As any Northwestern fan knows, Gary Barnett and that '95 squad (featuring Pat Fitzgerald, of course) took the first step by moving out of the dark ages. Not only did that team reach double-digit wins in a season, but they also went to the Rose Bowl and won the conference outright. The 'Cats then put on a repeat performance, sharing the '96 conference title and heading to the Citrus Bowl.
Since then, there have been ups and downs, but Randy Walker stepped in and brought stability to a program that took a nosedive after the 1995-96 run, ending with Barnett ditching NU for greener pastures (well, greener in terms of the color of money, at least). Walker took NU to three bowl games during his 1999-2005 tenure and racked up another six-win season, bringing some consistent winning to a program many figured couldn't keep it up.
He also showed NU could play with anyone in the conference, racking up a 24-32 conference mark while at NU, ending with a three-year span where he was at least .500 each season (NU went 14-10 in the Big Ten over that span). Oh, and he beat every other Big Ten team during his time there (if you include his time at Miami (OH), he even beat Northwestern).
Barnett showed NU could rise up and be a competitor; Walker showed the 'Cats could be a competitive force in the conference and could regularly make bowl games. Now the question is, where can Fitz take the program and what should the first step be?
Winning the games they should win
In my opinion, that next step is for Northwestern to win the games they are expected to win. That's what the "traditional power" programs do. They virtually always beat the lesser teams; padding their win totals and giving them an air of invincibility, at least when facing those lesser teams. Northwestern, despite its significant rise out of the Dark Ages into the current era still doesn't win all the games they should. In fact, one can look back to examples during the post-1995 era to see "should-win" slip-ups by the 'Cats, many costing the team bowl appearances or better bowls.
Let's run down the list (at least from the years when the loss really cost NU): 2008 Indiana, 2007 Duke, 2006 New Hampshire, 2004 Hawaii, 2001 Bowling Green, 1996 Wake Forest, 1995 Miami (OH).
As with many things, the bad leaves a larger impact than the good, and these losses have left a sting many can still feel today. The 2007 Duke and 2004 Hawaii losses cost NU a bowl appearance in those seasons (NU ended both years 6-6). Just imagine if NU could brag about two additional bowl appearances and winning seasons over the "modern era" of success.
The 2008 Indiana loss likely cost NU an improved bowl spot and more national recognition. The 2006 New Hampshire loss caused NU to be the first Big Ten team to lose to a I-AA/FCS opponent (albeit Indiana lost to Indiana State later that season, and the following year Michigan lost to Appalachian State).
The 2001 Bowling Green loss was an embarrassment heaped onto an already disappointing season (although it seemed to help Urban Meyer). And the losses to lesser non-conference opponents in '95-96 still leave a scar in what are the best back-to-back seasons in school history (and to think NU could have been the front runner for the national title going into the Rose Bowl after the '95 season).
Opponents' fans still point to these loses when approached by 'Cats fans. And NU fans never feel like a game is a sure thing. As mentioned in the last paragraph, if NU had beaten these teams, the 'Cats could very well be further along the path of success now.
For those who say those losses inspired NU for the rest of those respective seasons, I say, since when is a loss a good thing? Motivation for the traditional power programs doesn't come from losing, it comes from a desire to win. Anything else is really just an excuse or a justification of a past mistake.
I also realize this is a new era in terms of competitiveness in college football, with scholarship and recruiting limits, more teams, more money, better information dissemination and television, but that still doesn't excuse a team from losing when they have the talent level to win.
Therefore, the next step NU must take is to eliminate these losses to "lesser" teams, which will help the continuing process of wiping away the memory of the Dark Ages and moving NU up the ladder of prestige in college football.
Of course, that's without even saying the Wildcats should not just win those games, but should win them comfortably - allowing backups to get some playing time in the second halves of those games, further preparing NU for success in the future. But I'll be happy with small steps, so just winning those football games would be an improvement.
How It's Done
Unfortunately, coach Fitz has suffered an embarrassing loss in each of his first three seasons at the helm at NU. He'll never discredit those opponents by admitting such an embarrassment, but he will express disappointment in the Wildcats for not pulling through (as well as for his own missteps). But he does have NU headed in the right direction, seemingly always saying the right thing and exuding confidence and positivity in the program: the basic ingredient for success.
Recruiting talented players helps, he's built a nice foundation there over the past few years, hopefully giving NU an edge over those less talented teams. As experienced last season, the 'Cats now have some depth they can use, which has never consistently been there, even during the modern era of NU football. Playing good defense also helps, something NU didn't do during a long span, despite recent successes. Prior to 2008, the last defense NU fans felt they could truly rely upon was back in Fitz's playing days in 1996.
Good defense allows a team to always stay in a game, especially since even high-octane offenses are prone to sputter from time to time when the ball doesn't bounce their way. To say Fitz is committed to good defense is an understatement, and with him at the helm and experienced Defensive Coordinator Hankwitz leading the unit, NU should continue to improve there.
Finally, Fitz is preparing the team to play and to win. Yes, he took his lumps as an inexperienced, young head coach, but now he has knowledge to build upon. He has and will combine that knowledge with his attitude and use it to build a confident (but not too confident) and prepared football team that goes out and takes care of business. At the end of the day, hopefully he can remove the "fear of losing" from the Northwestern football program and instead replace that with consistent winning.
This all begins in 2009 with NU facing four beatable non-conference teams (Towson, Eastern Michigan, Syracuse and Miami (OH)), all of whom have new head coaches this year thanks to recent failures, as well as two Big Ten teams that have fallen on hard times: Indiana and Purdue (who also has a first-year head coach).
I know that no football game is a given, and I'm by no way guaranteeing victory, but the Wildcats can take that next step forward by beating these six teams. In doing so, NU will already reach bowl eligibility, and can place the focus on their performance against peer or higher teams instead of "that loss to a bad team."
If anyone can remove the "fear of losing" from the Northwestern football program and its fans, it is Coach Fitz, and this year is a perfect time to begin that process which can lead to even greater successes for Northwestern football.