Pat Fitzgerald’s Path To COY

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Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

On January 1, 2013, Pat Fitzgerald proclaimed Northwestern “here to stay” on national television after the team secured the school’s second 10-win season since 1903. 

The Wildcats went 5-7 in each of the next two seasons. But, eventually, he was right.

Rome wasn’t built in one day, and neither was the program Fitzgerald inherited in 2006 following then-head-coach Randy Walker’s sudden passing. 

Just 31-years-old at the time, he was already one of the most prominent names in program history. During his playing days, he led Northwestern to its second Rose Bowl, a game they may have won had Fitzgerald not been injured.

One of the most common misconceptions about coaches in college football is that they need a ‘breakthrough’ win in order to announce their program’s arrival to relevance. Just over 9 months after Fitzgerald’s proclamation, Northwestern had that chance against top-5 Ohio State.

The Wildcats lost, and missed a bowl game that year for the first time since 2007. Those kinds of games are not what build winning programs. Sure, they help, but it doesn’t start and end there. The world “build” implies a process, not a 60-minute rebrand.

Entering the 2012 season, the Wildcats were known, perhaps even nationally, for choking leads away in the fourth quarter of games in a way that defied explanation. It was as predictable as the sun rising the next day. Even in 2012, they did that. Three times, to be exact. Those were the team’s only losses that season.

Throughout the next six seasons, Fitzgerald stuck to his plan. He didn’t get any five-star recruits, no “program-changing” transfers. Nothing outside of gathering talent that fits the team’s personnel and scheme. 

When Justin Jackson left Northwestern this past offseason, he left a hole open that had been firmly sealed for four seasons. He accumulated more rushing yards in his four years than Herschel Walker, Montee Ball, Anthony Thompson, and LaDainian Tomlinson in theirs. How? By building and growing a little bit each year, just like his coach did with his program.

His replacement, Jeremy Larkin, was forced to retire from football after three games of being the team’s leading rusher at over 115 yards per game, and leading receiver with 19 total catches. Larkin’s replacement, Isaiah Bowser, is a true freshman. Through six games as the starting running back, he’s averaging over 120 yards per game. If he kept that pace up through 9 games instead of 6, it would qualify as the sixth highest mark in the entire country.

This weekend, Fitzgerald and his Wildcats will go toe-to-toe with Ohio State, a team they nearly beat in Columbus two years ago. They didn’t get here from a breakthrough win. They didn’t get here by luck, either. Winning 15 of 16 conference games in any conference sure isn’t luck.

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Fitzgerald greets Urban Meyer after a loss in 2013. The two meet again this weekend in Indianapolis. (Photo courtesy of USATSI)

With a strong foundation, any building has a great chance to prevail through any chaotic weather pattern. Fitzgerald’s building doesn’t have shiny glass windows or a rooftop bar like Jim Harbaugh’s or James Franklin’s, two coaches who can flaunt storied, strong programs. But thanks to over a decade of careful construction, it’s built to weather the chaotic storm that is the college football season. After the storm passes, that building will stand tall more often than not.

And after 2018, Fitzgerald’s building is one of two that remain. All thanks to years of careful construction.

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