- Jared Shanker, ESPN Staff Writer
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A few years ago, most would have called Pat Fitzgerald delusional. Even more would have called his pitch sour grapes for missing out on so many prospects to the rest of the Big Ten. But in the midst of a 2014 recruiting class already considered Northwestern's best ever, Fitzgerald just tries to say it unpretentiously.
"I'm not sure if the term 'selling' is right," Fitzgerald said. "I tell our staff this, and I say this humbly: For a young man to get a top-15 education and compete for Big Ten championships in the backyard of Chicago and to be around our players, if I have to sell it that hard, I'm not sure he's a right fit."
Whether or not Fitzgerald is selling, high school recruits are buying. The Wildcats have ESPN's 17th-best recruiting class, which trails only Michigan (No. 1), Ohio State (13) and Penn State (14) among Big Ten teams.
This recruiting success is unprecedented in Evanston. The Wildcats' 10 commitments are the most in the conference. Top commit Clayton Thorson (Wheaton, Ill./Wheaton North) is ranked No. 11 among pocket passers. Running back Justin Jackson (Carol Stream, Ill./Glenbard North) and athlete Dareian Watkins (Galion, Ohio/Galion) are four-star prospects coveted by Big Ten teams considered more prestigious than the program that in January won its first bowl game since 1949.
"Based on conversations with our young men and their families, there is great momentum around our program," Fitzgerald said.
Much of that has to do with the players who have built the foundation at Northwestern under Fitzgerald. The best recruiting tool in the Wildcats' arsenal is the players already on the team, the coach said. While it is the staff that is on the road visiting high schools and meeting with coaches to find potential recruits, Fitzgerald relies on his current roster, too.
He said he doesn't "sugarcoat or sing 'Kumbaya'" with recruits; he lets his players educate recruits on what it is really like to play at Northwestern. If his team does not sign off on a recruit after spending time with him, it raises a red flag to Fitzgerald.
That one-on-one interaction with current players is having a major impact on the Class of 2014. Watkins, who chose Northwestern over Michigan State, Penn State and Wisconsin, made his commitment around midnight after spending the evening with a few of the players on the team.
"They treated me like a teammate, and I wanted to be able to hang out with those guys and be around those people," Watkins said. "They said, out of all the places, the Northwestern staff is as real as it gets. They're genuine and they tell you not what you want to hear but they're straight up."
Northwestern sophomore Dan Vitale hails from the same town as Thorson, although Vitale went to a rival school. When Thorson visited Northwestern on an overnight stay, he slept in Vitale's room.
"They're Northwestern players on a day-to-day basis," Thorson said. "[Vitale] said it's a great experience with the guys on the team and how the academics will help in football, and they realize life is beyond football. You can compete for Big Ten and national championships and then have a job to set me up the rest of my life."
Thorson, the top quarterback in Illinois, and Jackson, the top running back in the state, are good friends who play catch together a few times a week. Before either committed to Northwestern, they talked about how each was high on the Wildcats. Once Thorson committed and began recruiting Jackson, the nation's 32nd-ranked RB was confident the future at Northwestern was bright with the recruits coming to Evanston.
"It helps when a player committed lets you know why he chose a school," Jackson said. "They don't pressure you, but it's someone you can talk to."
Fitzgerald is not naïve, though. He knows success breeds success, and it took a while for Northwestern to build a consistent winner.
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."
A member of the College Football Hall of Fame as a Northwestern linebacker, Fitzgerald knows exactly what it entails to fit his vision of a Wildcat. He is careful not to overload recruits with his experience at Northwestern, but he remembers why he chose it when he was a prospect in the early '90s.
Northwestern was a three-win program back then. Now he can offer -- not sell -- something more.
"Now we have bowl rings."