EVANSTON, Ill. – Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald is in charge of what could be considered the biggest guarantee for a recruit in college football.
Pat Fitzgerald has his football team playing at a high level while also performing at an elite level in the classroom.
Fitzgerald and his staff are selling a winning program. In his seven years at the helm, Fitzgerald has led his alma mater to five-straight bowl appearances including a 10-win season last year capped off by a victory over Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl on New Year's Day. The Wildcats currently have 11 players listed on NFL rosters so the opportunity to move onto the league is also there.
Fitzgerald and his staff are also promising a college degree. Northwestern won the “Academic BCS Championship” based on performance in the classroom. Stanford was No. 4 and Notre Dame came in at No. 5. The Wildcats led the country in graduation rate for its football players, and in the latest Academic Progress Rate (APR) released by the NCAA it had Northwestern ranked No. 1 as well.
As spring ball comes to an end in Evanston, Fitzgerald and his staff have upgraded the talent on the roster and have Rose Bowl aspirations next year. He has put it all together with a staff that has had only two assistant coaches leave in six years, and none in the last three. The only other school to not lose one assistant coach in the last three years is Minnesota.
When you present a guarantee like this to college football prospects, it’s no wonder that Northwestern has had only two decommitments from recruits during the Fitzgerald era.
“I think the main thing it comes down to is Coach Fitz and our whole coaching staff does a great job of being up front with prospects and identifying the right-character kids,” Northwestern Director Of Player Personnel Chris Bowers said. “The guys we’re recruiting are committing to us and are people who share the same values and those values are what gives us an advantage.”
While several other BCS programs are still working into the afternoon and sometimes the evening on National Signing Day to finish off their class, the Wildcats are at Mike Ditka’s restaurant by lunch celebrating another successful recruiting haul. Every faxed letter-of-intent is delivered without a hitch and only one time has a prospect wavered on his decision. That young man in linebacker Ray Davison had his offer pulled by Northwestern in January after telling Fitzgerald he wanted to take a trip to Cal. He ultimately signed with the Bears this past February. The other one-time Northwestern commit that didn’t sign on ended up not meeting the academic requirements to gain admittance in Evanston.
“The reason for the lack of drama is Coach Fitz does a great job of being up front with a commitment means a commitment,” Bowers said. “We’re not twisting peoples’ arms here to make the decision to come here. If they want to be here they want to be here. A lot of it is just getting kids that want to be here.
“Coach Fitz says it up front, when you commit to Northwestern you’re done with recruiting. You’re done taking visits. You’re done talking to coaches on calls. By the same token, we aren’t doing anything with your scholarship. We’re not pulling it if you get injured. We’re not taking a commitment from one running back and then taking two more running backs and telling the first running back he’s not committed anymore. It’s a two-way street.”
Parents often rave about Fitzgerald's engaging and honest personality on the recruiting trail, and with that, the Wildcats are off to a nice start with their 2014 class. Currently ranked No. 23 nationally by the 247Composite, a pair of four-stars headline the current four-player class in quarterback Clayton Thorson and safety Jordan Thomas.
Moving forward, Northwestern is expected to sign a small class of 12 to 14, and the Wildcats are at the tops of the list with several touted recruits including Top247 prospects like receiver Derek Kief, cornerback Parrker Westphal, running back Justin Jackson, receiver Dareian Watkins and tight end Nic Weishar. The Wildcats are now competing with BCS powers for players and find themselves in the discussion.
“It has a lot to do with the success of the program overall,” Bowers said. “When you’re in a situation where you’re having success on the field it opens more doors and more young men want to take a closer look at Northwestern and see what we have to offer. They understand the resources of being in Chicago. They understand the great academic reputation. They understand the highest graduation rate in the country, the highest APR score in the country.
“Coach Fitz has done a nice job of knowing what he wants to sell and driving that message. We have a great recruiting staff with our assistants. They’re great teachers and great coaches and great people. They shouldn’t be overlooked in how good they are in recruiting and building relationships with those recruits and identifying the right players for us.”
For more on Northwestern and its recruiting efforts in 2014, click here.