Pat Fitzgerald Means More to NU Than Wins

Andrew Cieslak linked to an article by Robert from A Lion Eye that compared the records and schedules of Pat Fitzgerald and Ron Zook at Northwestern and Illinois over the last few seasons. The gist of the article is that no fan/alumnus of Illinois would even consider suggesting Ron Zook should get a contract extension. And Pat Fitzgerald just got a 10 year extension. And when you look at the records and schedules, these guys are pretty much even.

Sorry, but article is just ridiculous. This isn’t the NFL. All 120 Division I-A programs are not created equal. The division between programs/schools is often drastic. The reason Pat Fitzgerald was given this extension and Ron Zook wasn’t can be summed up with one word, expectations.

Start with alumni and fans. I have been a Northwestern season ticketholder in the past and have friends who are alumni. The thought of a National Championship has never entered their minds. Even Big Ten titles are just gravy. Being competitive, getting to bowl games and eventually winning one, are about all that matters to them in the short term1. Illini fans have seen the recruiting rankings, preseason rankings, Big Ten titles and think that they should be a Big Ten title contender EVERY year.

The schools themselves are vastly different. Northwestern is a private institution with about 8,500 undergrads. University of Illinois is a public school with 30,000+ undergrads. The overall admission and academic standards are higher at Northwestern. There are many recruits who wouldn’t qualify and wouldn’t want to deal with the difficult academic challenge either.

One of the reasons Illini fans have such high expectations is recruiting rankings. Since Ron Zook took over, Rivals ranked his recruiting classes as follows: 30th, 20th, 23rd, 35th, not in the top 50 in 2010 and 42nd in 2011. During that same period Northwestern wasn’t ranked once in the top 50, and never ranked higher than 8th in the Big Ten.

Also take the coaches themselves. Zook has been a coach for 30+ years at one level or another. He has NFL coordinator experience and was a head coach in the SEC before coming to Illinois. Fitzgerald has been a coach for less than 15 years and had never been higher than a position coach before abruptly stepping into the big job after the untimely death of Randy Walker. Fitzgerald has gone to 3 bowl games in 5 years, as many both games as Randy Walker and Gary Barnett went to in more seasons. He is about two years, or so away from having more career Big Ten wins at Northwestern than anyone since Pappy Waldorf in the 30s and 40s. Northwestern didn’t go to a bowl game between 1949 and 1996. They haven’t won a bowl game since 1949 (!).

The facts above alone are enough to explain why comparing records of the two coaches makes no sense. In fact, it’s pretty impossible to compare Northwestern’s stats, facts and figures against any Big Ten team and say they are equal, but that doesn’t even explain why this made sense for Northwestern.

Remember that Fitzgerald was a player at NU. And not just any player. At worst, he was the 2nd best player in the school’s history. He grew up south of Chicago, and he is presently coaching at his dream job. He has put a ton of time and effort into trying to build the Northwestern program up around Chicago. He is the driving force behind bringing fans to games and filling the stadium with purple and black. He has a much larger personal investment in this program than Zook does at Illinois. Short of bringing a National Championship2 to Illinois, Zook will just be another coach in Illinois’ history. Fitzgerald is trying to be the guy who puts Northwestern on the map. He is trying to turn the program into Chicago’s Big Ten team. If he gets them to the point where they are selling out most games and getting to bowl games every year, NU (and it’s fans and alums) will consider him a success.

This isn’t the NFL. Success at the college level is not just about wins, losses and championships. Not everywhere at least. Extension or otherwise, it’s not crazy to think that Pat Fitzgerald will be coaching this team 20 years from now. My guess is that people won’t even remember Ron Zook then.

  1. Which we will define as the next 5-10 years []
  2. Or 10 Big Ten titles []