Tulane feels as if it has eliminated the impediments to winning in football over the last few years, building on-campus Yulman Stadium, putting in more athlete-friendly majors and lowering its admission standards to put it on an even playing field with other FBS programs.
The most important step, though, is getting the right coach.
Curtis Johnson was fired Saturday after going 15-34 in four years and 6-18 since Yulman Stadium opened in 2014. His successor will take over with higher internal expectations than Tulane’s checkered history would indicate after 14 losing seasons in the past 17 and only five years above .500 in the past 34.
The task of finding the perfect fit will fall to a new athletic director, whom sources say will be in place no later than this Friday, the date of the next meeting for the Tulane board of athletics. Departing A.D. Rick Dickson, whose two football hires (Johnson and Bob Toledo) produced a combined 30-90 mark (.250 winning percentage), will have no direct role in the coaching search.
When the initial field of athletic director candidates went to Atlanta for interviews with the athletic director search committee, they were told the football program would have a new coach or at least would be going in a new direction by the time they arrived. Sources have indicated Tulane deputy athletic director/chief operating officer Barbara Burke and Baylor deputy athletic director Todd Patulski are the frontrunners to replace Dickson.
With the new athletic director not hired yet, it is hard to get solid information on any leading candidates for the coaching job past pure speculation, but some names have surfaced as possibilities.
Burke and Patulski have connections to Bowling Green coach Dino Babers, one of the hottest mid-level coaching prospects in the country. Burke hired Babers at Eastern Illinois when she was athletic director there, and he went 19-7 in two years before heading to Bowling Green, where he has led the Falcons to back-to-back Mid American Conference championship games.
Patulski was in the Baylor athletic administration during Baber’s stint as wide receivers coach for the Bears from 2008 to 2011.
The question is whether Tulane is equipped to beat out the competition for Babers, 55, who may be looking for a job at a Power Five conference school and already has drawn attention from fellow American Athletic Conference member UCF.
Another option is Baylor offensive coordinator Kendal Briles, who is in his first year in that role for father Art Briles after spending four years as the Bears’ receiving coach and three more years as the passing game coordinator.
Baylor averages a nation’s beset 616 yards and 50.8 points, a stark contrast to Tulane’s major offensive struggles under Johnson.
Kendal Briles, 33, was suspended for the season opener this year for a minor recruiting violation involving the evaluation of prospects.
Other names that have come up in Tulane’s inner circles are Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey, Appalachian State coach Scott Satterfield, Georgia Southern coach Willie Fritz and Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashley.
Carey, 44, inherited a team that was coming off an Orange Bowl appearance and has maintained those high standards, guiding Northern Illinois to back-to-back MAC championships in his two years there and reaching the title game again this season.
Satterfield, 43. became coach at Appalachian State as the school made the transition from the FCS to the FBS. After going 4-8 in 2013, the Mountaineers improved to 7-5 last year and are 9-2 this season, ranking 15th nationally in total defense and 22nd in total offense.
Fritz, 55, is in his second year at Georgia Southern. The Eagles went 9-3 last year, almost upsetting Georgia Tech, and are 8-3 this season, recently losing in overtime at Georgia. Their triple-option based offense averages a nation’s best 364.3 rushing yards.
Before Georgia Southern, Fritz spent four years as coach at Sam Houston State, reaching the FCS championship game in 2011 and 2012.
Lashley, 32, is in his third year at Auburn under Gus Malzahn, directed an offense that averaged 501 yards in 2013 as the Tigers reached the BCS championship game. Auburn has not been as productive the last two years, dropping to 86th at 377 yards per game this season.
To attract any of the head coaches on the list, Tulane will have to convince them it is totally committed to winning. The last time the Wave hired a sitting head coach was Buddy Teevens in 1992, and he came from Dartmouth of the Ivy League.
Regardless, Tulane will face stiff competition in the coaching market. As many as 30 schools are expected to have vacancies, including UCF and Memphis in the AAC if published reports are accurate that Tigers coach Justin Fuente will succeed Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech.
Once the new athletic director is in place, look for a rapid search to find Johnson’s replacement.
Reached Saturday, longtime Tulane assistant coach Jason Rollins said he would try to keep the 17-player 2016 commitment class together until he received word on whether he would be retained. Rollins and Doug Lichtenberger were the only coaches to make the transition from Bob Toledo to Johnson.
Like everyone else, Rollins, who was promoted to co-defensive coordinator with Lionel Washington this year, and has a good rapport with Louisiana high school coaches, will have to wait and see what happens.