Big Ten: Gary Barnett
- Tom Dienhart's Big Ten lessons from Week 5 and latest power rankings.
- Ohio State is the king of the Big Ten after its win against Wisconsin. Some good observations on Ohio State's big win. It doesn't appear that Buckeyes safety Christian Bryant can receive a medial redshirt. Braxton's back in a big way.
- Wisconsin's path back to Indianapolis for the league title game has narrowed. The open week gives the Badgers a much-needed chance to regroup.
- It's too bad the annual Ohio State-Wisconsin series will end, Bob Hunter writes.
- Iowa might be a better team than it realizes, Mike Hlas writes, and it's certainly better than advertised, Andrew Logue writes. Hawkeyes QB Jake Rudock puts the pieces together.
- Minnesota coach Jerry Kill defends his decision to stick with Philip Nelson at quarterback. Third down isn't the money down for Minnesota these days. The Gophers' lack of Big Ten experience showed up Saturday.
- The national spotlight will be on Northwestern this week. The Wildcats need to win a shootout to beat the Buckeyes. Former Northwestern coach Gary Barnett will be on hand for the game.
- Lessons from Illinois' dominant win against Miami (Ohio). Illinois shouldn't take Saturday's strong performance for granted.
- Nebraska simply must win and advance during October to set up a pivotal November, Sam McKewon writes. Huskers WR Kenny Bell deals with adversity on and off the field this fall. A new movie tells the story of Nebraska's passionate fan base.
- Purdue's mistakes are piling up with the losses this season. It will be a long climb for Darrell Hazell's Boilers. The grades for Purdue's latest setback not surprisingly aren't good. Boilers freshman QB Danny Etling shows promise in his debut but is far from satisfied.
- Mark Snyder explores whether Michigan's offense or defense is the stronger unit. The Wolverines fall in the AP poll despite not playing.
- Graham Couch explains why MSU is more than a basketball school. Despite continued issues on offense, Michigan State is improving this year. More on why Alabama pulled out of the series with MSU and other schedule notes.
- Penn State recruit Daquan Worley continues to turn heads this season. Grading the Lions after nonleague play. A look at where Penn State's transfers are now. It's a new ball game for PSU coach Bill O'Brien.
- Indiana added 19 walk-ons over the weekend.
Head coach Pat Fitzgerald and his staff still seek a certain fit: an academically oriented player who clicks with the program's culture and recognizes the benefits of playing Big Ten football miles from the city limits of the nation's third largest market. Northwestern's coaches talk about "not only a four-year decision but a 40-year decision, the rest-of-your-life type decision," Matt MacPherson, the team's recruiting coordinator and running backs coach, recently told ESPN.com.
Colleague Jared Shanker writes that Northwestern's recent success on the field has boosted its recruiting to the next level.
The Wildcats went 10-3 in 2012 and ended the season No. 17 in the final AP poll. It was the first time that Northwestern had won 10 games in a season since 1995, when it went 10-1 and appeared in the Rose Bowl. It also marked the first time Northwestern finished a season ranked since 1996.
Fitzgerald was a linebacker on those '95 and '96 teams. He was an ambassador for recruits who signed in the winter of '97, one of Northwestern best classes ever.
Northwestern landed several national recruits in that class, much like it is doing in the 2014 class. Craig Albrecht, Chris Jones and Sam Simmons were all highly sought-after recruits who signed with Northwestern out of high school. Fitzgerald said then-coach Gary Barnett never broke the mold of what he was looking for in a recruit to bring in the higher-profile prospects.
Now Fitzgerald is following a similar path.
"[The 2014 recruits] stayed true to what fits our program," Fitzgerald said. "We feel great about all the young men, feel great we recruited the right fit. We respect you if you do it differently, but we're more focused on the right fit and if he fits the culture of our locker room."
According to MacPherson, Northwestern's message to potential recruits remains the same, but the way they view the program has changed after five straight bowl appearances and, finally, a postseason win on Jan. 1 in the Gator Bowl.
"From what we do and how we do it, not a whole lot has changed," MacPherson said. "From the perception of where our program is, that's changed a bunch. People see us now as a perennial bowl team. ... You look at Northwestern and you talk about winning football games, a great education, being in Chicago. What's not to like? Tell me when that gets bad.
"There's always been the great education, there’s always been the great city of Chicago. Now you throw the football success on top of that, and it's just a great package that opens a lot of people's eyes."
Northwestern's coaches also are talking up a new $220 million on-campus facility, announced in September, that will house the football program along the shores of Lake Michigan. Athletic director Jim Phillips said last week that $70-80 million has been raised toward the project, and ground could be broken this fall.
Fitzgerald talked with Shanker about the "great momentum" currently around the program. MacPherson sees it on the recruiting trail.
