Pat Fitzgerald is tired of hearing it. He’s tired of hearing the same exhausted tune, one repeated like a chorus throughout his eight years in the captain's chair at Northwestern.
“I think it’s an excuse,” Fitzgerald says emphatically when I asked him about the difficulties of recruiting at a school held at such a high academic standing. “It’s an excuse by college coaches limiting their success. We look at it the other way around. It’s what separates us.”
If you’re wondering how Northwestern could possibly have the No. 19 ranked recruiting class in 2014 according to 247Sports, there is your answer: a head coach—and a dynamic staff, something Fitzgerald praises as often as he can—who isn’t afraid of success and a path less traveled.
It seems odd that anyone could possibly fear more accolades, but it’s easy to be complacent. It’s convenient to get comfortable with your surroundings, enjoy success on a smaller scale, and be satisfied with just enough to draw applause.
But that is not who Pat Fitzgerald is.
At only 38 years old, he’s spent nearly half his life playing and coaching at Northwestern. Fitzgerald admits that he’s gained a few more grey hairs since taking over the reins, but he remains as energetic as he did on day one. And now, this energy has results to match, and in turn, expectations to follow.
The Wildcats won a bowl game for the first time in 64 years when it beat Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl back on New Year's Day. Fitzgerald’s group has also become the SEC antidote, going 2-0 against the all-powerful conference last season.
“You want to beat them in recruiting, you have to beat them on the field,” Fitzgerald said, again with the utmost confidence. “We went 2-0 against Vanderbilt the last couple of times and then they dropped us. We’re not afraid to play people, not afraid to put our brand out there nationally.”
Beyond just a handful of victories, however, Northwestern has constructed one of the more intriguing and creative offenses in the country, all while grabbing hold of incredible recruiting momentum the past few seasons.
The Wildcats are off to a blazing start in 2014 and currently have the No. 4 recruiting class in the Big Ten, according to 247Sports. Fitzgerald’s group is behind only recruiting giants Ohio State and Michigan, and neck and neck with Penn State.
Verbal commits such as 4-star quarterback Clayton Thorson and 4-star running back Justin Jackson play their high school ball not far from campus—an area that team has hoped to control from both a marketing and recruiting standpoint—but it’s no longer limited to these boundaries.
“We have a staff that does a great job building relationships in our target areas which is always going to start in Chicagoland,” Fitzgerald noted. “As we get out more nationally, however, kids recognize Northwestern as a consistent winner. And they want to play for a winner.”
This recruiting success has come in large part because of Fitzgerald and his ability to sell the only program he has truly ever known. It’s not just that, however.
Northwestern has altered it style in unique ways, especially on offense, improving its scoring output each season since 2008.
Coaches often say they’ll build each team around their players, but rarely will this sound bite actually translate into noticeable changes.
“We get labeled as a spread team and a 4-3 defense, but we really try to match what we’re doing schematically to the strength of our players,” Fitzgerald said on the offensive surge. “We’ve had to evolve and change.”
From the top passing offense in 2011 to one of the nation’s most potent running attacks in 2012, the Wildcats have done it in different ways depending on the depth chart.
This evolution has come at a time where the game itself is still changing. Offenses are becoming unstoppable, in part because of the emergence of new, productive systems and also rule changes giving that side an edge. The “Big Ten Football” you once knew is now on life-support.
For Fitzgerald, a former All-American linebacker who once captained a defense that prided itself on winning low-scoring, ugly football, the shift has been noticeable.
“The rules are so skewed to the offense now it’s not even fair sometimes,” Fitzgerald said, noting how the game has changed. "As a football purist, I’m always a fan of the 10-7 and 3-0 games, but those just don’t happen anymore. It’s getting increasingly more difficult to coach defensive football.”
But he’s been able to do this, too. Although the firepower doesn’t quite match what the offense has been able to accomplish in recent years, Northwestern gave up only 22.5 points per game in 2012. This was good No. 29 in the nation.
“The bottom line is finding a way to have one more point,” Fitzgerald noted, reluctantly putting his two Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year trophies away for another day. As for the 2013 team, finding that extra point won’t be easy.
The schedule kicks off with a cross-country trip against Cal to start the season, followed by a home game against Syracuse in Week 2. The Big Ten slate includes home games against Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State. The Wildcats will also make trips to Nebraska and Wisconsin.
Thankfully, the offense should remain dynamic as quarterback Trevor Siemian, running back Venric Mark and do-everything weapon Kain Colter return. Kolter totaled 20 touchdowns in 2012 and scored in a variety of ways. He passed for 872 yards, rushed for 894 yards and even caught 16 passes.
“He’s an incredible talent because of the multiple things he can do on the football field,” Fitzgerald said on Colter. “If we moved him over to defense he might be one of our best defensive players.”
But, the team is not without concerns. Although the main offensive weapons return, the offensive line is inexperienced and was hampered with injuries during the spring. So much so that Northwestern had to cancel its spring game because of the sheer lack of depth.
When asked if the o-line was Fitzgerald’s biggest worry heading into the season, however, his pitch didn’t change despite the hectic spring. He instead stressed another burden, one Northwestern hasn’t dealt with in quite some time.
Dealing with success.
The energy, attitude, and recruiting prowess all on display once again from the head coach with purple seeping through his pores. It's a combination of confidence in the plan and a genuine love for a school that makes pitching it natural. It is natural. Yet, despite the upward tick, this is only part of the blueprint.
“I don’t want us to forget what got us here,” Fitzgerald said. “You go back to square one but with more confidence. We’re far from a finished product.”