NEW ORLEANS — When Willie Fritz took the Tulane head coaching job more than a year ago, he was a stranger in a strange land. “I’d never had a po’ boy before I got here,” he says. Fritz has adjusted quickly both on and off the field. Over some alligator cheesecake and fried chicken at Jacques-Imo’s, a quintessential New Orleans restaurant, Fritz dished on his career as a turnaround artist, his love of New Orleans and what he expects out of the Green Wave in 2017. “I’ll be disappointed if we don’t make a bowl game,” he says.
After a 4-8 season, that may sound optimistic, especially at a school that has made the postseason once since 2002. But Fritz has won 193 games as a head coach and has been around long enough that he not only coached Michael Bishop in junior college, he was also his elementary school physical education teacher. Few are skeptical of the chances of the crafty Fritz continuing his turnaround magic in New Orleans. And no worries: He now eats two to three po’ boys a week and is using the French Quarter as a recruiting tool.
SI: You went 4-8 last year after inheriting a team coming off consecutive 3-9 seasons. What’s the goal for 2017?
Willie Fritz: We feel like we need to play in a bowl game. We came close this year. We had the opportunity...had a chance with Memphis, Wake Forest, had some opportunities—just weren’t quite there yet to finish games. I’ll be disappointed if we don’t make a bowl game. There’s a lot of them out there. We’ve got a tough schedule.
SI: One year into living here, what do you think so far?
Fritz: I haven’t lived in a big city since I moved from Kansas City and went to Pittsburg State. I’ve lived in small college towns. We learn something new about this city every day. My coaches love it. One of my coaches went to 11 parades (affiliated) with Mardi Gras. I thought it was a one-day deal. Just a lot of things to do here. People think of New Orleans, they think of Bourbon Street, and that’s just a small part. It’s been fun. I never had a po’ boy before. I have that at lunch two to three times a week. The food is something else here. Can go to a different restaurant almost every day, and it’d be pretty good.
SI: One of the unique traits of your career is that you’ve shown a knack for turning around programs quickly and in different ways. How have you managed to do that along the way at Blinn Community College, Central Missouri, Sam Houston State and Georgia Southern? And how can you apply that trait to Tulane?
Fritz: You have to pick your scheme and then adapt to your personnel. We had good ability on defense. We went from [80th to 31st nationally in yards allowed per game]. We had good talent on defense but what we gotta do is...we gotta really improve our offensive output.
SI: With the kind of offense you run, the quarterback is paramount. How has that position evolved for you here at Tulane?
Fritz: We had zero returning passing yards. It was a new offense—some of the guys probably a little more adept at throwing than running. I wanted to bring somebody in and run this type of offense. Jonathan Banks is a junior college transfer who started his career at Kansas State. He’s done [this style of offense] before. That’s going to be a big key for us. Offensively, we got to get better quarterback play. That’s not a secret.
SI: How has your recruiting philosophy evolved here?
Fritz: Our pitch to recruits is trying to use our academics, get kids to think of the next 40 years instead of the next four. And, of course, trying to sell New Orleans. We have something unique. I haven’t been in a college city like this. We actually did some recruiting things in the French Quarter. We brought the families to a second-line (a traditional New Orleans parade celebrations). They have a brass band and a couple of streets closed off. It was all the families, the prospects, something unique to New Orleans and it was really neat. We wanted to sell the city to the kids and the parents and make them feel good about it. A lot of parents would say to me later, “I had no idea this was New Orleans.”
SI: I know you picked Pat Fitzgerald’s brain about how to coach at a private school in a big city. He’s found a niche at Northwestern. What did you learn from Fitz?
Fritz: How to practice. We’re not gonna have large numbers. Our school is very expensive to go here, so we’re not going to have a lot of walk-ons. A lot of it is how to practice, how to recruit and what type of athletes you’re looking for. Northwestern is like us. They’re a national university also. He said it’s easier to recruit outside of Chicago than it is inside of Chicago. There’s a lot of kids in this area that never thought they’d get into Tulane. So it’s similar.
SI: Your athletic director, Troy Dannen, has done a strong job creating excitement at Tulane in his short time here. How have you enjoyed working with him?
Fritz: Oh, he does a fantastic job of verbalizing the vision of the athletic department. He’s strong in marketing and done a great job with the Angry Wave, that was all him. He knows how to go out and sell the vision. That’s what I wanted to hear when I talked to him about this job: What is your vision? What do you think Tulane can be? And he sold me in 15 minutes. And you have to work for a guy like that to be able to turn something like this around.
SI: You’ve had such a unique journey through coaching. Let’s start at Blinn. How did you turn things around there?
Fritz: We had Michael Bishop there. I had actually been his physical education teacher in elementary school when I was starting out my career as a high school assistant. When I showed up to recruit him at Willis High, he saw me and said, “Mr. Fritz.” We’re still really close. He really wanted the opportunity to play quarterback and a lot of coaches didn’t want him to play quarterback. Bill Snyder gave him the opportunity at Kansas State and he ended up as the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy in 1998.
SI: How did your style adjust along the way?
Fritz: At Sam Houston State, we had a lack of talent and it ended up being a similar type of offense like Auburn when they had Cam Newton. We were not very good at very many positions at Sam Houston when I took over, and I had a little bit of an option background. One of the best things about the option is you don’t have to block everybody. You got a dive key, a pitch key, some double teams at the point of attack. And we switched to it and we were one of the teams that first really started doing it in 2010 and 2011. We started using what we call a cruiser, blocking the first guy in the box or alley runner. It was unique, you know? We were probably able to beat teams we had no business playing with.
SI: From there you went to Georgia Southern and got more option-centric, correct?
Fritz: They had already been running under-center triple option, and we started to run option out of shotgun, and they had done a little bit of that, and it’s kinda funny. When I came to Tulane on the first day of practice, the quarterbacks couldn’t pitch it because they had never done it before. At Georgia Southern, they could do it blindfolded. We led the nation in rushing in 2014 and ‘15, and we couldn’t throw it. We just adapted and became a big-time run first team.
SI: Your dad, Harry Fritz, was the head coach at Central Missouri and also ran the NAIA back in its heyday. Did you grow up going to those old NAIA basketball tournaments?
Fritz: Yeah all the time. I would go and see 30 to 32 games. I remember watching Terry Porter, Dennis Rodman, Jack Sikma and Rick Mahorn. I loved it. The first game started at 8:30 a.m. and the last one would get done at midnight.
SI: As the son of a coach and administrator, how did that shape you?
Fritz: It’s always what I wanted to do, to be a coach. I’d always been around athletics—all my siblings or myself all got some type of scholarship in college. Gymnastics, swimming, baseball, basketball. I played both football and basketball, got one for football originally as a defensive back for Ron Randleman at Pittsburg State. When I realized I wasn’t good enough to keep playing after the college, I went into coaching.