If you scroll through the last 20 years of Northwestern Wildcats football, you’ll find only three conference championships (1995, 1996 and 2000) and only one bowl win (2013 Gator Bowl). Narrow your lenses to the last eight years, and you’ll find yourself examining many average records coached by Pat Fitzgerald, whose job at Northwestern is his first as a head coach. But despite remaining in the middle of the pack in the Big 10 and only being able to become nationally relevant once, Fitzgerald is a better coach than the numbers would suggest.
Here’s a quick rundown of Fitzgerald’s record at Northwestern:
Against Big 10: 27-37
What you can easily and immediately take away from those two records is that Northwestern usually does well against non-conference opponents. But once conference play rolls around, the schedule obviously thickens up and usually does expose a few aspects of Fitzgerald’s team.
As mentioned, this is Fitzgerald’s first job as a head coach, and he’s been able to stick with it for eight years, quite an impressive run for a rookie at this level. When he took over the program in 2006, Northwestern was coming off a 7-5 season, which included a loss in the Sun Bowl. It took him two years to get his team eligible for a bowl game and a third to actually get them in a bowl game.
Fitzgerald’s postseason record is less than impressive at 1-4, but that lone win capped off a great 10-3 2012 season in which the Wildcats were able to finish third in the newly formed Legends Division.
A staple of Northwestern football since the arrival of Fitzgerald has been a creative offense. He possesses one of the better offensive minds in the Big 10, and he recruits players who fit well in his system. That’s why you often see the Wildcats hanging in there. It’s the defense that hasn’t consistently been there, the biggest reason he’s often sold short as a coach.
In my Big 10 coaches rankings, I listed Fitzgerald as the sixth best coach in the conference, right there in the middle of the pack. A very weak showing from Northwestern last season took its toll on Fitzgerald’s image by showing that his team may not be where we previously thought they were.
But that’s OK. I’m not trying to convince you that Pat Fitzgerald is the greatest coach to ever step foot on a football field; I’m just saying the numbers and the stats don’t tell the whole story for a coach like this. There is more than what meets the eye.