Seasoned and established at Tulane, Fritz optimistic as he continues to raise the bar

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Willie Fritz at Army '19
(Photo: Parker Waters)

While the New Orleans Saints have been consistently good of late and are clear Super Bowl contenders, the LSU Tigers are coming off of an unprecedented season, going unbeaten and winning the national championship with the most prolific offense in NCAA history.

Meanwhile, another local program has slowly but surely flown below radar and can now be detected in the atmosphere as it rises to higher levels in the echelon of college football.

Entering his fifth year at Tulane, Willie Fritz has raised the bar, providing back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 1997-98 and winning back-to-back bowl games for the first time in program history.

Fritz commented on a bevy of topics when he joined me as a guest Wednesday night on 106.1 FM NASH ICON.

While the Tulane program is finally at a desirable place, it did not happen as quickly as desired.

“To be honest with you, it took a little longer than I hoped it would,” Fritz said. “This is a tough league. It was a big step going up from Conference USA to the American Athletic Conference. I looked at the job a few years back. The one thing I knew is you sell the great academics. We play in a great conference. We were actually the third-ranked conference in the NCAA last year behind the Big 10 and the SEC in terms of teams ranked in the Top 25.”

Winning has clearly influenced the quality of the player that Tulane is attracting as the Green Wave had a top four, if not a top three class in the AAC for 2020.

“We’ve had a lot of coaches that have been here for a few years,” Fritz said. “Guys being a fit are a big deal for me. I’ve been doing this a long time. This will be my 28th year as a head coach at the collegiate level. We really try to go out and find guys with character. You have to find guys with academic prowess. Last, but not least, you’ve got to find Division I football players. When you get that combination together, you have an opportunity to do some good things.”

Another positive factor in recruiting is Yulman Stadium.

“I’ve had more people that have come to their first game that are just shocked,” Fritz said. “Number one, it’s affordable. Number two, every seat is a great seat. I’ve been to some of these big stadiums. If you don’t have a great seat, you’re way up there and there’s kind of a rumor of a game going on. Every seat at Yulman Stadium is a great seat.”

While Tulane finally has taken the big step to become a winner, Fritz is ready for the Green Wave to take the next step.

“Our theme this year is going from being good, which we have been the last couple of years, to being great,” Fritz said. “In order to do that, everybody’s got to step their game up. Certainly a part of that is recruiting. We’ve got to continue to get better and better and better recruits in here.”

Tulane had two players drafted in the recent NFL draft. Fritz beamed about the fact that both were basically overlooked by the masses in recruiting.

“Darnell Mooney was an original signee,” Fritz said. “We were the only Division I offer he had. Bo Pete Keyes is going to the Chiefs. We actually signed him two weeks after signing day. We found some good guys that maybe other people weren’t looking at.”

The secret to Tulane posting back-to-back winning seasons is building a quantity of quality players.

“It’s not your top 10 players that help you win, it’s players 11 through 50,” Fritz said. “When I first got here, we just didn’t quite have the depth we needed. Now, we’re able to roll some guys in on offense and defense and play some guys in the kicking game that aren’t going to hurt you out there. That’s made us so much more competitive. That’s really helped us. We’ve gained depth over the last few years.”

Fritz feels Tulane is very good at running back and along the defensive line heading into the 2020 season.

“Tyjae Spears of Ponchatoula only played in four games last year and we redshirted him. I think the sky is the limit for that kid. Corey Dauphine, we thought was going to be out of eligibility. We did an appeal with the NCAA and we got a year back. I think he’s second in the country in terms of yards-per-carry coming back. In the front four defensively, we’re going to be able to roll 10 or 11 guys in there and I’ve never been able to do that before.”

Fritz defined the hardest spot to fill since he has been at Tulane.

“Offensive line, that’s always the toughest one,” Fritz said. “I remember my first season, we played U-CONN in the last game of the season at their place. I had five healthy offensive linemen. That’s all we had for the ball game. It’s tough when you don’t have the depth up front. We’re developing that depth. We signed a great freshman class.”

