Wednesday, April 25, 2007

One-on-one with Pat Fitzgerald

For The Daily's cover story on Pat Fitzgerald, Wildcats Watch caught up with Northwestern's second-year head coach and asked him some questions about life, coaching and Coach Walker. Here are some highlights from the interview:

On going through his first spring as head coach:
"It’s amazing when I think back to last year, and the first team meeting and the first practice and the first practice in Kenosha -- (it was) just a whirlwind of emotions. And to be able now to focus in an offseason to prepare the team to plan, with our staff and our leadership council, exactly the direction we’re going to go with our football team, I’m going to go out and act upon it."

On the night of Randy Walker's death:
"I couldn’t believe it. Couldn’t believe it. Pretty emotional night ... I don’t even know how to put that into words, those feelings.

"Coach was always a great prankster, and always had – we called them diversions. It almost seemed like it was a diversion. Especially that night, that coach was playing a prank on us, you know, kind of testing us."

On learning of NU's intentions:
"(On Wednesday before Walker's services), Mark (Murphy) came in and visited our staff and said they were going to stay within our football program. And that wasn’t important now, but they wanted to keep the continuity of our staff, the momentum we had going, and hire a head coach from within our football family that they’re going to make some decisions and visit with us, and that’ll be some point after we had the services for coach.

"So I think everybody in the room felt confident that we were going to have a job. So that was a good feeling, and that things weren’t going to change."

On the day of Walker's services/being named head coach:
"I think it was Thursday night, Mark came over to the house, and said, you know, that president Bienen and Mark would like to offer me the opportunity to be the head coach here. And that Friday I was named, and it was just kind of a rollercoaster. Thursday was an extremely emotional day. I had the opportunity to eulogize coach from the perspective of our staff. It was a tremendous honor, and Tammy (Walker, Randy's wife) asked me and it was just – it was the first time I’d ever done that in my life.

"I don’t know if I’ve prayed as much as I prayed that night before (the services). I’m not a really outward guy in my faith. I don’t think that that’s my calling. And I’m a big believer in to each their own, (but) that was a pretty long night.

"(The service) was just a great celebration of coach’s life. It really was emotional, and (to) go home, it was just surreal. I don’t know, it just kind of didn’t really hit me until maybe that afternoon when I had a chance to meet with the staff."

On helping the team cope with the loss:
"Football didn’t really seem that important. It was more about building relationships with people, touching our program and really getting a lot of copmmunication going with our players, making sure they were – and our staff, and everybody here that supports our program – making sure they were doing OK with losing coach and helping Tammy and Jamie (Randy's son) and Abby (Randy's daughter) through it. So it was a long stretch, a long stretch. Tough."

On whether he is comfortable in his role:
"Yeah, I mean, I’m doing what I love to do. I’ve always dreamt of being a coach, since I can remember thinking about getting a real job back in high school. And now, to have this opportunity, to be here at my alma mater, I don’t know if it gets any better."

On how settled he is as head coach, and on the program itself:
"Just from an organizational standpoint, from a management standpoint, I felt very comfortable taking over the position, but now to go through it for a year ... I’m still analyzing the entire program, if that makes sense.

"You asked me about my stamp, I think what you see from me is a guy that’s really organized. I think our staff does a great job, I think everybody around our football program is extremely organized and understands exactly what I want to do and how we want to do it, and that our kids buy into it. They want to win, they’re hungry to win, they’re hungry to be successful and I think there’s not a team and a staff that’s tighter than us. I’d like to meet them if they are."

On developing a 'family' atmosphere:
"We talk about family around here a lot, and that’s just something I believe a football team needs to have. You’re not going to be everybody’s best friend. That’s not what I’m looking for. But I’m looking for you to be a teammate. To be a teammate, I think you jneed to be a great family member, which means if we’re teammates together, you need a hug, you’re going through a tough time, I’m there for you. I’ve got your back. But when I need to kick you in the pants, I’m going to kick you in the pants as hard as I possibly can. That’s being a teammate, and that’s being a part of a family. That’s being responsible for your actions, being someone that you can trust and that’s loyal, that’s dedicated and can sacrifice to be a part of that family and put that family above you as the individual. And I think that’s how you win.

