You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone out there not pulling for Curtis Johnson to succeed at Tulane.
Local guy, first black head football coach at the school who had to wait until he was 50 to get such an opportunity anywhere, former Saints assistant whose connections to the team have helped benefit the Green Wave in many ways, solid family man who is genuinely concerned about education and discipline, church deacon and relentlessly upbeat.
For a program that’s unfortunately used to more bad days than good, you could hardly draw up a more favorable résumé.
But when he was hired, the fact Johnson had never been as much as a coordinator was largely overlooked.
Maybe that’s a big reason why two games into his fourth season, he is feeling the heat.
Not only is Tulane 0-2, but in games against Duke and Georgia Tech the Wave has been outscored 102-17. That’s the most lopsided margin of defeat in the season’s two first games at a school that has been playing football since 1893.
Last week’s 65-10 loss to Georgia Tech was the Wave’s worst of its 27 losses in 39 games under Johnson.
To be sure, Duke and Georgia Tech are solid programs that were expected to be good this year. And the same couldn’t be said for Tulane.
But when your coach talks about how his team had its collective head down just two series into an opener in which the oddsmakers had made them only a touchdown underdog, when he concedes that the defense pretty much gave up in the Georgia Tech game, and that his only solution for the mess on special teams is to put more and more starters on them, well, you’ve got problems.
Was it just a coincidence that Athletic Director Rick Dickson made a rare visit to practice Tuesday?
“The kids are disappointed; we’re all disappointed,” Johnson said after Tuesday’s practice. “They’re hurting, and they need success.”
Fortunately for Johnson and the Wave, the opportunity for success arrives Saturday in the form of the Maine Black Bears.
The FCS visitors are 0-1, and although their final score against Boston College was decent enough (24-3), they had only 91 yards total offense.
The Wave may be struggling, but it should be stronger on both sides of the line, allowing Johnson to implement his plan to simplify things and prevail by just doing the basics. That’s provided, of course, there are none of the special teams foul-ups that often prove to be an equalizer in games like this (Appalachian State secured its memorable 2007 upset of Michigan on a blocked field goal).
And after this week, Tulane has an open date, thus a week to work on attempting to fix things before the start of American Athletic Conference play on Oct. 3 against winless Central Florida.
“I’m not shocked by our losing, but I am shocked by the inconsistency and the lack of confidence we’ve shown,” Johnson said. “The next couple of weeks represent a chance for us to get our confidence back.”
The Wave would be well-advised to use these two weeks to full advantage.
After the Central Florida game, Tulane’s remaining seven conference foes have a combined record of 13-1. The only remaining game in which the Wave would currently be favored is at winless Army on Nov. 14.
That’s a long way off, and West Point, New York, is a tough venue.
At least at this point, CJ seems to still have the confidence of his team.
Rather than make whole lineup changes this week, he and his staff are emphasizing the positive. At the same time, everyone in the program recognizes that Maine represents a virtual must-win game.
“We’ve got to a play with a new sense of urgency this week,” junior linebacker Eric Thomas said. “If we don’t, we’ll lose.
“We’re going to be fine.”
For this season, it’s too late to change the things that got the program to its current state: Too much loyalty to underachieving assistants and an overemphasis on local recruiting, even if better talent might be available elsewhere top the list.
Whether Johnson gets the chance to right the ship in 2016 will depend on his ability to make his team competitive in its league games. That’s the standard he should be judged by.
It’s never been easy at Tulane. The last coach to depart with a winning record after at least three years on the job was Henry Frnka, 64 years and 15 successors ago.
It’s been said that for every Tulane coach there comes a time when he realizes that either he’s not going to get the job done or it’s time to move on.
Remember Chris Scelfo punting on third down?
Johnson said he hasn’t reached that point yet, even though Tulane is having a “white out,” Saturday.
That’s no sign of surrender. It’s a plea for fan support.
Lord knows he and the Wave can use it.