With Tulane's season ended in heartbreaking fashion at SMU, Green Wave football coach Willie Fritz failed to follow his 24-hour rule about dwelling on the previous result.
He said he needed 48 hours to regain his upbeat attitude.
Fritz cannot do anything about the referees ruling quarterback Jonathan Banks down an inch from the goal line on what would have been a breakthrough, bowl-earning touchdown in the final seconds of a 41-38 loss Nov. 25.
But he can focus on continuing to improve a program he believes is miles ahead of where he inherited it two years ago.
“That was a tough last loss for us, but you decompress and you look at the big picture and you see a lot of good things, and we’ve just got to keep working towards it,” Fritz said Tuesday in a season-assessing news conference. “We’re always evolving, trying to get better. I don’t want to stand pat. I think that’s been the reason why I’ve had success, being able to adapt and improvise over the years.”
Fritz and his assistants are analyzing every aspect of the operation as they try to take the next step — he mentioned offense, defense, kicking game, the offseason program and recruiting. Tulane’s improvement was marginal judged simply by the record, with the Wave finishing 5-7 a year after going 4-8.
But a real breakthrough appears just around the corner.
As Fritz noted, this was only the second time Tulane won five games since 2004. It also was just the third time the Green Wave, 3-5 in the American Athletic Conference, won three league games in the same span.
Losing has been part of the culture for a long time at Tulane, and this marked the first back-to-back sub-.500 seasons in Fritz's 25-year head coaching career.
“As I’ve said many times before: Our margin for error is really small,” he said. “We’ve just got to keep improving. We’ve got to develop the guys that are here. We have to bring in better athletes each and every season, and that will get us over the hump.”
The outlook is particularly positive on offense for next year. Thousand-yard rusher Dontrell Hilliard will be gone, but the other 10 starters return, as do the top backups. The list includes all five receivers who caught at least 10 passes; nine of 10 players on the offensive line's two-deep depth chart; and running back Corey Dauphine, a Texas Tech transfer who excelled in preseason camp before getting hurt.
Tulane rushed for 231.5 yards per game, the second-highest total in school history. Unlike a year ago, when Fritz sloughed off the Wave’s then-third-best output of 228.1 yards as insignificant when coupled with an anemic passing game, he saw real progress.
Quarterback Jonathan Banks averaged 215.8 passing yards in the final six games, putting to rest any notion Fritz’s offense was just a different variation of the ground-bound triple-option systems of the service academies.
“We have to be able to do both,” Fritz said. “I’ve been saying that since I came here. We have a lot of really good skill people and a lot of offensive linemen coming back. We’re looking to get better. We need to rush for 50 to 60 more yards per game. We need to be able to pass for 50 to 60 more yards per game. Our goal is to get to 500 yards a game and control the clock.”
Only 10 teams averaged 500 yards in the regular season, another indication Fritz is not content with mediocrity.
Banks will benefit from a year in the system after experiencing some growing pains coming out of junior college. He finished 125 of 219 (56.6 percent) for 1,797 yards and 12 touchdowns with five interceptions while rushing for 592 yards and seven scores, exhibiting dynamic play-making ability but also making some questionable pre-snap and post-snap decisions.
“He got better throughout the season,” Fritz said. “This was a little bit of a different offense for him in all regards — terminology, what we’re having our quarterback do. It’s like bringing in a freshman in some regards because it’s a much higher level of competition. The more experience you get, the better you’ll play.”
Some concerns remain. The tiny graduating class of 10 scholarship seniors had eight significant contributors on defense, including five of the top nine tacklers from a group that tied for 100th nationally in yards allowed and ranked 85th in points allowed.
Reserve offensive guard Leeward Brown's recent decision to transfer leaves Tulane with only eight remaining members (and one full-time starter, safety Roderic Teamer) from a depleted 2015 signing class that normally would be the heart of the team in 2018.
Fritz recognizes the challenge, but he likes where he is headed entering next Wednesday’s early signing date for the 2018 class.
“I knew coming in this was a tough job,” he said. “We have different obstacles than other schools might possibly have, but we’ve also got so many unbelievable things to sell here.
"We want to use our academics. This is a great conference. This is a great city. We need to win more games, but I’m fired up about working here every single day. It would be different if I was someplace that you didn’t have anything to sell. We have a lot of sell here.”