Current Tulane football era worthy of special appreciation
NEW ORLEANS – It can be difficult to fully appreciate the significance of rare events in real time.
Sometimes it takes the distance of looking back at a series of happenings in the context of a collective occurrence in order to achieve a proper perspective.
Such is the case with Tulane football as the Green Wave prepare to begin the 2023 season against South Alabama on Saturday night in Yulman Stadium.
The previous seven years of head coach Willie Fritz’s tenure have produced a 43-45 record, including three victories in four bowl appearances.
That might not seem historic even after factoring in the relatively modest success that Tulane football has achieved over the last 130 years.
But this stretch is rare and therefore worthy of appreciation in real time – especially in light of the Green Wave going 12-2 a year ago, winning just the school’s fourth conference championship and defeating USC in the Cotton Bowl.
And the prospects for continued success make it worthwhile to appreciate the entire Fritz era even while experiencing the day-to-day and season-to-season developments.
The Golden Era of Tulane football occurred between 1928 and 1941. Teams led by Bernie Bierman, Ted Cox, Red Dawson had 13 winning records, one breakeven season and played in two Sugar Bowls and one Rose Bowl during that stretch.
A case – a very strong case in fact – can be made that the Fritz era (2016-2022 and counting) – is the second-best era in the history of Green Wave football. And it features an element lacking from other contenders for that distinction – the potential for an open-ended continuation of that success.
On a handful of occasions since the end of the Golden Era, Tulane has appeared on its way to building another historic era only to see the progress short-circuited.
Jim Pittman’s fifth team defeated Colorado in the Liberty Bowl, but Pittman’s subsequent departure for TCU set the program back.
After seasons of 3-8 and 6-5, Pittman’s successor, Bennie Ellender, had the Green Wave in the Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl, but two losing seasons followed and Ellender was fired.
Next came Larry Smith and his fourth team went 9-3, narrowly losing to Penn State in the Liberty Bowl, and Smith was off to Arizona.
In the mid-1980s, Mack Brown followed 1-10 and 4-7 seasons with a 6-5 mark (and subsequent loss to Washington in the Independence Bowl) and Brown was off to North Carolina.
In 1998 Tommy Bowden’s second Tulane team finished 12-0, won the Conference USA championship, defeated BYU in the Liberty Bowl and finished No. 7 in the final AP poll. That got the attention of Clemson, which lured Bowden away.
Green Wave fans had uneasy feelings of déjà vu late last season when Georgia Tech courted Fritz for its vacant head-coaching position.
But Fritz didn’t leave.
He stayed and Tulane is favored to win a second consecutive American Athletic Conference championship.
The Green Wave, who wandered the desert of independence for 30 years after leaving the SEC, has never won consecutive conference championships.
Tulane is ranked No. 24 in the AP preseason poll.
Think about that.
The people who are paid to evaluate college football teams across the country think the Green Wave, who by the way finished No. 9 in the final poll for the 2022 season, will continue their national relevance.
That wouldn’t be a big deal in a lot of places, but it should be seen as a big deal around these parts.
“It means something to our program,” Fritz said. “First time ranked preseason. It’s a great deal for us, but obviously the bigger deal is to be ranked at the end of the season.”
That could happen again if Tulane continues its recent run of post-season trips.
The Green Wave have played in four bowl games in the last five seasons; they played in 11 bowl games in the previous 124 seasons.
They have won three bowl games under Fritz; they won four under every other head coach.
Only one coach – College Football Hall of Famer Clark Shaughnessy, who coached coached Tulane for 11 seasons (1915-20, 1922-26) – has won more games with the Green Wave (59) than Fritz has.
Tulane quarterback Michael Pratt said winning “a conference championship” is “always on your radar,” and admitted that he “was definitely dreaming big” when he signed with the Green Wave three years ago.
But, he added, “I don’t know if I necessarily envisioned a Cotton Bowl win against an historic program like USC.”
It’s the accomplishment of things that no one would have envisioned is what makes this moment in time special for Tulane football.
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Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists. He has since become a valued contributor for CCS. The Jesuit High…