By Chris Emma-
EVANSTON (CBS) — They’re words that resonated louder than ever this past Saturday.
“I look forward to shaking that coach’s hand after we beat ’em.”
That was Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald standing before school boosters and alums at a charity golf event this past July. The coach he referred to is Cal’s Sonny Dykes, the guy who got the last laugh last Saturday in Evanston.
The Golden Bears topped Fitzgerald’s Wildcats — in a wild 31-24 win — at their own game. Cal was more prepared, played with discipline and even saw success due to the element of surprise. Northwestern was the better team but didn’t play like it. Pin that on the head coach.
Fitzgerald’s zinger wasn’t meant to make headlines. Coaches constantly make these types of remarks at fundraisers, pandering to boozy boosters with the checkbooks in hand. The usual bland coach speak doesn’t sell season tickets.
Few coaches are better at building excitement than Fitzgerald. He’s the perfect ambassador for Northwestern, a decorated former All-American, successful alum and proud spokesman for the Wildcats’ purple. Fitzgerald is one of Chicago’s most likable, engaging sports personalities. Every “Go, Cats!” endears its audience.
The problem is, Fitzgerald has been more talk than substance in the past year. That excitement he has built turned into heartbreak, one instance after another.
The results haven’t followed all the rhetoric.
For the first time, Fitzgerald is being held accountable. The fans who worship him, the media that respects him, the alumni who cherish him — they’ve not accepted how Northwestern has fallen.
This isn’t the Northwestern of the past, the overmatched private school battling the Big Ten’s best. It’s not an underdog story anymore, where wins are celebrated like championships. It’s a program with the goal of winning a Big Ten title. That’s thanks in part to the legacy Fitzgerald has built in Evanston.
Set the scene to last October, with a national television audience’s eyes set on Evanston. Hours before Northwestern hosted Ohio State in primetime, Fitzgerald walked down an aisle of purple-clad fans, high-fives to go around for all, the ESPN College Gameday cameras in his face.
That evening, Fitzgerald did a similar walk, but only with one handshake, a congratulations to the victorious Urban Meyer, then a lonely stride to the locker room. After all the buildup, so much hype, the Wildcats blew a 10-point second-half lead to the Buckeyes.
Fitzgerald has raised the standard for Northwestern’s football program. Winning is now expected in Evanston, a place where one win was reason to tear down the goal posts and run them into Lake Michigan previously. But the Wildcats aren’t winning.
Northwestern blew its chance to beat the Ohio State, faltering on the national stage. Its Rose Bowl dreams were dashed, and the losing streak reached seven. Any thought that 2013 was an anomaly would be refuted by a this season’s opening loss to the Golden Bears, further proof that the Wildcats have regressed.
Count that as eight blunders in nine games. There was a Hail Mary, a scrambling field goal and several butt whoopings. This isn’t the Northwestern that Fitzgerald brought to prominence, and the schedule only gets tougher with Big Ten games against Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa and Nebraska and a nonconference clash against Notre Dame in South Bend.
Recruiting results prove that Northwestern is at a new level. The Wildcats are bringing in more top talents, not just the try-hard types who flourish with great player development. Gone are the days where the program doesn’t belong on the same field as the Ohio States and Michigans.
Chemistry is better than ever, something Fitzgerald takes great pride in. His “football family” is a close-knit group, one which has lasted through a union vote and great offseason adversity. The loyalty to the ‘N’ logo on the helmet is strong.
That elusive bowl victory finally found the Wildcats, a triump on New Year’s Day of 2013 in Jacksonville. It capped off a 10-win season and offered hope that Northwestern was ready for its rise to the top of the Big Ten.
Success hasn’t followed since Fitzgerald hoisted the Gator Bowl trophy, tears in his eyes. Northwestern has looked up at the standard set, wondering how it’s fallen so far.
The rhetoric will continue, the excitement will grow. It’s what Fitzgerald does best. But he needs to bring the results, too, because talk isn’t good enough anymore.
Chris Emma covers the college sports scene for CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670.