Pat Fitzgerald has accomplished quite a bit at his alma mater.
Since taking over the head coaching duties in 2006, Fitzgerald has lead Northwestern to a 60-53 record with 30 wins in Big Ten play. He ranks as the school’s all-time winningest coach and has recorded more conference wins than any of his predecessors.
From 2008 to 2012, the Wildcats reached five consecutive bowl games, the longest streak in school history. Northwestern won 10 games in 2012, making Fitzgerald one of only three coaches in the program’s 132-year history to achieve that mark.
There’s no question that in his nine years on the sideline Fitzgerald has elevated Northwestern’s level of play to heights that haven’t been seen for an extended period of time.
After two straight losing seasons and a somewhat continues downward slide, it appears the sun is beginning to set on Fitzgerald’s honeymoon adventure in Chicago.
When the former linebacker took over for the late Randy Walker, the Wildcats were in an era of consistency. With a few outlying years thrown into the mix, the Wildcats were winners of four to seven games per season. There was never much hope of a Big Ten championship or major bowl appearances, but competitiveness on the field was present.
For the Wildcats to have evolved away from the alias of conference doormat was a pleasant surprise for the program and its fans.
In his first few seasons on the job, Fitzgerald looked to build Northwestern into a continuous contender in the conference. Following a 4-8 year in his first season at the helm, Fitzgerald put together seasons of 6-6, 9-4 and 8-5 from 2007-2009. The Wildcats were never dangerously close to a Rose Bowl appearance, but signs that the program was starting to emerge as a competitor were evident.
It reached its peak in 2012 when Northwestern finished the year with 10 wins and recorded its first bowl victory in the Fitzgerald era, a 34-20 win over Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl.
Since that January 1st, 2013 win, though, the Wildcats have been on a steady decline.
Northwestern has a 10-14 record the past two years with no bowl appearances and only four wins in the Big Ten. While two seasons isn’t enough time to properly determine if a team is headed in the right direction, it could be an early sign that Fitzgerald has reached his peak with the Wildcats.
The belief that the mighty purple and white could put together another magical season as it did in 1996 and book the calendar for a trip to Pasadena seems to be fading away.
That shouldn’t be an indication that the program’s most winningest coach should lose his title. Conversely, the man that has accomplished so much competing against traditional powers like Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State, and that should be enough to allow him to wear the headset as long as he desires.
It could be a sign, however, that Northwestern doesn’t have the ability to sustain a prominent program for an extended period of time.
Nobody ever believed that Fitzgerald would have this team competing for national titles, but many were buying into the notion that consistent eight to 10 win seasons were very attainable. The idea of another Big Ten championship wasn’t a pipe-dream.
Perhaps it’s still not a dream. Maybe the 2013 and 2014 campaigns have been unfortunate skids before the Wildcats are geared back on the right path. If history tells us anything, though, that won’t be the case.
Fitzgerald is perhaps one of the most under-appreciated coaches in college football. Some of his accomplishments are not easy at a school traditionally picked to finish in the bottom of the conference. Without a doubt, he’s still one of the best coaching minds in the conference.
The 2015 season should give us a clear indication on where the program is heading, whether it’s making strides to compete in the conference again or if it’ll settle back into a state of mediocrity.