New hire in H-Town
The Houston Cougars’ football season officially concluded in November. But the first week December saw a fervent celebration inside TDECU Stadium.
On Sunday morning, the Cougars officially announced the hire of former Tulane head coach Willie Fritz, roughly 15 hours after Fritz took the podium for the final time at the AAC Championship Game in New Orleans. The former Tulane coach signed a 5-year, $22.5 million contract with Houston which pays an annual value of $4.5 million.
Fritz landed at the William P. Hobby Airport in Houston on Sunday night after traveling on the private jet belong to Tilman Fertitta, who serves as the university’s chairman of the Board of Regents.
On Monday, the Cougars opened the doors of TDECU Stadium to general admission and brought three key staff members — Fertitta, President Renu Khator, and athletic director Chris Pezman — to accompany Fritz at a celebratory opening press conference which featured a live marching band, the university’s mascots, and dozens of notable alumni in the audience. Fertitta kicked off the conversation, emphasizing that Fritz was No. 1 on Houston’s head coaching wishlist after firing Dana Holgorsen on Nov. 26.
“When we made the decision to make a change, we had a list and we had one person that was on the top of our list,” Fertitta said. “What we realized even before we decided to make a change is that to coach football at the University of Houston was different than it was two, three, five years ago. This was a job that was highly sought after by a lot of coaches, so we didn’t need to settle. I use that term a lot in business, ‘We’re not going to settle.’ We did our list of 10 names. We took it to five names after talking to a lot of different people, and we didn’t settle. We got the person that we wanted and that is this gentleman right here.”
Approximately 41 hours after concluding his AAC Championship Game press conference at Tulane, Fritz exchanged his polo with the signature “Angry Wave” logo for a suit with a red and white striped tied. Fritz enthusiastically approached the microphone as the fourth and final speaker, and before he uttered his opening statement, one fan in attendance yelled, “Merry Fritzmas!” to which a fired-up Fritz responded, “Alright! Go Coogs! Let’s go!” in a gleeful manner.
Fritz echoed how long coaching at Houston had been a dream of his. The 63-year old coach hasn’t resided in the Lone Star State since 2013 but still possesses immense Texas ties. Several family members of his live in the Houston area, and Fritz coached several jobs in Southeast Texas including head coaching positions at Sam Houston and Blinn College, as well as assistant roles at Sam Houston and Willis High School. He began his coaching career in 1982 as a graduate assistant at Pittsburg State and continued to climb the ladder. Houston will be his third stop as an FBS head coach after serving in the same position at Georgia Southern (2014-15) and Tulane (2016-23).
“A lot of people start on third base and they think they hit a triple,” Fritz said. “You know it took me a long time to get around the bases. I finally got my home run by getting this job, it’s a dream, here at the University of Houston.”
Texas houses 13 FBS colleges — the most of any state. High school football is a massive deal in the state and having connections with the state’s high school coaches is essential to serving as head coach of one of those 13 institutions. Fritz mentioned this topic, emphasizing how important recruiting in-state is for his new program.
“Just a little bit about my philosophies, we’ve talked about recruit, retain and develop bonafide Division I student-athletes with character,” Fritz said. “It is a big deal to me. I am proud of the fact that we graduated all of our guys that went through our program at Tulane, and we will do the same thing here at the University of Houston. We’re going to recruit the heck out of the state of Texas. I don’t know why you wouldn’t. The best football is played here in this state, and I know a bunch of high school coaches here and I’m excited about renewing my acquaintances with those guys.”
The Houston job is significantly different than it was during Holgorsen’s onboarding in 2019. Every college football head coaching gig has been significantly impacted by new developments such as the transfer portal, NIL, and the 12-team College Football Playoff. But the Cougars were also involved in conference realignment, departing from the AAC to the Big 12. Fritz, who coached in the past two AAC title games, stated the lure of the Big 12 factored into his decision to move programs.
“That’s one of the many reasons I wanted to come here,” Fritz said regarding Big 12 status. “I wanted to come here to have this opportunity in the great state of Texas and in the great city of Houston. I just feel like Houston has had some great teams. It’s not like it hasn’t been done here before. We just want to do it again and do it consistently year after year. That’s the goal here.”
Fritz faced Houston in seven consecutive seasons from 2016-22, making four voyages from the Big Easy to TDECU Stadium. The head coach’s most recent visit to TDECU Stadium prior to Monday’s press conference certainly left an imprint on Pezman and Houston administration. In that game, the Green Wave pulled off a road upset in overtime using third-string quarterback Kai Horton. That victory was pivotal in guiding Tulane to its first-ever AAC Championship Game appearance and eventual Cotton Bowl appearance — games that both resulted in victories in a 12-2 campaign complemented with a No. 9 overall finish.
“I remember coach Fritz came in last year and beat us with a third string quarterback, that tells me a lot about the development of his roster, and the way he manages it, manage the game and players when you’re down,” Pezman said. “Not saying that the other candidates didn’t have a similar situation, but somebody that has so many ties back to the community, to high school coaches and junior college coaches in the state. Just see the way the athletes respond to him and then obviously talking to some of my peers that have worked around him. I can’t tell you the number of coaches that I have worked with that have reached out and said, ‘You got the right guy.’ It got to the point where I don’t want to say no-brainer, but it was clear who that person was, and it was Coach Fritz.”
