This week, the national media picked on the subject every Northwestern fan believes in: Pat Fitzgerald, the perfect fit. It’s an argument difficult to counter, and despite some worrying reports, NU fans consider him the closest thing to a “lifer” in the backstabbing world of college football.
His story alone, though, cannot stand by itself. It’s the on-field success that completes his profile. And on Saturday, it’s the on-field success that could carry Northwestern to the biggest win in program history.
We know the pretty story. Fitz was the star linebacker for NU. He played for the 1995-96 Rose Bowl team. His attitude, relatable style and ability to pitch his program are things that resonate with recruits. Everyone wants to play for Pat Fitzgerald.
Any equation includes winning. He’s kept the program in an upward trajectory. He rebuilt the linebacker corps–once his team’s weak point–and continues to discover successful options at quarterback. And sure, they’re underdogs on Saturday, but the Wildcats own the second highest ranking in the Big Ten—checking in at No. 16.
How much has the reputation improved? Despite its failure to record an impressive win in non-conference play, NU vaulted undefeated Michigan in the rankings. This team is good, and upset or not, faces a program-defining conference schedule from this point forward.
We know success is fleeting. Iowa, once a constant BCS threat, looks to resuscitate its program with embattled head coach Kirk Ferentz. Even mighty Nebraska tumbled out of the rankings shortly after an uninspired loss to UCLA. Here’s Fitz, one year removed from a 10-win season and the elusive bowl victory. Here’s Fitz, focused on getting even better, with his most realistic Rose Bowl contender yet.
Say what you will about NU in close games, but they never seem to take one off. Last year, the team led in the fourth quarter of every game. Even though I’m never going to say that team–still with holes–had “undefeated potential,” I will say that it indicates something greater. It’s a mental toughness that carries down the line. Last year’s team lacked Nebraska or Michigan talent, you could say, but still almost managed to win both. And when the talent matches the mentality? That’s a process coming to fruition. It’s a process leading to … a powerhouse.
Is the money more enticing at say, Texas or USC? Yes, no doubt. Does Fitz think the future outside of Evanston is more attractive? Doubt it. Even in a five-year program–with liberal use of redshirts–the team hauls in impressive recruiting classes. They’re only getting better, with recent groups including elite prospects like Matt Alviti and Godwin Igwebuike.
Television cameras kept focusing on Fitzgerald during the 2011 bowl game against Texas A&M. They pointed to his charismatic efforts in leading the comeback attempt.
This year, they could be looking at something entirely different. Call it an “arrival” or use the term “national spotlight.”
GameDay is not the culmination of NU’s football success. It’s one stop along the way, and also the perfect time for a reminder: Fitzgerald is building something special. Something to stick around for.