"We are getting in some battles with some different programs than we have in the past," he said. "Obviously, that's a good thing. But at the end fo the day, you still have to do your evaluation and those guys you bring into your program have to be valuable players and be productive players for you. Is it great for our profile and be competing against teams that you see in the Rivals and the ESPN Insider ratings? Yeah, that's great. But it'll always go back to production once you get 'em on your team."
Rewind to the 2005 season, and the Big Ten featured seven coaches -- Penn State's Joe Paterno, Wisconsin's Barry Alvarez, Michigan's Lloyd Carr, Minnesota's Glen Mason, Purdue's Joe Tiller, Northwestern's Randy Walker and Iowa's Kirk Ferentz -- who had been in their jobs for at least seven seasons. Paterno obviously had been at Penn State for a lot longer than that, but Alvarez was in his 16th and final season with the Badgers and Carr was in his 11th with the Wolverines.
Look at the Big Ten coaching landscape right now. Only one of those coaches, Ferentz, remains. The next longest-tenured is Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald, who took over following Walker's death in 2006. Indiana's Kevin Wilson, who just completed his second season, will be the longest-tenured coach in the Leaders Division in 2013. Eight of the Big Ten's 12 coaches will be in their first, second or third seasons next fall.
When was the last time the Big Ten had this type of coach turnover?
You have to look to the early 1990s to find similar results. Six Big Ten teams made coaching changes between 1989-92: Illinois (after 1991 season), Michigan (after 1989 season), Minnesota (after 1991 season), Northwestern (after 1991 season), Purdue (after 1990 season) and Wisconsin (after 1989 season). The league had 10 teams until 1993, so the 60 percent turnover rate in a three-year stretch certainly was significant.
The bad news is the Big Ten's national profile struggled during that time, much like it is now. The league went 4-9-1 in bowl games between 1990-92 and had just two teams in the final rankings in both 1991 and 1992. The good news is things improved the next few seasons, as the Big Ten posted winning bowl marks in 1993 and 1994 and won three consecutive Rose Bowls. Several coaching hires made between 1989-92 worked out well, namely Alvarez at Wisconsin and Gary Barnett at Northwestern.
The Big Ten hopes history repeats itself in the coming years.
The league has been largely immune from the wandering-eye coaches who leave programs at inopportune times for the next big thing. Even the Big Ten programs that could be classified as stepping stones haven't been left in the lurch very often in recent years. While it's not shocking that a Big Ten coach hasn't jumped to a different college job, it's a bit of a surprise that the NFL hasn't plucked one away.
After flirting with several bigger-name programs during his time at Northwestern, Gary Barnett finally left to take the Colorado job on Jan. 20, 1999, just weeks before national signing day. Although Northwestern immediately named Barnett's replacement, Randy Walker, the drawn-out saga wasn't much fun, given what Barnett had meant to the school.
But since Saban and Barnett, the Big Ten hasn't had any coaches voluntarily leave at bad times. There have been some midseason firings (Tim Brewster at Minnesota, Williams at Michigan State) and some late firings (Rich Rodriguez at Michigan, Glen Mason at Minnesota), but in those cases the schools, not the coaches, made decisions that put themselves in tough situations.
The most recent instances of coaches leaving Big Ten programs in tough spots involved two men who certainly didn't walk away on their own terms.
After months of scrutiny stemming from the tattoo/memorabilia scandal and his attempted cover-up, Jim Tressel resigned his post as Ohio State's coach on Memorial Day of 2011. Tressel stepped down just three months before the season and with spring practice all wrapped up. Ohio State knew it would be without Tressel for the first five games of the 2011 season, but his resignation under pressure left the program scrambling.
The school named 37-year-old assistant Luke Fickell, who had never been a head coach before, to the top job. After six consecutive seasons of Big Ten titles (won or shared), Ohio State went 6-7 under Fickell last fall, its first losing season since 1988 and its first seven-loss season since 1897. Ouch.
But the ugliest and most untimely departure was yet to come. Five days after former Penn State assistant Jerry Sandusky was arrested on child sex abuse charges, Penn State's board of trustees voted to fire longtime coach Joe Paterno. The date: Nov. 9. Penn State was 8-1 at the time, and 11 days earlier Paterno had recorded his 409th coaching victory, moving him past Eddie Robinson for the most wins in college football history. Hours before the board's decision, Paterno had announced he would retire following the season, his 46th as head coach. Instead, he was informed via telephone that his tenure was over, which triggered a backlash from Penn State students and fans.
The school promoted longtime assistant Tom Bradley to interim head coach. Bradley led the team during a hellish eight weeks that featured, among other things: a 1-3 record that knocked Penn State out of the Big Ten race; snubs by several bowl games who didn't want to deal with a p.r. nightmare; the announcement that Paterno had been diagnosed with lung cancer; a locker-room fight that left starting quarterback Matthew McGloin concussed and unable to play in the bowl; and a seemingly rudderless coaching search that took too long and put Bradley in an awkward situation.
