New Tulane athletic director Troy Dannen spent a whirlwind first week on the job, hiring a football coach — Willie Fritz from Georgia Southern — while barely getting a chance to see the campus. Immediately after that, he had to hire a volleyball coach.
A little more than a month after moving to Tulane from Northern Iowa to replace the retiring Rick Dickson, Dannen sat down for an extensive interview with The New Orleans Advocate. Here are some excerpts:
You didn’t exactly ease into the job. What has the first month been like?
The first two weeks were a mad rush. To hire a football coach six days into the job really without having been on campus was a challenge. I didn’t know the culture of the institution. I couldn’t communicate a lot about the team. It was more about a vision of what I thought we needed and more about understanding the vision of the coach. I had thought I had a pretty good handle on what we needed here and what was lacking.
When I met with Willie, I knew he had the vision and the experience. I’ve said it before, but I knew I had to have somebody that wasn’t going to learn on the fly, because I’m going to learn on the fly. I didn’t need to be mentoring somebody in how to coach football. If I had been here awhile and I had thought that was the right type of person, I would have been more open to it, but given my situation, I want somebody that knew how to coach the game and that I could work with in getting all those resources, not just financial, but all those other resources put together behind him.
Then I went right into volleyball. When I came back down for Willie’s press conference, I interviewed (former Baylor volleyball coach) Jim Barnes and offered him the job, so the first two weeks I hired two coaches that in eight years I didn’t hire at Northern Iowa. So it was a totally different start than I’d experienced there.
Fritz fits to a T the description of the coach you mentioned you wanted to hire in your introductory news conference. There’s a reason for that, right?
Yeah, you know from the time that I knew I was going to be a finalist (for the job), I had a pretty good idea that there was going to be an opening and that I wasn’t going to be creating the opening — it was going to be an opening that I would inherit. I started talking to some folks and looking around the country, and when I found that Willie may be movable, he became my quick focus. So when I was here for my introductory press conference, when I talked a lot about characteristics and profiles (of his ideal candidate), I was talking a lot about Willie. But again, you don’t know if he will take the job, so I had some backup plans.
Fritz’ offenses have been run-heavy since his days at Sam Houston State, and they rarely threw at all at Georgia Southern. They also have been very successful, but was that run-dominance any concern for you?
No. I want a system that wins. In 16 of his 17 years, he has had winning records. The other thing that I like about him, and a lot of coaches say they can do this, but he’s proven it — he builds his team and builds his offense around the players that he has. You know, he has a preference. In a lot of ways, he’s one of the creators of the pistol, he and (former Nevada coach) Chris Ault, and that’s an offense that in the last five years has become very prevalent nationally. So yeah, it works.
You may want to run five-wide, you may want to do a lot of things, but frankly the talent that you have and the talent that you’re going to have and the type of offense that can be a consistent winner and not have highs and lows where you never know what to expect (is Fritz’s offense). It doesn’t matter what the weather is. It doesn’t matter what the location is. It doesn’t matter who you’re playing. It doesn’t matter if they are bigger or smaller on the other side of the ball. It doesn’t matter if they’re faster or slower. That offense can win. It wasn’t the fact that he ran or passed. He has an offense that wins.
You mentioned your feeling that Yulman Stadium helped land Fritz. Should Devlin Fieldhouse be seen as a detriment to basketball, and is there anything you can do about it?
I would tell you the arena should be the greatest asset the basketball program has. Let me back up. The city is the greatest asset that any of these programs have. The arena should be the greatest specific asset the basketball program has, and the reason for it is, and you lived it in the Perry Clark days, when it’s good, it’s packed and it’s loud and it’s the greatest home-court advantage in the league.
I don’t care if you have a beautiful 20,000-seat stadium that’s one-third-full every night and looks gorgeous. The fact is when allowing the building to help you win games, our building can help us win games more than any other building in this league. Duke doesn’t have the nicest arena in the ACC. It hasn’t held them back. It’s ours, we own it and I actually think it’s a great asset.
Former athletic diretor Rick Dickson made an athletes village a huge priority, saying a space for all the Olympic sports on campus would be his next big project. Does the idea of an athletes village take precedence over an indoor football facility, since you’re able to use the Saints’ facility?
Precedence is usually determined by availability in funds. I would say 1A is the Olympic village and 1B, as long as we have the Saints’ indoor facility for the amount of time that we need to use an indoor facility here, the investment should be directed to an operations facility from an ability to recruit students and what we’re showing students.
