- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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EVANSTON, Ill. -- Alarm bells started ringing in the Nicolet Football Center early Monday afternoon, with an automated voice informing all inside to evacuate because of a fire emergency.
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald and his staff calmly walked outside, where they spent a few minutes in the shockingly warm, not-quite-spring air. After the ringing stopped, the coaches returned and continued to dissect film of Saturday's practice.
If a false alarm during a week where no practices are being run is the biggest distraction of Northwestern's spring session, Fitzgerald will gladly take it. A year ago, Northwestern found itself in the national spotlight, not because of the team's on-field potential, but because of the unionization debate initiated by former quarterback Kain Colter. Fitzgerald testified at a National Labor Relations Board hearing in Chicago just before spring practice kicked off. The Wildcats faced union questions after every practice. The attention remained as they voted shortly after spring ball whether to unionize.
It was a historic period in the program's history. It also was a wholly unproductive one.
"Every coach in the country, regardless of if it's college football or Major League Baseball or the NBA or NHL, you talk about eliminating distractions, and we had a big one last year," Fitzgerald said. "It's not an excuse. It was just a reality. We dealt with it, we worked through it. It's in no way, shape or form an excuse. We're not going to accept that. But it definitely was a factor."
Fitzgerald admits Northwestern was "behind" entering preseason camp. Coupled with a surge in injuries and the preseason losses of two All-Big Ten players, Northwestern stumbled to an 0-2 start, never fully recovered and finished 5-7 for the second straight year.
There are no guarantees Northwestern course-corrects this spring. It has to find a quarterback, build more explosiveness on offense and establish greater toughness along both lines. There are injury limitations, especially at defensive tackle.
But so far spring practice has been standard operating procedure for the Wildcats.
"It's great having some normalcy," Fitzgerald said. "I'm most happy for the young men and for the staff. To really just focus on the process of building a foundation of what we're trying to do, instead of dealing with an outside distraction, has been positive to this point."
An unobstructed path to the coming season should heighten the urgency for everyone associated with Northwestern football. Although the program doesn't resemble the national joke it was in the 1970s and 1980s, it still suffers from that default perception when things go poorly. Fitzgerald built Northwestern into a consistent bowl participant and, eventually, a bowl champion and a 10-win team in 2012. But three consecutive bowl-less seasons will lead many to wonder whether the Wildcats will ever turn the corner.
Fitzgerald kept his entire staff in place despite consecutive losing seasons, which says something about the power he wields and also about the place where he coaches. Most FBS coaches wouldn't have a choice but to make changes after two subpar years (or, in Bob Stoops' case, just one). Some Northwestern fans called for firings, but the scrutiny here doesn't come close to that surrounding most Power 5 programs.
"We've won a lot of games, and I'm very proud of the job our staff has done," Fitzgerald said. "We're very disappointed we haven't had three 10-win seasons. We're just like the guys, champing at the bit, have a good sense of urgency."
Offensive coordinator Mick McCall sums up the difference between this spring and last spring this way: "We're able to coach 'em."
"It's hard to coach your guys when you're trying to make sure, 'Oh, hey, by the way, this other thing's going on,'" McCall continued. "We didn't need that. If anybody in the country had to do that, they were going to struggle with ways to do it.
"We're not holding anything back. We're coaching the heck out of them."
Last fall, Fitzgerald often cited maturity issues on the team. The injury wave forced many young players into action, and though some enjoyed brief success -- freshmen defenders Anthony Walker and Godwin Igwebuike received weekly honors from the Big Ten -- there was little consistency.
McCall likes how players have responded through the first nine spring workouts. Fitzgerald added, "I think we're growing up."
Northwestern is a normal team going through a normal offseason, striving to regain what had been normal results under Fitzgerald (7-9 wins and a bowl appearance). It's a program that, quite frankly, needs more internal tension/pressure to get back to where it was in 2012, especially in the Big Ten's weaker division (West).
The Wildcats need a strong finish to spring ball. They need an even more productive preseason camp, when several injured linemen return.
"We're right there in a lot of games," Fitzgerald said. "We've got to find a way to win."
They'll attempt to do so with nothing obstructing their way.