Seventeen days later, the Wildcats won their first bowl game in 64 years, beating Mississippi State—the sky now the limit.
But how things change. Pat Fitzgerald introduced his 2014 recruiting class on Wednesday, one without Jordan Thomas and one without the same upbeat football program.
Everything about National Signing Day becomes more symbolic than it does relevant. The 19-member 2013 group represented NU's sudden shift in program status, credited to the 10-win season. The 2014 class, meanwhile, was considered another step away from this year's debacle.
As the recruiting class shuffled, with four total de-commitments, the foundation stayed intact. Experts called it an average class, maybe above average for Northwestern.
Fitzgerald closed the book at Ditka's on Wednesday, talking about the group that can turn it around.
Offensive tackle commit Tommy Doles aptly described the situation. The Wildcats could not be ashamed of 2013 because strong programs can recover from this. It's pride.
"He's got the mentality: attitude and investment," Doles said. "What's most important is the things that have built up success at Northwestern.
"It doesn't sound like anything's going to change. You stay true to the things that got you there."
He was right. On Wednesday, there were many more things to be proud of. And it was difficult to explain exactly how Pat Fitzgerald kept it together.
The Chicagoland Backbone
Fitzgerald made his pitch clear on Signing Day. Four de-commitments—most of them outside of the team's pipeline—did not detract from another strong performance in Illinois.
"We felt like we dominated Chicagoland again," he said Wednesday. "Our staff did a terrific job, and the backbone of our roster continues to come from Chicagoland."
That process began with Clayton Thorson, the three-star Wheaton North (Ill.) quarterback. Thorson liked NU but might have been swayed if not for strong recruiting instinct. The Wildcats had offered Thorson, Chris Durkin and DeShone Kizer, with Durkin publicly naming Northwestern his top school.
Of course, the Wildcats would take only one quarterback for the 2014 class, and Thorson was presumed to be their top choice. He planned a visit to Penn State, but Fitzgerald likely explained the urgency. Thorson committed on March 17.
"Success is definitely part of my decision," Thorson told Beth Long of Scout.com after committing. "But I'm also committed to the school and the program."
It was hard not to see the developing pattern. A year earlier, quarterback Matt Alviti of Maine South (Ill.) was among the team's most highly touted commitments, and could start as soon as this year. You get the feeling that 0-12 seasons could never shake the quarterbacks, both of whom believed in Fitzgerald and the program.
Another thing to consider is Fitzgerald's tactics. Teams never sell themselves during the deeply political process. Sometimes, unfortunately, you take some advantage of the guys who love you.
Offensive tackle Blake Hance said he "fell in love" with NU during a July 2012 barbecue. Nebraska, Vanderbilt and Missouri offered, but Hance only waited for NU. The general sentiment among prospects is to wait before jumping on offers. So, the day NU offered, he spoke with PurpleWildcats.com and never gave a timeline for his decision.
Again, there was only offensive line spot remaining. Waiting would have been risking. NU had watched three-star Maine South (Ill.) offensive tackle Brendan Brosnan—and probably some others. Hance was their lone offer, but they wouldn't let him sit. He committed the next morning.
With the chance to visit more often than say, Texans, local recruits have an opportunity to better understand the program. Like Hance and his barbecue, four-star running back Justin Jackson of Glenbard North (Ill.) grew to know several players.
Recruits will take visits and stay with a current player—which often marks the highlight of their stay in Evanston. They also meet future teammates, which Jackson described as his main reason for committing.
"There's a type of player Northwestern recruits," he told PW on May 14. "They're very precise with who they offer. [The players] are all very well spoken. Those are the type of people I want to associate myself with."
Much is the made of the "NU player" by analysts who usually haven't researched the team. They cite academics and coaching stability, usually without realizing the other areas in which NU excels.
Because rather than sticking with the old ways, Fitzgerald's recruiting approach has slowly evolved. Another local commit, Bolingbrook (Ill.) cornerback Parrker Westphal, provides the perfect example.
Never out of luck
On Sept. 8, 2012, Parrker Westphal visited Evanston for the Northwestern-Vanderbilt game. More than 15 months later, he finally chose between the two schools.
This is the story. It's not complicated: Pat Fitzgerald personally led his recruitment, and he wouldn't lose. As schools including Florida, Michigan and Michigan State flew in and out of his picture, Northwestern remained the constant.
The head coach was so eager that he catered to Westphal's one wish. Westphal became the first early enrollee of the Pat Fitzgerald era—part of NU's latest recruiting changes.
"He's very mature and from a great family," Fitzgerald told the Chicago Tribune. "He told me he was ready to go to college when he was a freshman in high school."
Westphal was initially expected to close the 2014 recruiting class. But when hell began to break loose, Fitzgerald was forced to adjust once again. The results were excellent.
Noah Westerfield called the NU coaching staff sometime on Jan. 16 and informed them of his intent to visit Cal. They not only threatened to pull the scholarship if he visited, but instead chose to pull it right away.
By midday, James Prather received a phone call. The defensive end prospect from Memphis had visited NU—and loved it—over Thanksgiving weekend. The Wildcats coaching staff probably knew it would have no space for him. They ended up offering a linebacker, Hamilton Anoa'i, for the team's final spot.
