NEW ORLEANS — For the first time since the opening of the 2003 calendar year, a Tulane coaching staff had something to work with in recruiting, something to show the upward mobility of the football program.
Forget the heartbreaking 24-21 loss to Louisiana-Lafayette in the New Orleans Bowl.
Curtis Johnson, in just his second year, showed progress by taking the Green Wave to their first bowl game since the 2002 Hawaii Bowl.
So, we wondered how Johnson and his staff would capitalize on the 7-6 season and how it would translate to this year’s national signing day. Johnson allowed a reporter to be embedded with the football staff for much of the morning, giving an inside look as faxes came in and spring practice was set up.
Johnson, ever the optimist, was bully on the 24 recruits who became signees Wednesday. And just playing in the bowl game helped, he said.
“If we wouldn’t have won those games, 80 percent of this class we wouldn’t have gotten,” Johnson told WWLTV.com from his office after the last recruit signed. “This list would be totally different. It’s a great thing. Each year, this list is getting better and better and better.”
The picture you should get is this – Johnson and his staff were as relaxed as ever, not even close to being worried. There would be no players who flipped to another program unexpectedly and, in fact, a player changed back to Tulane after waffling earlier in the week.
“I guess it’s like a marriage,” Johnson said. “I did this – I married the most beautiful woman in the world. But you don’t always marry the most beautiful woman. You don’t marry the richest. You don’t marry the poorest. What you do is you marry the one you’re most comfortable with and you trust.
“I think these kids trust us. When they did that, when you trust someone and they stay consistent, it’s hard to say no.”
Before most people began their work morning, Johnson already was in the office, having long been there long before the sunrise.
He started his third signing day by texting his agent at 3:30 a.m., discussing what was going to happen during the ensuing hours.
For college coaches, it’s a bit unsettling.
“It’s not comfortable at all,” Johnson said. “Your livelihood is in the hands of a 17, 18, 19 year old. I don’t know how many professions are determined by a 17, 18, 19 year old.”
And yet, his day started out about as well as it could have. By 6:05 a.m., 6-foot-2, 350-pound defensive tackle Braynon Edwards had faxed over his national letter of intent (NLI).
Braynon Edwards was the first one in. Louisville came in late on him and CJ thought he may be a flipper, but ended up as first one in. Johnson penciled him as a possible flip after Louisville entered the game late in the process.
Fifteen minutes after 7 a.m., when high school seniors in the central time zone could begin sending in their NLIs, Doug Lichtenberger, assistant athletics director for football; defensive line coach Jon Sumrall; and graduate assistants Will Woessner and Bradley Mathews stood in the third floor mail room in front of a fax machine.
With them was compliance official Lorne Robertson, who was overseeing the process. He’s required to view it to make sure every NLI is filled out correctly.
Suddenly, the fax machine whirred to life – Tulane is on its way to getting its sixth player through the process. Suddenly, the fax machine dropped the call.
“Poor little guy. We may need to get a new one next year,” a voice cracked from outside the room
Again the fax machine purred, again a problem. This time it was low on ink.
“This is not the day for that,” Mathews quipped.
Downstairs in the communications office, Roger Dunaway, assistant athletics director for athletics communications; Richie Weaver, assistant athletic communications director; and Nicole Cartier, a graduate assistant for new media, were busy trying to keep up with this ever-changing world of an internet-driven signing day.
Dunaway was busy tweeting the newest signees from the program’s @GreenWaveFB account. Weaver, meanwhile, was busy putting together biographies of new signees, Nicole busy live-blogging and putting things on the website.
In Dunaway’s office, the constant click-clack of the keyboard can be heard above the din of construction of Yulman Stadium outside of his office.
On the radio? Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone.”
