The path to prestige for Tulane’s football program took a turn into rough terrain last year, but coach Curtis Johnson said he believes it was more of a detour than a fork in the road.
The fourth-year coach opens spring practice with the Green Wave at 8 a.m. Wednesday on the heels of a 3-9 season, its first in the American Athletic Conference. But he is vowing to stay the course rather than forge a new route.
It was easier to maintain the path a year ago, when Tulane was coming off its first bowl season in 10 years and was riding momentum into a new stadium and new league. Since then, Johnson’s faith has been tested, but his actions show his belief in the Green Wave’s coaches and young talent is unwavering.
“Someone told me going into last season that even though our team was going to be better, our record would be worse, and I didn’t want to believe them,” Johnson said. “But everything I watched last year proved that to be true. I really think our problem last year was the amount of young players we had to play. You look at the board and ask who the best player is, and more times than not, that guy turned out to be a freshman.
“I’m going to play the best player and get them experience. But I think I underestimated the league and our schedule and what a step up it was from Conference USA. It would have been nice to play another season in the old league, but the school did what was best for us long term, even though it may have made things harder in the short term.”
Now, with 15 practice dates scheduled and a roster full of valuable experience on both sides of the ball, Johnson has the luxury of worrying more about perfecting the details rather than teaching the basics.
For the first time in Johnson’s Tulane tenure, he’ll conduct spring practice with a clear-cut No. 1 quarterback. Even three-year incumbent starter (current Saints’ quarterback) Ryan Griffin in 2012 didn’t command the top of Johnson’s spring depth chart the way sophomore Tanner Lee does right now.
The faith in Lee doesn’t stem from his numbers and certainly not the way Tulane’s offense performed last year. The Green Wave stagnated in the final month, scoring just one touchdown and 16 combined points in its final three games.
Lee’s passing efficiency ranked 10th in an 11-team conference, wounded by throwing 14 interceptions to just 12 touchdowns and averaging less than 200 yards per game. However, by November, his top three receiving targets, both tight ends and running backs were all true freshmen.
It’s why Johnson is steadfastly staying the course.
“People have said that Tanner didn’t get better. But if you look at the film, he got a lot better — and it’s obvious just by the throws he wasn’t making and the mistakes he was avoiding,” Johnson said. “We just have to hold the fort, and I know he’s going to get so much better. He’s watching the cut-ups, and he’s recognizing all of the areas where he shouldn’t have made throws or could have thrown to a better option. And it’s all progress, but it takes time in our system.”
The system isn’t changing, either. Johnson decided to stand by coordinator Eric Price, despite the Green Wave suffering through its second consecutive season of being ranked below No. 100 nationally in total offense. The decision drew the ire of Tulane fans who watched the Green Wave’s offense fail to generate an identity or a reliable threat for two years.
“Look at our depth chart, if things had gone perfectly, I’m pretty sure my whole offensive staff would have been hired at a different place making a lot more money,” Johnson said. “Our guys are teachers, and for the long haul, that’s needed. I also went into that meeting room a lot the last two years and told them, I just don’t want to turn it over, so I want to run it and I want it be simple.
“I said I want to run and do play action, because I knew our receivers were going to mess up some routes, and I didn’t want Tanner to get hit anymore. I think to blame it on the staff and the play-calling is unfair, because it was just as much on me.”
Considering the school and athletic department invested more than $80 million into Yulman Stadium and spent last offseason hammering out a long-term contract extension and raise for Johnson, Tulane’s future is squarely on Johnson’s shoulders.
It’s a concept he said he’s comfortable with and one he’s come to understand. To him, familiarity and continuity is a vital part of success.
He’s shaken off the criticisms of being too insular or too forgiving or too player-friendly, and is choosing to ride out his plan, his way, and find out where the road leads.
“I think the direction we are in is perfect,” Johnson said. “When you play a lot of young kids, you are going to have some dips. It’s just something we had to do. But I think the competitiveness and the right players are here now. Our defense keeps getting better, and our offense is going to get it together this year, especially with this quarterback situation. So I really think the direction is great.”