Tulane turnaround has Wave eyeing C-USA title
NEW ORLEANS — After all the long field goals Cairo Santos drilled for Tulane to earn All-America honors and the Lou Groza award as the nation's top kicker last year, something was still missing.
This season, for the first time, the senior has been able to line up for meaningful kicks — the kind that send teammates streaming toward him in celebration. In other words, after a decade of losing, Tulane has finally turned it around.
"The past two seasons I made 57-, 56-, 54-yarders and those are really fun to hit," Santos said. "But when I was able to get in the position where one kick decided whether we would win or lose, and just to think how much by this one kick my teammates would celebrate with me — those kicks mean a lot more than those long ones I've made."
If the Brazilian native can hit his third game-winner this weekend, that could be the biggest of them all. The Green Wave (7-4, 5-2) is in contention for a Conference USA title as it closes its regular season at Rice (8-3, 6-1) on Saturday. Tulane needs to beat the Owls and also needs Louisiana Tech to upend Texas-San Antonio. If that happens, Tulane, which was 2-10 last season, will win the West Division and head to Marshall for the conference championship game.
"A lot of our guys are very eager to play this football game because a lot of our seniors haven't ever been in this position," said second-year coach Curtis Johnson. "We are usually talking about eating turkey and then going home and packing our bags. But now, we really have something to play for."
Johnson is a New Orleans native who has been part of successful programs as an assistant throughout his career. He won a college national championship at Miami and later won a Super Bowl with the Saints.
His relationship with the Saints has paid off.
The club often invites Tulane to borrow its facilities, including an indoor practice field. Saints head coach Sean Payton even stopped by Tulane this week to offer a motivational speech to Green Wave players, telling them that they reminded him of the Saints' 2006 team that went 10-6 and made the playoffs after going 3-13 a year earlier.
Johnson, meanwhile, has recruited some of the best New Orleans-area players that Southeastern Conference powers either couldn't make room for or overlooked. He even lured starting safety Darion Monroe away from Texas A&M. He has also managed to bring in transfers from major programs, including defensive tackle Chris Davenport from LSU.
"There's been a big momentum shift here," said Davenport, who has four tackles for losses this season. "Coach C.J., he's a winning coach. ... Playing for a coach that's been at the next level, where I'd hopefully like to go, and just to see the success his resume presented, that really strikes guys, makes guys want to come here."
This year Johnson brought on a legend's son — quarterback Nick Montana — as a junior college transfer. Montana, the son of Pro Football Hall of Famer Joe Montana, enrolled at Washington out of high school, but never gained traction there.
Now with his second Division I team, he has overcome injuries and been steady enough to help lead the Wave back to bowl eligibility for the first time since 2002. In seven games, he has passed for 1,187 yards and 10 TDs.
"Nick goes out there and plays his heart out," receiver Justyn Shackleford said. "He fights and does whatever he needs to do to help the team win. ... He has great leadership skills. He doesn't act like a prima donna or anything."
Montana and his backup, Devin Powell, have been helped by a strong running game and an opportunistic defense which tackles well and has produced a league-high 31 turnovers.
What the Wave would like to do now is draw crowds larger than those which often looked sparse in the cavernous Superdome this season. Davenport said players figure a cozier on-campus stadium will help, as will winning.