Joe’s Corner: An Interesting Road Ahead for Pat Fitzgerald

WNUR’s Joe Misulonas (@jmisulonas) investigates the possible implications of a Northwestern loss this Saturday to Michigan State, leaving the team without bowl eligibility for the first time since Pat Fitzgerald’s first year at the helm.

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Getty Images
This Saturday may not be the most important football game in Pat Fitzgerald’s tenure as head football coach of the Northwestern Wildcats, but it does carry important implications.

If the Wildcats lose, they will be eliminated from bowl eligibility, the first time since 2006, Fitzgerald’s first year as head coach after taking over following the death of Randy Walker. In Fitz’s second season, the team finished 6-6 but didn’t make a bowl game. NU has appeared in a bowl game every year since, and last year capped off a 10-3 year with the program’s first bowl victory since 1949.

I don’t want to re-tread the same storyline of this season. Northwestern came in with hope of winning the Legends Division and possibly going to the Big Ten Championship Game. After starting 4-0, the team dropped six straight. Tough losses in overtime, successful opposing Hail Marys, and blown fourth quarter leads made this one of the most difficult seasons for Northwestern fans to swallow in a while.

This Saturday, their backs are against the wall. Win, and then they go to Champaign to take on the Fighting Illini, a game I would’ve said two months ago was an automatic win for the Wildcats, for a possible bowl appearance. If they beat the Spartans, who I think we can all agree are the surprise team in the Big Ten this year, NU can continue their bowl appearance streak.

It’s an interesting moment for this Northwestern program. I can’t really think of a time when Northwestern needed a victory over a ranked team. But that’s the case this weekend. They need to beat Michigan State, or this season will be entirely lost. Some may argue the season is already lost, but for a program that’s won one bowl game in 64 years, the possibility of winning two in a row can be considered a minor accomplishment.

I want Northwestern to win this Saturday, but the more interesting scenario occurs if the Wildcats lose. Fitz will have to enter into minor rehabilitation mode for the program. The recruiting class of 2014 is the best in Fitz’s history. A couple of four-star recruits and a handful of three-stars makes this a very exciting class to watch. But what will the class of 2015 look like? How will Fitz sell a 5-7 (or possibly 4-8) Northwestern team?

Recruiting has always been one of his strengths as a head football coach, but the pitch got easier the past few years. Not only is Northwestern a great academic school, but the football team is emerging as a competitive program. Five straight bowl appearances, six years of eligibility, a Gator Bowl win. The respectability Fitz brought to the program made Northwestern a desirable location for recruits.

If Northwestern loses this Saturday, Fitz will have to explain why this year’s Northwestern team is not reflective of the state of the program. It’s a harder sell than he’s had to make in the past. In competing with schools such as Stanford, Vanderbilt, and even Duke who is in the middle of a comeback season, Northwestern needs to work hard for a solid class of 2015. It doesn’t hurt that this year’s class is the best in Fitz’s tenure. But coming off the worst season since his first, Fitz is going to have his work cut out for him.

Fitzgerald will not be on the hot seat next season. We all know that. They’re not going to fire the winningest coach in program history with the first bowl win since 1949, and they shouldn’t. Fitz has taken this program to a level of stability that it has never seen. No, this season hasn’t been good. But that doesn’t suddenly take away all of his previous accomplishments. There’s a reason people discussed his name as a possible successor to Lane Kiffin and Mack Brown. He’s a good coach.

This season has not been Fitz’s greatest moment as Northwestern’s head coach. But this offseason he can prove why the only reason expectations were so high coming into the year to begin with was because of his unique ability to recruit and develop young talent.

For Fitz, this offseason will be about making sure this season does not become the norm for the program. The ship is starting to veer off-course, and as the captain at the helm, he needs to get it right before we head into the eye of the storm.

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