Commentary: NU Hires New OC and DC
by Jonathan Hodges

It was a busy week for Coach Fitz last week as he grabbed both a defensive and offensive coordinator after letting go of previous DC Greg Colby in early December and the surprise departure of OC Garrick McGee right at the start of this calendar year.  Also, DL coach Eric Washington is headed to coach for the Bears, leaving an additional vacancy on the defensive coaching staff.  So, what does this all mean for Northwestern Football?

New Offensive Coordinator: Mike McCall

New OC McCall comes from Bowling Green where he was offensive coordinator for one season.  Prior to that, he has been on the coaching staff at Wyoming, Oregon State, Idaho State, and Southern Colorado in addition to a long stint as HC of a Denver-area high school powerhouse.  While he has been around, he doesn't have extensive coordinator experience at the D-IA level, although he did run the spread at BGSU and likes to call a "run from the spread" type of offense, which seems to fit Northwestern perfectly.  One interesting note is that back in 2000, Northwestern's win over Michigan (54-51) inspired then-BGSU coach Urban Meyer to install the spread offense at his school.  Bowling Green later used that offense to beat NU in 2001 (thanks to a game winning 2 point conversion in the closing minutes) and also at the Motor City Bowl in 2003 (under new coach Gregg Brandon) - and Meyer used the success of that spread offense to propel himself to HC at Utah and, now, Florida.

The fact is that despite a relative lack of coordinator coaching experience, he has been in the coaching ranks for some time and his recent experience has been in the spread offense which is the same offense NU is used to running.  Plus, he likes to emphasize running from the spread, possibly something that will help NU as in 2007 the offense was all about passing first - which left many scratching their heads as NU racked up the yards but failed to punch it in on numerous occasions with many pointing to the lack of a balanced offensive attack as the reason.  Finally, his high school experience and connections point to a potentially strong recruiter (in addition to Fitz who has been no slouch himself).

New Defensive Coordinator: Mike Hankwitz

If you want a big name hire with a ton of experience, look no further than new DC Hankwitz.  He was recently fired from Wisconsin's DC position after 2 relatively solid years under suspicious circumstances (rumor has it that he and Wisconsin HC Bielema just didn't get along), but has over 20 years of defensive coordinator experience.  He started his coaching career back in 1970 as a graduate assistant at Michigan (where he also graduated) and made his way up the coaching ranks (at schools such as Purdue and Western Michigan) until becoming DC at Colorado in 1985, serving there until 1994 (along with OC Gary Barnett for some time, including during their 1990 national championship season).  He also served as DC at Kansas (under Glen Mason), Arizona (under Makovic), and Texas A&M (under Slocum).  He also served as interim head coach at Arizona before the arrival of Mike Stoops.

Hankwitz is most definitely a big hire, as he has a proven track record of successful defenses and a lot of accomplishments under his belt.  The hiring of such an experienced guy as DC should allow Fitz more freedom as head coach as he will not have to "babysit" the defense (there were rumors about Fitz taking more control of the defense during last season, although this is unconfirmed).  This is a hire for fans to get excited about, though, as he has talented and experienced players on defense that have a chance to come together and really make things happen in 2008.

Also, with former DL Coach Washington departing (who has apparently been underachieving, especially with the talent available on the DL) he will have a position to fill shortly, along with potential choices to make about other coaches under him (depending on how much space Fitz gives him to tinker with the staff).  A big question has to be the future of Assistant HC/Secondary Coach Brown who has been at NU for a long time but whose coaching results have underwhelmed.

Hiring Grades:

Offensive Coordinator: B  This one is hard to tell immediately - and I think we'll only see the true grade after seeing results on the field.  It looks like a good hire - a guy who has been around a while and has some experience running the offensive scheme that has made NU successful this decade, but his relative lack of experience is a question mark.  Also, the fact that Fitz still has relatively little experience with the offensive side of the ball leads one to question why he didn't put someone in place who has more experience, but the fact is that the NU offense has weathered a lot of coaches leaving this decade yet has continued to be successful.  The key to the 2008 season will be the OL - otherwise the skill players are in place to be extremely successful (Bacher, Sutton, and the WR squad).  It will be interesting to see if there is a transition period at the beginning of the season - in 2006 when new OC McGee took over there was most definitely a drop off in offensive productivity which was caused by a complete change in offensive leadership - new QB, new OC, new HC (with no offensive coaching experience), and of course the fallout from the passing of Coach Walker - and don't forget the injury to CJ Bacher for about half the season which threw another loop in things.  With the skill players in place, a HC with more experience, and an OC with some coordinator experience, hopefully the transition will be easier this time around.

Defensive Coordinator: A  A great hire, which was partially helped by the recent firing of Hankwitz from Wisconsin - but credit Fitz for grabbing him quickly.  He provides a lot of experience and has the potential to really turn around the NU defense which has basically struggled since 1996 (the last year that Fitz played), but especially in recent years.  The question will be how high can he take the Northwestern defense - the tools are definitely there to put together a great squad, but only time will tell.  Like last year, there is a lot of talent on the DL - and we'll see what steps he takes (first, hiring a new DL coach) to capitalize on that - which is the first step for the defense.

Many Wildcat fans were beginning to worry over the lack of an announcement, but the hirings came just as many expected - right after the busy bowl season and the coaches' convention.  Also, NU has put together a solid recruiting class thus far - nothing amazing (at least by the rankings, whatever credence you take in that), but another solid class that looks to fill out many positions on the board.  So, things are really coming together as Coach Fitz is putting HIS stamp on the NU program and not just running what was Coach Walker's program - which, I believe, is a good sign and will allow him to show off his talents which both the university and fans saw when he was an up-and-coming assistant and now head coach.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

Previous jhodges commentary

jhodges' commentary does not necessarily reflect the views of HailToPurple.com.