Commentary: Is it time for NU to move on from Fitz?
by Jonathan Hodges

Heresy! Yes, it seems absolutely ridiculous, but I'm going to make a guest return to HTP almost precisely 10 years after signing off in order to make such an argument: it may be time for Northwestern to consider who may come after Coach Pat Fitzgerald.

I immediately hopped on the bandwagon that fateful summer in 2006 when Randy Walker suddenly passed, and a young and untested Pat Fitzgerald was elevated from a positional coach directly to head coach. The fire and energy were there, along with loyalty to his alma mater, which has been proven over the ensuing 17 seasons where both higher-profile schools and the NFL occasionally came knocking. His track record is well established and virtually unparalleled in Northwestern Football history: winningest coach, 5 bowl wins, 10 bowl appearances, 2 division crowns, and finished ranked in 5 seasons (with the highest ranking being 10th).

There were the initial lumps as he adjusted to becoming a head coach, but still achieved 4 wins (2 in the Big Ten) in his inaugural season, despite significant quarterback challenges as NU looked to move on from a 4-year starter in Brett Basanez. However, he quickly righted the ship, steadily increasing the wins, with at least 6 in 6 consecutive seasons, with a 5 year bowl streak that was capped with the 'Cats' second-ever bowl win in the 2013 Gator Bowl (following the 2012 season).

Then after a couple of bowl-less 5-7 seasons where karma from a bevy of close losses seemed to even out, NU found an even higher ceiling: 5 bowls in 6 seasons (with 4 wins!), two 10-win campaigns, and, most importantly, 2 Big Ten West division championships. NU ended the season ranked in 4 of those 6 seasons. Additionally, Fitz finally achieved what has clearly been one of his career goals: an extremely stout defence (led by then DC Mike Hankwitz) that could carry NU to victory.

However, one can definitely argue that Northwestern lived and died by its quarterback play, which is all so common in football given the importance of that position in today's game and parity in talent across most schools. Dan Persa, Kain Colter & Trevor Siemian (who remains active in the NFL!), the all-time leader in wins Clayton Thorson, plus the one-year wonder Peyton Ramsey. The last of which really demonstrated the importance, with NU going from a horrid 3-9 in 2019 to 7-2 in the COVID-shortened 2020 season capped with a Citrus Bowl win and finishing ranked 10th nationally. And, of course all 'Cats fans know what has happened since: a rotating cast at QB and essentially the biggest regression since the early 1970s: 3-9 in 2021 and 1-11 in 2020. That's what I'm here to consider.

There comes a time in almost every coach's career when they are bound to become ineffective - it is seen at all levels of the game, and when coaches stay too long it becomes all too apparent. There are examples going way back and even more recent (and possibly even current). There are also ups and downs of each season which may be dictated by luck, recruiting, the draw of the schedule, etc. How is one to tell which category Fitz may fall into?

Fitz has experienced dips, such as the aforementioned consecutive 5-7 seasons in 2013-14, from which NU clearly bounced back. However the most recent 4 seasons show a different trend - NU is 14-31 in that span, with only the completely unique 2020 season holding any water during that span. Fitz (rightly) had a generous extension a few years ago that keeps his job contractually secure, NU continues to benefit from a world-class practice facility, and will be attempting to build a world-class stadium in the near future. However, NU is quickly ceding ground on the field.

Yes, NU was competitive in some of the games it lost this season, but the record was a good indication of the product on the field. Ultimately, coaches are paid for results. Yes, Fitz does things the right way and NU wouldn't accept anything else - graduating players, maintaining academic excellence, keeping everything above-board. However that alone does not justify a salary of $5M+ per year. In a similar circumstance, Stanford's David Shaw graciously retired this year despite having a slightly better record than Fitz over the past few years and achieving a higher level of success earlier in his career (Rose Bowl appearances).

The NU Athletic Department did acknowledge the general concern, and some modifications were made to the staff, so there is something being done, however Fitz has been through that before. And, the biggest problems of late are arguably on offense, whose staff is staying in place (though are relatively new, on NU's coaching time scales). However, NU's current team is more of a reflection of Fitz himself than of the rest of the coaching staff: leaning on defense while trying to play it safe on offense. This formula has worked when the right athletes were available (particularly on offense, especially at QB), but is now failing the 'Cats on a routine basis.

While the team is not devoid of talent (highlighted by a highly recruited incoming 2023 class), the team has been lacking playmakers at the offensive skill positions in particular, and has had difficulty in plugging losses on defense, particularly after the departure of the recent group of solid defenders who helped lead NU to 2 division titles in 3 seasons. Additionally, the opening of the transfer portal has become a net negative to the Wildcats; while it has brought in at least one high profile impact player (Ramsey), other incoming players have failed to live up to their potential, meanwhile NU has lost more than their share of players (most notably Brandon Joseph to the ever-hated Notre Dame, along with Isaiah Bowser on the offensive side). While NU has coaching stability, academic excellence, dedication to its players, and, now, facilities to attract top talent, they have been bleeding some of that talent out and are arguably still not bringing in talent to fill the biggest gaps.

