Commentary: The Next Step for NU
by Jonathan Hodges

Taking a break from the 2009-focused Northwestern preseason commentary, I'll step back a bit and muse about the next step that the Northwestern football program should (or needs to) take.

As any NU fan knows, Gary Barnett and that '95 squad (of course, featuring Fitz) took the first step, which was moving out of the dark ages - and they did that with a big jump - not only by reaching double-digit wins in a season, but also by reaching a bowl (not just any bowl - the Rose Bowl) and winning the conference outright.  The 'Cats then put on a repeat performance, sharing the '96 conference title and heading to the Citrus Bowl.

Since then, there have been ups and downs, but Randy Walker stepped in and brought stability to a program that took a nosedive after the 1995-1996 run, ending with Barnett ditching NU for greener pastures (well, greener in terms of the color of money, at least).  Walker took NU to 3 bowl games during his 1999-2005 tenure and racked up another 6-win season in there, bringing some consistent winning to a program that many figured just experienced a flash back in the mid-90's.  He also showed that NU could play with anyone in the conference, racking up a 24-32 conference mark while at NU - ending with a 3 year span where he was at least .500 each season as NU went 14-10 over that span in the Big Ten.  Oh, and he beat every other Big Ten team during his time at NU (and, if you include his time at Miami (OH), he also beat NU - coincidentally, NU's only regular-season loss in the 1995 season).

Barnett showed that NU could rise up and be a competitor; Walker showed that the 'Cats can be a competitive force in the conference and can regularly make bowl games; now the question is where can Fitz take the program and what should that first step be?

Winning the Games They Should Win

In my opinion, that next step is for Northwestern to win the games that they are expected to win.  That's what the "traditional power" programs do - virtually always beat the "lesser" teams - padding their win totals and giving them an air of invincibility, at least when facing those "lesser" teams.  Northwestern, despite its significant rise out of the Dark Ages into the current era where winning seasons, bowl appearances, and even conference titles have happened multiple times, still doesn't win games they should.  In fact, one can look back to numerous examples during the post-1995 era to see "should-win" slip-ups by the 'Cats, many costing the team bowl appearances or better bowls.

Let's run down the list (at least from the years when the loss really cost NU): 2008 Indiana, 2007 Duke, 2006 New Hampshire, 2004 Hawaii, 2001 Bowling Green, 1996 Wake Forest, 1995 Miami (OH).

As with many things (i.e. news), the bad leaves a larger impact than the good, and these losses have left a sting that can still be felt today in some ways.  The 2007 Duke and 2004 Hawaii losses directly cost NU a bowl appearance in those seasons (NU ended both years 6-6) - just imagine if NU could brag about 2 additional bowl appearances and winning seasons over the "modern era" of success.  The 2008 Indiana loss likely cost NU an improved bowl spot and more national recognition.  The 2006 New Hampshire loss cause NU to be the first Big Ten team to lose to a I-AA/FCS opponent (albeit Indiana lost to Indiana State later that season, and the following year Michigan lost that epic game to Appalachian State which fortunately overshadows NU's loss for most).  The 2001 Bowling Green loss was an embarrassment heaped onto an already disappointing season (although it seemed to help Urban Meyer).  And the losses to "lesser" nonconference opponents in '95-'96 still leave a bad taste in what are the best back-to-back seasons in school history (and to think that NU could have been the front runner for national title going into the Rose Bowl after the '95 season).

Opponents' fans still point to these loses when approached by 'Cats fans and say "well, you're still just Northwestern."  And NU fans never feel like a game is a sure thing.  As mentioned in the last paragraph, if NU had beaten these teams (which were all very beatable - their records in each of those seasons and/or their ranking show that they were), the 'Cats could very well be further along the path of success now.

For those who say that those losses "inspired" NU for the rest of those respective seasons, I say since when is a loss a good thing?  Motivation for the "traditional power" programs doesn't come from losing, it comes from a desire to win.  Anything else is really just an excuse or a justification of a past mistake.  I also realize that this is a new era in terms of competitiveness in college football, with scholarship and recruiting limits, more teams, more money, better information dissemination, and TV, but that still doesn't excuse a team from losing when they have the talent level to win.

Therefore, the next step NU must take is to eliminate these losses to "lesser" teams, which will help the continuing process of wiping away the memory of the Dark Ages and moving NU up the ladder of prestige in college football.

Of course, that's without even saying that the Wildcats should not just win those games, but should win them comfortably - allowing backups to get in some playing time in the second halves of those games, further preparing NU for success in the future.  But I'll be happy with small steps, so just winning those football games would be an improvement.

How It's Done

Unfortunately, Coach Fitz has suffered such an embarrassing loss in each of his first 3 seasons at the helm at NU.  He'll never discredit those opponents by admitting such an embarrassment, but he will express disappointment in the Wildcats for not pulling through (as well as for his own missteps).  But he does have NU headed in the right direction, seemingly always saying the right thing and exuding confidence and positivity in the program - the basic ingredient for success.

Recruiting talented players helps, and he's built a nice foundation there over the past few years, hopefully giving NU an edge over those "lesser" talented teams.  As experienced last season (evidenced by NU successfully responding to so many injuries), the 'Cats now have some depth that they can use, which has never consistently been there, even during the modern era of NU football.  Playing good defense also helps, something that NU didn't do during a long span, despite recent successes; prior to 2008 the last defense that NU fans felt they could truly rely upon was back in Fitz's playing days - 1996.  Good defense (giving up few points) allows a team to always stay in a game, especially since even high-octane offenses are prone to sputter from time to time when the ball doesn't bounce their way.  To say Fitz is committed to good defense is an understatement, and with him at the helm and experienced DC Hankwitz leading the unit, NU is looking to make continued improvement there.

Finally, Fitz is preparing the team to play and to win.  Yes, he took his lumps as an inexperienced, and young, head coach, but now he has knowledge to build upon.  He has and will combine that knowledge with his attitude and use it to build a confident (but not too-confident) and prepared football team that goes out and takes care of business.  At the end of the day, hopefully he can remove the "fear of losing" from the Northwestern football program and instead replace that with consistent winning.

This all begins in 2009 with NU facing 4 beat-able nonconference teams (Towson, Eastern Michigan, Syracuse, and Miami (OH)), all of whom have new head coaches this year thanks to recent failures, as well as two Big Ten teams that have fallen on hard times: Indiana and Purdue (who also has a first-year head coach).  I know that no football game is a given, and I'm by no way guaranteeing victory, but the Wildcats can take that next step forward by beating these 6 teams that they "should beat."  In doing so, NU will already reach bowl eligibility, and can place the focus on their performance against peer or higher teams instead of "that loss to a bad team."

If anyone can remove the "fear of losing" from the Northwestern football program and its fans, it is Coach Fitz, and this year is a perfect time to begin that process which can lead to even greater successes for Northwestern football.

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.