10 Year HailToPurple Anniversary Special Commentary:
Northwestern's  Decade of Consistency

by Jonathan Hodges

Congratulations to HailToPurple for serving a vital role to the Northwestern football community for 10 years, which makes it the longest lasting NU football site on the net.  I am proud to have been a contributor to HTP for a portion of that time and look forward to continuing my commentary and analysis of Wildcat football.

The past decade of Northwestern football has been tumultuous at times, yet the 2000 through 2009 seasons also mark one of the, if not the, most consistent period of success in Northwestern football history.  The 2000's have seen lows including the deaths of a current player (Rashidi Wheeler prior to the 2001 season) and a current head coach (Randy Walker prior to the 2006 season), but have also seen highs in the form of a shared Big Ten Championship in 2000 and beating top 10 teams on multiple occasions (Wisconsin in 2000, Ohio State in 2004, and Iowa in 2009).  But it hasn't just been about highs and lows, as Northwestern went to five bowl games, had just four losing seasons (one where NU went to a bowl game as a .500 team and subsequently lost), and accumulated a 61-61 overall record, the best decade record for NU since the 1930's.

When Northwestern quickly rose out of the ashes to win an outright Big Ten title in 1995, many non-NU Big Ten football fans (and college football fans nationally) figured it was just a blip on the radar: NU got lucky one year.  The Wildcats had another successful season in 1996, sharing a Big Ten title and going to a second consecutive New Year's Day bowl game, but then tailed off as NU put together losing seasons in '97 and '98 (including going winless in the conference in the 1998 season) and finally lost their leader, Coach Gary Barnett, before the '99 season.  It was starting to look like those other fans were indeed right, that those two magical seasons were indeed just a blip on the radar and the 'Cats were heading back down the path of being the losing-est college football program.

Fast forward to 2000, with Coach Walker in his second year at the helm of Northwestern.  After a 3-8 campaign in 1999, nobody expected much, if anything, out of the Wildcats, but NU had other plans thanks to a high octane offensive attack (thanks to a newly installed "spread offense") and an opportunistic defense.  Walker led the team to three huge conference road wins, including two in dramatic fashion (a 2OT win at Wisconsin to kick off Big Ten play and a last-second come-from-behind win at Minnesota), before playing one of the most memorable college football games ever, the infamous 54-51 victory over Michigan in 2000.  The Wildcats shared another Big Ten crown (its third in a six year span) and things were once again looking up for the program.

Although the Wildcats were, according to some, actually favored to win the conference heading into the 2001 season, the aforementioned death of Wheeler put a negative tone over that year that turned even worse with injuries to numerous starters and significant contributors and a defense that seemingly couldn't stop anyone.  The on-field bleeding continued into the following season, with the Wildcats having to deal with the drop in recruiting that followed Barnett's departure as well as teams that seemingly "figured out" the spread offense.  Once again, many wondered if the 2000 season was another blip thanks to a strategic advantage that was now gone.

Walker continued to fight, though, tweaking the spread offense on the field and making recruiting inroads off the field, which was at least somewhat due to a fired-up young NU alum Linebackers Coach by the name of Pat Fitzgerald who would soon take over the Recruiting Coordinator post.  The period of consistently seemingly began in 2003 when NU went a respectable 6-6 and went to a bowl game, one they came extremely close to winning.  The next year, NU took down Ohio State, something it hadn't done since 1971, giving Randy Walker wins over every Big Ten program (including Northwestern, something he accomplished as head coach of Miami of Ohio in 1995).  But the period of consistency continued as Walker's team went 6-6, somewhat of a disappointment as the 'Cats missed a bowl game.  Perceptions of the program were beginning to change, with a .500 record actually being unsatisfactory to many NU fans.

2005 brought another exhilarating season, with a high powered offense leading the Wildcats to yet another bowl game, its third of the decade despite NU going to just three bowl games ever prior to 2000.  After another close bowl loss, NU finished with a 7-5 record.  Suddenly, going to a bowl game was becoming the rule instead of the exception.  Some Wildcat fans even grumbled about Walker's failure to win more Big Ten titles or to take NU to a BCS game, despite winning a conference title and taking NU to more bowl games than any other coach in school history.  And both within the Big Ten and nationally, people began to realize that Northwestern wasn't the same team that played at then-Dyche Stadium in the late 1970's and early 1980's; the Wildcats were now a competitive Big Ten program.

Tragedy struck again before the 2006 season, as Northwestern lost Coach Walker to an unexpected heart condition.  Although the plan was to slowly groom Fitzgerald for the head coaching position over a period of about six or so seasons, NU knew what it had to do and named him head coach, making him the youngest NCAA Div. I-A (FBS) head coach at the time.  Everyone knew he was extremely inexperienced (he had been a position coach for just six years and had never even been a coordinator), but everyone also knew that he had the leadership qualities to be a solid coach down the road and he could also recruit thanks to his intense personality and passion for Northwestern.

The coaching change coupled with the loss of many significant contributors from the '05 bowl squad as well as their experienced offensive coordinator meant a down year, but the potential was there as NU won two of its last three games.  2007 was another step forward, with NU achieving bowl eligibility with a 6-6 record that included two thrilling mid-season overtime victories over Big Ten opponents.  Yes, Fitz took his lumps, like an embarrassing home loss to Duke that included some questionable coaching decisions, but the team continued to progress.

Prior to the 2008 season, Fitz truly took the reigns of the program as he brought in new coordinators and other members of the coaching staff of his choosing, highlighted by the addition of experienced defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz (who interestingly had been a DC for longer than Fitz had been involved with organized football).  One could also see the team begin to take on the character of Fitz: an enthusiastic yet disciplined team that plays defensive-minded football.  Coach Fitz also was becoming more comfortable with his role, letting his personality out more and also learning from his now-growing experience.

Fitz used his newly resurrected defense and a senior-laden offense to go on a tear in 2008, winning all of its non-conference games for the first time since the 1963 season (when someone named Ara was head coach at Northwestern), and reeling off some close wins in Big Ten play to go 9-3 in the regular season and head to a bowl game to play a highly favored Missouri team.  His Wildcats astounded almost everyone by leading much of that game and taking the Tigers to the brink before falling in overtime, but the notice had been served that the consistent winning established under Walker would continue and Fitz's goal was to go to bowl games and to win them.

Many expected a down year in 2009 thanks to a slew of departing senior offensive skill players, but somehow Fitz's team generated enough offense while playing sound defense to reel off eight regular season wins, including the biggest comeback win in program history and two thrilling victories over ranked Big Ten programs in the final three weeks of the year.  This success earned the Wildcats a place in a New Year's Day bowl game for the first time since Fitzgerald played in one following his senior season.  That bowl game, the 2010 Outback Bowl, turned out to be one of the most memorable games ever; unfortunately, that memory ended with a Northwestern loss, despite the fact that the Wildcats came back and played valiantly for a victory in overtime that just would not come.

So, looking back on the just-concluded decade, one sees many peaks and valleys, but what really stands out is that Northwestern became a consistently competitive program, evidenced by the .500 record and five bowl appearances.  No longer is a winning season or bowl appearance a blip on the typical losing way of Northwestern; instead, Northwestern fans and others expect the program to regularly compete within the conference and to go to bowl games more often than not.  Not only that, but things are looking up for the Wildcats thanks to a dynamic and still quite young head coach named Pat Fitzgerald who looks ready to stay at Northwestern for life as he works to take the Purple back to Pasadena.

Go 'Cats!!!

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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jhodges is the primary content provider of HailToPurple.com.  His commentary and game analyses appear regularly during the season and occasionally in the offseason.