For years, NU fans believed that recruiting could match results. The reputation still lagged behind several Big Ten schools, but 10-win seasons and the consistent brilliance of Pat Fitzgerald indicated better things to come.
So, we're here in May 2013, with next year's high school class just about–if not more than–halfway complete. At this point in 2012, recruits still played the waiting game. But there's a consistent pattern: Once a few guys fall into place, everyone panics and settles on their decisions. It's simply human nature.
The Wildcats have arrived. They've made it. It took more than one commit–say, Godwin Igwebuike–to completely change the program outlook. This recent surge, which included Dareian Watkins and Clayton Thorson, set a new bar for our expectations.
Several developments have factored into this. First, more top-level recruits–even the ones who don't select NU as their final destination–are meeting Fitzgerald. He arguably has the finest reputation of any college coach.
It takes the staff effort, too. Even Mike Hankwitz figured largely into the Tommy Doles commitment. The coaches each specialize in one area. Bob Heffner dominates the New Jersey area. The list goes on, but it's Fitzgerald who typically closes.
Many coaches find unique ways to engage with recruits. They have similar enthusiasm as Fitzgerald, and that "attitude" is a dime a dozen. But Fitzgerald–with his temperament and insistence on good character–can develop players better than nearly everyone. And even 4-star recruits value making the most of their abilities.
It would be unfair to only mention Fitzgerald's charisma. After the Meineke Car Care Bowl loss to Texas A&M, which marked another program turning point, I wrote: "At least one more year with the monkey on our backs, but hopefully many more years of Pat Fitzgerald. What a coach." (Pardon the homer comment. I didn't cover the team in 2011, and arrived at a fortunate point in Northwestern time.)
The criticisms of Fitzgerald are usually justified. He's not a top-20 coach in-game, but that might be his lone downfall. He continually fights to keep his assistant staff—another selling point for recruits. He builds his team around passionate, motivated players. They don't win every game, but they win enough and believe in the "team" concept. Though the NU receivers earned fewer targets in 2012, they never complained. In three or four press conferences, we–the media members–urged them to pout. It never happened. Winning is enough.
I dare you to find players with more belief in the direction of the program. Without being provoked, Ben Oxley and Tommy Doles both cited the team's overall exceptional character. Never underestimate the importance of these campus visits, in which the players can better understand the team dynamic. They also hear more praise of Pat Fitzgerald.
Then, of course, the team proved its worth in big-time games. Although fans would gladly forget about the Ann Arbor Disaster of 2012, players from across the country were able to witness NU outplaying the traditional powerhouse for 59 minutes and change. I'd argue that Nebraska deserved to win the thriller in Evanston this season, but whatever.
The "5:03" on team workout shirts signifies the great irony of the "unfinished business" mentality. They hate those digits, but they were in contention for every second—something not lost on prospects. Here's how you pitch the program now: Great coach, top-to-bottom stability, rich academics, increasingly strong development of skill position players and the chance to truly accomplish something.
These players–each with character to spare–know the task of winning championships lies ahead. They believe they can do it. Now, more so than ever, they're beginning to see the light.