Every prestigious university deserves a good bell.
You know, something that produces warm, tender notes as you stroll across campus. Something to stoke school pride and soothe students’ stress. Something that ...
Northwestern football is ringing in the new season with a different approach. Every time a player breaks a personal record in the weight room, he marches to a purple bell and gives it a personal touch, much to the delight of his teammates.
“That damn thing was purple when we started the offseason,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said, “and now we gotta repaint it they’ve hit it so much.”
More than 400 times, in fact. It’s sweet music to Fitzgerald. His team went 10-3 last year, but look closely at the numbers and you could see the cracks. Big cracks. The Wildcats went 8-0 in games decided by 10 points or less. Their three losses:
38-0 at Michigan.
40-10 against Iowa.
45-6 against Tennessee in the Outback Bowl.
“This is a line-of-scrimmage league,” Fitzgerald said, “For us (to lose) three games a year ago ... because we didn’t win the line of scrimmage is one helluva motivator.”
Two years ago, Northwestern coaches made a conscious decision that their players had to get stronger. The three blowouts in 2015 underscored the point. There’s six inches between the offensive and defensive lines, Fitzgerald said, and “we were losing the war.”
You have to find a way to create seams on offense and close them on defense. You have to wear down your opponent.
“You don’t want to keep harping on the bad,” linebacker Anthony Walker said, “but you have to look at the Tennessee game and say OK, we were flat-out embarrassed on national television.”
Northwestern has taken a different approach to training its linemen. Less running, more lifting. The Wildcats have recruited bigger kids, too. Incoming freshmen are stronger than last year’s juniors.
Fitzgerald cites examples like linebacker Nate Hall, who was thrust into a starting role as a redshirt freshman. He realized he wasn’t ready and did something about it, Fitzgerald said.
“Nate’s a great-looking young man. He went from, I think, getting 225 pinned against his chest to about 15 (reps) this summer. He went from wearing a medium T-shirt to actually looking like a Big Ten linebacker.”
Physical strength and competitive depth are two of Fitzgerald’s top priorities. They’re part of a larger push by Northwestern to look and act like a big-boy program. It’s taken about 80 years, including a decade under Fitzgerald. But Northwestern is finally pouring resources into football.
Proof lies in a stunning $260 million facility that overlooks Lake Michigan. The new outdoor practice field is ready for fall practice. The indoor complex, which includes a new practice field, locker rooms and coaches offices, will be complete in 2018.
Northwestern’s football facilities haven’t changed much since Fitzgerald’s All-America years in the mid-’90s. But soon he’ll be able to match bells and whistles with anybody in the Big Ten. He’ll have sports science and nutrition programs to tout.
“Maybe that’s where Michigan and Ohio State and Nebraska were 10 years ago and we’re just going down those roads now,” Fitzgerald said.
Clearly, Fitzgerald’s loyalty to his alma mater — he’s had several chances to leave for bigger programs — is paying off. Northwestern isn’t content to be a cuddly underdog anymore.
“If you’re gonna be in the 65 (major-conference teams), you can’t kind of play,” Fitzgerald said. “Or you might as well drop down because you’re not going to have an opportunity. ... Let me make no mistake about it. When you’re going to spend $260 million on a facility, it shows that we’re all-in to compete.”
For now, keep an eye on the line of scrimmage. When the Wildcats start winning there, you’ll know they are a true contender.