One of the big misconceptions about Pat Fitzgerald is he took over a Northwestern program falling apart at the seams.
Yes, Fitzgerald became Northwestern's coach at a very difficult time after the sudden death of Randy Walker in June 2006. Yes, the 31-year-old wasn't ready for the job. But Northwestern had won six or more games in each of Walker's final three seasons, reaching two bowls and going 14-10 in Big Ten play. This wasn't the train wreck that Gary Barnett inherited and, thanks to players like Fitzgerald, brought out of the depths.
Fitzgerald deserves a ton of credit for stabilizing the program after an unexpected tragedy. He upgraded things in 2008 with a 9-4 campaign and followed with two more postseason appearances, making team history by making three consecutive bowl games.
But Northwestern's wins total has declined since 2008, going to eight in 2009 and seven in 2010. This season has been a major disappointment, and, barring a late turnaround, the Wildcats won't make a bowl game. It's a significant step back for the program -- and for a coach who had been universally labeled as on the rise.
For Fitzgerald to turn things around -- and get Northwestern back to and beyond the good-but-not-great seasons it had for most of the past decade -- he must shape the program in his image. The most successful programs reflect their head coaches.
It's hard to say Northwestern completely reflects Pat Fitzgerald.
While many of his core values have been transmitted to the players, the bottom line is this: Fitzgerald is a former two-time National Defensive Player of the Year and a College Football Hall of Fame linebacker who coaches a team that has been anywhere from mediocre to poor on defense.
It doesn't add up.
Northwestern's identity under Fitzgerald is still a lot like it was under Walker. That's not entirely a bad thing. Walker's teams never gave up and won a bunch of close games. Until recently, Fitzgerald's teams also had excelled in close games.
Under Walker, Northwestern played many close, chaotic contests and relied on its dynamic spread offense. Walker was an offensive-minded coach, a former running back who mass-produced 1,000-yard rushers in Evanston.
Under Fitzgerald, Northwestern has continued to find itself in wild, back-and-forth games. It still relies on its offense, and produces strong quarterbacks like C.J. Bacher, Mike Kafka and Dan Persa.
Under Walker, Northwestern's defense struggled mightily, ranking no higher than 68th nationally and 81st or worse in six of seven seasons.
Under Fitzgerald, Northwestern's defense hasn't been quite as porous, ranking in the top 50 nationally in both 2008 and 2009. But the Wildcats slipped to 97th last year and currently rank 92nd.
The defensive decline has been dramatic this season, as Northwestern already has surrendered 20 plays of 30 yards or longer, the most of any Big Ten team. Although the secondary has been a major weakness, Northwestern hasn't generated much of a pass rush (11 sacks). The linebacker position, a strength under Walker and during Fitzgerald's early years, has underperformed the last year and a half.
Fitzgerald has attributed the defense's struggles to a few very bad plays in each game. Cornerback Demetrius Dugar said after a Week 7 loss to Iowa that defensive backs weren't always sure whether they were in man or zone coverage.
"When those breakdowns in communication have happened this year, they have been disastrous," Fitzgerald said after the Iowa game. "It starts with us as coaches. Why are they confused?"
Fitzgerald has remained mostly optimistic publicly, but the defensive struggles have to be eating him up. It's not like he doesn't know what a good defense looks like. As a player, he led great defenses at Northwestern in 1995 and 1996.
Most FBS coaches take on a CEO role, and Fitzgerald is no exception. But the defense must be his primary focus the rest of this year and into a crucial offseason. From the scheme to the coaches to the players to recruiting, everything should be evaluated. While overall recruiting has been on the uptick at Northwestern, player development on defense has to be a concern after the past year and a half.
Fitzgerald has succeeded in continuing what Walker started. But to get Northwestern back on track and on a sustainable path to success, his teams need to be playing how he did.