NEW ORLEANS — Curtis Johnson took advice from his wife and Sean Payton, and wore a pair of championship rings to his formal introduction as Tulane’s football coach Monday.
“I’m really and truly not a ring guy, but if this ring is going to cause a great athlete to come to Tulane, I’m going to wear it all over,” Johnson said as he looked at his Saints Super Bowl ring.
On his other hand, he wore a ring commemorating the national title helped the Miami Hurricanes win as an assistant during the 2001-02 season.
Johnson, who will keep his current job on Payton’s staff as Saints wide receivers coach through the current NFL season, is taking over a Tulane program that has endured nine straight losing seasons since making its last bowl appearance in 2002.
Johnson said he appreciates the challenge before him, but said he also sees himself as fortunate to be able to get his first head coaching job in his hometown and at a university he always admired.
“You couldn’t dream this up,” Johnson said. “This is fantastic.”
Johnson has been with the Saints since 2006, when Payton was a rookie coach and the Saints had just returned to New Orleans from a season of displacement to San Antonio because of Hurricane Katrina.
Payton and his staff quickly transformed the Saints from a rudderless team that had gone 3-13 in 2005 to a contender, and won the franchise’s first Super Bowl four years later.
“That was a difficult process, and I learned so much,” Johnson recalled. “I definitely can relate some of those difficulties to here.”
Payton sat in the front row for Johnson’s introduction. Saints general manager Mickey Loomis and Saints receivers including Marques Colston, Lance Moore, Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem also showed up.
“I don’t know how many good decisions Tulane football has made in the past 10 years,” Payton said. “(Running back Matt) Forte was one of them. I’ll tell you this. This hiring of Curtis Johnson will be another one. ... That’s an outstanding decision, and I’m excited for him.”
Johnson, 50, played high-school football in suburban New Orleans, then played at Idaho, joking that he “wasn’t smart enough” to go to Tulane.
Before joining the Saints, he was a college assistant for nearly two decades, and his specialty was recruiting.
He got his start as a college assistant at Idaho in 1987, then moved to San Diego State from 1989-93, recruiting New Orleans native Marshall Faulk to the Aztecs.
After single seasons at SMU and California, he spent 10 seasons with the Miami Hurricanes, during which time he coached Andre Johnson, Santana Moss and Reggie Wayne. He also recruited Ed Reed from the New Orleans area to Miami.
“This is a guy that has recruited and signed Ed Reed, Reggie Wayne, Marshall Faulk, arguably the best football players who’ve ever left this state,” Payton said.
Payton also bristled at the notion that Tulane took an unwise risk by hiring someone with no previous head coaching experience, saying anyone who wouldn’t want to give Johnson a chance because of that is “silly” and “ignorant.”
Payton noted that Vince Lombardi had his first job as a head coach somewhere, and that New Orleans is Payton’s first job as a head coach.
“There’s a lot of coaches that have been prior head coaches that were hired based on their experience” who failed, Payton said.
Athletic Director Rick Dickson said Tulane conducted a national search for a replacement to Bob Toledo, who resigned under pressure in October.
“We consistently gravitated to someone close to home that fits our profile,” Dickson said. “He has demonstrated a remarkable knack to evaluate, recruit and develop young men.”
Johnson was a mix of abundant self-confidence and self-effacing humor, joking that he always thought his first head coaching job “would be on a Pop Warner team.”
On a more serious note, he talked about stepping up Tulane’s recruiting efforts in talent-rich Louisiana, where many of the top high-school players either go to LSU or major programs out of state.
“Louisiana recruits — we’re coming to get you,” he said, drawing applause from boosters. “This is now the state of Tulane.”
He also talked about how he expected his history of working with winning programs to rub off on the Green Wave.
“There’s a learning curve with everything ... but I think my experience, the places I’ve gone, the games I’ve won, the games I’ve been in, I think I can be a good leader and a good head coach,” Johnson said.
After mentioning his rings, Johnson predicted that Tulane, which plays in Conference USA, would be playing for trophies before long and win over a local fan base that has waned in recent years.
“We’re going to bring this program to new heights,” he said. “We’re going to show this city that we can be a national player.”