In six months, two iconic Big Ten programs lost incredibly successful coaches under extremely messy circumstances.
A Big Ten coach bolting for an NFL job suddenly doesn't sound so bad.
Fitzgerald has guided Northwestern to four consecutive bowl appearances (the school never had reached more than two bowls in a row). The sixth-year coach already is second on Northwestern's all-time coaching wins list with 40. He has a 13-8 record in the month of November and, like Dantonio, has defeated all but one Big Ten school (Ohio State).
Both Dantonio and Fitzgerald have been awarded long-term contracts and both have become the faces of their respective programs.
Both also have one unchecked box on their coaching checklist: Neither has led his team to a bowl win.
Dantonio and Fitzgerald are a combined 0-7 in bowl games as head coaches at Michigan State and Northwestern, respectively. They've both come close, particularly Fitzgerald, who has two bowl losses in overtime and three by seven points or fewer.
Both men can break through in the coming days as Michigan State faces Georgia in the Outback Bowl and Northwestern takes on Texas A&M in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas.
"We've done a lot of things in five years here," Dantonio said. "The different wins against different people, the number of wins and things of that nature. Guys have set individual records as well. But the one thing we have not done collectively or individually is win our bowl game. We need to springboard for next season."
Both coaches say the bowl milestone means more for their players than themselves. Michigan State's seniors are the winningest class in team history (36 victories). The same holds true for Northwestern's seniors (30 victories).
"It's the only negative left against our program," he said. "When Gary [Barnett] recruited me and the guys I had the privilege to play with, there were a lot of things used against us in recruiting. It's kind of the last negative hurdle to get over. To be a champion at anything is pretty special. It's on our goal board. It's been up there all year, to be bowl champions, to win a bowl game.
"This senior class wants to be that group."
Dantonio recently met with Michigan State's seniors and talked to them about their legacy.
"Our seniors have left a big thumbprint on this program in terms of what they've been able to do," he said. "With that being said, the final thing would be to send us into 2012 positively with a win and leave that final print by doing something that has not been done here in this time since I've been here as the head football coach.
"That's something we’re striving for."
One of the big misconceptions about Pat Fitzgerald is he took over a Northwestern program falling apart at the seams.
Yes, Fitzgerald became Northwestern's coach at a very difficult time after the sudden death of Randy Walker in June 2006. Yes, the 31-year-old wasn't ready for the job. But Northwestern had won six or more games in each of Walker's final three seasons, reaching two bowls and going 14-10 in Big Ten play. This wasn't the train wreck that Gary Barnett inherited and, thanks to players like Fitzgerald, brought out of the depths.
Fitzgerald deserves a ton of credit for stabilizing the program after an unexpected tragedy. He upgraded things in 2008 with a 9-4 campaign and followed with two more postseason appearances, making team history by making three consecutive bowl games.
For Fitzgerald to turn things around -- and get Northwestern back to and beyond the good-but-not-great seasons it had for most of the past decade -- he must shape the program in his image. The most successful programs reflect their head coaches.
It's hard to say Northwestern completely reflects Pat Fitzgerald.
While many of his core values have been transmitted to the players, the bottom line is this: Fitzgerald is a former two-time National Defensive Player of the Year and a College Football Hall of Fame linebacker who coaches a team that has been anywhere from mediocre to poor on defense.
It doesn't add up.
Northwestern's identity under Fitzgerald is still a lot like it was under Walker. That's not entirely a bad thing. Walker's teams never gave up and won a bunch of close games. Until recently, Fitzgerald's teams also had excelled in close games.
Under Walker, Northwestern played many close, chaotic contests and relied on its dynamic spread offense. Walker was an offensive-minded coach, a former running back who mass-produced 1,000-yard rushers in Evanston.
Under Fitzgerald, Northwestern has continued to find itself in wild, back-and-forth games. It still relies on its offense, and produces strong quarterbacks like C.J. Bacher, Mike Kafka and Dan Persa.
Under Walker, Northwestern's defense struggled mightily, ranking no higher than 68th nationally and 81st or worse in six of seven seasons.
Under Fitzgerald, Northwestern's defense hasn't been quite as porous, ranking in the top 50 nationally in both 2008 and 2009. But the Wildcats slipped to 97th last year and currently rank 92nd.
The defensive decline has been dramatic this season, as Northwestern already has surrendered 20 plays of 30 yards or longer, the most of any Big Ten team. Although the secondary has been a major weakness, Northwestern hasn't generated much of a pass rush (11 sacks). The linebacker position, a strength under Walker and during Fitzgerald's early years, has underperformed the last year and a half.
