STATESBORO, Ga. — Georgia Southern doesn’t have to worry about its new football coach, Willie Fritz, upholding the school’s sometimes quaint traditions.
It’s a point of pride when the Eagles and their fans talk about the yellow school buses that transport players from Hanner Fieldhouse to Paulson Stadium on game day.
On Friday at the Bishop Field House at Paulson, Georgia Southern brought in a new driver for the program.
Georgia Southern officially announced Fritz as its football coach, replacing Jeff Monken who took the position at Army.
Fritz, like all Georgia state employees, has a one-year contract. But his salary of $300,000 will be guaranteed for an additional three years by the Georgia Southern University Athletic Foundation, Eagles athletics director Tom Kleinlein said.
Fritz, 53, describes himself a hard worker, and if it means he needs to drive the team bus, well he’s done that before. As the defensive coordinator at Coffeyville Community College in Kansas, he drove the team bus to the 1990 national championship game.
Few knew much about the coach who previously led Sam Houston State to a 40-15 record and two FCS finals appearances during the past four years.
He has been a head coach for 21 years (13 with Central Missouri) and produced a 176-67-1 record.
“The challenge here at Georgia Southern University is to attain the same type of success you had at the FCS level at the highest level of competition in college football,” Fritz said. “That’s what our goal is here.”
It’s a lofty goal. In four seasons, Monken lifted the Georgia Southern program from mediocre to a team that ended the 2013 season with a 26-20 victory over Florida.
Last season, Georgia Southern began its transition to the 85-scholarship FBS and the Sun Belt Conference.
When Monken left, Kleinlein was left scrambling for a suitable replacement.
“Eighteen days ago, we started this process and we began to evaluate our candidates and scrutinize our candidates to get to this point where I know I’ve got a guy that’s going to come in here, embrace what we’re about, understand what we’re about, put his own stamp on this institution’s football program and lead us into the Sun Belt Conference with relentless expectation,” Kleinlein said.
Sam Houston State might not have run the triple option out of Georgia Southern’s traditional alignment, but the Bearkats were a 2-1 run-to-pass team that averaged 265.0 yards on the ground (sixth in the FCS) and produced 41.1 points a game (fourth in the FCS).
“We’re more a pistol, more a gun set,” Fritz said. “I do believe you have to have a very good rushing attack.”
Former Georgia Southern star Tracy Ham, who joined the coaching search and had lunch with Fritz on Thursday, was satisfied.
“There are a lot of different ways to run the option and I think the Boro is going to be happy,” said Ham on Friday. “I’m excited with the guy.”
Walt Huggins, a member of the board of directors on Georgia Southern University Athletic Foundation, seemed pleased with the hire as well.
“I’m glad to hear he’s going to follow the traditions of Georgia Southern that we all hold dear,” Huggins said. “I’ll miss the flexbone if we don’t see some of that, but it is what it is and you have to go with it.”
Fritz grew up in Shawnee Mission, Kan., with six siblings. His father, Harry Fritz, coached at Central Missouri in 1952 before serving as an executive director of the NAIA.
Willie Fritz played defensive back at Pittsburg State before starting on his coaching career.
His wife Susan accompanied him to the press conference in Statesboro on Friday. The couple has three children.
Fritz said he reached out to former Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe and Monken before making his decision to come to Georgia Southern.
“(Kleinlein) had a search committee to lean on and did research on me,” Fritz said. “I did a lot of research (on Georgia Southern) to make sure it was a good fit for me.
“Over the year, Jeff has had nothing but great things to say about Georgia Southern. When this opportunity presented itself, I reached out to Jeff again. He said, for you and your family, it’s a no-brainer. You like hearing those kind of things.”
Kleinlein liked the things he heard about Fritz. While at Central Missouri, Fritz had a graduation rate of 84 percent. And, he wins.
“He’s won at a lot of different levels,” Kleinlein said. “Not only does he win, but he comes in and changes the culture. He changes the culture academically, he changes the culture socially, and he’s made young people better men when they’ve left their institutions.
“When you look at what he’s done, he’s been able to win with other people’s players and he’s been able to recruit and win with his players. That’s a key stat when you’re out looking for a coach.”
In the end, Georgia Southern didn’t have any qualms handing the keys of the program over to Fritz. He may not drive the bus, but the Eagles are expecting him to keep the team headed in the right direction.
“We saw (in Fritz) a person who not only would take us into the future, but who will honor our past,” Georgia Southern coach Brooks Keel said.