It’s been more than 20 years since the 1995 Northwestern Wildcats made their magical run to the Rose Bowl. About a decade years later, the linebacker who co-captained that team became the coach of that same program, taking over after the sudden death of Randy Walker. And now, just over two decades since he last pulled on the famed purple No. 51 Northwestern jersey, Pat Fitzgerald has another new contract in hand, one that pledges his commitment to the university for another decade.
The newest contract keeps Fitzgerald in Evanston through the 2026. Truth be told, it’s hard to imagine Fitzgerald anywhere else. He’s been a part of the program in some capacity for nearly all of the last quarter-century, including the past 11 seasons as head coach. He’s the program’s winningest head coach. The man who helped put Northwestern football back on the map for anything other than futility has built a program that is respectably competitive year-in and year-out in what is traditionally one of the nation’s top conferences.
But 10 seasons is a long time, so Fitzgerald’s extension, announced Tuesday, makes his task clear: As he heads forward, he needs to bring his program from one that makes bowl games relatively consistently to one that can at least occasionally challenge for and win the Big Ten.
It may seem like a stretch at first. Northwestern, the smallest school and the only private school in the Big Ten? The owners of two of the most ignominious record in the sport (longest losing streak and largest lead blown)? How could that program stack up against Ohio State or Michigan or even Big Ten West opponents Wisconsin and Nebraska?
With Fitzgerald at the helm, it’s not quite as much of a stretch. One area he has made significant progress in is recruiting. Fitzgerald’s classes have shown significant improvement over his 11 years at the helm in Evanston, much like his win-loss percentage. As expected, the two are strongly connected. Take for example, the 2012 season, the program’s first 10-win team since 1995. Two years later, Fitzgerald welcomed in a top 50 class nationally, a group that includes eight projected starters for this year’s team. Among those eight are redshirt junior quarterback Clayton Thorson, who broke the school record for touchdown passes last year, and senior running back Justin Jackson, who is on pace to shatter the school’s career rushing yards record.
Looking ahead, the Wildcats also have the ninth-ranked recruiting class in the nation for the class of 2018, according to 247Sports.com. That ranking will undoubtedly fall between now and National Signing Day, but Fitzgerald and his coaching staff are off to a red-hot start, especially in the state of Illinois, where the program has accrued six signatures, including from three of the state’s top eight prospects.
“Coach Fitz is, in my opinion, the best college football coach there is,” said 2018 defensive end commit Devin O’Rourke, the No. 2 recruit in Illinois and an Under-Armour All-American.
And while Fitzgerald has proven his chops are a salesman of the program, he also has his school’s board of trustees and athletic director Jim Phillips to thank. The Wildcats unfurled one of the nation’s most stunning practice facilities on the shores of Lake Michigan last spring and, within the next year or so, will open a brand-new, $260-million athletic complex.
With vastly improved recruiting and facilities, the momentum is there for further on-field growth. The Wildcats followed up a 10-win 2015 season with a seven-win campaign last year that included victories at Iowa and Michigan State and a Pinstripe Bowl win over Pittsburgh. Under Fitzgerald, the Wildcats have qualified for seven bowl games. The program had only made six in the hundred-plus years before that. And with a strong group of returning players competing in the weaker Big Ten West, Northwestern should figure into the conversation in the division race this fall.
Fitzgerald is still quite young in most coaching circles at just 42, but he is already the second-longest-tenured head coach in the Big Ten behind only Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz, who was given a similar extension at the beginning of last season. At 61, Ferentz is much older than Fitzgerald, but his trajectory with the Hawkeyes could offer a projection for Fitzgerald at Northwestern. Although Ferentz’s early tenure included some higher highs than Fitzgerald’s—namely Big Ten titles in 2002 and 2004—over the course of his first 11 seasons Ferentz averaged 7.36 wins to Fitzgerald’s 7.0.
Since then, Ferentz has improved his average to closer to eight wins per year, including a run to the Rose Bowl in 2015 and only one season in which Iowa failed to make a bowl game. Is improving to an Iowa-like level of success—consistently in contention for a spot in the conference championship—attainable at Northwestern? Fitzgerald finally has the resources he needs in terms of facilities, and he and Ferentz have significant overlap in type of recruits they target. From the 2014 to 2018 classes, Fitzgerald has reeled in a dozen recruits that also held Iowa offers.
With a brand new contract in one hand and control of a talented team in the other, Fitzgerald has what he needs to continue the ascension he started in his first decade with the Wildcats. Over the course of his second, it’s time for him to reward Northwestern’s commitment by raising the Wildcats to something they have never been: consistent contenders.