Does Tulane offer SDSU a model for success?

Zyrus Fiaseu records one of his three sacks. (Don De Mars/EVT)

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Eric Butler blocks a punt after #47 dropped the snap. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Unlike fans, social media warriors, former players, and the media, athletic director JD Wicker must remain level-headed about the consequences of firing head coach Brady Hoke. Those whose job is not on the line can entertain hope that simply changing the man at the top of the program will solve SDSU’s issues. Wicker cannot.

Should the Aztecs’ AD decide a change is necessary, one best-case scenario would be following the University of Tulane’s trajectory. In December 2015, the Green Wave hired Georgia Southern head coach Willie Fritz to lead its program. As Fritz built his culture and recruited players to fit it, he had a 31-43 record in his first six seasons.

After four-year starting QB Michael Pratt, a 3-star high school recruit with zero P5 offers, took his lumps as an underclassman, he led Tulane to a 46-45 Cotton Bowl victory over USC in 2022. Overall, Tulane has gone 20-3 over its last 23 contests.

While it’s doubtful Aztec nation will stomach a turnaround that takes seven seasons, Wicker has to prepare for that possibility. What makes SDSU AD’s task more troubling is evaluating if the 2023 season is a hiccup or a symptom of a deeper problem.

Following the 2021 season, Tulane’s former athletic director Troy Dannen was in the position Wicker is in now. From 2018-2020, Fritz led Tulane to three bowl-eligible seasons (7-6, 7-6, and 6-6 records, respectively). He followed that with a disastrous 2-10 2021 season. Dannen would have been more than justified in firing Fritz. If he had, it is doubtful Tulane would be where it is today.

There are no guarantees Hoke will follow Fritz’s path if allowed to continue leading the Aztecs, but there are a lot of similarities between the two programs. Both are G5 institutions located in world-class cities. Like the Aztecs, the Green Wave has bucked the pass-happy trend of modern football in favor of a run-centered approach. Pratt only threw 17 times against the Trojans in the New Year’s Six Bowl Game (amazingly, his eight completions went for 234 yards and two TDs).

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Tulane is not the only model. Since 2014, six other programs have earned the automatic bid as the highest-ranked G5 conference champion in the nation. All of them except one could be compared to SDSU.

In his first season leading the team, Bryan Harsin led Boise State to a 2014 Fiesta Bowl. Harsin took over for Chris Peterson, who had a 92-12 record with the Broncos. Peterson’s brilliance nullifies any comparison between BSU and SDSU.

Tom Herman, in his first year as head coach, led Houston to the 2015 Peach Bowl. Herman took over a thriving program. The Cougars went 56-34 from 2008-2014 under two previous coaches.

Kenan Christon lunges for the end zone against Utah State. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Western Michigan went to the 2016 Cotton Bowl. P.J. Fleck took them there in his fourth season with the program. He had a 17-21 record in his first three years at WMU.

Led by two different coaches, UCF went to back-to-back New Year’s Six Bowls. Scott Frost took them in 2017 in his second and final year with the team. Josh Heupel followed Frost’s Peach Bowl appearance with a Fiesta Bowl in 2018. Both inherited a strong program from George O’Leary, who led the Golden Knights to an 81-68 record from 2004-2015.

Memphis played in the 2019 Cotton Bowl, led by Mike Norvell. Norvell was in his fourth season as head coach at the time. His record over the previous three seasons was 26-14. Hoke’s record in the four years of his second tenure is 26-18. Like Norvell at Memphis prior to 2019, he has one double-digit win campaign.

Cincinnati led the G5 in 2020 and 2021. Luke Fickell took them to back-to-back appearances in his fourth and fifth years as head coach. Fickell, a defensive coordinator at Ohio State before taking over the Bearcats, offers the dream scenario of what could happen to SDSU if they let Hoke go. Fickell took over from Tommy Tuberville. From 2013-2016, Tuberville had a solid 29-22 record. After posting a losing record in his first season, Fickell went 53-10 over his final four years.

All of the coaches above, with the exception of Fritz (so far), parlayed their G5 success into more lucrative positions with P5 schools. Boise State (4-5), Houston (4-5), Western Michigan (3-6), UCF (4-5), and Cincinnati (2-7) all have losing records this year. Memphis is 7-2.

Utah State Game offered mixed signals about SDSU’s Culture

The examples above are best-case scenarios. If SDSU made a New Year’s Six Bowl in the first seven years after relieving Hoke of his job, the decision would be considered a success. Wicker, though, must also weigh the worst-case possibilities.

Given how hard it is to make the best bowls in college football, there is a greater chance that firing Hoke would make the program worse than catapult it to match the above schools’ successes. Over the next decade, the most likely outcome for the Aztecs is they will not make a New Year’s Six Bowl, no matter who is the head coach.

