New Tulane football coach Willie Fritz, a winner at every stop, was not about to start lowering expectations when he spoke Tuesday morning at his introductory news conference.
He said he sees success in New Orleans as a logical step after earning two junior-college national championships at Blinn College, becoming the winningest coach in the 118-year history of Division II Central Missouri, taking Sam Houston State to back-to-back FCS championship games, and going 17-7 in Georgia Southern’s first two years of FBS play.
“I really feel comfortable in saying we can build this into a consistent winner and conference champion, and I feel that we are going to do that sooner than later,” he said. “Tulane is a sleeping giant. I am confident that my staff and I can bring back the glory days of Tulane football.”
The past 17 years have been mostly gory. The Green Wave followed a perfect 12-0 1998 season under former coach Tommy Bowden by finishing under .500 14 times, losing eight or more games on 12 occasions and reaching only two bowl games as Chris Scelfo, Bob Toledo and Curtis Johnson failed to find a solution.
Enter Fritz, 55.
Athletic Director Troy Dannen, who hired Fritz less than two weeks after assuming his job, said at the start of his search that he valued proven experience over youthful exuberance. He validated that statement by picking Fritz.
“At this time in our program’s history, we need somebody who has been around a winning culture and who knows how to build a program,” Dannen said. “He’s built it three times at places where they weren’t winning, and he’s built it quickly. I’m not expecting him to come in and win nine games, but he is not a let’s do the old slow build and see what happens.
“We needed a sitting head coach or a coordinator with a lot of experience. This is not a learn-to-be-a-head-coach-on-the-job type of situation, and I didn’t look for those people.”
Terms of Fritz’s contract were not released, but he is expected to be Tulane’s first coach to earn at least $1 million per year. Dannen said Dec. 4 he could have made a competitive offer to former Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost, who accepted a $1.7 million per year deal to coach at Central Florida.
Fritz was noncommittal on how many assistants he would bring from Georgia Southern and whether he would retain any of Johnson’s assistants, adding he had yet to speak to anyone on the Tulane staff.
Fritz, the 40th coach in Tulane’s 121-year history, never had been part of an FBS program in a 21-year career until he went to Georgia Southern in 2014. He took the road less traveled to get to New Orleans, but he feels the long journey prepared him for this turnaround project.
“Sometimes I chuckle when I see schools hire a guy who’s never been a head coach before,” he said. “I know that I’d want somebody with experience. If I have somebody who’s going to drive a very experience car, I’d like for him to have a driver’s license. I’ve got one.”
Fritz’s Georgia Southern teams traveled almost exclusively on the ground the past two years, leading the nation in rushing both seasons, but he said Tulane’s offense would look more like what he ran at Sam Houston State from 2010 to 2013. There, he melded spread-option principles with some elements of the triple option. His quarterback will line up in the shotgun.
Sam Houston State threw 33 touchdown passes in 2012, three shy of the individual Tulane record set by Shaun King in 1998. Georgia Southern completed fewer than five passes per game this season as Fritz employed the triple-option offense he inherited from predecessor Jeff Monken.
“I met with the players a little while ago, and my offensive philosophy was the first question they asked,” Fritz said. “We are going to see what our guys can do. That is what spring football is for. I’m not going to try and force something that won’t work.”
Fritz’s preferred hybrid offense was another attraction for Dannen, who sought the opinion of other coaches when he began his search and kept hearing how hard it was to prepare for Fritz’s system.
“They love him as a person,” Dannen said. “They do not want to play him.”
Fritz joins baseball coach David Pierce, who guided Tulane to its first baseball regional in seven seasons when he started last spring, with backgrounds at Sam Houston State. The two coached together at the Texas school in 2012 and 2013 before Fritz left for Georgia Southern.
“I’m biased of course, but I just think he’s the perfect fit,” Pierce said. “He’s a winner. He’s going to fit really well with the community, but he’s going to be very demanding on his team. He’s an excellent choice.”
With the holiday recruiting dead period having started Monday and lasting until Jan. 13, Fritz’s primary focus in the next month will be figuring out his staff and reviewing Tulane’s roster to determine the most important recruiting needs. The Wave’s commitment class for 2016 has broken up in the past week, but Fritz said he wanted only players who really wanted to be part of his program.
The initial reaction from one of the player he inherited was positive.
“He’s a good man, a stand-up guy and firm,” said junior safety Leonard Davis, whom Johnson sat for the entire season because he was not making satisfactory academic progress. “He really loves his players and cares about us not just as football players but as a student and as a man.”
Fritz said he would recruit locally in New Orleans but would branch out to Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. Johnson’s staff focused almost entirely on southeast Louisiana. … Fritz said Tulane, which conducted spring practice in the winter under Johnson, will not start spring ball until after spring break, which ends March 28, giving players more time to recover from the end of the season.