“Everybody is waiting,” Dunaway said of the morning’s adrenaline, still there after eight years at Tulane and nine at the University of Tulsa. “Everybody is waiting, so it’s like, ‘Let’s get this out there as quickly as possible.’ ”
Back on the football side, with the fax machine continuing to deliver good news, offensive coaches met to begin setting up the initial installation of offense for the beginning of spring camp on Friday.
Johnson’s cell phone rested on the ground in front of his feet, text messages occasionally popping with updates.
“The thing about the NFL is you lose guys, you lose plays,” said Johnson, the Saints’ receivers coach from 2006-11. “The good thing about the Saints is we cross-trained everybody.”
His point? Tulane will do the same thing.
Suddenly, one of the cell phones in the room rang. Johnson took the phone.
“Didn’t I tell you to circle a.m.?” Johnson said to the caller. “All right, man. Congratulations. We’re talking about you right now.”
Minutes later, he said out loud, “This is completely clean this year. Everybody is about in by 8 o’clock.”
With focus back on plays for spring practice, Johnson turned the discussion towards an audible and what to change the play to because he believes a blitz would end in a tackle for the loss as it currently was set up.
“That’s what we’d do with the Saints,” he said after a suggestion from one of the other coaches.
It’s his third reference in 15 minutes of his former employer.
Another coach interrupts the meeting to tell those in the room one of the signees didn’t have his parents sign a form.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Johnson said.
Stumped by what look he expected to get when his offense was in one particular base set, Johnson called in a defensive coach while discussing draw plays. He asked him what they would do defensively in a game when seeing the alignment
On the biggest morning of his offseason, his focus remained on something other than signing day.
“You came on the wrong day,” Johnson joked. “Should have been here this weekend. I don’t think anybody slept.”
He was the picture of comfort, leaning back, relaxed with his feet propped up on the conference table.
Johnson left the meeting room and those remaining began trading old recruiting stories, laughing at tactics used by other coaches to try and flip players.
Said receivers coach Keith Williams, “We’d be on the field in Fresno and see the green Oregon plane go over and we’re like, ‘There goes another one.’ ”
Or there was the time offensive coordinator Eric Price was coaching at Weber State and the school’s fax number was confused with a local business.
“One of the kid’s had the Kinko’s number and they called said, ‘I think we’re getting your faxes,’ ” Price said.
“That’s back when faxes were high tech,” one of the offensive assistants uttered.
The offensive planning session over, Johnson’s focus shifted. After meeting with his agent Rocky Arceneaux, he was to make sure the final faxes had came through and the class was complete.
Meanwhile, his wife, Angel, was sitting in his office watching CBS Sports TV.
“Did you see that?” she called out from behind his desk. “They just flashed Tulane as one of the best classes in our league.”
Tulane will join the American Athletic Conference, formerly the Big East, on July 1. It’s a conference that boasts Central Florida, this past year’s Fiesta Bowl champions.
An hour later, back in a conference room, Johnson met with his entire coaching staff, the day’s player signings finished. He told them to make sure they stayed on top of the new signees for grades and test scores.
Focus, as it had for much of the morning, shifted away from signing day to spring practice.
“The thing about spring ball is teaching,” Johnson said. “Let’s figure out what the young guys can do for us.”
But with a 2:30 p.m. press conference looming, Johnson took one more chance to make sure he had the correct pronunciations of the new players’ names.
Moving down the list, he came upon Devon Johnson, but halted after spying the listed weight for the offensive lineman.
He looked up before smiling and saying, “Two-sixty? You’ve got to be kidding me. How much does he weigh?”
The final weight assessment from the coaches? A stout 330 pounds.
11:00 a.m. and beyond
As lunch time crept up, Johnson’s full media blitz began, a five-minute interview on ESPN 100.3 FM the first of four on the day.
In addition to the afternoon news conference officially announcing the new signees, he and his staff also were set to participate in a late-day signing day party at the LBC.
On a day when most college coaches are stressing about making sure their players signed, the interview sessions provided the least relaxing time for Johnson.
It’s a sign of how far the program has come.