Fitzgerald has attributed the defense's struggles to a few very bad plays in each game. Cornerback Demetrius Dugar said after a Week 7 loss to Iowa that defensive backs weren't always sure whether they were in man or zone coverage.
"When those breakdowns in communication have happened this year, they have been disastrous," Fitzgerald said after the Iowa game. "It starts with us as coaches. Why are they confused?"
Fitzgerald has remained mostly optimistic publicly, but the defensive struggles have to be eating him up. It's not like he doesn't know what a good defense looks like. As a player, he led great defenses at Northwestern in 1995 and 1996.
Most FBS coaches take on a CEO role, and Fitzgerald is no exception. But the defense must be his primary focus the rest of this year and into a crucial offseason. From the scheme to the coaches to the players to recruiting, everything should be evaluated. While overall recruiting has been on the uptick at Northwestern, player development on defense has to be a concern after the past year and a half.
Fitzgerald has succeeded in continuing what Walker started. But to get Northwestern back on track and on a sustainable path to success, his teams need to be playing how he did.
We're not talking about going from five wins to seven wins once or twice. Most of the 10 coaches on Feldman's list orchestrated true transformations. They took so-so programs and made them BCS bowl contenders. They took historical failures and made them respectable.
Two former Big Ten coaches made Feldman's list:
3. Barry Alvarez, Wisconsin: The former Nebraska linebacker, who had spent years on the Iowa and Notre Dame staffs, inherited a listless Badgers program. They went 1-10 in his debut season in 1990, but he sparked them to a Rose Bowl and a top-five finish in his fourth season. He would take the Badgers to two more Rose Bowls and step down after a 10-win season in 2005. Now, with Alvarez as the AD, his protégé Bret Bielema has gone 49-16 and been in the top 25 in four of his five seasons.
9. Gary Barnett, Northwestern: The former Missouri Tigers wide receiver's first college head coaching job was taking over a dismal NU program that hadn't been to a bowl game in almost 50 years, and had long been at the bottom of the Big Ten. The Wildcats won eight games in his first three seasons before Barnett produced a shocking 10-2 season (8-0 in Big Ten play), leading the Cats on a storybook ride to Pasadena. Barnett followed that up with a tie for the league title and another top-15 finish. After two mediocre seasons, Barnett left for Colorado, and since then NU has gone on to have better success than the coach did in Big 12 country. Under Randy Walker, Northwestern won a share of the Big Ten title in 2000, and in recent years, former Wildcats star Pat Fitzgerald has taken his team to bowl games in three straight seasons.
Two excellent choices here.
Alvarez is the reason Wisconsin football can be called nationally relevant. He elevated the program to historic heights in the 1990s, and while Wisconsin went 11 years without a Big Ten title until winning one last season, the Badgers still were one of the more consistent teams in college football between 2000-09. I really think Wisconsin has an opportunity to become a true national powerhouse, especially if Ohio State backslides after its scandal. While Bielema deserves a lot of credit for Wisconsin's surge the past two seasons, he inherited a program on very solid footing from Alvarez.
Barnett's breakthrough at Northwestern in 1995 was one of the biggest and most surprising stories in recent college football history. He took the worst of the worst and elevated it all the way to a Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl appearance. After decades of futility, Northwestern won back-to-back Big Ten titles in 1995 and 1996. Although the program dipped late in Barnett's tenure, Walker stabilized things and Fitzgerald has taken the team up a notch during his five years as coach.
Another good choice for Feldman's list would be former Purdue coach Joe Tiller. Purdue had just one winning season and no bowl appearances from 1984-96, before Tiller led the Boilers to bowls in 10 of his first 11 seasons as coach. He guided Purdue to a Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl appearance in 2000, and his teams qualified for 10 of the 15 bowl games in team history. Tiller also helped make Purdue a destination for NFL-caliber quarterbacks.
Why would a coach with so much upside stick around a program with limited tradition and resources? Northwestern rarely has been able to retain its most successful coaches -- Ara Parseghian and Gary Barnett are two who left -- and Fitzgerald is projected to fall in line with the others.
It might be time for folks to adjust their thinking.
The Chicago Tribune's Teddy Greenstein reports that Northwestern is putting together another significant contract extension for Fitzgerald, who received a seven-year contract through the 2015 season in June 2009. It's the school's latest proactive move to keep Fitzgerald at his alma mater for as long as he'd like.
While Fitzgerald hasn't expressed serious interest in leaving Northwestern, other programs are expressing interest in him.
Last week, he declined a chance to discuss Michigan's head-coaching vacancy with UM representatives.
Just how serious was Michigan about Fitzgerald?
The reality is that Michigan's interest in Fitzgerald was so sincere, representatives of the school laid out salary parameters, according to sources. ... Had negotiations ensued, Michigan likely would have offered around $3 million, according to sources.
