After 87 years on the fritz, Tulane relies on Fritz to win

Cotton Bowl Football
Tulane head coach Willie Fritz celebrates with the trophy after the Cotton Bowl NCAA college football game against Southern California, Monday, Jan. 2, 2023, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Sam Hodde) Sam Hodde/AP

After 87 years on the fritz, Tulane relies on Fritz to win

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A one, a two, a helluva hullabaloo!

That’s the beginning of one of the silliest cheers in college football, the traditional celebration of touchdowns and wins at Tulane University, a school which saw too few of either touchdowns or wins for four score and seven years. A helluva hullabaloo also is what’s happening in New Orleans this week as the Crescent City goes wild over a Green Wave program that not too long ago drew barely 10,000 people to its games.

LET’S GO BOWLING

If you missed Tulane’s 46-45 Cotton Bowl victory over Southern Cal on Monday, you missed one of the most wildly entertaining games ever, one which caps a ludicrously improbable story. To tell the tale, or tales, it’s hard to know where to begin.

Consider head coach Willie Fritz. He played Division II football. He didn’t have the big-school connections to begin as an assistant anywhere anyone had heard of. He coached at a high school. He moved up to junior college coaching at Blinn College in Texas. Not exactly the big leagues. Somewhere along the line, he also had to serve as the track-meet stadium announcer.

But he won big at Blinn, and then for the Central Missouri Mules, then for the Sam Houston State Bearkats, then for Georgia Southern, where he and the Eagles both moved up to Division I (FBS) status for the first time ever. When Tulane finally hired Fritz, the Green Wave was so bad that it looked like a step back for him. All those 23 years of coaching in the hinterlands, winning big but never getting a chance at a big school, and his reward was to take over a program that in the previous 11 years had earned only 36 wins against 97 losses, a program that had not played in one of the six “major” bowls in 76 years or won a major postseason contest since the inaugural Sugar Bowl in 1935.

And while Fritz’s demeanor, dedication, and integrity earned respect in his first five years in New Orleans, his teams combined went just 29-33, followed by a disastrous 2-10 season when the Green Wave became itinerant in the aftermath of major Hurricane Ida. Only at such a downtrodden program, one with a patient and classy athletic director and a small set of intensely loyal legacy boosters, would a coach get a vote of confidence after a 31-43 six-season record.

Then, suddenly, it all gelled. Tulane this year achieved the greatest single-season victory improvement in the history of college football, from 2 to 12. Its defense early in the year stifled future Big 12 champion Kansas State. Tulane’s offense later in the season exploded for 272 points in a seven-game stretch.

Still, most people thought Tulane was outmatched in the Cotton Bowl against traditional powerhouse USC. Sure enough, Tulane fell behind 14-0 — only to come back and even the score. Then it fell behind 28-14, only to come almost all the way back again. Then, for a third time, it fell behind by at least two touchdowns, facing a 45-30 deficit with only 4:30 to go. In the previous 1,693 games in which college teams trailed by 15 or more points with less than five minutes remaining, only a single time had a team come back to win. Chance of success: .05%.

But Tulane scored a touchdown in two plays, then got a safety. Then its quarterback scrambled for seven yards on 4

th

and 6. Then he threw for 24 yards on 4

th

and 10. Then a receiver held onto the ball despite a helmet-to-helmet blow that left him almost unconscious. And then, miraculously, his tight end held onto the pigskin for a lunging, end-zone grab with a defender draped over him and the defender’s hand also on the ball. Victory!

The whole thing was astonishing, almost literally unbelievable.

***

For more than 60 years, my uncle Victor Law studied and taught chemical engineering at Tulane. My father, Haywood Hillyer III, graduated from Tulane’s undergrad and law schools and was such a loyal fan that he refused to leave the stadium during an early-1960s 62-0 drubbing by LSU because he wanted the Wave players to see at least one fan still honoring their effort.

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And that 1934 Tulane team that played in and won the very first Sugar Bowl ever on Jan. 1, 1935? My grandfather played split end for that Green Wave squad, listed on the mimeographed bi-page program. But he wasn’t on the field that day: He was honeymooning, having been married six days earlier; and after all, when they planned the wedding hullabaloo, who even knew what the Sugar Bowl was?

And also, back then when the Green Wave was a powerhouse, who could imagine it would take another 88 years to again be in high cotton?

© 2023 Washington Examiner

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