An Open Letter to Northwestern Fans,
OK, so the start of the 2014 football season was depressing, to say the least. And then, the bounce-back we’ve all hoped for since last year. Three wins in a row, including one against then 17th-ranked Wisconsin, can do wonders for your mental and emotional health. Despite the heartbreak of our close loss to Minnesota last week, we’re still in it and currently 2-1 in the Big Ten. Nevertheless, it’s important to remember that as fans we tend to overreact to everything both positive and negative; because Northwestern is less a mass franchise and more an extended family, fan sentiment and expression (and online commentary) can directly impact the team. We ought to put things in context and apply some perspective. As a small, albeit passionate, community, we need to be mindful of the impact of what we say and express. Now, while I count myself among Northwestern’s passionate fan base, I recognize that I am not a football guru. The solution to our team’s issues is likely a combination of everything we’ve discussed this year: better execution, more contributions from big playmakers, dynamic coaching schemes, etc. Of course we have a right to be critical and expect to win, but sometimes we all need to take a few deep breaths and remember that our support helps those wins happen. (Obligatory disclaimer: anyone who knows me knows that I am as guilty as overreacting as anyone.) Herewith, some of my thoughts as we hit the midpoint of the 2014 season:
1. Pat Fitzgerald deserves our loyalty; after all, he has always been loyal to us. Several years ago we were borderline hysteric that Fitz was leaving us for a higher-paying job at a more prestigious football program – Michigan. What if he had accepted that job? My guess is we’d have called him disloyal and disingenuous about his love of Northwestern. It’s important to afford him the same loyalty he has showed us.
2. Pat Fitzgerald has a strong track record and deserves the benefit of the doubt on his long term-record and not on a limited stretch. First, Pat Fitzgerald has won more games, has the best winning percentage and won more consistently than any of the other revered Northwestern coaches.
A. Gary Barnett
i. 35-45 all time at Northwestern
ii. Following the 1996 Citrus Bowl, we won a grand total of three Big Ten games in 1997 and ZERO Big Ten games in 1998
B. Randy Walker
i. 37-45 all time at Northwestern
ii. Followed the 2000 Big Ten Championship with three Big Ten wins over the following two years combined
C. Pat Fitzgerald
i. 59-49 all time at Northwestern
ii. From 2007 until 2012 was bowl eligible every year and never won less than three games in Big Ten play
Now I consider Barnett and Walker to be two great, experienced coaches. But even they had bad years. I would also like to point out that under Randy Walker, our teams could score 40-plus points and we would still feel uncomfortable about holding our lead. Our defense back then was flat-out atrocious year after year and yet I never felt that Northwestern fans came down on Walker the way some are coming down on Fitz. Maybe Fitzgerald has more talent to work with than Barnett and Walker, but at the end of the day his teams win games with talent he personally recruited. (Obviously, Randy Walker also gets credit for recruiting, but no one should argue that Fitz isn’t the best recruiter in the team’s history.) I’m not saying the coaching doesn’t bear some responsibility for the inconsistencies, but I do know that no one wants to win more than Pat Fitzgerald – his record says he’s pretty good at it, too. I have no doubt that he will make adjustments and continue to learn and grow as a coach as the season unfolds. Fitzgerald has altered our expectations for our program by consistently winning.
3. Mick McCall also has a strong track record. While we tend to focus on the negatives, it’s important to remember his successes: our 2008 Alamo Bowl season, our 2009 Outback Bowl season, the Dan Persa-led ‘Cats (excluding the games Persa was injured) and our surprisingly strong 2013 dual-quarterback offense. If anyone doubts McCall’s ability to be creative and work in schemes that play to the strengths of the talent on hand, please tell me what you would have done different last year. The record suggests that he has no problem creating an unorthodox offense that fits his players and he does this consistently.
The reality is that our coaching staff wins with innovation. Even talented teams and coaches sometimes have middling seasons because they just don’t put it together and never find an identity. It’s far from “too late” for this season and it’s our job as fans to reciprocate the loyalty and energy they have put into our program.
Enough negativity; we’re 3-3. Homecoming against Nebraska tomorrow. I’m already picking bits of corn out of my teeth.