"That doesn’t mean they all need to be going out and watching movies together and hanging out, but it still, when they’re here, they’re part of a family."

"That’s one thing that I think recruits see. That’s not just lip-service, that’s program wide, and I think that helps them in the transition, that helps them through the growing process, and we believe we’re here to develop these young men and prepare them for life after football."

On his personal relationship with players:
"I think I’m brutally honest with them. I think I shoot them straight. I think I hold them accountable for what they do, and I think I present them with a plan to help them develop on an everyday basis."

On whether his age plays a role in relating to players:
"Yeah, I’m (young). I mean, I played Sega. I can’t say that I’m part of the PlayStation or Xbox generation, but I understand some of the things they’re going through, and I really understand some of the things they’re going through here at Northwestern."

On how he spends his 'down time':
"It’s a lifestyle. And there’s down time. When we have our vacations, we have our vacations. I probably won’t take my computer with me, but I have my phone, contacting recruits a lot. There’s a lot of downtime there that you can contact recruits – sitting in the airport, driving in cars, calling high school coaches. I spend a lot of time. There’s not down time.

"It’s more of a lifestyle than a profession. I mean, there’s just certain things you do. At five o’clock, the job doesn’t end. I don’t go home and leave my job in the office and I come back and I analyze my widgets the next day. It’s a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week job."

On his favorite quote, from Tiger Woods:
The quote: "I hate sitting still. I hate being stale. I've always got to be moving. I've always got to be challenged."

"When I read that, I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s the way I look at it.’ I’m stealing it, but I like it. I don’t like sitting still. I don’t vacation very well. … I’m still text messaging recruits and talking to our coaches and our kids, and it’s just kind of the nature of the beast with this profession."

On his 'free time':
"I guess the best way to describe it is, I don’t have my time ... My time is my family time. When I’m with my wife and my family and my two boys (Jack and Ryan) and our immediate family, that’s my time. I really enjoy that time. I live for it."

On his work ethic:
"I’m not going to ever let anybody outwork me. I’m never going to be able to look at our coaching staff and say, ‘This coach outworked me and that’s why I lost that recruit for you,’ and look at our players and say, ‘We lost to University X because their head coach and their staff outworked our staff.’ I’m never gonna look at Mark Murphy and President Bienen and say, ‘We didn’t get that money raised because I didn’t go out there and help the athletic department,’ and I’m not going to look at our student body and say: ‘You know what? Your college experience (wasn’t) as exciting as mine, just because I wouldn’t come out and see you and make people passionate about Northwestern football, Northwestern athletics.’"

On whether he's noticed his own progress as coach:
"I think I’ve been so caught up in it, I haven’t really had time to think about it. Not that I really want to think about it. I just want to stay the course."

On last season's 4-8 record:
"Last year there are some obvious reasons why we lost, and it starts with me. I take full responsibility for that."

On pressure to succeed this season:
"I don’t worry about outside expectations or outside pressures, because they won’t even come close to the expectations and the pressure that I put upon (us) and upon our team. So I’m not really worried about that."

On whether this fall is critical:
"I think every fall’s critical. In the development of a football program, I think you have to lay a foundation. And if that foundation’s laid with success, then everything kind of falls in place ... you fill the stands up with fans, your players are playing at a successful level, they’re winning offseason awards, they’re getting individual accolades, the football program is looked at in a high regard, so then that helps recruiting and you get better players, you become a better coach, your success then continues to mount, and it’s just a really positive snowball, so to speak."

On wanting to coach at NU:
"It was always a dream and a goal of mine to be a coach here at Northwestern, and the opportunity I was given to earn a Northwestern education, be a part of the student culture here, and obviously be a student athlete here ... I wouldn’t trade that for all the money in the world. And I feel like I’m giving back, just the smallest amount, by having the opportunity to coach here and giving young men the opportunity to come here to be a student athlete."

