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Pat Fitzgerald emphasizes need to end Northwestern bowl misery

Updated: January 31, 2012 8:25AM

HOUSTON — When coach Pat Fitzgerald was a junior linebacker at Northwestern in 1995, the Wildcats had not beaten Iowa in 22 years. Coach Gary Barnett stressed that this monkey needed to come off the Wildcats’ backs — not a bowl-game victory, but one against Iowa.

“After we won that game, [teammate] Chris Hamdorf, who went to Iowa City High, his mom and dad bought us all monkeys to symbolize that we got that monkey off our back,” Fitzgerald said.

It was apparently the right time to bring the monkey out of retirement. One player a day has been selected to wear a stuffed monkey on his back while the Wildcats have practiced at Rice Stadium for the Meineke Car Care Bowl on Saturday (11 a.m., ESPN, 720-AM).

Every class wants to be known as the one that broke the cycle of postseason losing at NU. It’s like that with the football program and the basketball team: The class that finally takes the Wildcats to the NCAA tournament or is the one to win the first bowl game in 63 years will be cemented in NU’s athletics legacy.

Winning a bowl game and qualifying for the NCAA tournament are two of the last hurdles the Wildcats need to overcome to cease being the butt of a lot of jokes.

“[Fitzgerald] wanted to bring it to light a little bit and make fun of it, but at the same time, we realize this is our reality, and it puts us at a higher awareness,” quarterback Dan Persa said. “It’s not OK for this to stay on our backs. We have to get rid of it.”

Getting rid of it will no doubt help recruiting, especially on the defensive side. The Wildcats will lose starters in Brian Peters and Jordan Mabin in the secondary, linebacker Bryce McNaul and linemen Niko Mafuli, Kevin Watt, Jack DiNardo and Vince Browne. That’s a lot of experience leaving Evanston.

And since the defense has struggled so much — the Wildcats have ranked near the bottom in the Big Ten in most defensive categories — Fitzgerald and his staff will need to recruit more blue-chip guys who will hopefully have an immediate impact.

That recruiting push will start with a bowl victory.

But if the Wildcats fail again, Fitzgerald can hang his hat on this résumé from 2011:

† He signed a 10-year contract extension, so that provides stability.

† After starting the season 2-5, the Wildcats came back to win four in a row, including a huge upset at No. 9 Nebraska.

† This group of seniors is the program’s all-time winningest class.

† And the Wildcats have been bowl-eligible for five consecutive seasons.

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