With Justin McMillan having graduated, Fritz appears ready to hand the keys to the offense over to a player with experience.

“Keon Howard started eight or nine games at Southern Miss,” Fritz said. “I wish we would have gotten the opportunity to play him a little bit more last fall. One game he got in against U-CONN, he played extremely well.”

While Howard is the favorite to start on opening day, Fritz feels he has a good future with two talented young players at the most important spot on the team.

“We signed a couple of freshmen I’m really excited about,” Fritz said. “Michael Pratt was an early graduate. He played in a state championship game and did a great job in the spring. We’re really excited about Justin Ibieta. He has really good feet, speed and is competitive. I just want to see what the kid can do when he can just concentrate on football. We think the future’s extremely bright at the quarterback position.”

Suffice it to say that Tulane players and coaches are anxious to reconvene soon.

“Our guys are champing at the bit,” Fritz said. “We’ve had a bunch of team meetings with the guys, we do positional meetings via Zoom. We do a lot of staff meetings. We had coaches together and went over field goal and extra point protection this morning. We’re doing virtual home visits with kids. There’s a lot to stay busy with. I can’t wait to get our guys back here on campus.”

Tulane is scheduled to open the season with Southeastern Louisiana on Thursday, Sept. 3. The Green Wave hosted Nicholls last season, and has hosted Grambling, Southern and Louisiana (Lafayette) as well since Fritz took over the program in 2016.

“We’re going to always try to play somebody from in-state, Fritz said. “The only thing I don’t like about it, all these FCS schools are really good around here. I’m an old 1-AA head coach at Sam Houston State. Coach (Frank) Scelfo had a tremendous season last year. We’ve got them week one.”

Tulane has not played LSU on the gridiron since 2009, when the two squads squared off for a fourth straight year. With the good relationship Fritz has with Ed Orgeron, is there any chance the two rivals may face each other again sometime in the near future?

“Our athletic directors tried to get that going,” Fritz said. “I think they probably wouldn’t mind doing it, either. You’re tied up with your conference. I think we’re scheduled out through 2027. It’s just difficult to find when they’ve got an open date and when we have an open date. Television has so much to do with it. I think the world of Coach (Ed) Orgeron. He’s a really good guy. I’m so happy for their success this year.”

Tulane will again face an SEC opponent on the road when the Green Wave travels to Starkville to take on Mississippi State on Sept. 26. The Green Wave played competitively at Auburn last season. Tulane has also made what turned out to be sacrificial lamb trips to face powerhouses Oklahoma and Ohio State.

“Our conference commissioner has really pushed this,” Fritz said. “We’ve got to play the big boys. Most of those games are played on the road. They don’t pay you if you play them at home so we have the disadvantage of playing on the road. We’re fortunate that we’ve scheduled these games and we’re going to get some home-and-homes. We have Mississippi State, Northwestern, Ole Miss, Kansas State and even Oklahoma coming in here in the coming years.”

The American Athletic Conference figures to be every bit as tough as a year ago.

“The league is loaded,” Fritz said. “It’s a really talented league, very well coached, great stadiums, great facilities, great fan bases. It’s only getting better. It’s a top-notch league. We just signed a big contract with ESPN. I think the powers that be realize what a great league it is.”

Like everyone, Fritz has no idea what the landscape of society will look like in two months with the COVID-19 epidemic. He is looking forward to the upcoming season.

“We are moving forward with the expectancy that we will have a season as scheduled,” Fritz said. “We certainly hope that is the case. We will be prepared.”

While Fritz waits for his players to return and a semblance of normalcy, he does so with a new lease on life after turning 60 last month. In the popular vernacular of the eternal optimist, Fritz is not getting older, he’s getting better, just like his football program.

“You betcha, you betcha,” Fritz said. “It beats the alternative, doesn’t it?

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