Then, there is scheme - after Walker brought in the spread offense, zone run blocking, read-option with mobile QBs, and no-huddle hurry-up (all ahead of many other schools), NU had an offensive schematic advantage that could lead to the ability to out-score almost anyone and to come back from significant deficits. While that output was not always sustainable - it definitely made NU a competitive threat to most other teams. The 'Cats maintained this approach into the Fitz era with some carryover on the offensive staff and in terms of personnel, one could see this begin to fade away as his tenure progressed, with more of a focus on the ground game and sustained drives, with which NU has arguably become over-dependent. With a string of talented QBs now seemingly broken, lack of accuracy and poor decision making now completely hamstring the offense. There are limited playmakers to break big gains, no real schematic advantage to throw the opposing defense off track, and no ability to put up points to purely out-score the competition. Northwestern can win games in this manner, which Fitzgerald arguably prefers, it is clearly not a recipe for sustained success. While the Wildcats have regressed in offensive scheme, others have continued to progress, well past NU's former standing. Again, this seems to be intentional and a reflection of the head coach.

Finally, there is in-game coaching - Fitz has clearly progressed a long way in this regard (for those who can remember, just think of taking points off the board in the 2007 loss to Duke and the 2006 then-record-breaking comeback loss to MSU), and he hasn't made as many clear errors in coaching judgment as of late. His recent penchant of going for it on a relatively high percentage of 4th downs is also a positive development, in this writer's opinion (though may also speak to lack of kicking talent on the roster after having quite solid placekickers throughout the 2010's). However, I'm speaking to something he has never embraced, which is trying to establish a psychological advantage for his team. This is something that his predecessors, Gary Barnett and Randy Walker, did quite well - Barnett in particular (which Fitz experienced first-hand). While Fitz does work to motivate his teams, he clearly eschews psychological elements and instead focuses on a strong work ethic. This has led to extremely streaky behavior both within games and over time - particularly in the recent past one can see NU squads collapse within games and go on long streaks (usually losing, such as the active 11-game loss streak). While Barnett and Walker had their share of negative seasons (think of 2001-2002 under Walker), they would ultimately find ways to be competitive and avoid long streaks (on the other hand Walker was never able to put together a long winning streak, having never won 4 or more consecutive games during his NU tenure). This has led to Fitz teams snowballing confidence and, therefore, wins but, now conversely, finding the depths of possibilities in a collegiate environment that has a high level of parity (even at the FCS/I-AA level, as NU knows well, having now lost 3 times to such teams under Fitz). And, NU players, being quite intelligent, may be more prone to this streaky behavior than other teams, on average. This may be the most significant contributing factor and something that is less likely to change over time.

In conclusion, should NU consider moving on from Fitz? My argument: yes. If NU would like to see more sustained winning, that may be the best option. Now, that of course means finding the right next option (which is not always the easiest and is good evidence against premature firings), but maybe someone like former NU QB Mike Kafka who is coaching one of the most potent offenses at the professional level would be a good option. Regardless, that person would need to sustain NU's academic success, continue to do things 'the right way', and build in the positive direction towards sustained success. It will also be important to build towards potential inclusion in the upcoming expanded 12-team playoff; while it was never realistic to expect NU to compete for inclusion in the 'plus one' 4-team model, they can definitely compete for a spot in the new model with the right person at the helm.

Of course that is my supposition but, realistically, will NU ever make such a change? Certainly not this year (due to the transfer window, early recruit signing period in Dec, and general state of the game coaches now must essentially be fired in-season with replacements hired by early Dec.) and maybe not for another one or two seasons, even at the 2021-22 level of performance (which NU fans certainly hope does not come to pass). The closest possible analog may be the aforementioned situation with Shaw at Stanford where the writing was on the wall and he chose to move on at his own terms. NU has rarely voluntarily let go of assistant coaches, let alone the head coach, so this may very well be a pipe dream.

Ultimately, NU fans like myself hope that Fitz can help turn things around again and minimally redevelop a sustained winner and routinely go to (and win) bowl games. However, as described herein, we may need to continue suffering through more downs than ups, with the valleys now again reaching nationally-low depths; hopefully there are some peaks forthcoming and maybe we can all learn to savor those even more after becoming accustomed to sustained success without appreciating NU's longsuffering performance some 30-50 years ago.

Go 'Cats!

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