As a private school, Northwestern doesn't release Fitzgerald's salary, but I've heard he earns around $1.25 million a year. So leaving for Michigan would have come with a significant salary increase.
Northwestern officials had concern about Notre Dame pursuing Fitzgerald for its vacancy last year. And according to league sources, Penn State has serious interest in Fitzgerald as a candidate to replace Joe Paterno when the time comes.
Greenstein reports that the Michigan situation caused Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips to ask Fitzgerald to shorten a recruiting trip and return to Evanston. Fitzgerald met with Phillips and university president Morton Schapiro last Thursday.
To show their commitment, Phillips and Schapiro asked Fitzgerald about his priorities. According to sources, topics included beefing up the recruiting budget, boosting the salary pool for assistant coaches and relaxing an NU rule that limits official recruiting visits to prospects who have either been admitted or on track to be admitted to school. ... The result of those discussions -- and the pending extension -- give Phillips the hope and belief that Fitzgerald will become NU's Paterno.
Northwestern is trying to avoid a Parseghian redux with Fitzgerald, and it's hard to fault the school for being so aggressive.
Fitzgerald grades well in a lot of the external factors programs want in a head coach. He brings youth, energy, intensity, an academic focus and an athletic background as a College Football Hall of Famer that makes him a good recruiter and a strong public representative for a program. He still has a long way to go as a game coach, which showed up in several contests this season, and he has yet to field a legit Big Ten title contender. Northwestern's victories total has dropped in each of the past two seasons.
Northwestern is probably overextending itself a bit to cater to Fitzgerald, whose loyalty to the school runs deep.
But for a school that has wavered on its commitment to athletics in the past, this isn't a bad strategy.
The Hawkeyes have won eight of their last nine meetings against Penn State, including each of the past three contests. Iowa derailed Penn State's national title hopes in 2008, reshuffled the Big Ten race with a win in Happy Valley last fall and held Penn State without a touchdown in a dominating win Oct. 2.
Joe Paterno has lost more games to Iowa (11) than any other team in his head-coaching career except for Ohio State (13).
"I really couldn't tell you why we've had so much success against Penn State and not so much against Northwestern," Iowa senior guard Julian Vandervelde said this week. "I really do think it comes down to the little details, the mistakes, the fundamentals and the basics. Year in and year out, we're able to execute against Penn State and not so much against Northwestern."
Iowa needs a polished performance Saturday as it visits Northwestern. The 13th-ranked Hawkeyes remain very much in the Big Ten title race, but they can't afford to slip up, especially as next week's home showdown against No. 9 Ohio State looms.
By most accounts, Saturday's game is one Iowa should win. The Hawkeyes are more experienced on both sides of the ball. Iowa's biggest strengths (the play-action pass and a pressuring defensive line) match up well against two of Northwestern's weaknesses (the secondary and the offensive line). Iowa has more at stake and should have no trouble getting motivated after the struggles.
But the Hawkeyes know what should happen and what does happen are two different things, especially in this series.
Many have tried to explain Northwestern's recent success, even pointing to the Hayden Fry-Gary Barnett exchange after the 1994 Iowa beatdown of Northwestern as the start of a shift (Northwestern is 8-5 against Iowa since 1995).
Iowa has dealt with key injuries in the last two losses -- running back Shonn Greene in 2008 and quarterback Ricky Stanzi in 2009 -- but Northwestern also played most of last year's game without star quarterback Mike Kafka. Northwestern running back Adonis Smith was quoted this week as saying coach Pat Fitzgerald "hates Iowa," but does that matter on the field?
The real explanation, according to Ferentz, is pretty simple.
"They have done a good job of playing the way you're supposed to play and we haven't," he said. "I think we have had nine turnovers and they have had two in two years. ... On top of that, we screwed up on special teams, several times, a couple years ago. To me, that's been the story of it. You've got two even teams. One team played clean, played really well and the other team didn't and it's pretty academic who is going to win or lose."
Iowa has looked uncharacteristically sloppy against NU, but Vandervelde says there's no mental block against playing the Wildcats.
"People don't expect them, for some reason, to come out and swing as much as they do and hit as hard as they do," he said. "Sometimes it catches people by surprise, I think. They're smart guys, they're going to watch tape and figure out what you do, so you really can't make mistakes. You have to be ready for everything they're going to bring.
"Having played them for a couple of years now, I'm well versed in their style of play and I won't be surprised by anything, hopefully."
Anyone who has followed Iowa this fall knows the Hawkeyes expect every game to be extremely competitive. So far, they've been right.
But No. 4 Iowa doesn't need to relive all of its hard-fought victories to get focused for Saturday's game against Northwestern (ESPN, noon ET).
