost all that. It’s important that these types of events be maxed out and taken advantage of and symbolized. Because you don’t outwardly project that when you’re the smallest FBS university in the country. For me, as someone who grew up here and was part of it and experienced some of that in my first tenure, it just brings home what I know TU and Tulsa — that combination together — is capable of.
EL: TU’s average home attendance last fall was 18,745. What will a sold out crowd look like inside Chapman Stadium?
RD: I think back to 30 years ago when one of our home schedules in my first tenure when I didn’t know as much. I thought it was a great idea to have OSU, Texas A&M and Miami all on the home schedule at the same time. It’s not a very coach friendly schedule but it sure helped fill our stadium in those days.
I have those images in my mind because I know what this place is capable of. We hit somewhere over 20,000 last year for the first time in a while. That was kind of a mark that needed to be established and we did it last year. We should continue to grow from that. Certainly days like this Saturday will help.
EL: I assume the game day operations undertaking steps up a few ticks this weekend?
RD: The planning began early in the summer. Even though we announced two weeks ago that we had sold out, we had anticipated we would. So we began planning. I think the big difference, at least from three years ago when I came back, is the buy-in throughout campus. Clearing parking on game day was not something that was ever done. Well, how are we supposed to attract a crowd here if we can’t provide parking?
That stuff is second nature now. We have the full buy-in to our tailgate village concept that we’re doing which has representation of about every organization on campus. You’ll see 15,000+ out there Saturday.
EL: Can you quantify the financial impact of the Sooners’ visit and all the people you’ll have on campus and in the stadium Saturday?
RD: I don’t know how to quantify it. But having a premier game, particularly one of its stature in our state, that puts an empathic turbocharge to it. There’s been other big name programs that have come through here over the years and decades of course. But when it’s that one it just carries a weight that’s unique here in the state.
EL: How quickly did tickets for this game go relative to other home games?
RD: This was a game that never went on sale individually. It sold out on a season ticket basis. That or mini packs and half-season tickets . I’d say all eight cylinders are ignited on this one.
EL: Singer Sean Kington is performing on the Chapman Commons as part of the pregame festivities. How did that come to be?
RD: We started last year doing this with our home games doing three A-level acts and then three A-minus level acts. This is definitely in the A-level for us. We kind of rolled out and said if we’re going to go for it, let’s really go for it.
EL: He released his first No. 1 song in 2007. How did you settle on Sean Kington for this game 16 years later in 2023?
RD: We’ve been working with some local promoters. In reviewing what the options were for the timing of it we wanted to shoot high. We saw that he was available and that was kind of the deal. We knew this or homecoming was going to be the feature showcase of the season and we were able to land him.
EL: I have to know … were any of his hits such as “Beautiful Girls”, “Fire Burning” or “Eenie Meenie” on your radar previously?
RD: I figured you were going to ask that. I’ll put it this way: I’ve seen him on YouTube. And when I heard him I recognized him. 30-plus years now of being around these young kids I still have a few things I recognize.
EL: You have a first-year coach in Kevin Wilson. If a game like this turbocharges the finances, what might it do for him?
RD: The same way you can apply the meaning of this to the program or the university, it’s the same way for him in his first journey. I think it just shows for him and the program that we’re playing at a certain level. And unlike 30 years ago when I had those three schools I mentioned in a row, all these games are on television. So it’s the fact that that’s where we are now. Then add this game on top of it and it reinforces and cements the fact that you can go big from here.
EL: Kevin has talked about building a foundation and says he believes that big things can happen at TU. Surely a day like Saturday provides a real example of that, right?
RD: Kevin said to the team early on that three years ago we were in line to be Tulane. We were in the conference championship game and lost in overtime, otherwise we’re going to the Peach Bowl on Jan. 1 like Tulane was able to do last year in the Cotton Bowl. You can do that now from here. There’s a path. This reinforces it as that.
EL: This isn’t the last regional Power Five opponent TU is contracted to play in the coming years. What comes after this?
RD: Saturday triggers the first of almost a decade of big games. We start an eight-year home and home with Oklahoma State next year. We’ve got Arkansas coming in two years. This isn’t a once in a decade or so type of event. It can be more and more realized and lead to destinations that weren’t thinkable in years past.
EL: You call this a culmination in what you’ve been building in your second run at TU. When will you be able to take it all?
RD: At some point by 9 p.m. Saturday night. My wife Brenda will be home. We’re in a downtown apartment. I’ll be pulling in and enjoying a late dinner and maybe a glass of wine and I’ll soak in the day then.