"They filled up and I was out of luck," Prather said. "I didn't think it was going to happen for me."
Still, Fitzgerald and his group had built a strong enough relationship to land Westerfield's replacement that day: "A perfect fit on all fronts," he said.
The drama continued when Klein Collins (Tex.) safety Jordan Thomas de-committed late in the process. He visited Oklahoma, chose Oklahoma, and left NU to choose from its remaining options. Problem is, there weren't any.
Fitzgerald went to the state that had just betrayed him. In his one ambiguous move, the head coach offered Xavier Washington and Jared McGee as gray shirts. That confirms the presence of a mystery recruit down the stretch—someone whose name we might never know.
So he started leveraging them. In a move that impressed virtually every Texas recruiting analyst, he landed Washington—in part due to a late shift. On Saturday, he extended Washington's offer to a full one, removing the gray shirt and locking in his commitment.
Fitzgerald's decision to oversign paid off. He boldly recruited a player committed to another school, brought him to campus and sold him on the merits of a gray shirt pledge. When Anoa'i pulled his blindside at the final hour, McGee earned the full offer. Four de-commitments later, Pat Fitzgerald had improbably filled his recruiting class.
We always knew Fitz could recruit as an old school coach, but by using new age flexibility, he pulled some of his best moves yet.
The Northwestern football family
Fred Wyatt grew up on Northwestern football, with his dad Buddy the defensive line coach. He knew Fitz from age 3, when the then-graduate assistant would deliver pizza to players after summer camps.
"It's been fun getting to see the coach he's become," Wyatt said before Signing Day.
Tommy Doles was invited to Evanston by defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz. He went to the team building and entered Fitzgerald's office, about to receive a scholarship offer.
"His wife and a couple of his kids were there," Doles said.
No one laughs at the word "family" around here, not even at the preachy @NUFBFamily twitter account name. More so than academics, family has become the program's strongest recruiting tool.
It begins with coaching stability—the very idea that you cannot replace the NU experience.
"Most other places, coaches are there for two or three years," Hance said. "Coach Fitzgerald is very loyal to Northwestern."
The brothers, generally speaking, haven't yet achieved much success on the field. The program is, and has been, about more than that.
"I've known Coach Fitz and the coaching staff since about the eighth grade," Hall said. "I knew I would be surrounded by good people."
He was proven right. One week after Northwestern closed its season with a win against Illinois, Fitzgerald brought the program back to its roots.
Fitzgerald hosted Westphal, Dickerson, Khari Blasingame, 10 commits and their families to a catered dinner at his home. The 2013 season still fresh in their minds, they were reminded of what their commitment meant.
"That was something incredible," defensive tackle commit Ben Oxley said. "It was a great experience—just to have all of our commits and their families there."
And amid so much turmoil, Fitz was more confident than ever before.
His reputation, cemented
This is Pat Fitzgerald's team. He is the most recognizable face on Northwestern campus. He has built a program that regularly sees more than half of its apathetic student body at home games.
This is the result of the things we don't see. Fitzgerald has an, at best, contentious relationship with the local media—especially with the student writers. But for all of the confidence, he never makes it about Pat Fitzgerald.
On the trail, he earned the "relatable" tag. Now, he's living up to it. When Oxley was in the presence of Fitz, the movie buff recruit quoted "Tommy Boy," a 1995 film starring Chris Farley and David Spade. To his surprise, the coach started quoting it back to him.
But for all of the strange anecdotes, the ones about a funny, relaxed Pat Fitzgerald that are true but hard to believe, there is an undeniable truth. By doing things the right way, he cemented his reputation as a good college football coach.
Oxley is close family friends with Rip Scherer, who most recently served as the Carolina Panthers quarterbacks coach. Even before Oxley met Fitz, Scherer was in his ear with advice.
"I talked to him a lot throughout my recruiting process and he could not have had any better words to say about Coach Fitz, truly," Oxley said. "But you never know anything about a person until you meet him face-to-face. When I did, he was most the genuine and honest person. It was an unbelievable experience."
Hance echoed his comments, saying that there were two honors in his Northwestern recruitment. The first was receiving his offer. The second was meeting Pat Fitzgerald.
"It was exciting to meet a man who's so respected by everyone across the country," Hance said, "as a coach and as a person."
The 2013 season tested him. Poor late-game decisions and meltdowns led to a 5-7 record, with Northwestern football regressing from the year before.
Visibly frustrated, his team destroyed by injuries, Fitzgerald just kept going to the well. No matter what, his confidence in the team's direction would not waver.
Oxley never asked Fitz about the team's struggles. But when the head coach visited him at Avon Lake HS (Ohio), one of his teachers did.
"Any coach could come and say anything he wanted," Oxley said.
His coach, though, took his time with the teachers, explaining every single thing that went wrong in every single way.
"It was just another reason I want to go and play for him."
There were so many reasons that this program could have crumbled, lost momentum, slipped in reputation.
Times like these explained how Pat Fitzgerald kept it all together.