On his future at NU:
"I expect to be here for a long time. I expect to see my boys play for me, and maybe at that point, maybe it’ll be time for me to move on. But I expect to be here for a long time, and I expect for us to win a lot of championships and be very successful, and continue to do it with the excellence in education that we’ve had."

On his vision of NU:
"I’m looking for this program to be the model of college programs throughout the country – win championships and to do with the highest order of excellence in academics and the highest order of excellence in character. And if you get the right people here, they’re going to be extremely successful academically, and it’s obvious we have the right people here in our program with the success we’re having academically.

"That’s my vision – is not to sacrifice anything that we believe in, and to win at the highest level. I believe that we’re on the cusp of doing that on a consistent basis, and we’ve just got to continue to bring the right players here and continue to tweak our plan as we move forward."

... and with that Wildcats Watch is taking a break. Keep an eye on The Daily for any further NU football updates. Thanks for reading!

--Patrick Dorsey

More Rees trouble

This was supposed to be just a series of exerpts from Wildcats Watch's recent interview with coach Pat Fitzgerald, and we'll get to that. But first, a more pressing issue: Senior center Trevor Rees has been suspended again.

Just a year after he returned to Northwestern from an academic-related suspension (which eventually landed him at Houston Baptist University), Rees was suspended indefinitely Tuesday, according to a release from the athletic department. Though NU declined to explain, the Pioneer Press is reporting that Rees was charged with three traffic violations, including driving under the influence, stemming from an incident early Sunday morning.

It's anyone's guess how serious this is. If the reports are true, Rees faces charges similar to those faced by offensive coordinator Garrick McGee earlier this offseason. McGee came out of it with a reckless driving conviction, and was back on the sidelines for all of spring practice.

So will Rees be able to return in time for summer camp in Kenosha, Wis.? Given NU's history of second (and third) chances, it wouldn't be a surprise. But if he doesn't, where does that leave the Wildcats and their already thin and inexperienced offensive line?

Heading into spring, it appeared the offensive line had four solid starters (Rees included) and one spot -- right tackle -- up for grabs. Sophomore Kurt Mattes appeared to fill that spot. But now, with Rees possibly gone, there's another spot that could be open.

The logical choice is senior Adam Crum, who played pretty well at guard last season after spending his first two years at center. Crum is projected to start at left guard, meaning someone green -- from the group of sophomores Desmond Taylor, Ramon Diaz, junior Alex Rucks, and redshirt freshmen Mike Boyle and Keegan Grant -- would have to fill in after Crum's shift.

The guess here: Taylor, who started one game last year at left tackle in place of an injured Dylan Thiry (and had to deal with Purdue's Anthony Spencer, a possible first-round pick this Saturday). He's built like a guard (6 foot 3, 285 pounds) and has the experience -- at least more than the other options. But again, that's just a guess. A lot can happen between now and Sept. 1, including a Rees return.

The point is, the offensive line already was NU's weakest unit. If this Rees suspension lasts, that cripples it even more. And because a solid offensive line is the key to an efficient offense, the otherwise formidable Cats might have trouble scoring points and staying on the field in 2007.

--Patrick Dorsey

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Spring game, Fitzgerald and more

Due to travel and moving, Wildcats Watch has been out of commission for about a week, and also was unable to attend the Spring Game. However, The Daily's Chris Gentilviso offered his recap for Monday's paper here:

Also, on Friday The Daily's Spring Guide came out, and it included the cover story on Pat Fitzgerald, who now is settling into his job after a year of turmoil.

Coming soon: Exerpts from Wildcats Watch's one-on-one interview with Fitzgerald, a lot of which did not make it to The Daily's print edition.

--Patrick Dorsey

Monday, April 16, 2007

Text twist

Northwestern begins its final practice week Tuesday, and while the focus clearly will be on the team, NU's technology-savvy recruiters still might send out some text messages to prospective Wildcats.

That's just the way it is these days.

In 2005, The Daily ran a story (link below) about technology and recruiting, as did many other papers. It's quite a fascinating subject -- nearly unlimited contact with recruits (except during designated "dead periods") -- but clearly problematic. Many NU players weren't of the five-star variety, but they received some texts during their recruitment. As for those blue-chippers, some of them receive texts before they woke up and after they went to bed. A lot.

