The Green Wave, often overlooked in the modern college football landscape, found itself squarely in the spotlight last week, ranked for the first time in 24 years and hosting a Top 25 matchup for the first time since 1949 -- back in the halcyon days as charter members of the SEC. Yulman Stadium, normally about half full, was only a few thousand tickets shy of a sellout.
But then came kickoff and instead of fans griping about College GameDay turning down a trip to the Big Easy, they wondered what happened to their team that had gone 8-1. Tulane, which committed the third-fewest penalties in the FBS, jumped offsides on the third play of the game on defense, moving the chains free of charge before eventually giving up a field goal. Then, the offense went three-and-out on its opening drive for the first time all season. And then the defense, which had given up an American Athletic Conference-best four rushing touchdowns, let UCF quarterback John Rhys Plumlee scamper 67 yards into the end zone.
In the blink of an eye, Tulane was behind 24-7.
Spoiler alert: UCF won.
This isn't a fairytale, after all. This is reality, and teams that turn the ball over twice, give up 83 yards in penalties and allow conversions on 11 of 18 third-down attempts generally have no business winning. But the manner in which Tulane played the final 37 minutes, fighting instead of folding and making it a one-score game late in the fourth quarter, showed that this team might not be a flash in the pan. It showed that what coach Willie Fritz has put together might be built to last.
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 and are threatening to reach 10 wins for the first time since 1998.
Sure, Fritz was disappointed after the loss to UCF. He told reporters he would've liked to have a few decisions back. But he had perspective and knew they didn't play their best. "Luckily," he said, "it's not the last game of the season."
Captains Sincere Haynesworth, Dorian Williams and Michael Pratt said they were keeping their heads up and reminding one another that the ultimate goal -- playing for a conference championship -- was still attainable. The Green Wave will likely need to win their final two games, the first of which comes on a short week as Tulane hosts SMU on Thursday (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).
"You can't sit and dwell on this for too long when you have these opportunities presented in front of you like this," Haynesworth said. "Just get back to work as soon as we can."
When Fritz talks about having a "1-0 mentality," that's exactly what he means.
If players and coaches got hung up on what happened in the past or what might happen in the future, they never would have gotten this far in the first place.
DURING A TWO-HOUR practice earlier this month, 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 season 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 they stayed for nearly a month. They 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 felt 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 won 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 they'll build a statue to 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. He already makes about $2.5 million per year, and built-in incentives will boost him above $3 million this season. 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 the near future, 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 earlier this month when the team's 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.
His message to the team as it heads down the home stretch of the regular season is to roll with it -- don't worry about the past, don't worry about the future, just keep a 1-0 mentality.