July 28, 2010

Go U Purple – a 10th Anniversary Commentary

Allow me to offer my heartiest congratulations to Larry and his GoUPurple website on its commendable Tenth Anniversary. Ten years in the making and still going very strong!  His dedication to accurately document and sponsor everything involved with the Northwestern Football Program, most especially in regards to steadfastly conserving its past while vigorously supporting the intrepid progress of its future, gives his website a distinctive perspective which has garnered high interest and praise among those who populate the Wildcat Nation.  I am both proud and humbled to be considered a valued contributor to this unique website and to be among those fortunate individuals who can call Larry, his bride Carissa and their growing family dear friends.

Way to go Larry!  And thank you, from the bottom of my heart!!!

So in keeping with GoUPurple’s historical point-of-view to Wildcat Football, I’d like to relate a few thoughts regarding what I believe has been THE major contributing factor in NU’s rise to prominence among the Big Dogs of the Big 10/12 conference and, to a larger extent, among the traditional football powers in all of Division 1A.

All The Right Moves

… or NU’s most significant hires of the last 10 years.

Take It From the Top
Similar to the demise of a football program, where the proverbial fish rots from the head on down, the rise of a football program equally begins with the man at the top.  Many might say that it was Rick Taylor, the famed Northwestern University Athletic Director who orchestrated one of the most improbable and unexpected reversal of fortunes in the annuls of modern collegiate football, who had the vision and exercised the required energy and sweat-equity to built the foundation for the highly competitive position among its conference peers where the Wildcat football program finds itself today.  After all it was Mr. Taylor who, first, convinced the historically apathetic NU heads of state to buy into the concept that a university’s athletic environment should be and could be a major contributor in constructing a attractive, positive culture among both its current university population and its alumni base.  It was Taylor who helped launch a very successful campaign among NU’s alumni base to raise the necessary funding to completely revamp our college’s crumbling, archaic athletic infrastructure into something that would bring its physical facilities, not on par, but at least onto the same stage (albeit a back stage location among the rank-&-file members of the chorus) of those facilities found among the lower to middle tier football programs of the Big 10/11 conference.    

And as much as Rick Taylor deserves high praise for kick-starting a dead-in-the-water athletic department to move forward, it was the astute hire of his successor, Mark Murphy from Colgate, who took the NU football program to the next level. Mr. Murphy was the perfect fit for NU at that time, possessing an able, charismatic personality coupled with a determined will to make positive things happen.  The Wildcat football program was in dire need of yet another round of major renovations to Dyche’s Ditch, as well as upgrades to its weight room, its indoor practice facilities, the outdoor practice venues and the offices within both Nicholet and the Athletic Department building, and the former safety and co-captain of the Washington Redskins was just the man to oversee the details to their successful completion. 

However, more than his credible management of those critical physical infrastructure improvements, it has been Murphy’s mentorship abilities that have provided the most substantive contribution to the Wildcat football program. Every crucial personnel hire within the Northwestern Football program over the last 10 years has Mark Murphy’s thumbprint on it – most especially the decision to fast track Randy Walker’s hand-chosen heir apparent, Pat Fitzgerald, to HC when NU’s very own Rock tragically passed away from heart failure in 2006.  This fateful personnel decision was rife with potential failure on many levels, not the least of which was that this choice would be the youngest HC in all Division 1A and, lacking any prior HC experience, would be a huge gamble.  But Murphy saw to it that Fitz was prepared and focused to maintain the continuity of the former HC’s personal vision for the program - from retaining its current coaching staff, to keeping much of its spread-oriented offensive playbook intact and especially to continuing the philosophy by which the program would develop their student-athletes – all geared towards minimizing the negative impact of this sudden, tragic change.  Simply stated, Mark Murphy did a masterful job in the face of this daunting challenge, and the Northwestern University football program has been much the better for the care, effort and attention to detail that he provided. 

Like a Glove
As stated above, the hire of Pat Fitzgerald to HC was an enormous gamble – and one that has paid and continues to pay tremendous dividends.  To say that the former 2-time All American and Nagurski Award and Bednarik Award winner fit this unique head coaching position like a glove is the greatest of understatements.  Fitz is a Northwestern man through-and-through - a tireless worker who bleeds Royal Purple, believes that the Wildcat football program can become a recognized member among the nation’s football elite and steadfastly drives everyone involved with the program towards that singular goal. 