As coach Pat Fitzgerald, then NU's linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator said at the time, "I think it's a positive as long as the people that don't have restrictions on them don't take advantage of the kids."

Well, clearly some do. Now the NCAA might do something about it.

According to the Associated Press, the NCAA management council today and Tuesday will address an Ivy League proposal that bans all text messages -- which was proposed mainly because it invades the recruits' privacy, overwhelms them and, because text messages are far from free, often saddles them with quite a cost.

Clearly, with the NCAA traditionally being slow-moving, it might prove difficult to successfully eliminate these invasions, especially with technology developing as quickly as it does today.

"I think we all struggle with it in different ways," Kate Hickey, chair of the management council and associate athletic director at Rutgers, told the AP. "You struggle with it when you buy a computer or a cell phone, because the next day you know something better is going to come along."

But, in this writer's opinion, banning text messages would be a start.

When I spoke in 2005 with Miechelle Willis, a member of the NCAA Division I Management Council, she said, "(E-mails and text messages) are viewed as non-invasive, and students can choose to read them or not to read them."

And while this is true, that's no different from phone calls, which are restricted by the NCAA. In these days of caller ID, people can choose to answer the phone, or let it ring.

Also, it's free to receive an e-mail, or even a Myspace or Facebook message -- two other potentially problematic ways for coaches to contact recruits. But not so much to receive a text.

So, while some might fight for a cure-all solution, if the NCAA moves on anything technology-based, it would be wise for text messages to be placed in the same realm as phone calls.

After all, back in the old high school days of five years ago, texts were used for weekend plans and homework answers (double-checking them, not giving them out, of course). Shouldn't it stay that way?


  • NU completed another 60-play scrimmage Saturday. Junior quarterback C.J. Bacher, who returned to practice Tuesday after missing the first two weeks while recovering from offseason toe surgery, did not participate. Junior running back Tyrell Sutton, who sat out NU's first scrimmage with minor injuries, played in the first series and recorded a 15-yard run, an 11-yard reception and a 1-yard touchdown catch.

  • Wildcats Watch mistakenly reported that the Big Ten Network might carry NU's Oct. 19 game against Eastern Michigan at Ford Field in Detroit. Since it is considered a home game for the Eagles, the Big Ten does not have rights to the game, according to an NU spokesman. Comcast typically carries Eastern Michigan games.

--Patrick Dorsey

Thursday, April 12, 2007

High school football moves up NU-Eastern Michigan game

Originally scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 20, Northwestern's mid-season, non-conference matchup with Eastern Michigan at Detroit's Ford Field has been moved up to the evening of Friday, Oct. 19.

The reason? Not TV, according to an Eastern Michigan spokesman, but high school football.

According to the spokesman, the Wildcats-Eagles game was pushed ahead because of the Detroit Catholic High School League's playoffs. Representatives for Ford Field and the Catholic League could not be reached for comment Thursday afternoon, but a schedule released on the Catholic League's Web site says the league's Prep Bowl is scheduled for Oct. 20 in Ford Field. Ford Field's online schedule lists very few events, showing neither the high school game nor the NU's game -- as well as no games for the NFL's Detroit Lions.

TV for the 6 p.m. game has yet to be determined, the spokesman said, with Eastern Michigan's games typically being broadcast locally by Comcast. ESPN will carry the Louisville-Connecticut game that evening.

--Patrick Dorsey

Taking the offensive (2007 preview: offense)

Tuesday and Wednesday marked the first two practices of C.J. Bacher's spring season -- meaning every projected offensive starter had taken the field at some point during the spring.

And that's a big deal for Northwestern. The Wildcats' typically heralded offense sputtered in 2006, doomed by coaching mistakes, inconsistency at quarterback and some shoddy line play. Now, despite some questions on defense, nearly all eyes will be on how this unit -- for lack of a less NU-ingrained word -- responds.