Fritz met with the players Sunday night after landing in the city. Several student-athletes were in attendance for Monday’s press conference, excited to tackle year two in the Big 12 under the longtime coach, who is 71-54 in 10 seasons at the FBS level.
“When I met you the first time, my sense was that you had the integrity, the character and the values that were very consistent with what we need here and what we have here,” Khator said. “We have a great determination not seen at most places. We are not an entitled bunch, but we are people who are hungry, who have a fire in their belly, dreams in their eyes and passion in their heart. Welcome to the Cougar Nation.”
What Houston looks like under Fritz
The Cougars are fresh off a season in growing pains, acclimating themselves to the Big 12 with a 4-8 overall record and 2-7 conference standings. Both conference wins transpired by the thinnest of margins — defeating West Virginia and Baylor on walk-off scoring plays where failure to execute would have resulted in defeat. At Tulane, Fritz inherited a program coming off consecutive 3-9 seasons and finally guided the Green Wave to bowl season and above .500 by year three.
It took seven years to manufacture an AAC Championship Game-qualifying, New Year’s Six contender of a juggernaut at Tulane. When asked about the timeframe of this Houston rebuild, Fritz briefly outlined his gameplan and stated he wants everything to fall into place in a rapid manner.
“Every school is different, and you have to find the ins and the outs of each institution,” Fritz said. “What are your selling points, your recruiting base, all those things. That one thing, I’ve been in the great state of Texas for a long period of time, and I have to learn more and more about the University of Houston. How are we going to attack it and I need to do that quickly.”
As far as schematics, Fritz could bring a different look than what Houston fans are accustomed to watching. In recent history, the Cougars trotted out air raid concepts under Holgorsen. Fritz has altered its approach at different schools, operating under a spread option offense at Georgia Southern and transitioning to a more power run game with more aerial presence at Tulane. His schemes are not yet clarified, as the new coach waits to learn his roster and play to his players’ strengths before implementing anything longstanding.
“You have to see what you have,” Fritz said. “Some people are married to one scheme, if you don’t have the right personnel to run that scheme, you’re going to have problems. We’ve got an overall scheme that we run, run plays, pass plays, and all those different things. We tweak it to our talent level. What a guy can do well and what he does not do well? Keep him away from doing that or get a guy in there that can do it.”
Tulane is currently second-nationally in takeaways, producing 25 on the season. The Green Wave dominated turnover battles all year long, recording five in the regular season finale vs. UTSA and three in the first half alone in the AAC Championship Game. He emphasized turnover margin as his No. 1 emphasis — something Houston fans would welcome after a season only accumulating 14 takeaways and finishing a -1 in the turnover department.
“The first component of the plan to win is to win the turnover-takeaway margin,” Fritz said. “When I’ve been plus one or better, all these different stops for 31 years as a head coach, we’ve won 91 percent of our games. I’m the ball security coach, I’m the takeaway coach. If a guy didn’t handle the ball properly then he’s going to hear it from me very quickly. We want to be able to run the ball and stop the run, not going to say that we aren’t going to throw the football because we are. That’s a big important part of the game, if you can’t run the ball effectively you have a difficult chance of winning.”
One area the Cougars thrived in during the Holgorsen era was special teams. In five years under Holgorsen, Houston managed an FBS-high 13 return touchdowns with electrifying playmakers such as Marcus Jones, Tank Dell, Marquez Stevenson, and Matthew Golden leading the charge. Fritz touched on the value of continuing to excel in this facet of the game and also mentioned limiting penalties — as Houston finished top 20 in most penalties per game in two of the last four seasons.
“Special teams are so important,” Fritz said. “I’ve been a special teams coach all my career. We talk about the Cougars don’t beat the Cougars. It means we want to be disciplined and we want to have the fewest pre-snap and post-snap penalties in the conference. We do that as a disciplined team and it gives you an opportunity to win.”
From an on-field perspective, the one other item Fritz talked about was fourth quarter success. Tulane never squandered a lead in the fourth quarter of the 2023 season and managed to win a handful of close games — including four consecutive one-score contests in late October and early November. The Cougars hope Fritz’s ability to conclude games in efficient fashion traveled on the plane from New Orleans to Houston.
“We have to do a great job of finishing and winning the fourth quarter,” Fritz said. “Everybody does the fours up with their hand up in the air, but we give high fours — everybody on the team. You’ll see that from the energy that we have when we get in the fourth quarter. When we’ve scored one more point or one time a possession in the fourth quarter over my 31-year career, we’ve won 90 percent of our games. That’s another very telling statistic.”
Fritz makes his official debut with Houston on Aug. 31 as the Cougars host UNLV in TDECU Stadium, which is currently receiving renovations and upgrades to accompany Houston’s transition to the Big 12. There is plenty of work to be done until then, but positive vibes flowed throughout the fanbase and administration Monday as Fritz was selected to lead the program into this new era.
“You come up with a checklist, there’s a lot of things that you’re trying to guide towards as far as your north star, your guiding principles when you’re looking for somebody to lead our program,” Pezman said. “What it came down to is that Coach Fritz is a great coach, a proven winner everywhere he’s been and a program builder. I think what you’ll see, and what we’ve seen is even a better person. He is somebody I couldn’t be prouder of to lead our football program.”