NEW ORLEANS — Every coach inheriting a losing program wants to change the culture.
Tulane’s Curtis Johnson was no different. Throughout preseason practice and well into his first season with the Green Wave (2-9, 2-5 Conference USA), his message was clear.
It was time for Tulane to put the past behind, learn to play his way and expect to win football games. To outsiders of the program, it’s unclear if any of those goals have been accomplished staring at a 2-9 record and last place in Conference USA’s Western Division.
But to Johnson and many others inside the program, the shift is plainly obvious.
“I’m seeing a lot of enthusiasm,” Johnson said. “I’m not seeing guys hanging their heads too much. I see a lot of guys running to the football and a lot more plays being made. And the No. 1 thing that comes up when talking about changing the culture, besides just the winning percentage, is enthusiasm and playing together as a team to not let the next man down, and never quitting.”
He pointed to last week’s 28-23 loss to East Carolina as a sign of resilience, as well as bouncing back from an 0-5 start strung together by blowout losses. Tulane will have its final chance to display progress at Robertson Stadium on Saturday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. when it closes out the season at Houston.
It’s an opportunity for Tulane to avoid its second consecutive season with double-digit losses, and snap a nine-game losing streak against the Cougars (4-7, 3-4) before they leave for the Big East. More importantly, for Tulane’s players it’s the last impression to leave before a long offseason.
“This team looks the best of any since I have been here,” senior cornerback Ryan Travis said. “The scores and the record may not show it, but right now, we are turning a corner as a program. I think this week is going to be big for us to get over the hump so these guys can start off on the right track next season.
“It would be great for people to recognize how much of a difference CJ and all of the rest of the staff has made and how much better we are than we have been.”
Under previous coach Bob Toledo and last year’s interim Mark Hutson, the Green Wave’s late season games were typically lopsided affairs — none were more illustrative than last November’s 73-17 loss to Houston in the Superdome. Without the carrot of a potential postseason berth in play, Tulane went a combined 2-14 in November between 2008 and 2011, losing at least one game by 47 or more points during the season’s final month.
Although the Green Wave are once again winless so far this November (0-3), the largest margin was by 14 points and the average defeat was by just seven. Offensive lineman Adam Skidmore highlighted a few notable differences between the coaching staffs and team leadership as a potential reason for the change.
“A couple of years ago, it seemed like the coaching staff was a higher power that was really hard to get personal with,” Skidmore said. “You kind of didn’t have the opportunity to tell them what you were thinking. With CJ, if you’re having a problem, I think it’s a bit easier to talk to him and maybe you’ll get an idea of what you’re doing wrong and see where you stand. It’s comforting to know the coach isn’t just there for the paycheck. He’s there for the team.
“But I think our leaders are much more mature here now as well. Two years ago we had a similar record and there were a lot of guys who were saying a lot of negative things and were really vocal about their unhappiness with everything. It’s not like that now. Our practice today was phenomenal. We aren’t giving up and haven’t lost hope. We have a game to play and want to try to win it.”
Until there are tangible results in the standings, it’s difficult for Johnson to show recruits and fans any change in mindset has taken place. While the losses may be closer, the record is still going to show a team which hasn’t compiled a five-win season in nine years or been to a bowl game since 2002.
The steps of progress are important, and Johnson said they are necessary in order to truly change the culture into the program he’s promised to prospects and alumni.
“When we started playing this season, we were getting blown out,” Johnson said. “Then as we got moving, we got closer and closer and closer and closer to wins. The next thing to do is push it on over. I think we are still increasing up the hill a little bit. We are almost to the summit and once we get there it will start to roll downhill a little bit.
“That’s when we start collecting wins and we’ll have a total change. But you can win games and the culture can be the same, if you just have better players. I think the six inches between the ears is getting a lot better.”