Tulane defensive coordinator Jack Curtis recognizes how rare it is to be retained by a new coach, and he could not be happier he beat the odds.
When Willie Fritz left Sam Houston State for Georgia Southern in 2013, Curtis already had been in Statesboro, Georgia, as defensive coordinator for three years. He was in limbo, though, because former Eagles coach Jeff Monken had accepted the Army job and given him a best-case scenario of a demotion to position coach.
It turned out he did not have to go anywhere. Despite never having worked with Curtis, Fritz locked in on him the day he arrived for his Georgia Southern news conference.
“He called me up that night and we went out and he offered me the job,” Curtis, 51, said. “I’d known of him for a long time. We had a lot of mutual friends.”
The marriage clearly worked well. When Fritz accepted the Tulane job in December, he brought Curtis with him.
It is hard to find a similar situation in college football. None of the 11 other coaches in the American Athletic Conference has a defensive coordinator he inherited at either his current or previous stop. No one in the SEC or the ACC has done it, either.
One of the only exceptions was Dave Aranda at Wisconsin in 2015. After Badgers coach Gary Anderson bolted for Oregon State, his successor, Paul Chryst, retained Aranda, whose defense ranked fourth national in yards allowed in 2014.
Even then, the arrangement lasted just one year. LSU coach Les Miles hired Aranda away from Wisconsin in January.
Fritz and Curtis, who have known each other since 1996, are still together.
Endorsements from assistants Doug Ruse and Kevin Peoples proved pivotal. Ruse, Fritz’ offensive coordinator, had coached with Curtis for 16 consecutive years at Northwestern State and Arkansas State. Peoples, his defensive line coach, was on that same staff at Arkansas State.
“I didn’t interview anybody else,” Fritz said. “I’d been familiar with what (Curtis) had done before. He knew some of my coaches real well that I was bringing. They gave me a super recommendation on him.”
Curtis does not know where he would be now if Fritz had followed the path of 99 percent of coaches and brought in his own guy at Georgia Southern, but he is pretty sure it would be a less stable environment.
Arkansas State never won more than six games in his eight years there. He then spent one season at Division II Central Missouri, Fritz’ former school, before hooking up with Monken at Georgia Southern.
The Panthers were successful from 2011 to 2013 but at the FCS level. After Fritz took over, they went 18-7 in the FBS.
“I was very fortunate to stay on at Georgia Southern and be part of that,” Curtis said. “He’s a fantastic guy to work for. It’s been good. We’ve been winning a lot of ball games with him, but that’s what he’s done his whole career. It’s been fun to be hitched up on his wagon. It’s been a great ride, so I’m looking forward to doing some great things here at Tulane.”
Despite the Wave’s dismal 3-9 record the past two years, Curtis inherited some good players. Senior defensive tackle Tanzel Smart (62 tackles, 15 for loss) and senior linebacker Nico Marley (82 stops) were first-team All-AAC performers in 2015.
Junior Jarrod Franklin, who made 74 tackles, has been receptive to what Curtis is teaching in spring practice. Franklin played nickel last year but has moved back to his natural safety spot this spring --the position Curtis coaches in addition to his coordinating duties.
“I really do like the new defense they are bringing in,” Franklin said. “It’s just a lot harder and a lot more complex than what we had. The coaches emphasize all the time that we have to learn the playbook, and when we do I know we’re going to be (clicking) on all cylinders.”
Although Georgia Southern’s nationally top-ranked rushing offense received most of the attention, Fritz says Curtis’ defense was underpublicized. The Eagles were 21st in yards allowed last season, yielding 20 or fewer points seven times. They held Bowling Green’s high-powered offense to 15 first downs and 362 yards, routing the Falcons 58-27 in the GoDaddy Bowl.
Curtis’ philosophy cannot be distilled into a simple term like “attacking.” He believes in a much more balanced approach.
“We’re going to blitz about a third of the time, we’re going to drop about a third of the time and we’re going to play base about a third of the time,” he said. “We have to put enough defense in to give ourselves a chance to win and at the same time keep it simple enough that our guys can play fast and know what they’re doing.”