HOUSTON -- After 31 years moving up the ranks of college coaching -- and winning at every stop -- 63-year-old Willie Fritz was introduced as Houston's new football coach Monday, giving him his first job at a Power 5 school.
"It took me a long time to get around the bases and, I finally got my home run by getting this job," said Fritz, who got his first head-coaching job at Blinn Junior College in 1993. "It's a dream for me to be here at the University of Houston."
The Cougars left the American Athletic Conference to move to the Big 12 this season, and Dana Holgorsen was fired after the team went 4-8 and 2-7 in league play in his fifth year at the school.
Fritz spent the past eight seasons at Tulane, where he won the second-most games in the school's 130-season history. He was named American Athletic Conference coach of the year in the past two seasons and led Tulane to consecutive AAC championship games. The Green Wave lost to SMU in the title game Saturday to end the regular season 11-2.
"I can't tell you the amount of coaches that I've worked with that have reached out and just said: 'You got the right guy,'" Houston vice president for athletics Chris Pezman said. "It got to a point where I don't want to say it was a no brainer, but it was pretty clear ... the person was Coach Fritz."
UH System Board of Regents chairman Tilman Fertitta, the billionaire casino and restaurant magnate who owns the Houston Rockets, was very involved in the hiring process and raved about Fritz.
He said Houston's move to the Big 12 made this job very sought after and that they had interest from many sitting head coaches across the country.
"We didn't settle, and we got the person that we wanted and it's this gentleman right here," Fertitta said. "We talked to a lot of other exceptional, exceptional candidates that we feel like could have done a great job here at the University of Houston. But what we kept coming to back to is (Fritz) is family man, adult in the room, and would be a great mentor for these young kids. And wherever he went, he won."
Fritz ranks fifth in the nation among active FBS coaches with 208 career victories. Tulane's 23 wins since the start of the 2022 season are fourth most in the country, and the team's 15 conference wins are fifth in the nation during that span.
He went 54-47 in his tenure at Tulane, highlighted by last season's 12-2 record, culminating with a stunning comeback victory over USC in the Cotton Bowl.
When he took over at Tulane in 2016, the Green Wave had appeared in just two bowl games since 1999, winning one. He led Tulane to three consecutive bowl games from 2018 to 2020, winning two. In 2021, with his team displaced to Birmingham by Hurricane Ida and ravaged by injuries, Tulane went 2-10. But the following season, with Michael Pratt as his quarterback, Fritz orchestrated the greatest turnaround in the history of college football. Tulane is the only college football program to improve its victory total by 10 from one season to the next.
Fritz has strong ties in the area after coaching at nearby Sam Houston State from 2010 to '13. He plans to use those connections to help build his team with players from Texas.
"We're going to recruit the heck out of the state of Texas," he said. "I don't know why you wouldn't. The best football in the country's played here in this state. And I'm fortunate that I know a bunch of the high school coaches and I'm excited about renewing my acquaintances with those guys."
School president Renu Khator believes Fritz can turn around Houston's football program the way coach Kelvin Sampson has turn things around for the men's basketball program. The Cougars are currently ranked No. 3 in The Associated Press Top 25 men's basketball poll. They've been to the NCAA tournament in each of the past five seasons it has been held, highlighted by a trip to the Final Four in 2021.
"You need to see where the future is," Khator said. "We want to make sure we have sustainable national relevance for our program because a mediocre athletic [program] would become a liability for an institution. But I know that if you have an excellent athletic program, it becomes an asset for the institution."