Column: It’s time to move on from Jim O’Neil

By Eric Rynston-Lobel

After Northwestern football lost to Ohio State by seven touchdowns back in 2019, Pat Fitzgerald turned to technology 101. 

“When things aren’t going great, there’s three magic buttons to getting things fixed, and they all have to be pressed at the same time,” he said. “That’s control, alt and delete. You know what that does to your computer? It restarts it.”

Just two years after pressing control, alt, delete with his offense, it’s time for Fitz to do the same with his defense. That starts with moving on from Jim O’Neil.

When you’re a program that no one expects to win consistently, it’s easy to keep a subpar coordinator around. When you’re expected to win, like Fitzgerald now is after winning two Big Ten West titles in three years, avoiding those tough decisions isn’t so easy. No one thought the ‘Cats would follow up 2020 with another top-10 finish, but a second 3-9 campaign in three years will surely stunt the program’s growth.

The genius of Mike Hankwitz’s defense last season was well-documented. Those were admittedly hard shoes to fill. Yet after finishing 2021 with the worst rush defense in the Big Ten, it’s clear O’Neil is not the answer. And this isn’t just based on what we saw from the ‘Cats defense this season. Comb through O’Neil’s résumé, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a defense he coordinated that succeeded. In his three years as an NFL DC, his rush defenses ranked 32nd, 30th and 32nd. In his two years as the Raiders’ defensive backs coach, the team ranked 25th and 26th in pass defense. 

Surely the college game is different from the NFL, and bringing in someone with NFL ties like O’Neil seemed to make sense for a program trying to position itself as a consistent producer of NFL talent. In year one, it just never clicked, and it’s not worth the risk to the program’s credibility to bring him back for year two.

Following a rough start to the season in which the ‘Cats allowed over 1,700 yards of offense against Michigan State, Duke and Nebraska, I was ready to give O’Neil the benefit of the doubt after better performances against Rutgers and a talented Michigan team. Even in the first half against Minnesota, it seemed the defense had rediscovered its bend-but-don’t-break mantra that was so successful under Hankwitz. Looking back now, especially after three straight drubbings to Wisconsin, Purdue and Illinois to end the year, I’m not convinced those early results were just a defense adjusting to a new scheme.

Fitzgerald often cited his team’s inexperience this year as a reason for its inconsistency. Looking through the defense, though, I don’t know that we can call it inexperienced. Of the eleven starters against Illinois, seven were juniors or older and two of the four sophomores (Brandon Joseph and Cam Mitchell) were arguably two of the ‘Cats best players in 2021. Maybe Peter McIntyre and Trevor Kent had less in-game experience on defense, but that’s still not a valid excuse.

Last spring when Rashawn Slater and Greg Newsome became the first pair of Wildcats selected in the first round of the same NFL Draft, Fitzgerald constantly touted his program as having one of the best player-development staffs in the country. His team’s performance in 2021 did little to support that belief. Sure, he had to work with a much younger team overall than in 2020, but 3-9 won’t cut it for a program that wants to raise its floor. No one is saying Northwestern should be perennial Big Ten West champions, but it’s not super unreasonable to expect this program that’s invested in a new practice facility and a new stadium to finish at worst 5-7 every year. 

One of the first steps in remedying that is proving to your program that 3-9 is unacceptable. Having the worst rush defense in the Big Ten (by over 70 more yards per game!) is unacceptable. Not seeing a progression in your players is unacceptable. Fitz can pin all the blame on himself, but everyone knows this was not just because of him. 

The O’Neil fit hasn’t worked, and instead of hoping things will get better in 2022, Fitz needs to hit those three magic buttons: control, alt, delete.