Johnson leaves Tulane program a little better than he found it

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Curtis Johnson

It was the founder of the world Scouting movement, Robert Baden-Powell, who first said three-quarters of a century ago, “Leave this world a little better than you found it.”

Four years since Curtis Johnson agreed to leave the Saints to come Uptown, he is leaving the Tulane football program a little better than he found it.

Johnson, who was relieved of his duties as Tulane’s head football coach Saturday, is not going to find his name listed among the greatest coaches in Green Wave history. Fifteen wins in four seasons – seven of which came in 2013 – does not greatness make.

But it’s not all about victories. There are more things that define a program, and the Tulane football program in November 2015 is much different than the one in November 2011.

Some of it was the doing of others – athletic director Rick Dickson helped engineer a quick deal to move Tulane from Conference USA to the Big East, and what eventually became the American Athletic Conference. Dickson and former president Scott Cowen raised tens of millions of dollars for facility improvements, most notably Yulman Stadium, which returned games – and fans and alumni – to campus for the first time in four decades.

It was Johnson and his staff that re-opened the doors of local recruiting. Prior to 2011, those doors were seemingly closed. Area high school coaches will tell you they had not seen or heard from Tulane staff members in months, if not years.

It was those open doors that helped deliver the likes of East St. John’s Darion Monroe, Jesuit’s Tanner Lee, St. Augustine’s Lorenzo Doss, West Jefferson’s Teddy Veal and Parry Nickerson, John Curtis’ Sherman Badie and Helen Cox’s Royce LaFrance, just to name a handful.

The next head coach of the Green Wave needs only continue those established relationships in what Johnson called at his introductory press conference nearly four years ago the “State of Tulane” – a nod to his former employer, the University of Miami, which built a wall around south Florida to create the “State of Miami” beginning with the Howard Schnellenberger regime.

While the Green Wave has only won three games each of the last two years and gone 3-13 in its first two seasons in The American, part of that can be blamed on inferior talent or an anemic offense, but part can be blamed on the fact that the competition is much better now.

And that’s part of the reason that Johnson is unemployed.

Look at what happened in The American this year. Four teams spent time in the top 25 – Memphis, Houston, Temple and Navy. Johnson’s team had the misfortune of facing them in a 22-day span, but it also showed what programs in this league are capable of achieving, and in a short period of time.

Before Justin Fuente got to Memphis, the Tigers were woeful under former LSU assistant Larry Porter. A decade ago, Temple was getting tossed from the Big East because it was non-competitive. Navy hasn’t been this relevant in football since the days of Roger Staubach.

A quick turnaround isn’t impossible at Tulane. The Wave went 2-9 in 1996 in Buddy Teevens’ final season, and two years later, it went 12-0 under Tommy Bowden, mostly with Teevens’ players.

By the time the calendar turns to 2016, we will know much more about Tulane’s future. Dickson’s replacement as athletic director will be in place, and that new AD will have hired the next football coach.

And if that coach can experience short-term success, he will owe a thank you to Curtis Johnson for how he left the Tulane football program.

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Lenny Vangilder


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Lenny was involved in college athletics starting in the early 1980s, when he began working Tulane University sporting events while still attending Archbishop Rummel High School. He continued that relationship as a student at Loyola University, where he graduated in 1987. For the next 11 years, Vangilder worked in the sports information offices at Southwestern Louisiana (now UL-Lafayette) and Tulane;…

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