The number of people who question the coaching acumen of Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald dwindles yearly, or at least it should.
Through 12 seasons, the former Wildcat two-time All-America linebacker has a .572 winning percentage (87-65). The previous seven coaches, back to 1964, left Northwestern with losing records.
Fitzgerald has more bowl appearances (eight) and bowl victories (three) than all other Wildcat coaches combined.
Aside from that, the simple act of making an academic powerhouse such as Northwestern regularly competitive despite being the smallest and only private school in the Big Ten is worth a full salute.
But that’s not enough accomplishment for Fitzgerald. There’s one immediate difficulty he wants to address — stringing together high-level seasons.
The Wildcats finished 10-3 in 2012. They followed that with two 5-7 seasons.
They went 10-3 in 2015. The follow-up was 7-6.
Last season, Northwestern got to 10-3 again, finishing with a Music City Bowl victory over Kentucky. The Wildcats enter 2018 with the longest winning streak — eight games — of any Power Five school.
Can Fitzgerald get his troops to post back-to-back seasons with 10 wins?
“I love the leadership,” he said. “There are a lot of guys around here who have won a lot of football games. We’ve also got a group of guys who were here after we won 10 a couple of years ago, then dramatically underachieved when we went 7-6.
“This team is pretty veteran and savvy. But at the same time, we played 25 freshmen or redshirt freshmen a year ago, so we’re still pretty young.’’
Much of Northwestern’s success will depend on how fast senior quarterback Clayton Thorson comes back from major knee surgery.
The four-year starter with the most victories in school history (27) tore an ACL catching a pass on a trick play Dec. 29. Some players return from that injury in six months. Others take 10 or 12.
“Everybody asks me, ‘What’s the timetable?’ “ Fitzgerald told Chicago beat writers. “That’s none of anybody’s business because we’re not going to put one on him.
“This is not going to be the last year that Clayton Thorson is going to play football. We’re going to make sure we do things right by him, by his family and by our program.”
In spring practice, Thorson lifted weights and threw on the sideline. The 6-foot-4, 225-pound quarterback is considered an NFL prospect despite a career 57.3 percent completion rate and 44 touchdowns with 30 interceptions.
His top backup entering 2018 is sophomore walk-on TJ Green, son of former Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Trent Green.
Someone definitely must replace tailback Justin Jackson, who ran for 1,311 yards last season and 5,440 in his career at Northwestern along with 41 touchdowns.
The best candidate is Jeremy Larkin.
As a redshirt freshman, the 5-10, 194-pound back from Cincinnati carried 84 times for 503 yards and five touchdowns, including a 24-yarder against Nebraska. In high school, Larkin ran for 95 touchdowns and was the state of Ohio’s Division II offensive player of the year as a junior and senior.
Northwestern returns four starting offensive linemen and the heart of its defense, led by linebackers Paddy Fisher, a second-team All-Big Ten pick with 113 tackles, and Nate Hall, who was second in stops with 79.
More pieces are in place than usual for Fitzgerald to go for that elusive back-to-back high-end season.
Even if he doesn’t succeed, don’t expect a ton of grumbling, especially from his administration.
With Fitzgerald signing a 10-year contract extension last season, getting a raise to nearly $4 million annually and having a new $260 million practice facility on the shores of Lake Michigan, he’s not going anywhere and the bosses don’t want him to leave.
Northwestern at a glance
Coach: Pat Fitzgerald, 13th year, 87-65
2017 record: 10-3 (7-2, 2nd in West)
Returning starters: 12 (7 offense, 7 defense, 1 kicker)
Good news: Ryan Fieldhouse, the $260-million dollar showpiece training facility, is open. The Wildcats used it for the first time in spring practice. The building, which sits on Lake Michigan’s edge, is big enough for kicking and full-scale practices _ something new for Pat Fitzgerald. “This is a game-changer for us,’’ he said, “and we’re only getting started.’’
Not so good: The injury status of quarterback Clayton Thorson will cause concern through the summer. The secondary is quite thin, overall depth always is an issue and special teams need a tune-up.
Pay attention to: New assistant coaches. For the first time in a long time, there was movement on Fitzgerald’s staff. Lou Ayeni comes from Iowa State to coach running backs and coordinate recruiting. Tim McGarigle, who has been an assistant at Illinois and Western Michigan, will coach linebackers. Both are Northwestern grads. Jeff Genyk, a former Northwestern assistant and head coach at Eastern Michigan, will run special teams.