NEW ORLEANS — Selling four wins over two years is complicated.
But Tulane football coach Curtis Johnson knows that is what he has to work with, and has made a career of successfully selling whatever he has to offer.
Right now, it’s a Tulane football program coming off consecutive double-digit-loss seasons, trying to highlight hope and progress in lieu of results. Spinning the narrative from Tulane’s status as a struggling program into a surging one is Johnson’s top priority this offseason.
It’s particularly urgent since the recently-joined Big East has fallen into a precarious position, turning the eyes of national pundits toward Tulane’s long-struggling athletic prestige.
Now it’s Johnson’s job to erase that image.
Although his first season with the Green Wave was admittedly a turbulent one, featuring a 2-10 record, a traumatic spinal injury to senior safety Devon Walker, the arrest of preseason Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year Trent Mackey and razor-thin depth on the defensive line.
It started with a five-game losing streak, and ended on a four-game skid.
Still, it’s hard to find anyone in Tulane’s program who claims the season was an abject failure or just another lost campaign. Instead, it’s viewed as providing the fundamentals and foundation for what’s to come under Johnson.
“I’ve been around here for a bit, and I can tell you we all feel a lot better about where we’re headed than we have before,” junior running back Orleans Darkwa said. “When I look back on the season, I’m not really thinking about the fact we went 2-10, because those results aren’t anything close to what we want them to be. But I think we grew up during the season and we never, ever quit on each other or on this coaching staff.
“Things started off really bad and we lost a lot of games, and some off-the-field stuff happened, but we got better and moved past it. We know where we have to improve, just have to do it.”
Midway through the season, it appeared Tulane had found its stride. After five lopsided defeats, while producing the nation’s worst statistical offense at the season’s onset, the Green Wave appeared to find its footing in wins over SMU and UAB in a three-week span in October.
Six points (a 24-20 loss to UTEP and 49-47 loss to Rice) separated Tulane from achieving its longest winning streak since 2002.
But slow starts and late miscues hampered the Green Wave down the stretch, an issue Johnson pinned on his team’s youth and inexperience across the field.
So even if the record showed a team beyond the outskirts of contention, several of Tulane’s players believe the Wave was good enough to snap the school’s 10-year bowl drought. As the program moves forward, freshman safety Darion Monroe said those close losses won’t be acceptable.
“I look back on some of those games, and I know we could have won them,” said Monroe, who was named to C-USA’s All-Freshman team. “Some of those we just didn’t come out with the right mindset or we made a mistake when we couldn’t afford it and that kept us from winning those games. I mean, early in the year we were losing by 30 points, so it’s hard to learn much from those, but the late losses we had still really bug me.
“I just know we are doing the right things and headed the right way. Now we have the next group of freshmen that are going to come in here and compete, play and help us get to where we need to be.”
The duty of retrieving those talented newcomers is up to Johnson and his staff. The numbers are abundant.
Tulane already has 19 commitments, including six three-star prospects (rated by 247sports.com). As promised, Johnson is focusing his efforts on the local area with 14 commitments in Louisiana, 13 of those from the metro New Orleans area.
Four commitments — Richard Allen, Sherman Badie, Brandon Godfrey and Eric Thomas — come from USA Today’s No. 1 team in country, John Curtis.
Since arriving at Tulane, Johnson has spoken about the importance of recruiting, spouting off a variety of advantages at his disposal — covering a nearly $60,000-per-year education, the city of New Orleans, a new stadium and early playing time.
“When you have a coach like CJ, you know his job is to go out and find guys who will come here and be better than you, plain and simple,” Darkwa said. “The veterans on this team welcome that. We want the competition to be there. I want to outwork the freshmen on the practice field and in the film room to beat them out but we know he’s going to go out and get guys who are capable of being on the field when they get to campus. We saw it last year.
“He knows how get people to believe in what he’s doing, and there are a lot of ways to pitch recruits and get them interested. I’m ready to start playing again already.”