For someone whose coaching fate is twisting in the wind, Tulane’s Curtis Johnson was focused on just one thing Monday.
“I want our players playing for the man next to them, especially the seniors,” Johnson said after his team began preparations for Friday’s season finale against Tulsa. “That’s the only thing I want them to worry about. I want to win this game so our seniors can be carried off the field.”
But, like Les Miles, isn’t he coaching for his job?
“You should be coaching for your job every day,” Johnson said. “That’s why we’re in this business.”
But Johnson obviously knows that, by next week, he could be out of a job.
That’s when Tulane could — and should — name its new athletic director. Interviews were held for the five finalists this past weekend, with the two final finalists expected to meet with school president Michael Fitts next week.
Whenever that person is named, his or her first order of business will be to determine whether Johnson should be brought back for a fifth season. That is, if the decision hasn’t already been made by Fitts or the athletics committee of the board of trustees. According to one source, deputy director Barbara Burke, one of the finalists, already is vetting the résumés of potential new coaches.
Certainly it’s an unusual situation. But that’s just due diligence.
“I haven’t had conversations with anyone about anything like that,” said Johnson, who is 15-33 in four seasons, including a 3-8 mark this year. “And as far as who the next AD is, I’ve never been one to focus outside my little world. And my little world this week is our seniors. I want to be able to send them out like SMU did theirs.”
Johnson had a front-row seat for that Saturday night, watching the Mustangs demolish the Wave 49-21. The Mustangs came in only 1-9 under first-year coach Chad Morris.
On that night, though, the Mustangs revived memories of the old Pony Express days, outgaining the Wave 518-328 — including 335-104 at halftime, at which time the home team lead 35-7.
One of those SMU touchdowns came via a blocked field-goal attempt, another in a series of special-teams disasters for the Wave dating back three seasons.
All things considered, it may have been Tulane’s poorest showing under Johnson, not just this season but since the former Saints wide receivers coach was given the job in 2012.
It was the sixth defeat this year by at least 28 points, the most in school history — which, considering Tulane’s track record, is a low point among low points.
“The disappointing thing is, as a team, we haven’t figured out how to go full pedal every week, because we’re not good enough to do it any other way,” Johnson said.
If, after four seasons, Johnson hasn’t been able to convince his team to do that, especially coming off a win at Army the week before, that’s a serious indictment of where things stand.
It’s also not a good sign that starting offensive linemen Colton Hanson and Nathan Shienle, both redshirt juniors, will take part in Senior Day ceremonies Friday.
Also, Johnson is saying that he underestimated the strength of the American Athletic Conference, whose membership invitation Tulane accepted a week after he had become coach. At the same time, improving the Wave’s talent level has been “moving slowly” and “it’s been a long climb for us.”
That talent gap isn’t going to mend itself.
SMU certainly played like the better team Saturday.
And Tulsa, which won just two games last year — one of which was a 38-31 double-overtime opener against Tulane — will come to New Orleans on Friday playing for bowl eligibility under first-year coach Philip Montgomery.
SMU and Tulsa are Tulane’s like institutions in the AAC. Both changed coaches after miserable seasons in 2014.
They don’t appear to be accepting the status quo.
And neither is Johnson.
“Whenever I start something, I want to finish it,” he said. “I love the people in (the athletic department) and on this campus. I love our kids because they are outstanding. I want to make it right for them.”
Johnson said he hopes to meet with his new athletic director as soon as possible to outline his vision for the future of the program, which would include “adding a couple of things here and adding players there.”
While he obviously would not say he’s going to make staff changes, which he should have a year ago, Johnson did say he “will do what’s best for the university and what’s best for the team.”
So are those who are determining his fate.
And, for CJ, the signs do not look good.