Strength facilities here are lacking. The meeting rooms, which are classrooms for football, needed upgrading. I would tell you that’s more important from a football standpoint that any indoor bubble is here. You just don’t need it that much.
I’ll have a strategic plan for facilities by the end of June, and I’ll be chasing it by the end of June.
What are your thoughts on trying to get into a “Power Five” conference and where Tulane is at this point in the college athletics hierarchy?
You need to own the house on the street you live in before you start looking at a different street, so if the opportunity comes, my job is to have us in position to capitalize on whatever the opportunity is. There is not one AD in the country — to give you an example, you could hire (Big 12 commissioner) Bob Bowlsby as the AD, and Bob Bowlsby isn’t going to get you to the Big 12. That is a presidential-driven decision at all levels.
I’ve just got to make sure that if the president comes to me and says, “Hey, I would like to be in ‘blank’ ” and the opportunity is there for us to do ‘blank,’ I’ve got to make sure we’re in position on the day he walks in, not to give me two years.
A common perception of Tulane is that, because the academic standards are high, it’s hard to be successful in major sports. What’s your take on that?
It’s a complete misnomer. This is one of the things that surprised me. The ability to get students in is not holding us back at all.
We do also have to understand that the rigor at Tulane is different than at other institutions. Getting into school is one thing. We have a lot of academic support and a lot of help, and we do a really good job of academic support here. Kids can get in and kids can graduate, and they walk out of here with a heck of a degree.
In reality, what you will hear coming from me is the academic standards of Tulane are going to be a great asset for us in recruiting, and in no way is it a liability or a hindrance.
Do you have any interest in pursuing a series with LSU, either annually or semi-annually, in football and basketball?
I would love it, absolutely love it. At Northern Iowa, we played Iowa and Iowa State a home-and-home (in basketball) every year. We beat them more often than we didn’t, and that’s part of the reason that series went away (replaced by a game in Des Moines with Iowa and Iowa State alternating each year).
Does LSU have more to lose in that than Tulane does? Absolutely. I get it. They’ll find a very willing partner. What I would really like to do — and I’m getting the cart way out in front of the horse here. I really would like to have an event on an annual or biannual basis where the game is in the dome, where there’s some type of a weighted revenue share. It’s not a home game for anybody, but it’s the city of New Orleans’ game, it’s the sports commission’s game and the two FBS institutions in the state play football on a very regular basis and it’s a celebration of football. It’s a great football city.
I obviously have never talked to (LSU athletic director Joe Alleva) about this, so I don’t even know if it would be on their radar, but I tell you, I’ll pursue it every day that I’m here.
What do you want to do to try to make Tulane relevant in the athletic community here?
Let’s go back to my biggest surprise since my press conference, and maybe I learned it at the press conference, so since I accepted the job. The biggest surprise — I thought this was a small private school in the middle of a big city and neither one cared about the other. Nothing could be further from the truth, and I didn’t get it.
I get it now. This is not a big city. This is a small town with a whole lot of people, and that’s great, and how much this city cares about this institution and how much this institution cares about its involvement in the city is blowing me away.
Athletically, Tulane is pretty far down the totem pole right now. Northern Iowa athletics was a big deal in Cedar Falls, and Tulane is not right now in New Orleans. What do you do about that?
As far as making yourself relevant, you’ve got to have people who care about it, and we’ve got to give people a reason to care about it. Through no fault of anybody, we’ve operated in somewhat of our own little vacuum, and if you put together just in the last 24 to 36 months, a brand new stadium on campus. Now it’s 30 years ago or 40 years ago, but this was the epicenter of football. We have an opportunity. We’ve lost two generations that grew up thinking this was the epicenter of football, but there’s a history here that we can latch on to.
We’re in a league now that immediately makes you more credible and more relevant nationally. It’s a whole lot more relevant to have Cincinnati coming into town and to have UConn coming into town for athletic events then it is to have some of what were up here in Conference USA. … I’ll know whether we’re relevant when I see what our licensing revenue is — when people are buying shirts, people are buying hats and people are caring about Tulane again.
What is Dickson’s legacy?
Rick did an amazing job here, and whether it goes noticed or unnoticed, in some respects he saved athletics twice, and then to have the capital build-out, to be able to raise money for the capital build-out, anybody should have that legacy when they’re done with their career at an institution and would be lucky to have that legacy when they’re done. He’ll be in our Hall of Fame as quickly as he can be in our Hall of Fame, and he should.