Northwestern adopts next-step philosophy

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Any list of great Eastern philosophers includes Confucius, Lao Tzu and ... Pat Fitzgerald?

Apparently the Northwestern head coach is taking a tidbit from the Far East to motivate his football team in the Midwest.

"Coach uses the word Kaizen," Wildcats defensive line coach Marty Long said, "which means constantly improving."

Kaizen, the Japanese word for improvement, was a philosophy implemented by several Japanese businesses after World War II. It calls for continuous improvement in all elements of life.

For Fitzgerald and Northwestern, standing Pat (pun intended) isn't an option.

Western philosophy may be summarized as, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." The Kaizen philosophy is to "do it better, make it better, improve it even if it isn't broken, because if we don't, we can't compete with those who do."

Northwestern always is fighting an uphill battle to compete in the Big Ten, but the Wildcats have held their own since 1995. They come off a 9-4 season and a fourth-place finish in the league and return most of a defense that went through a total transformation last fall.

But last year's success hasn't extinguished any fire among Fitzgerald, his assistants or the players. As Thursday's spirited workout showed, the Wildcats aren't satisfied with making bowl games or being competitive, as they were in a 30-23 overtime loss to heavily favored Missouri in the Alamo Bowl.

They need to start winning in the postseason, and, eventually, competing for Big Ten titles.

"Even though we had motivation coming in and performing this year, that was added motivation, knowing we were a step short last year," sophomore cornerback Jordan Mabin said. "The coaches, always, when things are going down, they like to say, 'We've got to be better than we were last year.'

"We brought a whole new outlook to Northwestern, so teams are going to be coming with their 'A' game against us."

It's going to take repeated bowl appearances, and some bowl victories, for Northwestern to truly change outside perception, which still defers to the pre-1995 dark days.

The program has reached back-to-back bowl games only once, when it won the Big Ten in 1995 and 1996, Fitzgerald's final two seasons as a player. The Wildcats haven't won a bowl since 1949 (Rose).

The 2009 season provides opportunity for sustained success, with a favorable schedule and depth on defense not seen since Fitzgerald's playing days. There are some major question marks at the offensive skill positions -- quarterback, running back, wide receiver -- but both lines should be improved.

Four starters return on the offensive line, while All-America candidate Corey Wootton leads a defensive front that tied for the Big Ten lead in sacks last fall (34).

"Not winning the bowl game, it was good to get there, but everyone wants to come out with a win," sophomore running back Jeravin Matthews said. "Even if we got the win, we'd still be hungry, but this makes us hungrier. There's still room to improve and keep improving.

"That's on a lot of guys' minds."