Making official what already had become a foregone conclusion, Tulane fired football coach Curtis Johnson on Saturday morning.
Johnson went 15-34 in his four-year tenure, with the highlight a 7-6 record in 2013 as Tulane earned a bid to the New Orleans Bowl as a member of Conference USA.
That momentum stalled when Tulane joined the American Athletic Conference in 2014. The Green Wave went 3-9 last season and matched that record this year, losing to Tulsa 45-34 on Friday night to finish 1-7 in the league.
Tulane also lost a school-record six games by 28 or more points, including an enthusiasm-sapping 37-7 opener against Duke at Yulman Stadium, a 65-10 drubbing at Georgia Tech and a 49-10 defeat at Temple. Its only victories came against Maine of the Football Championship Subdivision, winless Central Florida and Army (2-9).
“I want to thank CJ for his hard work and his dedication to rebuilding the Green Wave football program,” retiring athletic director Rick Dickson said in a news release. “His efforts were rewarded in 2013 when Tulane reached its first bowl in 11 years. Since then, however, the program has not progressed to the level that we aspire to.”
Johnson signed a contract extension after 2013 that went to 2020. Buyout details have not been made available.
USA Today first reported Wednesday that Johnson would be fired after the Tulsa game, barring a major turn of events, and sources immediately confirmed the accuracy of that report to The Advocate, making the final few days for Johnson an awkward fait accompli.
Still, the Green Wave turned in one of its best efforts of the season Friday, leading 34-24 midway through the fourth quarter before Tulsa rallied for 21 points in the last 6:45 thanks to two interceptions returned for touchdowns.
Johnson refused to speculate on his future after the game.
“I don’t determine those things,” he said. “You guys will know as soon as everyone tells me.”
Tulane officials waited less than 12 hours to tell him he was gone.
Johnson, who never had been a coordinator or a head coach in his 25-year career when Tulane hired him, was the wide receivers coach with the Saints from 2006-11 before moving uptown. Using his 2009 Super Bowl ring as a Sean Payton assistant and the ring he earned as receivers coach with the Miami BCS title team of 2001, he talked about his championship pedigree, shifted Tulane’s recruiting focus to the New Orleans area and coaxed four-star recruit Darion Monroe to back out of his commitment to Texas A&M and become part of his first signing class at Tulane.
Dealing with incredibly tough circumstances, Johnson went 2-10 in his first year. Less than a month before the season started, leading returning tackler Trent Mackey was kicked out of school after being arrested for his alleged role in an off-campus armed robbery. Although he was found not guilty of those charges the following summer, he did not return to the team.
Then, starting safety Devon Walker was paralyzed when he suffered a cervical spine fracture late in the first half of Tulane’s second game at Tulsa, causing a devastating emotional and spiritual blow to the team.
Tulane rebounded behind a strong defense in 2013, starting 6-2 to become bowl-eligible for the first time in 11 years. The Wave then lost four of its last five games, finishing with a 24-21 defeat to Louisiana-Lafayette in the New Orleans Bowl.
Counting that second-half slump, Johnson lost 22 of his last 29 games.
The concerns went past the won-lost record. Tulane had offense and special teams issues throughout Johnson’s tenure.
Johnson said he was importing the Saints offense to Tulane, but the similarity never surfaced on the field. The Wave finished outside the top 100 teams in the country in total yards all four years, ranking 109th in 2012, 115th in 2013, 107th in 2014 and 120th this season entering the final weekend.
Tulane failed to score more than 14 points in seven of its last eight games of 2014. While South Florida coach Willie Taggart fired both of his coordinators after going 4-8 a year ago and produced an 8-4 turnaround, Johnson retained offensive coordinator Eric Price and Tulane scored 14 or fewer in seven of its first nine games.
The special teams fell apart after Johnson’s first year, when kicker Cairo Santos won the Lou Groza Award. Tulane was plagued by bad snaps, missed kicks, blocked kicks and poor returns, putting even more pressure on the beleaguered offense.
This year alone, the Wave gave up touchdowns on a blocked punt, a blocked field goal, a kickoff return and a punt return. It also allowed two safeties on snaps that sailed over the punter’s head and twice gave up possession deep in its own territory when a punter dropped the ball right before he was about to kick it.
Last year, Tulane went 8-for-15 on field goals. Although returning kicker Andrew DiRocco was 9-of-10 this year, none of them was from longer than 39 yards.
Other issues included road performance (Tulane won outside of Louisiana twice under Johnson), the Wave’s lack of competitiveness against “Power 5” opponents (it went 0-8 while being outscored 333-86) and recruiting imbalance.
Tulane entered this season with five scholarship wide receivers after Darius Williams of McDonogh 35 ran into NCAA clearinghouse issues, far below the NCAA norm. The Wave also had no depth behind starting quarterback Tanner Lee, starting former walk-on Jordy Joseph twice after getting him to return for a fifth year by offering him a scholarship.
Johnson’s last chance to save his job likely ended at SMU on Nov. 21. Coming off a win at Army, Tulane lost 49-21 and barely registered 100 yards in the first half against a team that had allowed a nation’s worst 46.4 points per game.
SMU was 1-9 overall and 0-6 in the AAC before that victory — and then lost 63-0 to Memphis on Saturday.
With Johnson out, Tulane cleared the way for its next athletic director to focus on hiring a new coach. Sources have indicated to The Advocate that Tulane deputy athletic director/chief operating office Barbara Burke and Baylor deputy athletic director Todd Patulski are the frontrunners to replace Dickson, with the decision expected to come next week.