With its brainy reputation, Northwestern has always been able to attract students like high school senior Patrick Ward, who has a 4.9 GPA and got a 35 on the ACT.
But Ward’s other numbers – 6-foot-7, 285 pounds – suggested that he may bypass Northwestern for a school with more brawn, if not brains.
After all, Ward, a four-star offensive tackle from Providence Catholic in Homer Glenn, Ill., received scholarship offers from Miami, Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Missouri and about 20 other schools to play football. And while Northwestern has a sterling history in the field of academia, its history on the football field is far less glorious.
NU has always been a hotbed for learning, but football? Not so much.
Yet still, Ward and a handful of other sought-after recruits are heading to Northwestern this fall. And they say it’s not just because of the classroom.
“It’s a good time to jump in,” said Ward, who is only the second four-star recruit to sign with Northwestern since 2004. “Everybody is really confident and really excited to get going.”
Confident and excited have not long been words used to describe Northwestern football. Just look at the Wildcats’ 43-61 record from 1998-2006, a span that featured three different coaches and zero bowl victories.
And the heartache goes back much further. In 1982, NU set a Division I record with 34 straight losses, a streak that famously inspired Northwestern's home crowd to storm the field in mock celebration. Oh, and the last (and only) NU bowl win came in 1949. Unless you’re recruiting a Baby Boomer, that’s hardly something to brag about.
But one could be forgiven for thinking that times are changing. Like Ward, incoming kicker Jeff Budzien – a Wisconsin native who hit a 55-yard field goal last season and converted 63-of-65 PAT attempts – sure seems to think so.
“Some other schools that I talked to or offered me a scholarship, you could tell they were on the downswing,” said Budzien, who was also being recruited by Kansas State and Minnesota, among others. “But with Northwestern gradually improving their record, it looks promising that they’ll continue that success. It’s kind of exciting to enter a program on the upswing and where the sky’s the limit on how successful we can be.”
Fueling this optimism is the Wildcats' breakout season in 2008, when they ran their record to 9-3 before falling to once-No. 2 Missouri in overtime in the Alamo Bowl. Third-year coach and former Northwestern star Pat Fitzgerald even fueled some coach-of-the-year chatter with the Cats’ fourth-place finish in the Big Ten.
What’s more, NU’s 15 combined wins in 2007 and 2008 marked its best two-year stretch in more than a decade, and over the last two seasons the Wildcats have the fifth-best record in the Big Ten, behind only Blue Bloods Penn State, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan State. And recruits like Ward have taken notice.
“It’s real exciting,” Ward said. “At the same time, it’s a little bit – I don’t want to say nerve-racking – but we’re jumping into a program where there’s starting to be expectations. But it’s better to be part of a program that has high expectations than no expectations at all.”
The last Northwestern football renaissance occurred in the mid-1990s when Fitzgerald, then an All-American linebacker, helped lead the Wildcats to back-to-back bowls in 1995 and 1996. Having experienced that turnaround as a player, Fitzgerald is now reaping the rewards of winning on the recruiting trail.
“Success breeds more success,” Fitzgerald said in an interview with Purple Reign. “If you can win during those 12 weeks, that’s the obvious scorecard you have….There’s no question that our success has gotten more guys into our recruiting pool than ever before.”
Another Northwestern commit, Dallas linebacker Roderick Goodlow, was offered scholarships by Nebraska, Wisconsin, Arkansas and numerous others. But building something at Northwestern played a big role in his decision to attend NU.
“It makes you feel a part of something,” Goodlow said. “A lot of kids go to a program that’s already great, but to go to Northwestern and get better and better as you go by, you can say you helped make something.”
Indeed, there is something besides world-class academics to lure recruits to Northwestern – the chance to win, and win right away.
“At other programs that aren’t as successful right now,” Budzien said, “it maybe it isn’t a big issue if they’re winning or losing. But at Northwestern right now, they’re definitely in the spotlight a little bit. It’s just going to be fun to be part of a program that’s growing and to continue that.”
Ward, Budzien and most other Wildcat recruits still cite academics as a reason to attend NU; the school’s heady reputation isn’t going anywhere.
But the football program looks like it may be going somewhere. And that expectation is helping Northwestern land players to get them there.