Commentary: Proposed Northwestern Coaching Changes for This Off-Season
by Jonathan Hodges

With the regular season in the rear view mirror and only the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas remaining, it's definitely time to consider what the Northwestern football program should look like moving forward. During the offseason there will be plenty of time to analyze personnel and incoming recruits, but right now is prime season for coaching changes, and the 'Cats would be wise to evaluate all of their assistants' performances after a relatively lackluster 6-6 regular season.

I am not one to rush to quick judgements and never call for coaches' heads mid-season, as such moves rarely, if ever, make sense as they essentially throw the current season out the window while severely disrupting recruiting, and any mid-season moves also leaves the team at a disadvantage in terms of the number of coaches, given that a hire is relatively completed within a week. But, after the regular season is done, it is really time to think things over, especially position coaches in areas that have underperformed.

Northwestern is quite loyal to its coaching staff, including usually-expendable assistants (e.g. holding on to Greg Colby at DC from 2002 through 2007 despite severely under-performing units that had NFL talent but failed on the field year after year) and notably hasn't fired a head coach since letting Francis Peay's contract expire following the 1991 season. While this is a welcome change from today's college football world where coaches contracts are not worth the paper on which they are printed, sometimes it does not serve NU well in the short term where results continue to lag.

Also, it's worth noting that coaching changes are not necessarily a panacea, and that much depends on the performance of the players on the field. And, of course, a lot of that depends on the talent level that is brought in through the recruiting process. While Northwestern doesn't bring in two dozen top shelf recruits year after year, Pat Fitzgerald has certainly upgraded NU's level of recruits and, in particular, depth of each class through his time as recruiting coordinator and, now, head coach.

While Fitz has built a consistent level of success and has now led NU to bowl games in four consecutive seasons (coincidentally, all after hiring his own Defensive Coordinator and Offensive Coordinator along with other assistants after using a staff he inherited from Randy Walker through his first two seasons at the helm), the 'Cats have yet to challenge for the Big Ten crown, something that is expected to happen at least once during a six year span in the post-1995 era of Northwestern football. With a respectable talent level and higher expectations, it's certainly worth evaluating the assistant coaching staff and how the 'Cats could improve their staff.

Note that I will not even consider any change at the head coaching position as Fitz has firmly established himself as the best-suited leader of Northwestern football, something that will likely remain through all 10 years of his new contract and beyond. While some of his game decisions are certainly questionable, he has put together an overall body of work that contains sustained success that has not been seen at NU. While others in the past have put together more impressive single seasons, he has shown that NU can be a consistent competitor and winner, along with the fact that he embodies everything that NU football is about. Now, onto the evaluation.


The Wildcat offense is certainly not the primary cause for this season's troubles: NU finished the year 36th in both rushing and passing offense and was 31st in total offense. While they ranked 51st in scoring offense, 29.5 points per game isn't shabby at all, particularly against a schedule featuring a slew of tough defenses. Looking at advanced stats, the 'Cats fared even better: ranking 25th in Football Outsiders' F/+ offense rating and performing well in both rushing (ranking 37th in S&P+ rushing offense) and passing (22nd), as NU got credit for performing well against tough competition. Even with QB Dan Persa out for the first three games and coming out with injuries in multiple other games, the offense performed well thanks to the multi-talented Kain Colter and a nice game plan from OC Mick McCall, who is proving to be an innovative and consistently productive coordinator (NU's offense has performed well in each of his four years at the helm even while starting five different QBs during that time). McCall has shown a great ability to develop quarterbacks, with Mike Kafka heading off to the NFL and Dan Persa setting school/conference/national records with his accurate throwing.

The wide receiving corps has been one of the most productive units on the team and seems to always have a great top target and good depth despite losing key players to graduation every year (Dennis Springer just completed his first year as WR coach at NU after coming over from Indiana). Superbacks can be lumped in with them as well, with Drake Dunsmore certainly posting great numbers with others performing solid roles in the blocking game (Bob Heffner has served in this role since the 2009 season).

Despite good numbers, there are two significant areas of concern: running back and offensive line. Running back may have just experienced a cyclical downturn after Northwestern put together a run of NFL-level backs starting with Darnell Autry running through Tyrell Sutton. Late last year and early in this season, Mike Trumpy was beginning to come on as a feature back for the 'Cats when he experienced two significant injuries that ended both of those seasons. Also, the running back issue seems to be more of a recruiting problem than on-field coaching issue, with NU just plain lacking a back with explosive speed outside of Trumpy. Finally, with a QB run-heavy spread offense, it's difficult to get an RB a huge amount of carries, which affects the stats and also affects recruits who may be considering NU. Matt MacPherson (who also serves as NU's recruiting coordinator) should be fine.