Hoke and his players still have time to make Wicker’s choice an easy one. If they win out and make a bowl, they make the decision for their AD. Short of that, one of Wicker’s most important evaluations is deciding if the culture of the football program is strong enough that a rebound in 2024 is possible.

Garret Fountain’s leadership will be key over the final three games. (Don De Mars/EVT)

“As a leader, maybe it’s not as much said, it’s shown by example,” Garret Fountain said postgame when asked about the culture. “Leading by example. What your actions do. Let your actions talk. How you conduct yourself on the field. How you conduct yourself as a person in society. It all takes place because everybody at all times is watching, whether that’s your teammates or other people. The way you conduct yourself is going to show the younger guys, ‘ok, that’s how he’s doing it, and he’s been successful, I need to follow suit.”

Following the Nevada game, where the characteristics of SDSU’s culture – blue-collar toughness, effort, and competitiveness – were absent, especially on the offensive side of the ball, Utah State offered the first chance to see if the norms of the program have been handed down. For the first three quarters, the answer was not positive.

Once USU took a 17-7 advantage with 13:34 left in the contest, much of what has made SDSU among the best G5 schools over the past 13 seasons emerged. Ironically, the coaching staff helped these seemingly dormant qualities stand out.

Against the Aggies, the decisions by Hoke and his staff put their players in adverse situations. A fake field goal, fake punt, and predictable offensive play calls, at a minimum, created the two-score deficit. At worst, it led to a sense of desperation. Teams without strong fortitude meet panic by collapsing. Without the difficult environment created by poor coaching, the character of the players would not have shown through as demonstratively.

Other signs suggest what has made the Aztecs good for the last decade-plus was missing Saturday. Chief among them was finding a way to win. When QB Jalen Mayden overthrew a wide-open Mark Redman to take the lead late in regulation or failed to see Brionne Penny break open for the potential tying score in the second overtime, it served as another reminder that the player development that keyed the success of years past is missing from this group.

The Aztecs have three more opportunities to prove who they are and if they possess a culture worth preserving.

“It’s instilled when you’re brought here in the first place,” Kenan Christon explained postgame. “You’re told there’s this culture that you have to come to, and this is what it is. As an older guy and as a leader, when someone is going against the culture, we have to get them back in check. Even though things aren’t going our way right now, we still need everyone to be in line and keep the culture going. We don’t need to change anything. That’s not what we’re about.”

Josh Hunter picks up one of his six solo tackles. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Quick Takes

  • Josh Hunter is living up to his recruiting hype. He started for a second game and played terrific. His seven tackles were second on the team, but he also impacted a number of plays that were not in the stat book.
  • Max Garrison saw time on special teams after missing most of the season with injuries. He made a great play securing a blocked punt late in the fourth.
  • JD Coffey earned the start. His physicality is helpful, but his insistence on targeting the opposition is not.
  • Zyrus Fiaseu had three sacks on the night. The last Aztec to do that was Jonah Tavai last season against San Jose State.
  • It was amazing how frequently SDSU got momentum on Saturday through the air, only to have it end when they started running the ball.
  • Despite a 62-yard burst by Lucky Sutton, SDSU had 60 yards rushing at the end of the first quarter, 70 at halftime, and 77 after three. Subtract Sutton’s big gain and a 25-yard scamper by Christon, and the Aztecs had an abysmal 34 yards on the remaining 29 carries (1.17 yards per attempt).
  • SDSU misses TE Jay Rudolph in the run game. He transferred after four games.
  • The poor rushing performance makes Mayden’s 265-yard, three-touchdown game stand out more, but how much better would it have been if he had hit Redman for the game-winning score?
  • Drops continue to haunt SDSU’s receiving corps. As promising as Baylin Brooks’ future may be, the fact that he did not redshirt shows the lack of depth at WR.
  • Mekhi Shaw had his best day as a punt returner. His 30 yards would have been much better if not for a penalty that negated his biggest gain.
  • USU’s defense knew too many of SDSU’s offensive plays, but the touchdown to Redman was not one of them. That was well-designed.
  • Saturday was easily the defensive line’s best game. They were credited with five tackles for loss.
  • Throughout the year, the running backs have caught swing passes during warm-ups. Saturday, that exact pass was featured in the offense with good success.
  • The main reason SDSU lost was the missed opportunities during the first half.
  • Defensive coordinator Kurt Mattix designed a number of terrific sack opportunities.
  • As the East Village Times has for every game this year, a writer and photographer are making the trip to Fort Collins to bring our readers extensive SDSU coverage.

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