Lewis: Dealt a difficult hand, Tulane’s Curtis Johnson plans for better days

All things considered, finishing 2-10 was about the best that could have been expected of Tulane last season.

After all, how many teams went through — and this is the short list — losing their best defensive player when he was arrested on drug-related armed-robbery charges on the eve of training camp (a jury ultimately found Trent Mackey not guilty); having to evacuate campus the week of their opening game; and then seeing a popular senior suffer a catastrophic spinal injury during the same game in which the starting quarterback was knocked out?

Who wouldn’t be left reeling?

Still, Green Wave coach Curtis Johnson is being hard on himself about the job he did in his first year.

“I look back at myself, and I was awful,” said Johnson, who had never been a coordinator, much less a head coach. “I just had so much to learn.”

Among other things, Johnson is especially critical of himself for not being more attentive to logistics about the relocation to Birmingham, Ala., when Hurricane Isaac approached — although, in an ideal world, that would have fallen to athletic department staff members who went through the same thing four years before with Gustav.

Johnson said he also let Devon Walker’s injury leave the team and coaching staff in a fog longer than it should have, although the emotional trauma is understandable.

Small wonder that at one stage of the season, Johnson had to be briefly hospitalized for heat fatigue.

“I’m harder on myself than anybody else,” Johnson said. “I hope things like this don’t happen again, but if they do, I think I will be more prepared.”

So far this year, Johnson’s biggest off-the-field dilemma has been finding a place to practice because the construction of Yulman Stadium has commandeered the team’s former digs. Such is the price of progress.

Turchin Stadium was quickly found to be inadequate except for light drills. Thanks to Johnson’s ties with the Saints, the Wave is using their facilities as much as possible, along with the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

“We’ve adjusted,” Johnson said. “It’s no big deal.”

Among other things on Johnson’s learning curve have been dealing with a different player mindset — at least in the dwindling number of players he inherited from Bob Toledo — from that of those he coached in nine years at Miami and six more with the Saints.

“It’s not that they’re less talented,” Johnson said. “It’s just we haven’t won here in a while (10 straight losing seasons, for those keeping count) and there wasn’t very much tradition.

“We’d become just a program that was starting over again. The first thing we had to do was to change minds, and I think we’re starting to do that.”

It’s certainly evident in the hustle the players show in practice, plus eyeball evidence that they’re bigger and stronger, thanks to improved weight-room habits.

Would that enthusiasm be transferred to the athletic department as a whole?

Although there’s official enthusiasm that the opening of the stadium in 2014, along with the move to the American Athletic Conference, will help revive the program’s attention level, Tulane didn’t even bother to have a fan day because of embarrassingly small turnouts in recent years.

If there’s a wrong message to send, Tulane inevitably finds it.

At least in Johnson, the Green Wave has its best public representative since the early days of Rick Jones, some 20 years ago. And that’s paying off in recruiting.

While every Tulane coach since Clark Shaughnessy has at least paid lip service to recruiting heavily close to home, Johnson and his staff have done so with solid results, not just Signing Day table scraps.

Well-regarded linebacker RaeJuan Marbley, of Destrehan, is Tulane’s 10th 2014 commitment, eight of whom are from Louisiana.

That’s a sign that the players, their families and their coaches who should best know about the situation at Tulane are buying into it.

So is the coaching staff, which remained intact from a year ago despite several having other opportunities.

“These guys look on this as an opportunity to win here and get things turned around,” Johnson said. “Everybody would love to look back 10 years from now and say, ‘Can you believe we did that?’ ”

All things considered, yep, that would be something.