It would be entirely acceptable for Pat Fitzgerald to rest on the laurels of last year’s accomplishments. His 2012 Northwestern team won 10 games, was a little more than five minutes of good football away from going undefeated, went 2-0 against the vaunted SEC and picked up the program’s first bowl win in 10 tries, and the first since the 1948 Rose Bowl.
The 2012 Northwestern Wildcats season was a historic one, culminating in a 34-20 win over Mississippi State in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, but on the heels of kicking off the 2013 campaign, Fitzgerald understands that “historic” is the only adjective that can be used to describe the 2012 campaign. It’s about winning now; it’s about building on past accomplishments and never being satisfied.
“I'm proud of what we've accomplished,” Fitzgerald said at last week’s Big Ten Media Day, “but that's now become tradition and history.”
With 15 expected returning starters, including the double-headed quarterback monster of Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian and All-Big Ten running back Venric Mark, expectations continue to rise for a Northwestern team that has been heading in the right direction since Fitzgerald took over eight seasons ago. With last season’s historic marks and a solid returning core, the Wildcats are slated to compete for their first Big Ten Championship since 2000 and potentially could head to the program’s first Rose Bowl since 1995.
But for all the unknowns of what will happen when the Wildcats kick off Aug. 31 in Berkeley against California, what is known is that the slate has been wiped clean of any 2012 remnants. Gone are Colter’s 20 all-purpose touchdowns; a year after rushing for 1,366 yards, Mark will start anew at zero; fifth-year senior Damien Proby’s 112 tackles – eighth in the Big Ten last season – count for nothing now.
The numbers reset, but the expectations aren't. And that’s something Fitzgerald is embracing.
“I believe we're making the proper strides. Now we just need to continue to improve and understand that each team is unique and different, and what we gained from experience last year doesn't get us a point, doesn't win us a game, doesn't give us anything as we move forward except experience and confidence,” Fitzgerald said. “A lot of work to be done, but at the same time this is arguably as confident and as experienced a group as we've had in my – gonna be eight years now.”
Winning on the recruiting front
With winning comes success on the recruiting trail, and Fitzgerald has seen his efforts yield positive results. The Wildcats’ incoming class ranked No. 53 in the country, per Rivals.com. That ranking was up from No. 60 in 2012, No. 87 in 2011 and No. 77 in 2010. In fact, it’s Fitzgerald’s best class since 2007, when three-star quarterback Dan Persa headed the 53rd best class in the country.
Leading the way in 2013 is Maine South four-star quarterback Matt Alviti and Pickerington, Ohio athlete Godwin Igwebuike. The 19-man recruiting class includes five players from Illinois, an emphasis Fitzgerald’s coaching staff made and will continue to make going forward.
[RELATED: Rivals' 2013 team recruiting rankings]
“I believe as we've gone forward in the recruiting process, young people, No. 1, want to play for a winner. We've gone to five straight bowl games and been a consistent winner,” Fitzgerald said. “No. 2, they want to fit into the culture of the locker room with the players, and our staff has done a perfect job of identifying student-athletes. And we're gonna start and end here in Chicago.”
The Wildcats already have three four-star commitments in the 2014 class, including Glenbard North running back Justin Jackson and Wheaton North quarterback Clayton Thorson. The Wildcats also have begun making their move on the rest of the country -- the 2013 recruiting class includes players from seven states -- branching out as the Northwestern brand and culture becomes more legitimized through on-field success.
“We're national scope, and so as we bring young people to our campus and they spend the night with our players, either you fit or you don't; and if you don't that's OK,” Fitzgerald said. “It's just been a terrific job by our staff. It almost seems like we're at, not a one-to-one ratio, but we're pretty close that if a kid comes on our campus and we want him, we're gonna get him.
“I've seen a spike in the last few January recruiting sessions on the road by our bowl games. Now you're really on the national stage [and] for a few games, we were the only game on. And so when we go nationally and we leave the Big Ten footprint, there’s more prospective student-athletes and high school coaches that know about our brand than ever before.”
Primetime football…one game at a time
Like all head coaches, Fitzgerald is insistent on playing one game at a time. Northwestern’s Aug. 31 opener in California will begin the team’s 2013 season, but it’s impossible not to overlook that game – and the next three – and focus on the Wildcats’ Big Ten opener on Oct. 5, a primetime game against Ohio State.
“Any time you play your Big Ten opener in primetime, it's something special. I'll speak for especially myself and my experiences in recruiting as a Chicagoland kid, you grow up dreaming of playing Big Ten football. And you look back to the success that [Ohio State coach Urban] Meyer and his young men had a year ago, going undefeated, not only for the season but also in the Big Ten, that's the team you're looking up at, even though they were ineligible for postseason play.
[RELATED: Urban Meyer responds to Ohio State criticism]
“They ran the gauntlet of our conference. So you understand the challenge, you respect the great coaching job and the talent that they have in their program, and I think those are the types of games you want to play in as a competitor.”
Yet before Ohio State, and even before California in August, Fitzgerald knows the importance of finding out who his team is, and if it can replicate 2012’s “history and tradition.”
“The first two weeks of training camp is all on us. We won't look at anything of anybody we're gonna play because we've got to figure out pieces of the puzzle that we have to fill in off of spring,” he said, “and then figure out who we are.”