For Northwestern, What is Success?

Success is a funny thing, especially in sports. One moment you have it and the next it’s gone.

Success is defined as: “the accomplishment of an aim or purpose,” but for a program with an all-time record of 503–642–44, how should Northwestern Football define success?

It’s a question that, as Northwestern prepares to take on Pittsburgh in the Pinstripe Bowl, has been asked time and time again over my four years at Northwestern.

Pat Fitzgerald was asked this very question in Sports Illustrated’s 2013 College Football Preview. In it, the ‘Cats were ranked No. 22, coming off a Gator Bowl win, their first bowl victory since 1949, and a 10-win season. Expectations were high for the 2013 season, with a potentially huge matchup against the top-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes already circled on fans’ calendars.

In the preview, Fitzgerald was asked, “Has the program reached the point where fans can expect seven to 10 wins every year?”

Fitzgerald responded, saying “It better have, or I’m going to lose my job.”

That year, Northwestern went 5-7. Same with the year after. And while a couple of students held up “Fire Fitz” sign at the infamous M00N game in 2014, Fitzgerald wasn’t fired.

In 2015 the Wildcats went 10-3. And this year, the ‘Cats finished 6-6, making a bowl game in consecutive years for just the third time in their history, and the second in the Pat Fitzgerald era. 

Many will applaud making a bowl game, especially for a team like Northwestern, but is it enough? Is 6-6 a successful season, especially after losing to Western Michigan and Illinois State to open the season?

The Wildcats’ season looked bleak after a 1-3 September, but they bounced back, going 3-1 in October with huge road wins over Michigan State and Iowa. But again, is it enough?

There was talk of competing for the Big Ten Championship in 2013, even after the loss to Ohio State. Same with 2015, when the ‘Cats started 5-0. But the ‘Cats didn’t make it to Indianapolis in either season.

And while the Northwestern’s 2013 season can be deemed a failure, especially based on preseason expectations, can 2016’s? Can it be based on midseason expectations? After the loss to Illinois State, 4-8 would have seemed like a reasonable expectation.

What it all comes down to is SI’s question, and Fitzgerald’s answer. Has Northwestern reached the point where Northwestern should expect 7-10 win seasons? For Northwestern, is success defined by a bowl appearance? Or is it something more than that, maybe 7-10 wins or competing for the Big Ten Championship?

That is the question. Is Northwestern, as a program, at the point where they can no longer be satisfied with a six-win season and a bowl appearance? Or is a bowl appearance enough, given the Wildcats’ history?

Based on Northwestern’s current talent level, they shouldn’t be. The Wildcats have had among their most talented teams in program history over the past five years. A 6-6 season and a bowl appearance shouldn’t be enough for this talented of a team.

And if Fitzgerald’s answer is to be believed, success is measured by that seven to 10-win benchmark and potentially a bowl victory.

And therein lies the problem. Three out of the past four years, Northwestern hasn’t reached that benchmark. Based on Fitz’s own benchmark, the Wildcats’ have had just two successful seasons over the past five years.

Is that a problem? Maybe. Should Fitz be fired because of it? Probably not.

But with all this talk about how the ‘Cats should be excited for the Pinstripe Bowl, and of course they should be, is that good enough on a year-in, year-out basis?

Is it enough for Northwestern continue their inconsistent year-to-year play, making bowl games every couple of years?

Or are the ‘Cats at the point where they need to take the next step as a program, achieving seven to 10 wins and a bowl game every year?

I think so.

The Wildcats, as a program, have to turn the corner, but they haven’t been able to do it yet. Other programs though, have in the past – just take a look at Stanford, a program with a similar academic stature.

In the post-Bill Walsh era, The Cardinal has made just five bowl appearances and had just one coach with a winning record before Jim Harbaugh took over. But in the four years Harbaugh coached Stanford, the Cardinal went 29-21 and 1-1 in their two bowl appearances.

And they’ve been ever better under David Shaw, albeit with a loss to Northwestern on their record, going 63-17 with six bowl appearances, one in each of Shaw’s first six seasons.

Year-in and year-out under Harbaugh and Shaw, Stanford is competing for Pac-12 titles and even a shot at the College Football Playoff. But just over 10 years ago, the Cardinal finished 1-11 under Walt Harris with just two winning seasons after 1996.

Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw helped not only turn Stanford’s football program around, but also helped them turn the corner. And Pat Fitzgerald and the Northwestern Wildcats can, and need to do the same.

First, it starts in the trenches. As we’ve seen time and time again, Northwestern cannot compete with the upper echelon of the Big Ten if they don’t get bigger and better on the offensive and defensive lines.

Unsurprisingly, the Wildcats’ best seasons over the past five years have come alongside their best offensive and defensive line play. But teams like Iowa, Ohio State, Michigan and Nebraska will continue to overpower the ‘Cats in the trenches, if they cannot improve their offensive and defensive lines.

Second, the Wildcats not only need to recruit well, as they have under Fitzgerald, but they also need to improve the development of their talent. Trevor Siemian’s success in the NFL should be an indictment of the entire coaching staff. Why wasn’t Siemian able to attain a similar level of success in Evanston?

Similarly, Matt Alviti was a four-star recruit, yet he’s rarely seen the field during his time at Northwestern. With top recruits few and far between for Northwestern, Pat Fitzgerald and Co. need to improve in their development of talent, not only with the four-star recruits, but also with the two and three star prospects as well.

That isn’t to say Fitzgerald and Co. haven’t done this in their time at Northwestern, they certainly have, just look at Anthony Walker Jr., Godwin Igwebuike and Justin Jackson, but the Wildcats must become even better at development as a program if they want to take the next step.

And finally, the Wildcats need to be more aggressive. Playing conservative won’t get anywhere in the Big Ten, much less in college football. Pat Fitzgerald, Mick McCall and Mike Hankwitz all need to get more aggressive with their scheming and their play-calling, to create the big play and force the game-changing turnover, something Northwestern has struggled with this season, and in years past.

Even with Austin Carr and Justin Jackson, the Wildcats ranked No. 103 in the FBS in yards per play this season, with just 55 plays for 20+ yards, No. 79 in the FBS.

On defense the Wildcats were better, allowing 5.28 YPP, No. 37 in the FBS, but still allowed over 400 yards per game, forcing just 21 turnovers, No. 42 in the FBS.

If the Wildcats want to turn the corner and take the next step as a program, Northwestern needs to get bigger and better in the trenches, recruit and develop better and be more aggressive on both sides of the ball.

With a new practice facility on the horizon, the Northwestern Wildcats need to take the next step as a program.

6-6 isn’t good enough anymore. Not for a program this talented.


  • What a great analysis. I love the well-found optimism that the Cats can – WILL – do even better in coming years. A far cry from when I was there during the John Pont / Rick Venturi years (I can still hear the “Punt Pont” cheers) that set the table for Northwestern’s longest losing record in NCAA Division 1 history (a record I believe still stands). Times have changed for the better. We CAN win football games, and CAN preserve the emphasis on academics for student-athletes.

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