Tulane has a new football coach: Willie Fritz from Georgia Southern.
And much like the naming of Troy Dannen as athletic director last week, it came out of left field.
But, as Dannen’s brief tenure thus far indicates, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
In fact, for a school with the Green Wave’s history, anything that will break the school’s tradition of mostly losing football (509-630-38 since going 1-2 in 1893, although the win was against LSU), anything that breaks with the past is welcome.
Fritz has only two years of experience at the FBS level as a head coach or an assistant. And Fritz’s arrival at Georgia Southern in 2014 coincided with the school’s first year in the Sun Belt Conference.
None of Fritz’s coaching stops was in Louisiana, and none was at private schools — and not many big-time coaches make their bones in the Southland Conference.
And, at age 55, he doesn’t fit the mold of the young, fast-rising coordinators that many schools are grabbing of late, especially in the American Athletic Conference.
New Memphis coach Mike Norvell is 34 and Scott Frost of Central Florida is 40. In fact, Fritz is the second-oldest head coach in the AAC and is second by 43 days to Mark Richt (at Miami) of being the oldest new FBS coach for next season.
Fritz’s hiring, including the method Dannen took doing so, demonstrates that the school’s new-found commitment to having a winning football is not just talk.
Yulman Stadium was the much-needed catalyst to play football on campus instead of a mausoleum the Mercedes-Benz Superdome had become for the program. Just judge the enthusiastic crowd for the rain-soaked homecoming game against Connecticut.
But even the finest tailgating cuisine can’t compensate for a terrible product on the field.
Dannen last week was promising proper financial backing — not just for Fritz but for his assistants, the backbone of any program.
An overdue weight room upgrade is coming, as is the shoring up of academic support. One day there might be an indoor practice facility, but as long as good relations with the Saints are maintained, theirs will be available.
Of course, there are limits.
While Tulane is making Fritz New Orleans’ newest millionaire, we’re not talking about the $3 million Houston is giving Tom Herman to stay or a similar amount Matt Rhule is getting for remaining at Temple.
But it’s enough to put Tulane on a competitive level in a league that has substantially raised the bar since it was formed in 2012 from the remnants of the Big East plus escapees from Conference USA, including the Green Wave.
The AAC may never bridge the gap between it and the “Power Five.” But a school that doesn’t match the effort of its fellow members is going to be left in the dust.
That’s why Dannen, after making a strongly positive impression at his introductory news conference, spent the past week in New York, where college football’s movers and shakers annually gather, conducting interviews that included former Michigan coach Brady Hoke.
It’s doubtful that Rick Dickson, who has been reassigned as a special assistant to the president rather than remaining as athletic director, would have done so in such a manner.
After 15 years, the last 12 fighting the aftermath of the review of 2003 and Hurricane Katrina two years later, Dickson just didn’t have the energy left for the next challenge. That’s not a knock on a man who deserves to be lauded for twice saving the athletic department.
But it was time for a change and Dannen, whose résumé (athletic director at Northern Iowa is his only job on the college level) made him a more unlikely candidate for athletic director than Fritz for football coach, is off to a fast start.
In Fritz, Dannen hired the first person coming to Tulane as a sitting head coach at another FBS school since Vince Gibson in 1981. Gibson didn’t exactly set the world on fire after leaving Louisville, going 17-17 before he was dumped after just three seasons.
But the eight coaches since then are a collective 126-202, with only five winning seasons out of the past 33.
Fritz, at least, is seemingly being given the tools to compete. He wouldn’t be making what to some might look like a lateral move, or a career-killing one, if he didn’t feel that way.
But before Tulane fans get worked up over a new golden era ahead, they should be forewarned that, if he is successful, Fritz is not too old to move on to another challenge.
Just as Fritz stayed for only two seasons at Georgia Southern, using his 17-7 record as a springboard to another level, Tommy Bowden did so at Tulane.
Bowden left behind a program poised to continue his success. Tulane chose to hire Chris Scelfo instead of Rich Rodriguez because of the fear of having to quickly change coaches again.
What has happened since then should be considered a lesson learned.
Once he gets back to New Orleans, Dannen is likely to make other moves in his new department. There are other major ones afoot in the school — which, sometimes we forget, is the reason the football team exists.
But he has made his biggest one already.
Nobody knows how Willie Fritz will do at Tulane. All coaching hires look good the day they’re made.
It’s what happens afterward that matters.
No coach has departed the school with a winning record after at least three seasons since Henry Frnka in 1951.
If Willie Fritz can end that depressing trend, Dannen will have made a good hire indeed.