The phone lines of local sports-talk stations lit up with criticisms of Fitzgerald and his Wildcats. The newspapers were harsh on the head coach. The message-board threads were filled with frustration.
"As a competitor, you move on—quickly," said Fitzgerald during his press conference last Monday. "You get back to work. We were back at it [on Monday morning]; our fans can't get back to it till Saturday."
With every power—and dollar—Northwestern has at its disposal, it must jockey for a place in Chicago sports relevancy. It's part of the marketing efforts to brand the program Fitzgerald runs. The goal is simple: fill Ryan Field each Saturday. And it's working, with figures on the rise.
It's a new day in Northwestern athletics, and that can largely be credited to Fitzgerald. He has brought NU winning ways, and that is only likely to continue. The spotlight only shines brighter, now.
Two bad quarters have kept Northwestern from being undefeated, atop the Big Ten standings, and a horse in the championship race. But 22-unanswered Penn State points handed the Wildcats their first loss. Then, Nebraska overcame a 12-point fourth-quarter lead at Ryan Field, handing NU another painful loss.
Fitzgerald deserved to be under fire for Northwestern's late-game letdowns. The players didn't execute and the play-calling was weak. The head coach must shoulder the blame for both.
The days of the "Cardiac Cats" are long gone. That was a term created to capture the efforts of the hard-fighting, scrappy Wildcats who battled with the best. That was when Northwestern was a cute underdog, overlooked everywhere but Evanston.
Now, Northwestern is among the Big Ten's elite programs, proving it can be a perennial contender. The program is taken seriously in the college football landscape. With that comes criticism—from both fans and the media.
Following Northwestern's victory over Iowa, Fitzgerald responded to the media coverage his Wildcats received during the week.
"It's just amazing," he said. "When we win, it's like, 'hey, we found a way to win.' When we lose, it's like the sky is falling. That's all I read and that's all I see and that's all our kids see. We've had great fan support and they've done a great job of not listening to the negative."
The statement isn't exactly true; a brief search through the PurpleWildcats forums prove fans felt numb well into the next week.
Fitzgerald's good friend, Joe Girardi, can attest to dealing with the spotlight.
The New York Yankees are the most powerful worldwide brand in sports and the ultimate standard of success in sports. Their manager's every move is put under the microscope, both by the organization's unmatched fan base and the New York media.
Northwestern is a likeable program with an enthusiastic head coach that represents all that's right in college athletics. Still, that's not enough to draw headlines. Only wins can do that. The attention for NU has increased as it wins consistently.
It's not enough to reach bowl eligibility anymore, even Fitzgerald admitted that. Expectations are higher for the program. If Northwestern wants to sustain a presence in the spotlight, it will be criticized along the way.