SEPTEMBER 01, 2017

History suggests a much better season for Tulane is realistic

Fritz's teams tend to make second-year leap

By Les East

When football players make the transition to a higher level -- high school or junior college to college, college to the NFL -- they often show their greatest improvement from their first season to their second.

The most significant growing pains are endured the first season after being thrown into the deep end and learning to swim. Once they get their bearings and figure out how to adapt to the more challenging level, they think less, gain more confidence and start to show the level of performance that earned them the promotion to the higher level in the first place.

Perhaps the Tulane football program will show similar growth as it enters its second season under head coach Willie Fritz.

No, Fritz didn't technically arrive at Tulane from a lower level; he was hired from Georgia State, which at the time was a member of the NCAA FBS, just like the Green Wave. But before that he spent four years at the FCS level and before that 13 years at the Division I-AA level and before that his started he head-coaching career at the junior-college level.

When he started as a head coach at Blinn College his first team went 6-3-1 and his second team went 9-2. Then he went to Central Missouri and his first team went 4-5 and his second team went 6-3. Then he went to Sam Houston and his first team went 6-5 and his second team went 14-1 and finished as national runner-up. Then he went to Georgia Southern and his first team went 9-4 and his second team went 8-4 and played in a bowl game.

So Fritz's teams have a track record of making significant improvement from year one to year two, except for the ones at Georgia Southern, but that deviation was due not to a disappointing second season but rather to an exceptional first season.

Fritz's first Tulane team finished 4-8 and the expectation of a second-year leap is enhanced by the fact that Fritz's spread-option offense further complicated the initial transition. The offense is drastically different from what the Green Wave had been running and the personnel wasn't well equipped to handle it.

Now the returning players have had two spring practices, two preseason camps and a full season to adapt and Fritz has a full recruiting class brought in specifically to run that offense and otherwise fit into Fritz's schemes. That class includes former junior-college quarterback Jonathan Banks.

Those facts don't guarantee Tulane anything, but they do suggest that marked improvement over last season is a realistic expectation.

We'll get our first indication of just how realistic that expectation is when the Green Wave open the season against Grambling on Saturday night in Yulman Stadium.

And speaking of dramatic turnarounds, Fritz has nothing on Grambling coach Broderick Fobbs, who engineered one of college football's most dramatic and uplifting turnarounds in recent memory.

In 2013, the Tigers' renowned program hit rock bottom during a 1-10 disaster of a season that featured three head coaches, a player boycott of a game and bad national headlines.

Grambling then hired Fobbs, who played for legendary Tigers coach Eddie Robinson, shortly after that season and the next year Grambling went 7-5 and came within a whisker of playing in the Southwestern Athletic Conference Championship game.

The next year the Tigers reached the title game before losing. Last season they won the SWAC title, the Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl and the Historically Black Colleges and Universities national championship.

Usually when an FBS program, even when far removed from elite such as Tulane is, plays an FCS program, even one that is elite such as Grambling, the FBS program wins and wins big.

But last year Grambling opened the season at Arizona and battled the Wildcats throughout before succumbing 31-21.

I covered Southern and the SWAC for nearly three years, including the Tigers turnaround under Fobbs. He immediately instilled discipline, character and talent back into the program.

So don't assume something less than a lopsided Green Wave victory Saturday is an indication that they won't take a leap forward this season.

With the American Athletic Conference opener at Navy looming next week, whether it happens or not will become apparent in gradual steps during the next three months.