Q&A: Athletic Director Troy Dannen talks NIL, conference realignment

Mark Keplinger and Jude Papillion

troy dannen
Portrait of Troy Dannen, Tulane University athletic director, October 25, 2021. (Courtesy of Tulane Athletics)

Tulane athletic director Troy Dannen sat down with The Hullabaloo to discuss Willie Fritz, Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) deals, the transfer portal and conference realignment. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity and was conducted on Jan. 18, 2023. 

Q: So when you first came in, you were quoted as saying that “[your] prime goal, the most important decision in [your] life to date would be the appointment of [a new head football coach.]” Since then, in seven years, Willie Fritz has become the second winningest coach in Tulane history (43-45), 3-1 in bowl games, conference and Cotton Bowl champions and is on pace to break Clark Shaughnessy’s all-time wins record in late 2024. How big of an impact has Fritz had on Tulane football and how important was it that you were able to retain him for next year?

A: He’s the only coach we found that has coached in more than one bowl game. So that maybe is the end of your question, the retention piece, to keep the guy who found the recipe. You can have the same name on the front of the restaurant, but changing chefs doesn’t mean that the food’s gonna taste as good. But we’ve got the right chef who understands the university and it’s a unique asset for our program. He’s built a culture that has withstood everything [and can] sustain success. 

He represents the university in every way it wants to be represented. The football coach is almost always going to be the face from an athletic standpoint of the department and many times the face of the university. And so in every way you measure, who else would you want to be your face? 

If it was about money, he would have left. We do well by him, but not as well as an Atlantic Coastal Conference school is able to do. We couldn’t match the money [offered by Georgia Tech]. He stayed really because of character and integrity. He didn’t want to abandon this team in the middle of the season. This is life’s work stuff.

How many people in this business today stay even when the money is less? Everybody moves thinking the more money, the better. When Georgia Tech said, “We need you to come now if you’re going to come,” he said no. I’d love to say the athletic director or the president saved the day, but this coach’s integrity and character is high enough that he was going to make the decision that we all wish people would make every day in every area of society, but he made it here for us.

[According to reports, Georgia Tech was in negotiations to hire Willie Fritz for their head coaching vacancy on the eve of Tulane’s conference championship game. However, Fritz remained at Tulane and Georgia Tech gave interim head coach Brent Key the full time job.]

Q: How have you been able to see NIL money impact Tulane athletes as it’s still very much the Wild West?

A: It’s not as wild as everybody says it is because everybody’s lying. The numbers you hear, don’t believe any of them. There are a lot of people representing numbers in order to try to get a better deal at some other school. We’ve had it happen to us with recruits saying, “I’ve been offered X by school Y, now what will you offer me?” And when the coaches call school Y they say “no we didn’t.” So it’s not as wild but it has exerted an influence in the recruiting wars that’s riled people up. 

At a school like Tulane it’s not about NIL as a recruitment [tool]. It’s about a retention piece. The fact that athletes can benefit off their skills like every other student on this campus can financially, is long overdue. We’ve noticeably had very few students leave into the transfer portal in the last couple of years. One, it’s because the experience here is second to none. The degree here means more than it means most places, but also they have the ability to monetize themselves.

Q: On that piece of monetizing themselves, Texas Christian University announced in September of 2021 that they’re going to be offering a program through their business school to help educate their student-athletes to navigate this opportunity. What has Tulane been able to do for their students?

A: NIL is an 18-month old phenomenon so far. In the 12 months before that, we were the second school in the country that started an educational program for the student-athletes. So when it happened, they were prepared on that day. We do regular programming here and we work with Prof. Gabe Feldman in the law school. We have a third party that comes in and does educational programming for us. We’re investing about $100,000 a year from our budget into making sure that the student-athletes are educated, prepared and have the ability to capitalize on what’s out there for them now and do it in a way that doesn’t compromise their eligibility.

Q: Are there any things [about NIL] that you’ve been able to notice or see that you wish the NCAA would change?

