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Turnaround artist Willie Fritz is trying to paint Tulane’s picture

Let’s step into the office of the man trying to right the Green Wave.

Louisiana Lafayette v Tulane Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

NEW ORLEANS — This painting is the first thing you notice when you step into Tulane head coach Willie Fritz’s office: a finished portrait of the journeyman hoisting a trophy at Sam Houston State:

Courtesy Tulane Athletics

The Tulane picture is far from completion. 2016 produced only sketches on a blank canvas. After going 4-8 in his first season, Fritz’s task is to improve a program that has had five winning seasons in the last 35 and 11 in the last 63. But this type of challenge is nothing new for Fritz.

He’s a coaching lifer, having made stops at nearly every level of college football.

Along the way, he’s done just about every job.

“I think I’ve kinda got my fingerprints on every facet of the program [at Tulane],” Fritz said in a recent interview with SB Nation. “I’ve been an academic coordinator. I’ve been an athletic trainer. I’ve been an equipment guy. I’ve lined the fields. I’ve washed the jocks and the socks. I did the media guide at Blinn Junior College.”

In 1993, Fritz got his break as a head coach at Blinn. In addition to teaching classes, he drove the team buses. He didn’t drive to many losses:

JUCO Blinn College had won five games in three years before Fritz and won 39 in four with him. Division II Central Missouri hadn't been to the playoffs in three decades until Fritz arrived; he won 10 games twice and left having finished above .500 11 times in 12 years.

And then he kept rising:

Sam Houston State had made only two FCS playoff appearances in 20 years before he took the Bearkats to back-to-back national title games in 2011-12.

“That was probably the main reason why I went from Sam Houston to Georgia Southern, was to coach [higher in] Division I football,” Fritz said. “I hadn’t at that point in my career.”

When Fritz walked into a Southern program that had a proud history, it was his task to transition the Eagles from FCS to FBS. The first season in that process is purgatory. You’re barred by the NCAA from a bowl game, and you’re playing 12 games against FBS talent with mostly FCS talent. The FCS Eagles had beaten the Gators, but few expected them to compete right away.

Fritz’s Eagles went 9-3 in 2014, despite being picked eighth in the Sun Belt’s preseason poll, then 8-4 in 2015, earning a berth in the GoDaddy Bowl as Fritz was on his way to New Orleans.

It has been a long time since the Green Wave saw glory, and the banners in Yulman Stadium tell that story:

Richard Johnson / SB Nation

The Green Wave were charter members of the SEC in 1932. They stayed until 1966, when the private school downsized athletics. Tulane also became a casualty of professional sports when the Saints arrived in 1967.

But in 1998, the Green Wave could have become the first BCS buster. Going 12-0 with QB Shaun King, the team finished with its highest ranking in the AP Poll since before World War II, but a soft schedule meant no BCS bowl game.

In 2005, the area faced Hurricane Katrina. The Green Wave relocated to Ruston, La., and the athletic department canceled or moved other varsity sports. The storm caused billions in damage to New Orleans and forced the school to close for the first time since the Civil War.

The program has had three winning seasons since 1998 and has been to one bowl game since 2002. That’s what Fritz walked into, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Georgia Southern had a great reputation in I-AA, but I think we were picked second to last my first year in the conference,” he said. “So it was a challenge there, along with the other places that I took over, and I’ve had some schools that have contacted me that were going along real well and I was like, ‘Heck, you’re already doing good, what’s the challenge in that?’”

Athletic director Troy Dannen and Fritz turned over much of the athletic department staff. Dannen re-tooled the visual identity of the program with the throwback Angry Wave logo:

There’s not a ton of space on campus, but Tulane is planning to build a standalone football facility with a small practice field on top. On-campus Yulman Stadium, built for $73 million in 2014, is the right size for the program.

NCAA Football: Connecticut at Tulane Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Tulane’s missed out on revitalizers before.

The 1998 team had Rich Rodriguez as its offensive coordinator. After Rodriguez’s boss, Tommy Bowden, left for Clemson, Rodriguez was passed over for the top job. He followed Bowden to Clemson and helped lead the spread revolution. Rodriguez would spurn Tulane after leaving Michigan in 2011 because of, among other things, a lack of financial commitment to the program.

In 2005, Tulane came “within an eyelash” of hiring Jim Harbaugh, per former athletic director Rick Dickson. But when Harbaugh mentioned that the Stanford job was also in his purview, Dickson moved on.

In Fritz, Tulane hopes it has both Rodriguez’s ingenuity and Harbaugh’s ability to turn a team around. Fritz’s innovation? The option. Sort of.

“We haven’t run it like I’d like to run it,” Fritz said. “There’s a couple times against some teams early on where we look like we’re doing it, and we just got so banged up, particularly at the quarterback position. So we had to adapt to what our quarterback, our offensive line in particular, could do.”