First and foremost, being a mere dozen-plus years older than his players, Fitz has reversed any and all doubts regarding his relative youth and newness to the HC fraternity by simply relating on the most basic levels with the student-athletes he and his coaching staff  have recruited.  From the first day he entered the office of HC, he has picked-up and continues to bear the torch of Randy Walker’s vision: that of the tough-love, yet caring Wildcat football family, one that nurtures players through the trials of their individual college athletic and academic careers and is meant to endure way beyond their graduation into the real world beyond the walls of Purple & White.  This engaging relationship of belonging to a close-knit family has forged a powerful, endearing bond within the team to succeed.  And thus far, the results are very telling.  

I personally have always measured the success of a football program in terms of its development of the individual player, both on the field and off, because as the continued success of a football program’s singular parts progresses, so does its overall product.  And since Fitz has held the Northwestern head coaching reigns, his Wildcat football teams have seen marked year-to-year improvement both in season records and individual player development.  Over the last 4 seasons, NU not only has transitioned more players into the ranks of the pros, but the program has maintained its place among the top 5 graduation rates in all of Division 1A.  And it all starts with recruiting the “right” student-athlete for the program.  If anything, this is where Fitz and his coaching staff excel the most – they target and sign those players who fit their unique paradigm of brains, brawn, will to succeed and dedication to team.  It’s not for every elite player; in fact, it’s often the overlooked, diamond-in-the-rough player who is the best fit for Fitz’ program.  However, those special few who buy into his message, who are willing to pay the price and strive for excellence, just get hooked by the passionate Fitz, his up-and-coming program and the outstanding model for life-success within the Wildcat family.  And, like Joe Pa of State Penn, Fitz is committed to construct, not merely a house, but a rock-solid castle of academic and athletic achievement that will last for decades to come.  

Thankfully the Dark Ages are a distant memory, and it’s with great confidence that I, among many others, predict that the Golden Years of Northwestern Football is ahead for the program, poised to commence under the leadership of RW’s hand-picked successor, Pat Fitzgerald.  Better queue-up for your tickets, the Purple Pokël Boot of gridiron excitement will be pulling away from the dock. 

The Pinball Wizard
I had my doubts regarding Mick McCall’s hire as Northwestern’s QB coach and offensive coordinator in January, 2008.  My initial thoughts were: “Not another MAC coach – and as OC, no less.”  But I must admit that I was wrong - totally dead wrong - regarding the colossal positive impact that Coach Mick McCall has had on NU’s football program over the last 2 seasons.  Sure, I was aware that he had garnered success at his previous coaching gig as QB coach for BuGSU, having mentored All American QBs, Josh Harris and Omar Jacobs; however my enthusiasm was tempered by the sobering perspective that those QBs and their gaudy offensive statistics were compiled primarily against MAC-level opposition.  On the other hand, this was the Big 10/11… you know, Big Time college football… not the 2nd tier journeyman competition one expected when facing foes like the Kent State Hot Flashes or the Ohio Bobbleheads on a week-to-week basis.  So I was in wait-and-see mode on this selection.  I didn’t have to wait very long.

Mick McCall didn’t miss a beat in year one of his OC tenure at Northwestern, mentoring the transition of C.J. Bacher from a good QB into a high quality college QB who became the second most productive signal caller in the Big 10/11 conference in 2008, while compiling a 9-3 record and a bid to the Alamo Bowl against a ranked Mizzou squad.  And Coach McCall had his Bacher-led offense in position to claim NU’s first bowl “W” in 50 years; however two devastating special teams gaffes sent the ‘Cats limping back to Evanston empty-handed.  Still, in spite of the setback, McCall had demonstrated that he, in fact, possessed the right stuff to develop All Big 10-level QB talent at Northwestern and to do so despite having been given a compressed timeframe towards mentorship.