That leaves one big area of under-performance: the offensive line. Through the 2008 season, the 'Cats' OL was one of the team's strong points through the years, with multiple guys heading off to the NFL (including current starters Zach Strief and Trai Essex) and OL coach Bret Ingalls continued to develop the line while helping bring in some top level recruits. Unfortunately, following that season he headed off to the NFL (the Saints), and the Wildcats' OL subsequently regressed despite continuing to bring in top-level talent (including one of the top recruits brought in under Fitz, RT Patrick Ward).

First, there is the aforementioned running troubles that began in 2009, some of which can certainly be attributed to the line. Then, there are sacks: NU's ranks in sacks allowed during the past three years have been 102 (2011), 112 (2010), and 92 (2009), and that is with a mobile QB at the helm for most of that time span (who avoids the pass rush a good amount of the time). And it's not like the 'Cats pass all of the time, instead balancing it with the run a good amount of the time. Yes, the spread offense doesn't help in terms of pass protection, but the low ranks and the overall prevalence of the spread in college football today show that NU is not performing up to par.

The relatively good level of offensive line recruits coupled with the horrid performances (particularly in pass protection) point straight at the offensive line coach: Adam Cushing, who replaced Ingalls when he left for the NFL. Cushing was a tight end at the University of Chicago (Div. III) and came on as a superbacks coach, and has been credited as a top level recruiter. But, on the offensive line front he has certainly underwhelmed. This area seems ripe for change, particularly after the 'Cats have put so much focus on improvement in the past two offseasons, but have not been able to make significant strides despite fielding some top level talent and very experienced players (LT Al Netter and RG Ben Burkett are four year starters). It appears as though it may be worth switching assistant coaching titles in order to keep Cushing's solid recruiting on the NU staff, but the offensive line results on the field speak for themselves.

It's one thing to call for a change in a certain area, but I'm usually emphatic about how a school should proceed to fill in that position moving forward. In cases of position coaches, I certainly won't venture a guess as to who exactly should replace Cushing, but there are some traits that the person should have. After taking a big risk by bringing in someone with no experience coaching the position, it's clear that any new hire should have significant collegiate experience at coaching offensive linemen. While NU can't go after big names at big schools, they could certainly find up-and-comers at non-AQ type schools. Also, if Cushing is no longer on the staff, Fitz will have to find someone who can make up for the recruiting ability that he has.


There's a lot not to like on defense, this season in particular. But, it doesn't warrant the ouster of DC Mike Hankwitz right now. First of all, this unit has experienced a good number of injuries over the past two seasons that almost continually disrupt any cohesion that this unit has managed to develop. Also, they have thrown a good amount of young and inexperienced players into the fire, and even with a respectable level of recruits this usually doesn't have great results. Finally, his results through his first two and a half seasons compared to what the unit looked like when he entered the program shows that he deserves a chance to continue leading the D.

On the defensive line, things haven't gone well after the graduation of Corey Wootton. Since then, the line has generated little to no pressure on opposing QBs, particularly against top level competition, and that is usually a recipe for disaster. Also, this unit has been gashed for plenty of yards on the ground, particularly late last season when the defense collapsed after Dan Persa was lost with his Achilles injury. Even with an overall bad performance, there have been some bright spots, like Niko Mafuli's development into this season, where he started throughout the regular season and played relatively well, helping NU contain most opposing rushing games. And Tyler Scott, a promising DE who has played as an underclassman and likely been NU's best DE over the past year and a half. If the 'Cats can bring in some more talent on the line, Marty Long should be able to develop them into solid players.

The linebackers are the ones that have experienced the largest amount of flux thanks to both injury and graduation in recent years, and Randy Bates is recognized as an energetic and solid coach who has brought along some good players. While performance hasn't been great and the 'Cats have under-performed at times, particularly when sporting a good amount of experience, young players have been successfully developed and NU has shown good depth particularly in times of attrition.

That leaves the secondary, coached by the dean of the Northwestern coaching staff, Jerry Brown (who also carries the title of Assistant Head Coach). Brown has been on the NU staff since 1993 (under Barnett) and is an NU alum, and, by every account, is a really nice and respectable man. Unfortunately, the secondary was by far the worst unit of this year's team and the future does not look bright with the two best players (Jordan Mabin and Brian Peters) graduating following this season leaving huge question marks to go along with already existing issues in the defensive backfield. And it's not like this year is an aberration; over the last five seasons NU has an average pass efficiency defense rank of 66th and an average pass yardage allowed rank of 80th, and that's despite fielding some of the best DBs in recent history (Sherrick McManis, Brendan Smith, Brad Phillips, Brian Peters, Jordan Mabin). Even with a good level of talent there were often breakdowns, which was particularly evident early in this season when communication problems left receivers wide open through the first half of the year. While youth and inexperience are somewhat reasonable excuses for failures on the field, it's the job of the position coach to prepare them to play, and it's clear that the secondary was not ready to play for much of the season; and, it's not like NU was playing true freshmen out there, as everyone had at least one year in the program.

