Coach Willie Fritz has rebuilt his rebuild at Tulane

Michael Pratt scores 18-yard rushing TD (0:46)

Michael Pratt scores 18-yard rushing TD (0:46)

Editor's note: A version of this story previously ran on Nov. 17. It has been updated ahead of Tulane's game against USC in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic.

NEW ORLEANS -- Tulane coach Willie Fritz pleaded ignorance during a signing day news conference last month. Someone cherry-pick his guys? How could they? He pointed out to a group of reporters that none of his guys were officially in the transfer portal -- and therefore were off-limits.

"Certainly," he said, "no one would break a rule and indirectly contact any of our guys."

Fritz smirked. Because he knew the truth. There had been rampant speculation for weeks that his quarterback, Michael Pratt, was drawing interest from high-level FBS programs. And why not? He'd scored 35 touchdowns that season (25 passing, 10 rushing). Pratt was so tired of being asked about his future that he made an announcement he was returning. Then center Sincere Haynesworth joined him in saying he was coming back, too. The NFL, he decided, could wait.

Not to read into Fritz's smirk too much, but reconsider the above paragraph in the context of the floundering program he inherited five years ago. To have his two offensive captains -- one rebuffing interest from Power 5 programs and one turning down a head start on a pro career -- was a sign of just how far Tulane has come.

Fritz himself had emerged as something of a hot commodity as a finalist for the head job at Georgia Tech. But he stayed put. Fritz confirmed that he had a contract extension on the table. And yes, he said, he would be signing it soon.

"We're excited about the future of our program and we want to continue this momentum right now," he said.

The 62-year-old coach knows football and knows how to turn around struggling programs. After all, he has won at nearly every level: junior college, Division II, FCS and FBS. This season, he has pulled off the rare rebuild within a rebuild. After taking over a struggling Tulane program in 2016, he led the Green Wave to three consecutive bowl games before a two-win season in 2021 in which the team was displaced by Hurricane Ida. Now they've bounced back again, reaching 11 wins for the first time since 1998 after claiming their first American Athletic Conference championship.

And despite the two wins in 2021, there was no mass exodus. And when they hit a bump in the road this year, losing to UCF in maybe the biggest game in program history in November, they got right back up, won out and beat UCF in the rematch for the conference title.

On Monday, Tulane will play USC in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic (1 p.m. ET, ESPN). It's the first time the Green Wave will appear in a current New Year's Six Game since 1940 -- back when they were still charter members of the SEC and reached the Sugar Bowl.

It's a culmination of all the program has accomplished since Fritz arrived.

DURING A TWO-HOUR November practice, Fritz carried a microphone with him, occasionally barking out orders or quick words of encouragement. He seemed to be everywhere all at once, bouncing from station to station and even wandering off into the end zone in order to get a specific point of view. Eighty-one times he whispered notes into a digital recorder -- a habit he picked up from former Kansas State coach Bill Snyder.

Even now, in the middle of his 30th season as a head coach and his seventh at Tulane, Fritz sees room for improvement everywhere he looks. Take a receiver drill he watched in practice that day. Each player ran a route, caught a pass from receivers coach John McMenamin and then meandered back to the station to repeat the drill. Fritz didn't like the optics of players walking -- it drives him nuts -- and besides, the extra steps were a waste of energy. So after transcribing his notes, Fritz went to McMenamin and told him the plan moving forward: Instead of the receivers coming back to him to repeat the drill, he'd run to them and they'd go in the opposite direction.

Hours spent at practice and in conversation with the coaching staff revealed no secret sauce for Tulane's turnaround -- only the little things, stacked on top of one another to form a solid foundation.

It's not sexy, but Troy Dannen wasn't looking for that when he became Tulane's athletic director in 2015. If he wanted to make a splash and win the news conference with his new football coach, he would have hired someone younger, someone from the South or someone with Power 5 experience. But speaking to all those potential someones during the coaching search, Dannen said, "They almost didn't know what to do" with such a challenging job.

Dannen needed someone who wouldn't be turned off by what he described as an administrative "laissez-faire attitude" toward wins and losses. He needed someone who wouldn't get "tied up in knots" by the high academic standards, either. To put chrome alongside all those old sterling silver trophies on campus, he needed a proven winner, no matter what that looked like.

One of Dannen's first calls was to Chicago-based agent Bryan Harlan, who asked what kind of coach he was in the market for. Dannen's mind went to someone he'd seen a few times during trips to Sam Houston State as part of the FCS championship committee. That coach seemed to have it figured out and treated people with respect. Plus, his résumé was impeccable. Sam Houston had gone 25-28 in the five seasons before he arrived, and he ended up going to two championship games. Before that, he'd taken over a Central Missouri team that had won four games in each of its previous two seasons, and he ended up winning an MIAA national title. And before that, he'd taken over a Blinn College team that had gone 5-24-1 in its previous three seasons, and he ended up winning two junior college national championships.

Dannen told Harlan, "I'm looking for a Willie Fritz type."

Funny thing, Harland said, they signed the former Sam Houston coach a few months earlier. Fritz was in his second year at Georgia Southern at the time, having led the program to nine wins in each of its first two seasons competing at the FBS level.

Dannen was impressed when he interviewed Fritz after a National Football Foundation gathering in New York City in December. And rather than risk him getting cold feet during the flight home, Dannen hashed out contract terms that same night.

"I go back to when Brian Kelly got hired at LSU and everybody saying it was a cultural mismatch," Dannen said a few days after Kelly and the Tigers upset Alabama. "LSU is going to dominate because Brian Kelly -- the same thing -- he's won every place he's gone. He's been at places that maybe weren't as resource-starved [as Fritz], but he's never been in a place that didn't have a cap. He doesn't have a cap anymore. And those guys can go anywhere and coach anywhere because they know kids, they know systems, they know players and they've seen things happen. That's what Willie is."

