Tulane turning a corner in Year 2 under Curtis Johnson

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTONTulane coach Curtis Johnson
Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTONTulane coach Curtis Johnson

Curtis Johnson isn’t satisfied with where his Tulane football program stands — but the Green Wave is much better off than it was two years ago, when colleagues warned Johnson not to take the job.

Curtis Johnson remembers the curious looks he received two years ago when he told friends and colleagues he was eyeing the Tulane head coach position.

Now, as he prepares to lead the Green Wave into the New Orleans Bowl against Louisiana-Lafayette on Dec. 21, he still doesn’t blame them. Working at a school saddled with a perception of not committing proper resources to football and a decade-long bowl drought isn’t the easiest place to start a head coaching career.

“Look, this isn’t the easiest place,” Johnson said. “I can tell you a couple of NFL coaches told me I was crazy. I remember them saying, ‘Are you out of your mind interviewing there?’A few told me it was a great opportunity, but I look at everything in a positive light that is an opportunity.”

After notching a 7-5 record this season, clinching the Green Wave’s first winning season since 2002, Tulane’s administration made a statement to Johnson and the rest of the college football world by giving him and his entire coaching staff an undisclosed raise and extending Johnson’s contract through the 2020 season.

“I don’t know about anyone else’s, but it sure changed my perception,” Johnson said. “I think (Tulane’s administration is) committed to football and definitely committed to us, and to me being here, and you can’t ask for much more than that. It’s Year 2, and all of a sudden, they’re bringing it to you to say they want you longer than they already have you here for. So I think the commitment is there.”

The contract extension and additional dollars aren’t far from only tangible signs of dedication from the school toward its football program. The current construction of Yulman Stadium will bring Green Wave football back to campus for the first time in 39 years, and an entrance into the American Athletic Conference will boost the athletic program’s profile, thanks to its deal with ESPN.

It’s all part of what senior cornerback Jordan Sullen called a “Tulane renaissance.” It’s also why senior defensive tackle Chris Davenport said he expects fifth-year prospects like himself to place Tulane as a destination spot.

“This team and this program has overcome a lot of what we had to go through in the past,” Sullen said. “It’s just nice to be playing, and we don’t have a coach on the hot seat, or anywhere near it. It’s a blessing. The fact that C.J. signed such an awesome extension shows the kind of character he has and it’s great for the school and for all of the players here.”

Still, Johnson said he’s not entirely satisfied with the progress and is always searching for ways to improve. During his news conference Tuesday, he expressed a desire to build a new practice facility and also mentioned upgrading locker rooms and meeting rooms in the Wilson Center.

The arms race of college football facilities is in top gear around fellow programs in The American, and Johnson pointed to new indoor practice spaces at Memphis and Cincinnati as proof of the competition that exists for attracting prospects.

“I think we would love to have something where we can (practice) indoors,” Johnson said. “I’ve gotten spoiled by using the Saints facility this year, so it’s going to be hard for me to give that up. It was cold today outside. You want to have something where the guys come in and they just love it. I’m not saying we don’t have it, but we’ve seen better and when you see better, you want something better.

“I think it’s extremely important, because when you look at the recruiting facility ... everybody has great recruiting facilities. We are a place where we’d love to have one of those.”

Four make first-team C-USA

Four Tulane players were named first-team all-Conference USA selections by the league’s coaches.

Three seniors were honored — wide receiver Ryan Grant, defensive tackle Julius Warmsley and kicker Cairo Santos — along with sophomore cornerback Lorenzo Doss. Linebacker Nico Marley was named to the all-freshman team.

It is the largest crop of first-team selections for Tulane since 1997, when only seven teams competed in the league (C-USA now has 14 football programs).

Additionally, seven Green Wave players were honorable mentions: running back Orleans Darkwa, tackle Sean Donnelly, center Zach Morgan, defensive tackle Chris Davenport, defensive end Royce LaFrance, cornerback Jordan Batiste and safety Darion Monroe.