It may be very difficult for Fitz to ask Brown to leave, given that he was on the coaching staff through Fitz's time as a player at Northwestern, he's an NU alum, and he was the interim head coach after Walker's passing, but the failures of the secondary continue and there will be a big job to do next year breaking in three new starting DBs. Like the OL coach, it would be wise to bring in someone with experience coaching a collegiate secondary, but in this case it may be wise to bring in someone who has helped develop players in the past, something that seems to be lacking right now. Hopefully this can be handled in the best way possible (like with a retirement) given Brown's legacy and standing in the NU community.

Special Teams

Many in the past have harped on bringing in a dedicated special teams coordinator. I still don't believe this is necessary as Fitz has shown the ability to divide up the areas of special teams amongst the staff and succeed: outside of one costly error in the last regular season game, the coverage teams have been excellent. And with a speedy return man on the roster, the return game has been just fine. Finally, a special teams coach won't suddenly make the kickers better; instead, that must be accomplished through recruiting. While a dedicated special teams man would certainly help, NCAA coaching position restrictions just make it too prohibitive to dedicate one spot to the third phase; but, the 'Cats have made strides in this area under Fitz and are set up for a promising couple of years with two experienced kickers and an electric return man who is completing just his second season.


The final area I'll touch on is off the field: a mental coach. Fitz is a great recruiter and a great motivator, but the fact is that Northwestern continues to have trouble beating opponents that it should beat and playing "down" to the level of competition. This is best shown by another Football Outsiders statistic, covariance, which relates a team's performance to its level of competition using aforementioned advanced stats; this season, NU ranked 4th nationally in this, indicating that the 'Cats play to the level of their competition more than 116 other FBS teams, as evidenced by the win over Nebraska and the loss to Army. And it's not like this is a new phenomenon for the Wildcats; any NU fan could provide examples of this occurring seemingly every year (on the negative side: Duke in 2007, Indiana in 2008, Syracuse in 2009, and numerous others come to mind, while on the positive side, see Iowa 2009 & 2010, Wisconsin 2009, Michigan State 2007, and others).

This shows that there is something systemic going on in the program, and the best way to stem the tide is to bring in an outsider who can help improve the psychology of the team in this regard. Northwestern has the talent to play with anyone and also has the talent to handily beat inferior teams, yet the 'Cats almost never do so (the best examples of winning handily actually came this year: Fitz's largest margin of victory over an FBS team is 22, achieved three times, with two of those wins coming this season over Indiana and Rice). Yes, NU under Fitz has an impressive record in close games, but the fact is that the 'Cats play way too many close games for comfort; NU should have been far ahead in a good number of those contests.

The physical ability is there and the strategy also seems to be there, but a mental coach should be able to get into the heads of both the players and the coaching staff to help them make the necessary changes to take that next necessary step of eliminating the humbling losses and instead winning consistently as the favorite. Northwestern's ability to beat better teams on the road while falling to inferior teams and having difficulty at home on occasion also show that the 'Cats could use some psychological assistance given that one should expect much better performance at home and against worse teams. Even my wife, a PhD candidate in Psychology through the Northwestern Medical School fully agrees that some sort of mental coach or sports psychologist should be able to help this obvious deficiency in the program.


The following changes should be made to help Northwestern progress as a program:

- Move Adam Cushing from the OL coaching spot and bring in a coach with a good amount of collegiate offensive line coaching experience.  Keep Cushing for recruiting, if possible.

- Prompt Jerry Brown to retire from his secondary coaching position and bring in a guy with a track record of developing collegiate defensive backs who can step in and help a weak position right away; handle Brown with respect given his tenure and history with NU.

- Hire a mental coach to help improve the consistency of the program that has talent but continues to play down to inferior competition; focus on both the players and coaching staff.

Hopefully Fitz will not be content with the state and direction of the program (after jumping to nine wins in 2008, the 'Cats have won one fewer game in each subsequent season leading up to this year's six regular season wins) and will be willing to make some changes in his staff to improve the team. For right now all focus should be on Texas A&M and ending the infamous bowl drought, but after that hopefully the focus is shifted to how NU can improve in the near future.

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.