Northwestern gets southwestern

Wildcats' rise fueled in part by the team's recruiting success in talent-rich Texas

Updated: October 3, 2013, 4:45 PM ET
By Tom VanHaaren | ESPN RecruitingNation

Northwestern knows its recruiting footprint starts in Illinois and the Midwest, but Texas has become vital to the recruiting success in Evanston.

The Wildcats have landed six commitments from the state of Texas over the past two recruiting classes, and 12 since 2010. That comes as no coincidence as the Lone Star state is a big focus in the staff's recruiting strategy.

Typically, the state is difficult for Midwest teams to recruit. Northwestern's six commits are tied with Nebraska for the most in the Big Ten from the 2013 and 2014 classes.

The coaching staff credits the Wildcats' success in Texas to their dedication and allocation of resources, identifying targets early and the combination of academics and winning football offered to prospects.

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsNorthwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald has helped build his roster by recruiting relentlessly in Texas.
Coach Pat Fitzgerald has deployed three of his assistants to cover Texas with recruiting coordinator Matt MacPherson, linebackers coach Randy Bates and wide receivers coach Dennis Springer all covering different areas.

"We spend a tremendous amount of time on Texas. I spend 50 percent of my time recruiting Texas," Bates said. "People sometimes forget that Houston is the fourth-largest city in the country. You can fly from Houston to Chicago about every 40 minutes between the two airports."

Bates notes that it can often times be a bigger hassle for him to travel to Ohio than Houston because of the accessibility.

He has spent 18 years recruiting Texas at Navy, Louisiana Tech and now Northwestern. Prior to recruiting the state, Bates had no real ties to Texas and says Northwestern's success there started with Fitzgerald, who recruited the area as an assistant.

Building off the foundation Fitzgerald built, prospects have responded positively to the school's efforts.

Many of the prospects Northwestern targeted say the Wildcats were one of the first schools to contact them, which is a testament to the amount of work the staff puts in.

Auston Anderson (Plano, Texas/Plano West), a 2014 commit, said MacPherson did an excellent job recruiting him and outlining everything Northwestern has to offer.

"They were the first school to offer me -- they offered on signing day. Northwestern gave me the best opportunity to play big-time football and support myself financially as far as my degree and a job after school," Anderson said. "When I went on my unofficial visit they showed me [Northwestern star RB and Texas native] Venric Mark's film and how I fit in with the offense. The academics, football, I think in the next couple years they'll be rivaling Stanford as a top academic and football program."

Mark, along with the other Texas natives currently on the roster, has been another selling point for the coaches.

Texas targets have taken notice and see it as a bonus to have players on the roster who can relate to themselves. Having other players from such a different place can often make traveling all the way up to Chicago that much easier.

Another 2014 commit, Noah Westerfield (Frisco, Texas/Wakeland), says coming from a place where football is treated with such reverence, it helps to have people he can relate to.

[+] EnlargeVenric Mark
Tony Ding/AP PhotoThe success of Texas native Venric Mark at Northwestern helps sell skeptical recruits about playing for the Wildcats.
The distance from home and the difference in weather have been obstacles Northwestern has faced while recruiting in Texas. Fitzgerald and his assistants are good salesmen, but they can't change those things. So they have to adapt.

"Their mindset is that our weather is snowing every day, 12 months out of the year," Bates said. "I know Fitz does it, and I do it, we look the kid in the eye and say, 'If that is a factor, I need you to tell me.' If it is, then we move on. I don't want a kid to come north that's not excited to come here."

Those obstacles will always be there while recruiting the South, but there is one way to combat them -- winning.

Since the Houston area gets the Big Ten Network and WGN, a Chicago-based television station, Northwestern has a big opportunity to be seen and capitalize on its performance.

"When you say Northwestern now, people think not only just about academics, but big-time football. Winning football," MacPherson said. "What we've done and made light of is that you can do both. You don't have to sacrifice one for the other. Academics has to be No. 1, but football is 1-A."

Northwestern has now gone to five straight bowl games, ended last season nationally ranked and is now the second highest-ranked Big Ten team at No. 16, behind only Ohio State (No. 4).

The coaches refer to their program as the total package now that they are playing good football, have great academics and also have one of the top graduation rates within football.

That has allowed Northwestern to target -- and land -- better athletes than in the past, as evidenced by its No. 28 spot in the ESPN recruiting class rankings.

The Midwest will always be the home base for Northwestern recruiting, but it's safe to say Texas has become an extension of that territory.

With better facilities, a great product on the field and a degree worth a lot in the real world, this staff feels as though it can go out and recruit anywhere.

"The one thing that we as a coaching staff have been focusing on, we are going to go after and try to attract the top players in the country," MacPherson said. "All the pieces are in place. The talent on our roster is improving every year, so this is a program that has a lot of momentum on and off the field."

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