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Stability with coach Pat Fitzgerald, recent success have Northwestern on the rise

PFitzgerald Mike Trumpy

Pat Fitzgerald, Mike Trumpy

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Updated: January 10, 2013 6:44AM

Being the first Northwestern team to win a bowl game in 64 years is a consolation prize, which might be the best way to describe how far the football program has come since Pat Fitzgerald arrived, first as a player and later as a coach.

Mention the bowl drought around players and coaches, and eyes squint and teeth grind. Fitzgerald admits what long ago became a tired subject is the last negative attached to a program whose foundation is as solid as it has been since the former All-America linebacker was promoted to head coach six years ago.

“It’s a completely different mind-set,” senior guard Brian Mulroe said when asked how the program has changed. “We’ve been to four bowl games in four years. When I got here, it was a huge deal just to go to a bowl game. Now the expectations are completely different. We need to win this bowl game, but we wanted to be Big Ten champions. We didn’t do that this year, so the bowl game is just the next game in front of us.”

Recruits and their parents watched Northwestern prepare for its Gator Bowl showdown with Mississippi State inside the team’s practice facility Saturday. If it were up to Fitzgerald, the door always would be open because what can be seen has been critical to the program’s success.

Fitzgerald claims interest in playing for the Wildcats is at an all-time high largely because players and their parents know he’s not going anywhere after signing a contract through the 2020 season.

Coaches always want something that sets them apart in recruiting, and it’s obvious Fitzgerald and Northwestern have created a rare dynamic in a sport in which coaching stability has become an oxymoron.

“Kids can come to a bowl practice, to spring ball or they can watch us in fall camp, and they see the same thing over and over and over again,” Fitzgerald said. “That gives families a lot of confidence in what they’re getting when they send their son to our program. It’s a huge leap of faith. This is the next four or five years of these kids’ lives, and for the parents to trust the staff, they have to have some confidence that you’re going to be there and their kids are going to be supported the right way. That has really, really helped us.”

If the Wildcats can realize their goal of winning a Big Ten championship in the coming years, this senior class will deserve much of the credit, and not just because it has won more games than any other.

Seniors didn’t like where the program was headed after going 7-6 and 6-7 the last two seasons and took it upon themselves to make changes that contributed to Northwestern finishing 9-3 and having a lead in all three losses.

The upcoming senior class can learn from their example because when players start holding each other accountable, anything is possible.

“We were fed up with how the program was going,” senior receiver Demetrius Fields said. “We were tired of losing games we knew we should have won. We were tired of not performing at a level we knew we could perform. We knew we had confidence in our selves, but we wanted to create a mentality, an attitude, that said we will go out and compete and we’re as good as anybody in the country. That was player-led. The coaches saw it and supported it and gave us the tools and opportunities to do that, but it wasn’t inspired by the coaches.”

Fields remembers he and linebacker David Nwabuisi sitting in the dorms as freshmen, talking about how they wanted to change the culture of the program and the school. They feel they have accomplished much, and while winning a bowl game would be “momentous” — which Fields calls a “Northwestern word” — it’s not the ultimate goal.

“This year has not been what we wanted it to be,” Fields said. “The three games we lost, we shouldn’t have. We know that. It burns and it hurts, but a bowl-game win, and ending a dry spell of 100,000 years in bowl games, would really help put an exclamation point on our career and our season.”

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