Fritz didn't mind that Tulane had only one winning season and a 46-110 record in the 12 years before he arrived. He'd gotten used to a good old-fashioned rebuild by then. In fact, he couldn't understand why coaches took jobs with everything already at their disposal: impressive facilities, a massive support staff, a tradition of winning.

"I'm not quite sure what the challenge is, to be honest with you," he said. "I'd probably be worried I'd screw it up.

"But I enjoy the challenge. It's different every time."

Fritz and his staff have leaned into their New Orleans location. They held official visits in the French Quarter and performed second lines through the streets with recruits and their families. They ate like kings and listened to Zydeco music.

Signing players from the most talent-rich football state in the country, the roster steadily improved. So did the quality of play. They won four games that first season and five the next. In each of the three subsequent seasons, they won six regular-season games apiece and won two of three bowl games.

So when the dip finally came last season, it didn't set off panicked alarms.

"You can have all the talent in the world, but the situation sometimes overrules talent," Dannen said. "And situation overruled talent a year ago."

LAST SEASON WOULD have broken a lot of teams. Riding high after reaching three straight bowl games, Hurricane Ida struck in late August and threatened to take the wheels off the Willie Fritz Mardi Gras float.

The Category 4 storm made landfall in Louisiana a week before the season opener, and the team was forced to evacuate to Birmingham, Alabama, where it stayed for nearly a month. The Green Wave bussed to practice at Legion Field when the weather cooperated. Once, they drove an hour to the University of Alabama to use their indoor facility because it had rained. Other days, when they couldn't find a dry field to play on, they skipped practice entirely.

And then there was everything in between football that they had to contend with. Imagine being stuck in a hotel and away from home for that long -- during the height of COVID. The on-site restaurant was closed and options were limited.

"We were giving them $50 a day to call Uber Eats and order Subway," Dannen said. "I mean, they were eating like s---. But that's all you can do."

When the team finally did return to New Orleans, it wasn't back to normal. The city was still recovering. Some players' homes had been destroyed and they had to find temporary accommodations.

Playing one of the toughest schedules in the Group of 5 -- including nonconference games at No. 2 Oklahoma and No. 17 Ole Miss, and conference games against No. 21 SMU and No. 2 Cincinnati -- it's no wonder they struggled to win games.

"Most places don't let a coach survive last year," Dannen said.

But Tulane, for better or worse, has a healthy perspective when it comes to losing records. Dannen considered all the variables at play. While there needed to be some changes among the assistant coaches on staff, he believed the team had held together under Fritz. He was impressed how players didn't complain about the adverse circumstances, how they kept competing and even improved down the stretch. During the final four games, they beat South Florida and lost to UCF, Tulsa and Memphis by an average of 5.3 points.

Once the season ended, players didn't rush to the exits. The only consistent starter they lost to the transfer portal was defensive tackle Jeffery Johnson, who had already graduated. And not just that, Fritz and his staff went out and signed a handful of former Power 5 players, including Lawrence Keys from Notre Dame and Patrick Jenkins from TCU (both are from New Orleans).

Bouncing back wasn't easy. But it was a whole heck of a lot easier than fixing what they walked into five years earlier. Offensive coordinator Jim Svoboda said players only needed to be reminded that they were capable. "All the ingredients were already there," he said, referencing a core group of veterans that included Pratt, running back Tyjae Spears and cornerback Jadon Canady.

Beating UMass and Alcorn State by a combined score of 94-10 to open the season was just the confidence boost they needed. Then they went on the road to Kansas State and beat the eventual Big 12 champions in front of a sellout crowd. It was Fritz's first Power 5 win. Being from Kansas City and having gone to college only a few hours away, he said, "It was special."

Dannen was in the locker room for the postgame celebration.

"I've had tears in my eyes three times since I got here, and that was one of them," he said. "It was a really cool experience."

The landmark victory could be spun as vindication -- for hiring Fritz and for overcoming the aberration of last season. But Dannen looked at it another way: "Affirmation of what we can be."

If Tulane stays the course, Dannen has no doubt the school will build a statue for Fritz in front of Yulman Stadium one day. The only question is whether some other athletic director will try to lure Fritz away before then, hoping to have him rebuild yet another struggling program.

Dannen said they're committed to keeping Fritz happy financially. But when you've mowed fields and painted lines yourself as a coach in the lower levels of college football, Dannen is convinced that money won't be the determining factor.

Might competitiveness? Sure. Dannen said he's thought about it and realizes there's "only one link left in the chain" for Fritz.

"If you can name somebody who's gone from a national championship coach at juco level, to Division II, to FCS, to FBS, to Group of 5 to Power 5, I don't know who's on that list," he said.

But if it's access to the playoff that's driving Fritz, Dannen said there's an argument for staying put and waiting for the format to expand to 12 teams in 2024, finally opening up a path to Group of 5 squads.

Fritz, for his part, doesn't want to talk about any of that. He said he gets annoyed at coaches who are in one job and thinking about another. And frankly, it's hard to imagine how he made the climb up from juco to FBS without taking things one step at a time.

He could've gotten mad when the team's November flight to Tulsa was delayed by four hours and they didn't get to their hotel until 9:30 p.m. But was he really going to complain about air travel when he used to take the bus? There was a time, not that long ago, when he used diesel fuel to mark the lines on the field because paint was too expensive.

A year ago, they lived in a hotel. So, yeah, they can handle just about anything.

If they find a way to beat the Trojans -- college football royalty, a blue blood in the truest sense of the term -- imagine how big Fritz's smile will be.