In 2009, Mr. McCall’s 2nd season as QB coach was a thing of beauty, if only because his QB cupboard was relatively bare, PT-wise, since he depended so heavily upon Bacher to take the majority of snaps-from-center over the course of the previous season.  Not only was McCall given a starting QB in senior Mike Kafka, with very limited game-time snaps, but his No. 1 signal caller was reputed more for his rushing prowess than his ability to identify the open WR and deliver the ball on target.  McCall was more than up to the challenge and took Kafka under his wing, with plenty of off-season help from former NU QB, Brett Basenez, deftly converting him into an offensive force to be reckoned-with.  Both to reduce the pressure on his very young and inexperienced OL to keep opposing DL out of his QB’s grill and to take full advantage of the quick-release off the LOS capabilities of his equally less-than-experienced WR corps, McCall adjusted his passing attack to a controlled, dink-n-dunk variety, where Kafka could use his ability to pin-point the open receiver out of the shotgun position within 2-3 seconds while avoiding sacks and TFLs due to breakdowns in his up-front pass protection.  It took several games for Kafka to “get it” (as in exercising McCall’s quick release training to distribute the pill across as many as 8 WRs regularly) but as the season progressed, McCall’s 1st season protégé became a master.  The skillful QB guidance of Mick McCall was on full display in NU’s final 3 games in 2009, where he mentored Kafka and his backup, Dan “The Prince of” Persa, to lead the ‘Cat O in a virtual yardage-generating juggernaut against the #4 HogEyes, a game Ill-Annoy team and the season finale against the #16 Wisky Drunkards, capturing 3 consecutive “W”s in the process.   

However, McCall’s crowning coaching achievement from last season was NU’s January 1st Outback Bowl game, where the Kafka-led ‘Cat O overcame 5 INTs (the first 3 of which were muffed receptions by the target WR) and twice came-back from 14-point deficits only to absorb another gut-wrenching “L” in a wild and wooly OT contest against the ranked Auburn Tigers.  Through it all, Kafka, as NU’s primary offensive playmaker, was brilliant, even in the face of those damn 5 picks.  The QB’s final stats: 47 of 78 completions, 532 yards passing (4th highest in Div. 1A bowl game history) and 4 TDs, lends solid testament to the high quality effectiveness of Coach McCall’s ability to train and elicit the best performances from his primary ball handler, and that including his backup QB.                    

The Doctor Is In
IMHO, the most significant football hire made by NU’s athletic department, beyond that of Fitz as HC, was that of Mike “Doc” Hankwitz, as defensive coordinator, a day after the hire of Mick McCall in January, 2008.  His entry into the Wildcat football family was downright earth-shaking and wholly improbable, especially given the fact that his deep resume is peppered with outstanding coaching and defensive coordinating success at the Division 1A level, most recently at Wisconsin, where his defenses consistently garnered top 10 rankings.  In an age where high-success coaches of Doc’s caliber often are proffered HC positions by high-profile collegiate football programs when they become available, Wisconsin AD, Barry Alvarez, bowed to a pre-arranged ascension of Hankwitz’ successor to the DC position within the Drunkards’ program, thus making Doc available in the open college football marketplace, despite the fact that he had been named interim HC at both Colorado and Arizona following HC changes in those programs.  So… what was Wisky’s loss is now Northwestern’s gain – albeit, a gargantuan one at that!!!

Prior to Doc’s joining Fitz as new defensive coordinator, NU’s DC responsibilities were assumed by the now infamous Greg “Behold the Power of Swiss Cheese” Colby, under whose watch, the ‘Cat defense reach new lows in field play.  Simply stated, NU’s D was putrid – from concept, to game plan, to execution, to results and beyond – and it wasn’t as if Colby’s defensive roster was devoid of quality collegiate and NFL-level talent (e.g.: Luis Castillo and Barry Cofield, to name 2).  If “The Swiss Meister” had produced these horrid DC results anywhere else but at NU, he would have received a well-deserved pink slip after only a season or two.  However, Greg Colby was one of those Randy Walker-carryover coaches who summarily was declared “untouchable” at the time of RW’s death, if only to maintain program continuity, especially among the shaken ‘Cat players.  So in keeping with that conservative approach to minimize the impact of a sudden transition at HC, Fitz’ first two seasons were rife with continued badly-conceived defenses that got eviscerated on a weekly basis by medium to less-than-stellar opposing offenses.  The Purple Populace was beside itself with anger, frustration and, most of all, dissatisfaction at the highest levels of NU’s administration and ranks of alumni boosters.  Then the miracle happened… just days after being handed his hat and shown the door following a universally boneheaded coaching move by the Wisky AD, Doc was contacted by AD Mark Murphy for the soon-to-be-vacated DC position at NU, and he accepted.  And his impact was as immediate as it was gigantic.

