FRISCO, Texas — When you first meet Willie Fritz, he seems like an old-school Texas coach.
Tall and lean with a bit of a weathered look — probably from being out working on the field or cleaning up the stadium, things an FCS head coach sometimes has to do himself — he seems the perfect fit as a Lone Star task master guiding a young team toward a championship.
The kind of squad that, after winning its first 14 games of the year, gets an all-hands-on-deck escort from the Huntsville Police Department on the way out of town, like his Sam Houston State Bearkats did on Wednesday when a couple thousand people lined the streets to wish them well in this weekend’s FCS championship game.
He also has that slightly hoarse cadence those old-time coaches have when they talk, making you feel as if you’re actually on the sidelines after a vocal ‘teaching’ practice in the 1950s as opposed to 2012. But make no doubt about it: when it comes to coaching, Fritz is as progressive and willing to gamble as they get.
Take his return to SHSU. After he was hired in December 2009, he turned to his longtime friend and assistant Jeff Conway to come with him from Central Missouri. Conway has heading coaching experience, guiding Blinn (Texas) J.C. the season after Fritz left to take over the Mules, where Fritz’s father had coached starting in the 1950s.
Sometimes putting two head coaches on a staff mixes about as well as water and Texas oil. But before Conway got the top job, he had been an assistant on Fritz’s staff that helped Blinn win two national titles and posted a 39-5-1 record. So there was already a history of working in sync.
But Fritz didn’t stop there, which is where the progressive — and risky — part comes into play.
He also brought on Bob DeBesse, who had been a head coach at Southwest Texas from 1997 to 2002. DeBesse had also been out of the college game for two years. After the staff was let go at Texas A&M where he had been wide receivers coach for two years, he latched on with A&M Consolidated High School so he could give his family some stability with his son being in high school. Even though the two had never met before, Fritz and DeBesse hit it off and found a lot of common ground within the way they ran unselfish, family oriented programs, staples to the Bearkats’ success this year.
On the other side of the ball, Scott Stoker was a holdover as the defensive coordinator, having been with the Bearkats in 2009 when they finished 5-6. Stoker was a previous head coach in the Southland Conference like DeBesse, leading Northwestern State for seven years.
That makes for a lot of opposing views in one coaching staff room. But to Fritz, putting that particular staff together actually wasn’t a gutsy call at all.
“I’m not scare of that [one] bit,” Fritz said Thursday following the team’s first practice in Frisco, Texas, home of the FCS title game. “I know a lot of coaches would like to have a bunch of ‘yes’ men on their staff. We have a lot of bantering around at times when we’re in there and we have a lot of guys with strong opinions and strong personalities – and I’m one of them — but just as long as we’re all pulling in the same direction, [it works fine].”
“I think it’s a neat deal to have. Those guys have sat in my chair before. They understand things that maybe other guys don’t. Sometimes things look a little different when you’re an assistant as opposed to a head coach. I welcome good ideas. That’s only going to make us stronger.”
Fritz and the staff he has assembled have done exactly that, making the Bearkats stronger than they have ever been.
Sam Houston State ranks in the top five among FCS teams for scoring offense (1st), rushing defense (1st), scoring defense (2nd), turnover margin (2nd), rushing offense (4th), total defense (4th) and sacks allowed (5th). Behind its explosive offense — which runs a unique version of now-popular Wildcat formation — and a crushing defense, it ascended to No. 1 in the polls, the highest ranking in school history.
Almost overnight, the Bearkats bought into Fritz’s motivational plan to go from average to great and have vaulted from unranked to unstoppable. In fact, in just his second year, Fritz has SHSU a game away from becoming only the fourth undefeated and untied national champion in FCS history, and the first since Marshall went 15-0 in 1996.
Like any old-school approach, Fritz says the key to success is simple.
“I like knowing what I’m going to do every day. I think as a player you want to know what you’re going to do every day,” Fritz said. “I’m consistent. If a guy does a great job, I’m the first one there patting him on the back. If he doesn’t do a very good job, I’m also the first one there getting after him. And they know that.
“I do think consistency is a key and one of the reasons we are here is I’ve had the same staff for the last two years. Really, I only had five seniors last year, and just two of them played a lot, so basically, we’ve had the same players the last two seasons.”
One of those seniors is Travis Watson. Starting at center the past two years, Watson has seen the evolution of the Bearkats, and he says all the current success the program is enjoying goes back to the coaching staff, the real X-factor in this championship run.
“It’s completely different than when I first got here,” Watson said of the culture Fritz and the rest of coaching staff brought to the table. “My first three years, it just didn’t have the right feeling. We weren’t really a unit, we were broken up into pieces. We just weren’t consistent and weren’t close as a team, we were split and everyone had their own groups.
“Coach Fritz brought a whole new mentality to the team, an energy that we haven’t had here since I’ve been here. He got everyone going, got everyone to buy into his system. The coaching staff he put together and the energy they have is great, and that really gets everyone going and it’s really contagious.”
It seems that Fritz’s new twist on old-school may be all the rage, especially Saturday in Texas when a packed house descends on FC Dallas Stadium. If you don’t believe it, take a look for yourself. The game will be played at 1 p.m. ET (ESPN2).
Just don’t expect to watch it in black and white. Fritz’s old-school ways haven’t rubbed off on the Bearkats that much.
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