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Northwestern Football Gets Back to the Boring Basics

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Spreading far the fame of Northwestern's fair name is all well and good. But now it's time to win some games. (Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images)
Spreading far the fame of Northwestern's fair name is all well and good. But now it's time to win some games. (Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images)


As you might expect, Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald’s press conference at Big Ten Media Days on Monday revealed very little.

He briefly touched on “distractions” this spring bringing the team together. Of course, if they go 5-7 again this season the narrative will change in an instant. He made it unequivocally clear to the Alviti loyalists/dreamers that Trevor Siemian is the starting quarterback and everyone else is competing for the number-two spot. Besides that, well, there was not much there. And that’s a good thing.  

Despite last year’s setback on the field, Northwestern football is growing at an incredible rate. I’m not sure they were prepared for this growth. In 2006, Fitzgerald’s first season as head coach, it was a virtual mom-and-pop operation. Fitzgerald learned on the job over the next couple of years, and with the introduction of new Athletic Director Jim Phillips in 2008, things began to change. But not right away.

2008 and 2009 were the most enjoyable years of the Fitzgerald era for a couple of reasons. One, the team was good. Two, they were still transitioning to what they have become now, a big business. While they set the groundwork for what would be an awkward 2010 and 2011, Northwestern was still a small business operation of underdogs who were fun to watch and cover. I enjoyed those years. But the new administration wanted more.

It all started with that damn Wrigley Field game against Illinois. If there was ever an event that emphasized vision over details it was this ill-conceived publicity stunt. They discovered literally a few days before the game that, ummm guys, the field isn’t big enough. Then it was the ill-fated Dan Persa for Heisman campaign in 2011. The only Heisman campaign I know of for an injured player in college football history.

In 2012 everyone focused on football and everything came together for the first bowl win since 1949. What a wonderful season that was, even if it did feature three fourth-quarter collapses. But it turned out the hype from a 10-win season going into 2013 was too much to handle. The Ohio State game last year was overwhelming to the senses. ESPN College GameDay! Significant national attention! Yes, all the dreams of the powers that be were coming true.

Northwestern lost that game and the wheels came off as they lost six more in a row, ultimately finishing 5-7. The national attention isn’t so great when you’re losing games every single week. Then Kain Colter went all Saul Alinsky on the Wildcats and Fitzgerald and the administration could only dream of returning to the simpler times of 2006-2009.

The most significant quote of Fitzgerald’s press conference on Monday is this: “We're not a preseason hype-type place, I guess.”

No, they’re not. And that’s fine. This isn’t a ready for prime time program. The events of the past few years should make that very clear.

For years Northwestern was the joke of college football. I understand where Jim Phillips, Mike Polisky and company are coming from, there’s a lot of negative history out there they are working to overcome. I don’t envy their jobs. They have done a lot of good things to build the brand, including Fitz’s show on the Big Ten Network and an impressive social media presence.

But you don’t have to constantly receive national attention to be a good, respected program. That’s all Northwestern ever needs to be: respected. It’s funny. Fitzgerald came under some fire for joking a week or so ago about how boring it must be to live in the state of Nebraska. Nebraska may be dull but they also have five national titles. Northwestern should aspire to be like the boring programs that just win football games.

Hopefully Monday’s boring press conference is a start.