EVANSTON, Ill. -- On March 1, a Saturday, Northwestern players received an outline for the attire they'd wear for three spring practices the following week. Shells, shells, pads, they were told. Two days of lighter equipment and lighter contact before the crescendo into a full-bore, take-them-to-the-turf workout. That was fine. That was the plan.
The following Tuesday, the Wildcats arrived for their usual morning practice only to receive a late wake-up call. No shells. Full pads. For some of them, this was not fine. It was the first practice of the week and, as such, they're typically eased into action. But this was not what they had been told. This was not the plan.
"We did not respond well, no," senior center Brandon Vitabile said. "It's just all in the choice you make and the way you talk to yourself about how the day is going to be. 'Oh, I have to put knee pads on instead of shorts?' It's like, grow up, who are you?"
Consider that to be the question hovering over everything Northwestern does this spring, an identity crisis that extends far beyond one day of wardrobe dysfunction. The largest specter is the unionization movement spearheaded by former quarterback Kain Colter. A regional director of the National Labor Relations Board determined that the athletes were, in fact, employees in a March 25 ruling, but Northwestern appealed that ruling on Wednesday. The players will vote on authorizing a union later this month, and some current members of the roster have downplayed the effort. "I'm treated far better than I deserve here," quarterback Trevor Siemian said during a Big Ten conference call on Wednesday.
Under any circumstance, the union movement has little on-field relevance. And while everyone focuses on Colter and the NLRB, the Wildcats are working to address a more pressing concern this spring. They appeared to have every element aligned for a charge at a Big Ten title last fall. The depth chart had talent in the right spots and the schedule seemed favorable, with Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State all set to visit Evanston. When adversity set in, however, the stultifying results had everyone purple in the face: A 5-7 nosedive, featuring seven straight losses to open league play.
Injuries, especially to Colter and tailback Venric Mark, undermined Northwestern's aspirations. But something more insidious contributed to the Wildcats never recovering from a 40-30 loss to Ohio State on Oct. 5 with ESPN's College GameDay on campus: The team forgot itself, forgot how it established a context in which there would be expectations in the first place. This winter and spring has been about remaking memories.
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"People thought it was almost kind of given that there was a bowl game and a postseason and everything like that," junior superback Dan Vitale said. "And when that's taken away from you because you're not doing the right things, it sucks. But I think we got it locked in this spring, we got that hungry feeling back that we wanted to have last year. I think we kind of lost that hunter mentality."
When his team reacted negatively to the shells-to-pads switcheroo earlier this month, Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald essentially got what he wanted by getting exactly what he didn't want. In an interview with the Chicago Tribune before spring practice began, he alluded to "mental and physical habits" that required fixing after the debacle of 2013. In essence, the 39-year-old coach felt that his team wilted too easily in challenging situations. So, on a small scale, he has presented his players with one after another this spring. The practice gear change, for example. Or guys might figure they are done with a specific set in practice when an air horn sounds and Fitzgerald might send them right back out for more.
"It's habits," Fitzgerald said. "We went through a little rough stretch and we didn't fight through the adversity like we needed to. That obviously starts and ends with me and that's disappointing. That's why we got what we deserved. Everybody's going to face it, how do you handle it. We didn't handle it well enough to be where we wanted to be and where we expect to be. So we have a lot of work to do."
Northwestern blew four second-half leads last season. The Wildcats lost to Nebraska on a tipped, desperation Hail Mary as time expired. They lost to Iowa in overtime. They lost to Michigan in three overtimes. These facts have a double meaning. One is that the team didn't exactly rend apart despite its issues. ("If we won two more of those games, we're not having this conversation," Vitabile said.) But the other is that it did not have the necessary resolve to finish what it started.
After a 10-win campaign in 2012, it's no stretch to believe that Northwestern simply assumed it would come through in these predicaments. "Our attitudes weren't where they needed to be," junior safety Traveon Henry said. "We didn't have the worker's mentality that we approached this winter [with]. And I'm sure all the guys felt it, because as soon as we got here, we felt the transition. We knew things were different around here. We felt our mentalities had to change. We had to develop that killer instinct -- let's go in and do our work and get out."
It may be difficult for Northwestern to determine how well the mind-wipe applies to the on-field product until August. Four rotation defensive linemen are missing spring ball after offseason surgery, which not only makes evaluating that group difficult, but also limits Fitzgerald's ability to gauge his offense with accuracy. Mark, who rushed for 1,366 yards in 2012 but played just three games in '13, is also sitting out as he recovers from an ankle fracture. Safety Ibraheim Campbell broke his jaw on March 1 and won't return until preseason camp. And, of course, there is the unionization vote on April 25, which could defuse that story or plunge a wedge between the roster and the coaches.
There is work being done at quarterback, however, where Siemian presumably assumes the full-time starting role after sharing the spot with Colter to various degrees in each of the last two seasons. Colter was a scrambler and Siemian is more of a traditional pocket passer; Siemian threw for 2,149 yards with 11 touchdowns and nine interceptions in 2013. The consistency of one quarterback with one set of tendencies may help the offensive line protect more confidently and intelligently. Likewise, Siemian won't be jarred by the back-and-forth.
"A lot of the game is the feel of it, you understand how guys are playing against you," Vitabile said. "You can only watch so much film. You're out there, then you realize what he's doing is not what he was doing on film. It'll help with that flow."
Still, until Northwestern has a full complement of personnel, it will focus on cultivating culture. Henry recalled a conversation with redshirt freshman safety Kyle Queiro after a recent practice in which Queiro made a declaration that shouldn't be as surprising as it was: Man, he said, I'm starting to have fun playing football.
"That's the type of attitude we need to have," Henry said. "We need to enjoy this."
Before his team broke for winter break, Fitzgerald had one less-than-enjoyable request: He wanted his players to watch the bowl games. Northwestern had played in five straight postseason contests before being shut out last year. The coach wanted his players to feel that sensation acutely. Some watched. Others tried but could not. At a minimum, they were distracted by the thought of bonding with teammates in a hotel near campus after the dorms closed, of having a sunny feeling on the inside and the outside.
"It was pretty miserable," Vitabile said. "Especially when the family was like, 'Oh, it's so nice to have you home.' Like, no, it sucks, I don't want to be here. I want to be somewhere warm with my team."
To return to where it believes it should be, Northwestern first must return to what it was. If the Big Ten title was there for the taking last fall, the Wildcats neglected to nurture the correct mindset to seize it. The injuries didn't help, but some of the wounds were self-inflicted.
Fitzgerald has challenged his team with sudden change during spring practice, because it is exactly what's needed, in every sense.
"We should have had that hunter mentality," Vitale said. "We were coming off a great season, we had everything going for us. We should have been confident. We should have been the top dogs in the Big Ten. I think we kind of let that slide through our fingertips a little bit. I think we scaled it back a little bit. That's something that was totally wrong by us as players. I don't think we'll ever let that happen again."