At first glance, the Wildcats aren't exactly a daunting opponent. Their five victories have come against opponents with a combined record of 10-31. They lost to lowly Syracuse back in September. They've been banged up in key spots and have underachieved in other areas (offensive line, running back).
|Robin Alam/Icon SMI|
|Don’t expect the Hawkeyes to look past Pat Fitzgerald’s Wildcats.|
But since 1995, Northwestern has usually saved its best for Iowa. The Wildcats are 7-5 in the series since '95 with wins in three of the last four meetings. They have won their last two contests at Kinnick Stadium, including a 22-17 decision last year in a game where Iowa committed five turnovers. NU is the last team to beat Iowa at Kinnick.
“They’ve done a great job against us," Hawkeyes left tackle Bryan Bulaga said. "This game is definitely a big one. There’s no way we can overlook Northwestern."
Trying to pinpoint why certain teams succeed against others can be a futile exercise.
Iowa has owned Penn State as of late, winning seven of the teams' last eight meetings. Illinois usually plays well against Ohio State, winning in Columbus three times since 1999 and taking the Buckeyes to overtime in 2002 before falling. Northwestern's recent run against Iowa falls into the same category.
"I can't put a finger on why that is," Bulaga said. "It’s just the way the conference is. The way Northwestern has competed with us, we know every year it’s going to be a good game."
Iowa used to dominate Northwestern (as most teams did) and won 21 consecutive games from 1974-94. In the early 1990s, Wildcats head coach Gary Barnett put Iowa in his crosshairs as the team Northwestern needed to beat to reach the next level.
Barnett's teams won three straight against Iowa from 1995-97.
"Since ’95, this series has really changed," said Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald, a star linebacker for Barnett's teams. "We felt pretty strongly that it was obviously a tough couple decades against them, and at some point, that shoe was going to finally drop and we’d get one win. Now to put it where this has become a pretty heated game between two programs that really respect each other, it’s turned a corner and it shows where our program’s at.
"We’re in a completely different place than we were when I arrived here [as a player] in 1993."
Not surprisingly, Iowa is a heavy favorite entering the game, and most factors favor the Hawkeyes.
They've been dominant in the fourth quarter, outscoring opponents 100-38 overall and 80-14 in Big Ten games. Northwestern, meanwhile, has lacked the late-game mojo it's had in past seasons, getting outscored 72-44 in the final quarter.
"It’s going to be a huge challenge for us," Fitzgerald said. "We’re playing a team with a lot of positive momentum. They’re finding ways to win, and that’s sometimes tough to overcome."
But after playing close games all season, the Hawkeyes expect more of the same on Saturday.
"They’ve played us tough over the years, so we take this game very seriously," Hawkeyes tight end Tony Moeaki said. "We’re expecting a real battle out there."
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
The last time Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald set foot in South Bend, Ind., he took the first step toward a Hall of Fame playing career.
On that day -- Sept. 2, 1995 -- Fitzgerald and his unheralded Northwestern teammates pulled off an improbable upset of then-No. 9 Notre Dame. They went on to win the Big Ten championship and reach the Rose Bowl, completing one of the most unlikely and incredible stories in recent college football history.
Fitzgerald won the first of two National Defensive Player of the Year awards in 1995.
The day before the Notre Dame game, Northwestern players and coaches toured the College Football Hall of Fame before their walk-through at Notre Dame Stadium.
Fitzgerald is back at the Hall this weekend, this time for a more notable purpose. He'll be enshrined as a member of the 2009 Hall of Fame class.
"I thought about it [Wednesday] night," Fitzgerald said Thursday as he drove to South Bend. "We had just gotten back from Florida for vacation, and I was unpacking and repacking to go. I thought to myself, 'The last time I was in South Bend, we won 17-15.' I haven't been back since."
The Notre Dame game served as a catalyst for Northwestern, giving players the "concrete evidence, internally, that we could be a winner," Fitzgerald said. Northwestern got a reality check two weeks later, falling to Miami (Ohio), but won its final nine regular-season games before losing to USC in the Rose Bowl.
Fitzgerald had no idea during his last trip to the Hall what was in store for himself and the team. He was simply happy to be starting at middle linebacker after winning the job in spring practice.
"There's no way that I would have predicted this would have happened," he said. "What's fun about life is anything can happen, and I'm just honored to represent the program."
The enshrinement festival Friday and Saturday marks the final event for Hall of Fame inductees, who attended an awards dinner in New York in December and were recognized before the Fiesta Bowl in January in Glendale, Ariz. The process has allowed Fitzgerald to reconnect with his teammates from the 1995 squad, who are scattered throughout the country.
"The thing you miss the most is the camaraderie and the locker-room time of being with your buddies," Fitzgerald said. "Not that we haven't stayed close, but there's been so many conversations that have come up, it's just been a ton of fun."
