Curtis Johnson has never been a head coach, or even a coordinator. But after 25 years in the business and just shy of eight months in the corner office at Tulane, he dishes the familiar rhetoric of a rebuilding job like a polished vet.
The hardest thing about winning at a program like Tulane? It's all about getting the players to believe they can win. Bridging the talent gap? You'd be surprised how far a smart, experienced quarterback can take you. Coming up with a viable recruiting pitch? Let Coach Johnson tell you about Tulane's class sizes. "At Tulane, we're not talking about a four-year plan. We're talking 40-year plans," he says, "When you come to Tulane, you're pretty much set." And you just cannot beat the location.
But of course Johnson knows, like everyone in Louisiana knows, that the "40-year plan" for Green Wave football in his lifetime has been one of mere survival, at best, and at times even that has been debatable. Since the university deliberately decided to deemphasize athletics in 1951 rather than keep pace with the nascent SEC arms race, Tulane has consistently dwelt among the most hopeless programs in the nation, and has flirted on more than one occasion – most recently following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 – with dropping out of Division I sports altogether.
For coaches, the job has been a vortex of virtually no return. Including Johnson's predecessor, Bob Toledo, ten of the last eleven head coaches at Tulane have left with a losing record in their tenure, a list that includes a young Mack Brown. and a lot of other guys who may as well have disappeared in Lake Pontchartrain. (The Green Wave's 6-6 mark under Brown in 1987 was so impressive that Brown, fresh from losing records in his first two seasons, was hired to turn around down-on-its-luck North Carolina.) The only other man to escape the spiral of futility in the last six decades is Tommy Bowden, who arrived with innovative offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez in 1997, turned in what must be the most improbable undefeated season in NCAA history in 1998 and immediately booked the first seat on the first plane to Clemson before the team's bowl game. The Green Wave have made exactly one postseason appearance since, in 2002, their only other winning season in the last 30 years. Announced attendance for home games has dwindled below 20,000; actual attendance may be less than half that.
Johnson knows the record he inherits intimately, because he knows New Orleans. He grew up in the city, and he's spent the last six years there on Sean Payton's staff with the New Orleans Saints. He won a Super Bowl ring in the city. As wide receivers coach at Miami, he won a national championship ring with two star players he recruited from the city, Ed Reed and Reggie Wayne. At another stop, he's the guy who convinced fellow New Orleans native Marshall Faulk to leave home for the far-flung locale of San Diego State. Johnson knows the neighborhoods where those guys live, and he knows their high school coaches. Now, he has to figure out how to convince a few of them that the local laughingstock is worth staying home for.
"When we played in the Super Bowl [in 2010], everybody in New Orleans was my cousin because they wanted a ticket," Johnson said Wednesday at Conference USA's media day in Dallas. "Whenever you're from a place, you know a lot of the people. I grew up with a lot of the [local high school] coaches. … A lot of guys on my coaching staff are from New Orleans. So I think it really helps that there's a face that they can identify with, someone who knows the city, someone who knows the ins and outs."
For once, the city and the school have given him a real in: A brand new, $60 million "crown jewel" of a stadium set to open on Tulane's campus, expected to take the Green Wave out of the echoing canyon that is the Superdome by the fall of 2014. A real estate agent would describe the new venue as "cozy," with a proposed capacity of 30,000 – still one of the smallest numbers in the conference. But "cozy" is of a piece with the urban campus, and anyone who has ever endured the sleepy atmosphere of a Tulane game in the Dome knows that 30,000 mostly filled seats in the Garden District will make for a dramatically better atmosphere than 50,000 emphatically empty seats downtown.
As for Johnson, if he can carve out the beginnings of a foothold over the next two years, a cozy niche in his hometown doesn't sound like a bad start.
"Everybody has feeling for the home team," he said. "Louisiana has a number of athletes that play and go all over the country. … Why not here? Why not Tulane? Why not us?"