Another year, and another college football season approaches so quickly with Northwestern kicking off preseason practice on August 8th. While this offseason wasn't quite as eventful as last summer, when the Big Ten expanded amongst other conference re-alignment, there were some events in Evanston that are worthy of note heading into the 2011 season.
In early February (during one of the biggest snowstorms in Chicago history, which essentially shut down the metro area for an entire day), Fitz announced the signing of this year's recruiting class. It was yet another solid class that features the type of leaders and players that Fitz strives to recruit, with a few guys who may be in the hunt to earn some significant playing time as true freshmen, which is something that has happened in each of the past few seasons. While the recruiting services continue to rank NU near the bottom of the Big Ten and in the 50s nationally, Fitz continues to show his recruiting/coaching prowess as the 'Cats almost continually exceed that ranking when the actual games are played.
NU held its annual spring practice, which concluded with the Spring Game at the end of April. This year, Fitz changed up the schedule slightly, starting practice just before Spring Break, taking a week off, then continuing through the final scrimmage in order to extend the valuable practice time. As expected, QB Dan Persa, along with some other injured veterans, weren't on the field full-go during spring, but it was a great opportunity for many of the underclassmen to gain valuable experience. Although the scrimmage wasn't thrilling, it provided the chance for the three backup QBs to get snaps and for the rest of the team to get some live tackling in before the fall.
In a significant announcement made via Mike and Mike in the Morning on ESPN Radio/ESPN2, Northwestern and Notre Dame announced a home-and-home series in 2014 and 2018, featuring a Notre Dame trip to Evanston, its first such trip since 1976. As you likely know very well, NU won the last matchup between these two teams on September 2, 1995 in what kicked off the modern era of Wildcat football. Many thanks to NU AD Jim Phillips, who previously worked in the ND Athletic Department, for working hard to set this up as he continues to pile up successes at NU since arriving in 2008.
Speaking of Phillips' successes, he wrapped up a contract extension for Fitz that will run through 2020, an effort that was kicked off after Fitz received overtures from Michigan as they sought a new head coach in early January. It was just a couple years ago that Fitz signed an extension through 2015, but this one provides for a significant pay bump that will at least put Fitz in the same ballpark as other Big Ten coaches (reported to be $1.8 million per year) and will hopefully keep Fitz securely in the fold through this decade. This is one of multiple gestures showing that NU is committed to excellence in athletics.
At Big Ten media day, Fitz and Persa confirmed that Dan's Achilles' tendon is 100 percent healed, much ahead of a normal Achilles recovery timeline, although he must still rebuild the strength and get back in playing shape. That shouldn't be much of a problem, though, since Persa was named one of the strongest pound-for-pound college football players by ESPN's Bruce Feldman, and the strongest QB, which NU used as a backdrop for it's PersaStrong Heisman campaign. The campaign, the first since NU touted Damien Anderson going into the 2001 season, features billboards in the Chicago area as well as in Bristol, CT (home of ESPN), as well as seven-pound purple PersaStrong-themed weights sent to Heisman-voting members of the media. So far, the ploy has definitely achieved short-term results by generating talk in both the local and national media (although, the long-term success will ultimately be determined by Northwestern and Persa's accomplishments on the field).
Also, Phillips himself inked a contract extension through 2020 to match Fitz's deal, as he was also courted by other major schools for open AD positions, including Illinois (Phillips' alma mater) and Tennessee. Instead, he will anchor himself in Evanston as he continues to work at keeping NU Athletics' trajectory pointing upwards.
And in conference news, the Big Ten sold out its inaugural football conference Championship Game, to be held on December 3 in Indianapolis, in just two hours. Also, after over a year of discussions, it was announced that the Big Ten will indeed implement a nine-game conference schedule beginning in 2017, with half of the conference's teams getting five conference home games every other season (NU will get those five conference home games in 2018 and every even year; note that the 2018 home schedule will feature five Big Ten games plus Notre Dame). While there are definitely concerns about such a plan affecting the number of bowl bids and the chances at a national title, it will definitely bring in more revenue and more attention while increasing the cohesion of the league.
All of this leads up to preseason camp, where the team will begin preparations for the season on the field and we will go through NU's 2011 prospects.