Several of Fitzgerald's family members will make the short drive to South Bend this weekend, and 51 Northwestern fans were selected to travel to the festivities. Fitzgerald isn't sure if his former head coach, Gary Barnett, or his former defensive coordinator, Ron Vanderlinden, would be in attendance, though he wouldn't be surprised if they were.
"I think it's going to hit me again when I see the Hall," he said. "Part of our experience [in 1995] was going to the Hall of Fame the day before the game. Little did I think that it would lead to this."
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Pat Fitzgerald has changed the face of Northwestern football, and, in the process, has become the face of the Wildcats program.
Northwestern took a big step toward keeping the face in place Tuesday, rewarding Fitzgerald with a seven-year contract extension through the 2015 season.
AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall Pat Fitzgerald received a contract extension, keeping him at Northwestern.
"This has been one of our top priorities the past few months," Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips said in a prepared statement. "There is no doubt that Pat is the right individual to lead Northwestern's football program well into the future. In three years, Pat has quickly developed into one of the nation's top young head coaches. He bleeds purple and has tremendous passion for Northwestern."
Phillips wanted to get a contract done by the start of the summer and nearly reached his goal. Northwestern has improved its wins total in each of Fitzgerald's past two seasons, finishing 9-4 last fall and reaching the Alamo Bowl.
Fitzgerald stepped into a very difficult situation in 2006, taking over as the nation's youngest head coach just a week after the sudden death of program stabilizer Randy Walker. The 31-year-old showed his age at points during a very shaky first season in which the Wildcats stumbled to 4-8.
He began to find himself as a head coach after the 2007 campaign, blending competition into every element of the team's offseason program. He made the Big Ten's best coaching hire in defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz, who transformed a sorry unit into a group that reflects Fitzgerald, a former two-time National Defensive Player of the Year at Northwestern. The result with a nine-win team that amazingly included only one All-Big Ten selection (defensive end Corey Wootton).
But with success comes speculation, especially at a place like Northwestern. With Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis on the hot seat late last fall, many tabbed Fitzgerald as a potential successor. It seemed like a perfect fit: An Irish kid from Chicago's south suburbs coaching the Fighting Irish.
Don't hold your breath on that one.
Fitzgerald is extremely happy at Northwestern. He played there. He got his degree from there. He loves Evanston and living near his family and his wife's family in Chicago's south suburbs. He has three sons who he'd love to send to Northwestern. He loves the Big Ten.
And if he did decide to leave, I highly, highly doubt it would be for Notre Dame.
"It's no secret that I want to be the head football coach at Northwestern for many years to come," Fitzgerald said in a statement. "Our football program is succeeding both on and off the field, and we're proud of our recent accomplishments. We have greater aspirations, however, and I'm thankful to our administration for helping us support that vision."
The idea that someone would want to stay at Northwestern for the long haul seems unlikely, and the school has lost successful coaches like Ara Parseghian and Gary Barnett to more prestigious programs (Notre Dame and Colorado). But Fitzgerald's roots run much deeper at the school, and as long as he continues to receive support from the administration -- not just salary but program support -- he should stay put.
You never know what happens in the coaching business, but with Fitzgerald's age (34), he could have a Joe Paterno-like run at Northwestern.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Most outsiders view Northwestern as a stepping stone, the type of place an up-and-coming young coach would leave as soon as a better opportunity presented itself.
History supports the belief.
Ara Parseghian left Northwestern for Notre Dame after upgrading the Wildcats program in the 1960s. After years of flirtation with other schools, program restorer Gary Barnett left for Colorado following the 1998 season. Lynn "Pappy" Waldorf was named national coach of the year at Northwestern in 1946 and coached Otto Graham before moving on to Cal.
If Pat Fitzgerald continues to win in Evanston -- his victories total has increased from four to six to nine in his first three seasons as a head coach -- the big debate will not be if, but when he leaves for another job. It already started last fall among the Chicago media, especially as Notre Dame considered whether to retain Charlie Weis.
Given his last name and his hometown -- Orland Park, Ill., an Irish-Catholic area and Notre Dame hub in Chicago's south suburbs -- Fitzgerald will have a hard time convincing anyone that he wouldn't be a good fit in South Bend.
Just like he would have a hard time convincing anyone that Northwestern could be a destination job.
"Obviously, those people didn't play here," he told ESPN.com on Monday. "They didn't experience what Northwestern football means, and I did. This is a dream come true for me to be here. This is where I decided to come as a student-athlete, the success we had on the field.
"I want to be here for a long, long time. Stacy and I love raising our boys here. I love the young men that we get to coach, and obviously the support from the administration and from [athletic director Jim Phillips], I couldn't ask for anything more."
Phillips said last week that talks are already under way on a contract extension for Fitzgerald, who took over as coach after the sudden death of Randy Walker in 2006. A deal should be announced before the start of preseason camp.
