By Claire Sutherby
It’s game day and the locker room is filled to capacity with over one hundred young men bowing their heads in concentration and stillness. The quiet is eerie, the energy is palpable. The Tulane football team is just about to storm Yulman Stadium, to begin game one of 2018, marking twenty years since the Green Wave’s 1998 perfect season. Tragedy struck Tulane’s football program in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, putting the city, the university, and its football team underwater. Thirteen years later, there’s an energy and resurgence here lead by head coach Willie Fritz. Comebacks are not easy, as everyone knows, but this head coach is confidently moving forward with a couple of key rules in mind.
For Coach Fritz, the devil’s in the detail. To him, there’s more to these division one athletes than just football. A list of “rules” can be seen on the wall as one enters the team’s locker room; number four reading “The Wave Don’t Beat the Wave”: a philosophy that Coach Fritz pushes. One of the challenges, Fritz knows, of a school like Tulane is its location in New Orleans, and for this reason recruits must be socially mature enough to handle the environment that they’ll be placed in for their athletic and academic careers. More importantly, ensuring that players are kept academically eligible is a big part of coaching, according to Fritz. While “The Wave Don’t Beat the Wave” applies to limiting on-field errors, Fritz also applies this mentality off the field and in the classroom; after all, the Wave can’t win if (for academic reasons) they can’t play.
When recruiting players, “We keep three things in mind: recruit, retain, and develop.” Fritz’s recruiting philosophy is rooted largely in not only being able to recruit competitively, but then finding athletes who will be loyal to the program and who are willing to be team-players. This recruitment in and of itself is trickier than what it may seem; it’s important that the potential-Tulane athletes can not only compete at the division one level, but also handle the high academic rigor of Tulane.
“Coach Fritz has opened my eyes to a more real world view. He’s spoken to me a number of times about approaching every aspect in life the same as football.” Tirise Barge, sophomore and nickel on the team, speaks to the on and off the field mindsets that are so important to Fritz. Looking back on his recruitment experience, Barge discussed the well-rounded program created by Fritz that originally attracted him; “Tulane was the best of both worlds academically and athletically, both on and off the field I knew I’d be in good hands here.”
This one-on-one interaction that Barge speaks of is not a unique experience for Tulane football players with their head coach. Every day after the team stretches, Coach Fritz and quarterback Jonathan Banks take a running start into an in-air high five. This interaction with Banks, among others, demonstrates an outstanding effort to facilitate personal relationships with each and every one of his players. Getting on this individual level with his players is no easy task, as there’s only on head coach and over one hundred players. Coach Fritz, however, does not make this seem as difficult as it really is. When asked about this clear effort on Fritz’s end, he described a study that was done on the Dallas Mavericks and the Miami Heat by Pat Riley, the Mavericks’ head coach. The Mavericks were a very close team; the study looked at how many times the players physically touched each other throughout the game compared to the Heat and the ratio was about six to one. In accordance with the findings of this study, one of the things Coach Fritz does daily during the stretching period of practice is touch every single player on the team; an effort that was proven by the Dallas Mavericks to make great differences in the team’s collaborative performance. “Anyone who is a part of the team is valuable, and it’s important that I try to really get to know all of them and that I make sure they are aware of this value.”
Corey Dauphine, a redshirt junior running back transfer from Texas Tech, has proven himself to be an incredible asset to the team. Scoring three touchdowns against Nicholls State, Dauphine does not disappoint. As a player who hopes to see a future in the NFL, Dauphine knows his experience under Fritz is driving him in the right direction, “He pushes me every day to make sure I’m always performing at my best.” As a transfer, Dauphine chose Tulane for specific reasons, “Hearing the success and history of Tulane football program drew me to here.”
“Everyone has the opportunity to bring value to the team,” but the way in which players do this varies according to Fritz. Roderic Teamer, Jr., senior safety, has proven to be a particularly remarkable player. Already recording an interception against Nicholls (pictured left) and successfully executing several crucial tackles thus far in the season, Teamer has demonstrated a great ability to change the momentum of the game for the team. As a potentially NFL bound player, Fritz speaks to Teamer’s development on the team by emphasizing his yearly improvement both on and off the field. “Seeing that playing ability improve, increase, and mature is a big deal. Rod Teamer is a great example, he’s gotten better every year.” Fritz believes that an important part of this development is having players understand schematically and technically what they’re doing on the field, but the discipline has to carry over into other areas, too; being in the weight room and becoming stronger and faster is a key aspect of the additionally needed physical improvement. Players who have the ability to be developed and the drive to improve are the players who lead by example, and it is clear that Teamer is one them.
For any coach, the hope is that players are ultimately working towards the entire team’s success, but as one can imagine that is not always the case on every football team. Fritz speaks to the importance and emphasis he places on working for the team, rather than at strictly an individual level. This gives Rule #4 and “The Wave Don’t Beat the Wave” added significance. Participating in a team activity provides great benefits for the players, especially if the team is well-lead by a coach such as Fritz. “It’s not easy getting up early every morning and coming to practice and working hard, but they’re all a part of a team and that’s a skill that will help players later in life in their professional careers.” Helping players learn how to face adversity is a crucial part of being an athlete, but it’s also an incredible life skill.
Head Coach Fritz is only in his third season at Tulane and college history has proven that bringing a football program to winning seasons and bowl games is done one season at a time. The impact for the players, though, is both immediate and lifelong. “Coach Fritz has elevated my level of play tremendously on the field. But off the field he’s taught me how to manage my time and prioritize things,” according to Teamer. It appears Fritz is achieving more than just bringing back a football program to Tulane. The players will tell you that he is also achieving that sometimes elusive goal of academic achievement and personal maturity for his players.
And so you take one hundred players in the Tulane locker room before a game, a dynamic and admired new head coach, and a stillness so profound you could hear a coin drop. The energy is palpable, the commitment is absolute, and the team is bonded. This is the quiet before the storm.