Here's a position-by-position breakdown of a unit that finished 92nd nationally last season.


Running back: Two words -- Tyrell Sutton. Instead of asking "Why me?" after a 2006 campaign during which he was grossly underused, the junior now is taking on a stronger, more vocal leadership role, and apparently really impressing coach Pat Fitzgerald in the process. Also, though he had 474 fewer yards in 2006 than in 2005, his yards-per-carry was nearly as strong last year (5.3) as in 2005 (5.9).

Add senior Brandon Roberson (whose injury in 2005 opened the door for Sutton), and NU appears to have as strong a one-two combination as anyone in the Big Ten. The only problem: depth beyond No. 2. Junior Omar Conteh has missed all of spring and only has 12 career carries, senior Nathan Shanks switched to superback and redshirt freshman Stephen Simmons is, like all redshirt freshmen, unproven.

Wide receiver: Where are the stars? Actually, here's a better question: With this unit, who needs 'em? Assuming senior Kim Thompson (broken leg) gets healthy, this unit could go 10 deep with scholarship players. Granted, three of those are redshirt freshmen, but add to those seven diverse, multi-skilled players who all have multiple catches in an NU uniform, and you could have serious matchup problems for an unchanging group of opposing corners.

Junior Ross Lane has emerged as the top player in this group, using his size (6 foot 3) and speed to his advantage. Thompson (6 foot 4) also is tall and fast, while juniors Rasheed Ward and Eric Peterman have shown flashes. Nobody in this group is truly special (yet), but the depth is pretty much unparalleled.


Quarterback: QB? A question? But didn't Bacher clearly show he's ready to take over, navigating NU to two wins in his final three games? Yes. He did. But he also missed the beginning of the season with an injury, and, as mentioned before, missed the beggining of this spring with a different ailment. So durability is a question. As Bacher said himself Tuesday, "You need to learn how to stay healthy."

But that's not all. After the way Fitzgerald and offensive coordinator Garrick McGee handled the quarterback situation last season, this position doesn't look to be 100 percent settled until Bacher takes that first snap against Northeastern ... and takes the first snap against Nevada, too. Sophomore Mike Kafka was the opening-day starter last year, and redshirt freshman Joe Mauro has looked impressive this spring. You never know, but in all likelihood, only injuries will force Bacher out of the lineup -- meaning NU indeed might have its Brett Basanez replacement.

Superback/Tigh end: Hard to call this a weakness when the position traditionally has little impact in NU's spread offense, but if the Cats' bevy of recruits the last two years develops, this actually could turn into a weapon. That includes sophomores Mark Woodsum and Brendan Mitchell (a somewhat-touted recruit in 2006), along with three incoming freshman. Cameron Joplin, who looked like an absolute monster in his highlight tape, could make an immediate impact.


Offensive line: This unit struggled more than any other in 2006. The line lost All-Big Ten right tackle Zach Strief and, more importantly, offensive line coach James Patton (who left for Oklahoma) -- and it showed. The Cats allowed 26 sacks in 2006, compared to 11 the year before. The 2005 Cats rushed for 2,323 yards on a 5.0 average, while the 2006 Cats totaled just 1,705 yards on 4.0 yards per carry. Now, tackle Ryan Keenan and guard Joe Tripodi are gone. Can coach Bret Ingalls and seniors Dylan Thiry and Trevor Rees get this unit to jell? It might be the key to the Cats' success.

... One thing not mentioned above is coaching. After all, NU had most of this talent last season and did very little with it -- instead spending most of the early part of the season with an attack so conservative it would put *insert really conservative Republican here* to shame, and one that seemed to go out of its way to not give Sutton the ball. Will that come back, or will the balanced attack seen late in the season continue into next? It seems that's a question, too, and maybe that's the real key to the Cats' offensive success.

--Patrick Dorsey

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Not-so-Big Ten? (2007 preview: conference schedule)

A week ago, Wildcats watch previewed Northwestern' 2007 non-conference schedule and determined this: Assuming no major injuries, anything less than 4-0 is a disappointment, while anything worse than 3-1 is downright embarrassing.

