Ajani Kerr, who played at Georgia Tech and Tulane, gives insight into Willie Fritz

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

There’s at least one Georgia Tech graduate who would be in support of Tulane coach Willie Fritz taking the head-coaching job at his alma mater. It’s Ajani Kerr, who played for Fritz and the Green Wave for two seasons after leaving Tech as a grad transfer.

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“I have a lot of trust in coach Fritz and what he’s capable of,” Kerr told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Monday. “I have a lot of confidence in him, so that’s what I would say about that.”

Over the weekend, Fritz emerged as the leading candidate for the Tech coaching opening, a revelation that failed to excite many Yellow Jackets fans. Kerr, having played for Tulane from 2020-21, offered a more informed perspective.

“I would say he’s good at getting everybody on the same page, getting everybody together,” Kerr said. “He was really good at rallying people up, keeping people focused on the main thing being the main thing. I think he knew how to put people in the right position. He knew what he was looking for. Everybody kind of knew what coach Fritz wanted, and we were able to get that done.”

They are skills that Fritz has learned over a lifetime in coaching. If there were lower rungs on the coaching ladder that Willie Fritz missed on his way to becoming head coach at Tulane, there weren’t many.

After finishing his playing career at Pittsburg State in 1981, he was a student assistant for the Gorillas in 1982. Then he was an assistant coach at a high school in Kansas, then a graduate assistant at Sam Houston State, then in Division II.

Over years and decades, Fritz kept moving up the ladder, becoming a head coach for the first time in 1993, at Blinn College, a junior college in Texas. That was followed by jumps to Division II Central Missouri (1997-2009), Sam Houston State, which then was at the FCS level (2010-13), Georgia Southern in its first two seasons at the FBS level (2014-15) and finally at Tulane, starting in 2016. He described himself Monday as “an old juco coach.”

“I love coach Fritz,” said Kerr, now working for Delta Air Lines. “He is a great coach. I really appreciate him getting me to Tulane, everything he’s done for me. … I think he’s a great guy, a great coach, a great leader.”

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Fritz spoke with media Monday on a videoconference to preview the American Athletic Conference championship game, against UCF, which Tulane will play in Saturday for the first time in school history. Asked to address the reports of his connection with the Tech job, Fritz sidestepped the matter.

“I don’t want to get into someone else’s business,” he said. “All of our focus is on this ballgame this Saturday.”

He said that he had addressed it with the team at practice that day.

“I’m the head football coach at Tulane,” he said. “I’m extremely proud to be the head football coach at Tulane and we’re looking forward to the ballgame on Saturday. That’s what I told our guys when I visited with them this morning. I don’t want to talk about those kinds of things. I want to talk about the ballgame.”

He did recognize that “when you have success, sometimes this happens, I guess.”

Fritz has achieved considerable success at Tulane, where the team is in the top 25 for the first time since 1998 with a 10-2 record. The three previous coaches had managed three winning seasons and two bowl trips. With Fritz, the Green Wave have recorded three winning seasons and will go to their fourth bowl game.

Winning the turnover battle, a strong running game, strong special teams play and avoiding penalties are foundational for him.

“Very involved in special teams here, always have been at every place I’ve been at,” Fritz said.

His Green Wave team reflects his coaching philosophy. Tulane is tied for 23rd in FBS in turnover margin, 35th in rushing offense and tied for sixth in fewest penalties per game. Football Outsider ranks Tulane 34th in FBS in special teams.

Tech fans have seen him before, whether they remember it or not. In 2014, Tech, on its way to winning the Orange Bowl, played Georgia Southern in both teams’ third game of the season. Ahead 35-10 in the second quarter, the Jackets then allowed Fritz’s Eagles back in the game and Georgia Southern took a 38-35 lead in the fourth quarter before Tech scored the game-winning touchdown in the final minute. It was one of two games that season in which an ACC team trailed the outmanned Eagles in the fourth quarter before pulling out the victory, N.C. State being the other. The following year, Georgia Southern led Georgia in the fourth quarter before coming up short in overtime.

Fritz’s counterpart in the AAC championship game, Central Florida coach Gus Malzahn, expressed his respect for him Monday, calling him “one of the best.” The two coaches faced off in 2021 and earlier this season, a 14-10 win for UCF last year and another win for UCF (38-31) this year.

The 2021 loss was one of five that Tulane lost by one possession in a 2-10 season that began with the team displaced by Hurricane Ida. The most notable was a 40-35 loss to an Oklahoma team that would go on to an 11-2 season and finish ranked 10th in the country,

“Even when we lost last year, it was a lot of close games,” Kerr said. “You could tell that we were kind of at that point that we just needed to break through. You can see that based on what they’re doing this year.”

Kerr, having been through the coaching change at Tech that led from Paul Johnson to Geoff Collins, has a feel for what his former teammates are experiencing. He actually got to know interim coach Brent Key when he was offensive line coach and liked him. He said he supported whatever decision Fritz ends up making. But he knows what he would tell his former players about Fritz if they asked.

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“I would tell them that he’s a great coach, a great guy,” Kerr said. “He’s a coach that he knows what he wants and he knows how to get what he wants. Like I said, I have full confidence in coach Fritz. I would tell the guys the same thing. I have confidence in coach Fritz.”

That said, Kerr said he has confidence in Key, too.

“It’s kind of hard because they don’t know coach Fritz,” Kerr said. “So getting to know a new coach is kind of difficult. It’s kind of more comfortable to them to say ‘We like coach Key.’ I understand both sides of it, too.”