A: I think all of us would like more transparency to know what these deals really are. I said everybody’s lying. The numbers thrown around are not the numbers in reality, but nobody really knows because there isn’t any transparency in those deals. 

If you look at NIL when it wasn’t allowed, the pendulum was held up [on one side] and when it was released, it went all the way [to the other side]. Now the pendulum is starting to come back a little bit [to the center]. There’s going to be a place where the market settles. And my caution to everybody — and I’m on about every NCAA committee that’s imaginable — is we can’t overreact to the pendulum swinging up here. We’ve got to let it normalize itself and let’s see where it’s going to land.

In college athletics, when you get to the top of the totem pole, it’s very hard to be incentivized to change, because change risks your position at the top of the totem pole. In hindsight, the lesson that NIL is teaching everyone is we have to live by looking out the windshield and seeing what’s around the corner. If we had been more proactive 10 years ago and said, “we’re going to allow this but we’re going to allow it under certain parameters,” we may have an NIL world that we could all be more comfortable with rather than the completely wide open world that we have today.

Q: So you mentioned the transfer portal, another recently new phenomenon. How do you think that is impacting Tulane?

A: So let’s look at the [men’s] basketball [starting lineup against the Houston Cougars]. A transfer from Alabama, LSU, Nebraska, Georgetown and Sion [James] is homegrown. Four of those starting five came to us through the portal. We had nine players in this year’s roster that made significant contributions that transferred here through the portal. We’ve been a net beneficiary of the portal for two reasons. One, I go back to culture. It’s a place where people want to be. It’s a program now that’s shown success. There’s other reasons they want to be here. Tulane is obviously an attractive school for a lot of reasons more so than it’s ever been. That carried over into athletics. 

We don’t lose in the portal. One, usually the students that come here are wired differently. This is an institution where if you don’t want to be successful academically and athletically, you will not have success. So they’re coming here with this more holistic mindset of what the experience is going to be from the start. 

I’m a very pro portal person. We just had our defensive coordinator [leave] to go to Oregon and coaches have had a transfer portal forever. We took Willie Fritz from Georgia Southern. He entered the transfer portal at Georgia Southern and came here. It’s a good opportunity but the better we can make the experience here, the less likely we are to be net losers in the transfer portal.

Q: And since Tulane gets a lot of benefit from this, do you foresee that a lot of coaches will start to change the recruiting strategy to go after these transfers more aggressively or still trying to develop young talent?

A: I think in different sports, you’re seeing different trends nationally. In basketball, you see much more of an active use of portal [with the] smaller roster sizes. In football, the core of what we do is always going to be with freshmen in the development of talent. If we sign 25 to 30 kids a year, the vast majority of them are always going to be incoming high school [students] and students in the portals, more often than not are going to fill holes. I think it’s a fool’s errand to think you’re going to build successful long term rosters through the transfer portal, across the board, particularly football.

Q: Are there any changes you’d like to see in the portal? Or do you think that this was a change that was necessary?

A: Well, we just put dates. So you know that the challenge with the portal is this. No one knew what their roster was going to look like because somebody could go in the portal tomorrow, the day after or three weeks from now. So how do you recruit without knowing how many players you have in your roster? So putting dates in the portal where students have to go in and certain periods of time, I think it lends to roster stability, which is important. 

I think we just passed the third year anniversary of it. And I think the one thing we will find is, students will start to understand that it’s also not a panacea for if you’re not playing. These coaches are incentivized to play the best players who are going to help you win. If you’re not playing, it’s probably not the coach’s fault. 42% of the division one football players who go into the portal don’t play division one football anymore. And so it’s not a panacea that well, “I’ll leave the portal at Tulane and I’ll go start at South Florida.” It doesn’t work that way. With rare exceptions, and we see the exceptions since they get a lot of notoriety. But for the most part, it doesn’t work that way.