Money could be an obstacle, as it has been in the past. Barnett has publicly questioned Northwestern's ability to pay top dollar, and he remains close to Fitzgerald, his former player. Northwestern doesn't have as many deep-pocketed boosters as most of its Big Ten competitors.
Paying and retaining assistant coaches was a struggle for Walker, who lost top offensive assistants Kevin Wilson and James Patton to Oklahoma. But Fitzgerald kept all but one of his assistants from 2008, and the school has made some facilities upgrades, including a new FieldTurf surface for its indoor practice facility.
Fitzgerald Watch will continue as long as Northwestern keeps progressing, but the 34-year-old doesn't get caught up in it.
"It's not an element of my life," Fitzgerald said. "The most important thing for us here is for our program to keep going in the right direction. We have a program in place now that the guys understand what we want and how we want it done. I've got a lot of confidence that we're going to continue to improve, if we can continue to recruit the right fit."
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
You don't have to look back too far to identify the faces of Northwestern football. The program's history before 1995 was mainly miserable, and that's putting it mildly. There was a 34-game losing streak and years of non-competitive teams in the Big Ten.
But everything shifted in 1995 as the Wildcats won the Big Ten and reached the Rose Bowl. The program has been respectable ever since, winning two more league titles and reaching five bowl games.
The first three faces for Northwestern's Rushmore were obvious, while the fourth was a tougher choice.
- Gary Barnett -- Barnett changed the culture in Evanston and led one of the most improbable college football stories in recent memory as Northwestern won the 1995 Big Ten title and reached the Rose Bowl. As Wildcats head coach from 1992-99, Barnett helped the Wildcats to two league titles and their first bowl games since 1949.
- Otto Graham -- One of the greatest all-around athletes in school history, Graham earned All-America honors in both football and basketball. Earning the nickname "Automatic Otto," Graham broke every Big Ten passing record during his college career and won the league's MVP award in 1943. He was later inducted into both the college and pro football Hall of Fame.
- Pat Fitzgerald -- Fitzgerald won back-to-back National Defensive Player of the Year awards as a standout middle linebacker for the Wildcats on their Big Ten title-winning squads. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in December and became the nation's youngest head coach in 2006 when he took the reins at his alma mater. Northwestern went 9-4 in Fitzgerald's third season, and he's regarded as one of the game's top young coaches.
- Darnell Autry -- When your face has been on the cover of Sports Illustrated, there's a pretty good chance it ends up on your team's Rushmore. Along with Fitzgerald, Autry was a front man for the 1995 Rose Bowl squad and finished fourth in Heisman Trophy voting that year. The running back owns two of the top four single-season rushing totals in team history.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
TGIF. Here's your extra helping of links.
- Is the spread offense dead? Say it ain't so. But Michigan hasn't done much to resurrect the system this fall, Doug Lesmerises writes in The Cleveland Plain Dealer.
- Retirement rumors have followed Penn State coach Joe Paterno for decades, and they're picking up again this week as Penn State plays its home finale, Jeff McLane writes in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
"One Internet message-board story has Paterno announcing his retirement at halftime and then handing the team over to defensive coordinator Tom Bradley for the bowl game. Because Paterno is expected to have 100 members of his family in attendance, including all five of his children, a leap was naturally made."'Everybody is looking for some kind of sign that something's going on. There isn't,' said Jay Paterno, Joe's son and quarterbacks coach."
- The Chicago Tribune's Teddy Greenstein is having some trouble deciding who gets the newspaper's coveted Silver Football trophy as the Big Ten's best player. Let's spell it out for him: S-H-O-N-N G-R-E-E-N-E.
- Rich Rodriguez wants some fans to get a life. Michigan fans want him to get a win. All parties want to see this season end already, Mitch Albom writes in the Detroit Free Press.
- Michigan State quarterback Brian Hoyer has held his own in Happy Valley before, Shannon Shelton writes in the Detroit Free Press.
- Here's an interesting Q&A with former Northwestern and Colorado coach Gary Barnett, who weighs in on the Northwestern-Illinois rivalry and whether he'll return to coaching, courtesy of The (Champaign) News-Gazette.
"Do you plan on coaching again?
"I haven't really made myself available for that kind of stuff. If I were going to do it, this would be the year. I've been away from coaching for three years, but I've been around the game. I miss it a lot and still have a lot to contribute. If the right thing came up, I'd do it. I don't have any expectations, though."
- Wisconsin tight end Travis Beckum keeps a picture of his gruesome season-ending leg injury on his cell phone as motivation, Tom Mulhern writes in the Wisconsin State Journal. Despite playing sparingly this season, Beckum hopes to boost his NFL draft stock at the scouting combine.
- The Big Ten Network's Dave Revsine runs down the key numbers that reflect each Big Ten team's success or failure this season.