Fritz doesn’t want to run the triple option like what you see at Navy or Georgia Tech. Fritz’s option is out of the shotgun, and when he’s got the type of QB he wants, it’s more change-of-pace than bread-and-butter.

“Sometimes, we’ll just run an inside zone,” Fritz said. “But all this window dressing makes it look like we’re running triple option. And sometimes, we are running triple option. Even on the inside zone, they gotta have somebody on the dive, the quarterback pitch, because it looks like that’s what we’re doing.”

He started really implementing the system at Sam Houston State in 2010, and like most innovations, it came out of necessity.

He will tailor his scheme around his talent.

Willie Fritz’s option offenses

Team Year Record (conference) Rushing Attempts Rushing Yards Rushing TDs Passing Attempts Passing yards Passing TDs Points per game Run vs. Pass Plays
Team Year Record (conference) Rushing Attempts Rushing Yards Rushing TDs Passing Attempts Passing yards Passing TDs Points per game Run vs. Pass Plays
Sam Houston State 2010 6-5, 4-3 484 2,051 24 249 1,645 8 26.8 66 percent vs 34 percent
Sam Houston State 2011 14-1, 7-0 700 3,839 46 274 2,274 22 36.9 72 percent vs. 28 percent
Sam Houston State 2012 11-4, 6-1 742 4,025 46 334 2,853 26 40 69 percent vs. 31 percent
Sam Houston State 2013 9-5, 4-3 655 3,710 40 333 2,598 33 41.1 66 percent vs 34 percent
Georgia Southern 2014 9-3, 8-0 642 4,573 55 155 1,286 7 39.1 81 percent vs 19 percent
Georgia Southern 2015 8-4, 6-2 660 4,267 47 129 742 3 34.7 84 percent vs 16 percent
Tulane 2016 4-8, 1-7 591 2737 25 258 1360 10 24.1 70 percent vs. 30 percent
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“It’s the greatest pass protection known to mankind, because the D linemen are playing lateral, not playing vertical. So if you can run the option effectively, it makes your offensive linemen good pass protectors, even if they’re not.”

New Orleans is one of the most fertile recruiting grounds in the country, but it’s not a particularly big one.

That amplifies battles for kids, because the depth of a Louisiana class isn’t like that of classes in Florida or Georgia or California.

Per capita, Louisiana leads all other states in blue-chip talent. LSU will always be No. 1 at signing it, but the Tigers can’t sign all the talent in the state. Fritz called New Orleans the most heavily recruited city he had ever been in, and he told SB Nation in a separate interview that he knows the importance of fighting off suitors.

“For us, where we’re at right now, we want to get that high-caliber, Division I football player,” Fritz said. “I hope here in the near future, we’re gonna be able to be the draw and we don’t have to worry about being with anybody.”

Tulane recently linked arms with the Tigers to put a fence around the state. In June, Fritz and Tulane hosted a satellite camp with LSU coach Ed Orgeron. Tulane was originally supposed to host it with Michigan; the Green Wave canceled that.

“I was getting Michigan, who was really wanting to do it with us, and we were interested in doing it with [Harbaugh], but then they already had a camp scheduled that day, we found out,” Fritz said. “We didn’t know if Coach Harbaugh was gonna be able to come here, and obviously he was the draw, you know? When that occurred, I got back with LSU, and we talked immediately. I wanted to do it with LSU first, and I’m glad it ended up working out.”

SB Nation has reached out to Michigan for comment.

Tulane is also in the middle of the recruiting war between LSU and schools in the Lone Star State. TCU and Texas Tech hosted a camp in Baton Rouge at Southern University in June (reportedly on the books before Orgeron took the LSU jobs). The Horns are also in play, because they were on the slate to host a joint camp with LSU in Baton Rouge until the Tigers canceled, reportedly due to “political pressure.

“I understand Coach Orgeron’s point of view, not having anyone come in the state,” Fritz said. “It’s good for him. I can understand Herman wanting to come over here, ‘cause good football players in Louisiana, good for him.”

“We gotta do what’s best for Tulane,” Fritz said.

So how long can the 57-year-old continue?

He points to the Fitbit fitness tracker on his wrist.

“I’m an empty nester right now,” Fritz said. “If you watch me go out and coach in practice, I put about nine miles in today [six at practice, and three more at his post-practice workout].”

Dedicated artists are never truly finished creating.

“I really enjoy it,” Fritz said. “I’ve got a passion for it. If I didn’t, I’d quit. I see myself going at least another 10 years. I’d be surprised if I didn’t go that long.”

Besides, he’s got work to do. His office could use a painting of a Tulane trophy.