But what about the other eight games? The big ones -- the ones that earn bowl berths and, during those rare years, conference championships?

So, in Part 2 of our 2007 preview, we'll analyze the Cats' conference schedule. But instead of breaking it down game-by-game, the contests will be lumped into categories.

Addition By Subtraction: Wisconsin and Penn State

Before they even play a game, the Cats are big winners for avoiding these two teams. Bret Bielema, in his coaching debut, pushed the Badgers to a one-loss season, and they should be just as dangerous this season. Meanwhile, after looking like a program in peril a couple of years ago, Penn State has returned to its intimidating status thanks to a remarkable job by Joe Paterno. Missing these two isn't quite as big as skipping Michigan and Ohio State, but it's close.

The Highly Unlikelies: at Ohio State (Sept. 22), vs. Michigan (Sept. 29)

As usual, these are the two least winnable games on NU's slate. The Cats have been rolled by Ohio State the last two seasons, and this year should be no different. Even though the Buckeyes will lose Heisman-winning QB Troy Smith and several other playmakers, most of their stifling defense will be back.

The Wolverines, meanwhile, are the opposite (several defenders gone, most of the offense back) -- but still likely too much for the NU, which lost at home to Michigan in 2005 when it arguably was the better team.

The Tough'n's: at Purdue (Oct. 27), vs. Iowa (Nov. 3)

Curtis Painter and Purdue's prolific passing attack will be back, but Purdue's been shaky on defense the last couple of seasons. Also, some offseason turmoil involving a stabbing and a DUI arrest give the already-mediocre Boilermakers a little to be concerned about.

The Hawkeyes, meanwhile, stumbled to a 6-7 mark in 2006, and lose QB Drew Tate. Still, while Iowa often struggles with NU (it lost 21-7 at home last season), never underestimate coach Kirk Ferentz.

The Questions: at Michigan State (Oct. 6), vs. Minnesota (Oct. 13)

Two teams, two loads of talent, two new head coaches. The Spartans underachieved at record levels the last few seasons -- and lose QB Drew Stanton, to boot -- but they did put up that ridiculous, record-breaking 35-point comeback on the Cats last year. Still, can former Cincinnati coach Mark Dantonio (not to be confused with Phoenix Suns coach Mike D'Antoni) halt the underachieving?

As for the Golden Gophers, they were on the wrong end of an epic comeback last season (blowing a record 31-point lead to Texas Tech in the Insight Bowl), which cost coach Glen Mason his job. Instead of hiring in the college ranks, Minnesota went pro, snagging Denver Broncos tight ends coach Tim Brewster. Only time will tell whether Brewster will resemble Charlie Weis or Ron Zook, but it doesn't hurt the Gophers to have 1,200-yard rusher Amir Pinnix back and former NU offensive coordinator Mike Dunbar heading up the attack.

The Should-Wins: vs. Indiana (Nov. 10), at Illinois (Nov. 17)

These teams still are the bottom-feeders, though they've become much more competitive recently. It's not "Who's that?" anymore for the Hoosiers, who went 3-5 in the Big Ten last year (better than NU) and came one win short of being bowl-eligible. Indiana still has a long way to go, however, having lost to UConn and Division I-AA Southern Illinois last season. Sophomore QB Kellen Lewis might give NU's defense fits, though.

As for the Illini, the aforementioned Zook's off-publicized recruiting class probably won't help them this year. Neither will Zook's horrific track record as a coach. And that hyped QB Juice Williams? He completed just four of 17 passes in Illinois' season-ending 27-16 loss to NU, the Illini's fourth straight Sweet Sioux Tomahawk defeat.

... So what does this all mean? Aside from the typical trouble with Michigan and Ohio State, all the other games are winnable. But, if 2006's mistakes continue, each could be lost, too.

One thing's for sure about the Big Ten in 2007: With two new coaches, five new quarterbacks and a whole lot of turnover, questions greatly outnumber the certanties. NU looks like it can win anywhere from two to six conference games this season. But which one will it be?

--Patrick Dorsey