Q: Shifting gears a little bit. In the last few years, we’ve seen a number of schools switch conferences. We know the American is losing three members, the SEC is getting Texas and Oklahoma, the Big 10 is gaining USC and UCLA. So a lot of people have been wondering if Tulane is considering at all looking into moving conferences?

A: Well, when it comes to conference realignment, it takes two to tango. So you can want whatever you want but if someone doesn’t want you, it doesn’t matter what you want. 

It was in 2014 that we joined the American [Athletic Conference]. When we joined the American, we weren’t really athletically prepared to compete against the schools we were competing against. Now we’ve elevated ourselves really across the board. Particularly in the new league ahead, we will be in the upper third, in almost every sport when it comes to competitive expectations. 

You know, there’s bigger questions. I think the USC, UCLA move into the Big 10 begs the question of: what are we doing? Conference realignment happens because of money. It doesn’t happen for any other reason. And it happens every time TV contracts are up. The Big 10’s was up and all this realignment is about that. But at some point in time, what are we doing? 

You know, I can’t imagine having our students fly across the country to compete athletically on a regular basis for a number of years. And we’ve given up a lot for the security of television revenue for Tulane. So there’s a bigger question about are you prepared? Are you prepared from an infrastructure standpoint, a competitive standpoint, and holistically for some of the sacrifices that you would make to make the next move? 

For a lot of folks, it’s an ego move. “Oh, I’m in the same league as blank and blank.” But there are a lot of other questions that have to be answered. If you can improve your lot in life, and it makes sense for your student athletes, your program and your alumni base, then those things make sense to explore. The one thing that is very unique to Tulane is our alumni base is probably more geographically diverse than anybody in the country. And so you may not be beholden to the geography of your region, as much as some other institutions are. Our students are used to traveling here. 

That said, there are four conferences, from a revenue standpoint, that would love to be in the position that we’re in now. So I don’t want to ever take it for granted. Being in the American and what it’s done for us from a revenue standpoint, and what it’s empowered our programs to do, we weren’t able to do in Conference USA. Don’t underestimate the value of their revenue from the American.

I don’t know what exactly that means for the future. It’s a long winded answer to say. You always have to be prepared for whatever might exist. But the idea of, “I want to be in the same league as Duke because, ‘wow Duke!’ or I want to be in the same league as Texas because, ‘wow Texas!’” There’s a whole lot more that goes behind it than just the ego of who you’re associating with. There are a lot of folks on this campus that would probably prefer we were in the Ivy League, because those are the schools that they prefer we associate with. So it’s a very nuanced discussion.

Q: Alright so some lightning round questions. The first one is, what is one Tulane sport you wish more people paid attention to?

A: I’m gonna give you an indirect answer. We only have five sports that compete on campus. And we have 12 that compete off campus. And it’s unfortunate for the 12 that compete off campus that the students don’t get engaged and take part in it. They’re working every bit as hard as Michael Pratt. They put in the same number of hours as Jaylen Forbes. And they’re just not located in a place where people are regularly getting to watch and see. So that’s what I wish. 

Q: Similar sort of question, is there a Tulane athlete you wish more people knew about?

A: You know, coming into this year, I would have said Nick Anderson is one underestimated human being. I’m thrilled this year that people got to know him because of the football success. In many ways, he personifies what you hope for in your student athletes. 

The other I would tell you is Sion James. Incredible athlete. Better person. He oversees our Student Athlete Advisory Committee. He’s on the National Student Athlete Advisory Committee. I think he’s on the basketball oversight committee nationally. He’s got this voice outside of Tulane and he’s as impressive a human being as I’ve ever been around.

Q: For you personally, what do you think was the cooler moment, winning the conference championship and everyone storming the field or the Cotton Bowl?

A: So the conference championship. I was really emotional when we won that game. Probably because of what the atmosphere was like in this building. I spent the last three minutes with tears streaming down my cheeks. Now the Cotton Bowl was cool in its own way. I think everything happened so fast I didn’t have a chance for the emotion to catch up to what was happening on the field. But I’ll never forget a moment of that conference championship game.

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