Northwestern's recruiting culture has shifted gradually over the last few years, but the transformation didn't fully sink in for Matt MacPherson until a conversation with a potential recruit's parent a few months ago.
MacPherson, a member of the Wildcats' staff since 2006, is Northwestern's recruiting coordinator and running backs coach. He knows where the program has been -- it went 4-8 during his first year on campus, headlined by a demoralizing six-game losing streak -- and where it's going after finally tallying its first bowl victory since 1949.
Still, MacPherson didn't grasp just how far Northwestern recruiting had come until he heard it from a mother. While on a Texas swing this year, MacPherson spoke with the mom of a 2014 player whom Northwestern had just offered. It was the player's first scholarship offer from any FBS school. The mom excitedly told MacPherson about how her son's high school coach had reacted to the news.
"[The coach] said, 'Well I don't think it's gonna get a whole lot better than Northwestern for you,'" MacPherson said of the mother's story. "Meaning, what else do you need? What else is there out there for you?
"It wasn't a, 'Well this is your first offer, let's see where it goes from here.' It was, 'I think this first offer is gonna be hard to beat by anybody.'"
Traditional recruiting powers like Alabama, Florida and Ohio State hear that sentiment all the time; it's a nod to their sustained on-field excellence. In Northwestern's case however, the story spoke to the much larger perceptual shift that's occurred around Evanston. As recently as three or four years ago, many of the nation's top players didn't even know where Northwestern was located. Now, however, the school has begun to emerge as a possible landing spot for top-caliber players.
"I think when I first got back here we were still educating people on where is Northwestern," said head coach Pat Fitzgerald. "Who are we? What is the whole package all about? Where now kids have an awareness level of it, if that makes sense. I don't think the brand was really recognized as much as it is today."
Northwestern crossed the threshold somewhere along the way. The school's ability to compete for, and land, prized prospects became normal.
The class of 2014 recruiting rankings are littered with unlikely programs, best exemplified by Kentucky, which has taken on a renewed sense of purpose following Mark Stoops' hiring last November. Tennessee, which has seen similar optimism spread under new coach Butch Jones, has started hot. Boston College and Texas Tech have already secured 16 commitments each.
But Northwestern's case feels a bit different. This isn't a renaissance under a first-year frontman, a topic SI.com's Stewart Mandel wrote about at length a few weeks ago. Much like the situation surrounding David Shaw and Stanford, it's simpler: Northwestern has been to a bowl game each of the last five seasons and has a coach who, by all accounts, plans to stay with the program for a very long time. That, plus academics, makes for a compelling recruiting package.
"They can see it," said Fitzgerald. "It's not hypothetical, it's not someday, it's not a hashtag, it's not anything like that. It's just real. And that's what we try to do is just be brutally honest to be able to show people exactly what they're gonna get."
Four-star quarterback Clayton Thorson committed to Northwestern over Iowa, Illinois, Penn State and Ole Miss in March. Four-star athlete Dareian Watkins pledged the Wildcats over Penn State, Wisconsin, West Virginia and Louisville, among others, in May. Heralded running back Justin Jackson picked Northwestern out of a group of more than a dozen major-conference offers and fellow back Auston Anderson, a Plano, Texas, native, chose Northwestern over hometown Texas, TCU, Baylor and Texas Tech.
Northwestern coaches still harp on the importance of finding players who "fit" the system, but that group has expanded considerably of late. Most significantly, it's grown to include increasingly touted recruits.
"We used to get plenty of high-level football players, but now we feel like our recruiting classes from top to bottom are very, very talented," said Adam Cushing, Northwestern's current offensive line coach and recruiting coordinator from 2008-11. "... Probably our entire class is made up of our top targets."
Looking back, MacPherson thinks the change dates to the 2010 Outback Bowl, when the Wildcats lost a 38-35 heartbreaker to Auburn. That defeat still stings in Northwestern circles -- costly kicking errors prompted the team's second consecutive overtime bowl loss -- but the close performance spread the team's brand. It put Northwestern football on the map -- quite literally, in some prospects' minds.
"I think that was kind of the beginning of it," said MacPherson. "That's a team that the next year went on to win the national championship. So for people to see us compete with them, take them to the brink -- and we really should've won that game -- I think that was really kind of the beginning of the awareness level."
MacPherson continued: "We're a great academic institution. One of the best in the country. But it doesn't matter where you are, athletics is the front porch of your university. And in most programs, that's the football program. I think with the success we've had -- six straight years of bowl eligibility, five straight bowl games, 10-win season -- I think that raises your profile not only in the Midwest but across the country."
The process of changing a program's recruiting culture is a lot like trying to lose weight: The lasting solutions aren't built on shortcuts, quick fixes or empty promises. Real change takes time, and time requires patience. For Northwestern, continuing to improve after last year's 10-3 campaign won't be easy: Ohio State and Wisconsin replace Indiana and Penn State as cross-divisional opponents in 2013.
Yet the expectations have evolved. A few years ago, a bowl berth was the goal; now, that's expected. Slowly but steadily, a similar shift in momentum and outcome is happening for Northwestern on the recruiting trail.
"We're gonna get to a point where you're not gonna talk to me anymore because we're in the top 15 or top 20 in the country recruiting wise," said MacPherson. "That's gonna be commonplace. Right now it's a story. But I think down the road, that's gonna be what we expect and what we're gonna be able to do."