Almost overnight, Doc took the exact personnel who were ineptly governed by Colby’s “read and react” style defense and transformed them into a motivated, high energy unit.  These same players, who had the dubious reputation of playing soft and were hesitant to converge at the point of attack a mere season ago, now, exercising Doc’s new “attack-first” posture, resembled a rabid pack of junk yard dogs, willing to run through brick walls while eating raw meat to meet & greet the ball carrier.  Running from sideline-to-sideline, in pursuit of the ball and attacking it with extreme prejudice, they embodied Fitz’ mantra of:  “Do not take a play off.”

Consequently, what was once a team liability is now a depended-upon asset.  With Doc’s D exercising his attack-first strategy, Mick McCall’s O doesn’t need to score 28 points or more to position the ‘Cats for the “W”.  The final, missing piece of the NU coaching puzzle was the introduction of an highly regarded veteran defensive genius with the appropriately aggressive approach to defense, the vision to adjust his personnel accordingly and the skill to teach its execution to a group of willing young players then let them have at it against their opposition.  Not only has it has worked very well for individual players, it has accelerated over the last 2 seasons on the team stats sheet.  And I can’t wait for the 2010 edition of Doc’s D!

What a coach!  What a leader!  What a difference maker!!!  

Looking Forward

The 2010 season is the easiest in recent memory for Fitz and the Wildcat family.  That isn’t to say that it doesn’t have its pitfalls and trap games.  Indeed, one could consider NU’s season opener against the Vandy Commies as a first trap game.  However, what until 2 weeks ago was a game against a reputed SEC bottom feeder whose program mimicked that of the ‘Cats less than 4 seasons ago (read: a hungry, want-to-prove-itself team), now is somewhat of an enigma, given the sudden retirement of its own energetic HC.  So who knows what to expect?  The Commies could be a surprise, yet more likely, could end-up being just another soft, edible, nutrition-value-less creampuff for Mick McCall’s latest QB project, Dan “The Prince of” Persa and his untested OL to feast-upon with relish and abandon.  One thing you can be sure of: the ‘Cat offensive attack will be much more balanced and effective, with a better, much more experienced OL opening holes and protecting Persa and his backup Watkins and with a RB-by-committee ground game that is a year more experienced itself and hungrier than ever to show that NU’s O is not a continuation of 2009’s seemingly one-dimensional, dink-n-dunk, pass-happy squad.

And as for Doc’s defense.  Just wait and see them fly around.  To be sure, the 2-deep roster is the deepest it’s been in years and Doc WILL have them well prepared.

I fully expect a 4-0 OOC record going into the Minnie game at the Mighty Marmots’ new digs, TCF Stadium.  If the ‘Cats can hand the skill position-depleted Golden Rodents the expected “L” in this conference opener, then they will be set to take-on the Perdue Broiler-Chickens in their home conference opener at Dyche’s Ditch.  A “W” there would give the ‘Cats an easy-as-pie 6-0 slate, making them bowl eligible for the 4th consecutive season, while setting the table going into their 2010 bye week, with a full 2 weeks to salve their wounds and prep for their first real test of the 2010 season against Moo U. in Evanston.  From there, who knows?  Except, of course, the two very winnable games that remain… first against the Who-Zits, who could have this game highlighted as a red-letter tilt within the confines of their locker room; and second, against Ill-Annoy, a team who by that point of the season should be over & done playing grass games with the funny-looking, 2-pointed ball and anxious for their Cage Wars campaign to begin, in Jim Phillips’ made-for-media retro/revival pigskin contest at the Friendly Confines.  

If the planets align without a usual toe-stub/brain-fart at the hands of one of these afore-mentioned cream-filled sponge cake opponents, it all shoulda-woulda-coulda make for a very satisfying 8-9 “W” season and an expected bid to some warm & sun-laced post-season football game sometime in January.      

The Waterboy
“Win with Grace and Lose with Dignity”      

The Waterboy is a former football player and a Northwestern alumnus.  Aside from these facts, he has no affiliation with Northwestern University.  The commentary he posts here is his own, and does not necessarily reflect the views of HailToPurple.com.

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