After seven and a half years, LTP is coming to an end. Our final post will be this Wednesday, January 15 and we’ve been spending our final week going in to memory mode and the big picture on all things Northwestern Athletics. If you’d like to read the post announcing why I felt it was time to close you can read Closing Time part one here and part two of “Closing Time” here. Please note, we’ll be leaving the site up so you can access the archives and all of the content that started in June of 2007.
Full Circle from 1939
If you’re looking for a Northwestern tie-in to tonight’s Ohio State vs Oregon match-up in the College Football National Championship you can go back to 1939 and Patten Gymnasium on the north end of Northwestern’s campus (where currently “Tech” sits, the original Patten is gone). That is the exact site of the first ever NCAA College Basketball Final Four and Ohio State faced off against Oregon in the first ever national championship. When you’re a Northwestern football or men’s basketball fan, you get good at finding obscure tie-ins to national championship games since we’re never actually in one.
It’s a logical time for Wildcat fans to wonder, “will we ever get there?” in both football and basketball. For those of us that experienced the magic of the 1995 season and the subsequent, highly underrated 1996 B1G championship repeat, how could we ever say no? Considering Northwestern basketball has never made The Tournament, despite even hosting the very first one (man, are we polite), how could we ever say yes?
I’m hoping I’ve got another 50+ years of life. Speculating if college football will even exist during that span is a good place to start. But, that’s for another post that I won’t be getting to here. I’ll bite on the “ever” question relating to an NU appearance in the College Football Playoff and say “yes”, we’ll get there, but I don’t see it happening in the next 15-20 years. Then again, I enter every Northwestern season rekindling the 1995 season that no one, not even many guys on that team, saw coming. You simply never know.
A more appropriate question is whether NU will get to the College Football Playoff, football’s Final Four, during Fitz’s tenure. I addressed part of this yesterday in a wistful post on Northwestern basketball, but considering Fitz has yet to even sniff a run at the Big Ten Championship, it’s hard to fathom getting there and then knocking off an Ohio State – or likely soon to be a Harbaugh-coached Michigan team.
I’ve mentioned many times that Fitz has never won six conference games. After the first blur of a season in 2006 he’s almost always gone 3-5 or 5-3. When you step back and assess Fitz’s tenure, it looks eerily similar to Bill Carmody’s tenure. I don’t mean that as a slam either. As I wrote yesterday, Carmody initially raised the bar on a very poor program and created relative consistency at being middle of the pack. Eight years in to his tenure he hit rock bottom, going 1-17 in B1G play and somehow managed to keep his job. Subsequently he started a run of four straight NIT appearances, but it felt as though the ceiling had been reached as BC could never quite get NU back to reaching .500 in conference play. Carmody took the program from A-to-B and Chris Collins inherited a new floor with below average Big Ten talent. The narrative from college basketball experts isn’t an “if” with Northwestern hoops, it is now a “when”.
Back to ‘Cats football. I’d be remiss if I didn’t make the Carmody comparison to Fitz. Fitz, however, inherited a program that had won three Big Ten titles in the past 11 seasons, albeit he “inherited” the program under tragic and shocking circumstances. The starting points for Fitz and Bill Carmody are unfair comparisons. However, during Fitz’s eight season he went 1-7 in conference play. Because it came off of one of the school’s best seasons – a 10-3 Gator Bowl Championship season – any talk of coaching change seemed a bit absurd. In his ninth season, he failed to make the NIT of football – any bowl game. I’d argue that Fitz’s runs of five straight bowl games from 2008-2012 was equivalent to Carmody’s four year NIT run, with one exception – 2012. The ‘Cats Gator Bowl season felt like a March Madness of football worthy team. A 9-3 season with three fourth quarter collapses, but it was a legit New Year’s Day bowl game and that win, that break-the-bowl-losing-streak win felt oh so good.
This is why 2015 will be incredibly interesting to watch. Fitz is the second most tenured coach behind Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz. The past few seasons have been advantageous division wise for NU and yet we’ve failed to capitalize on them. An Ohio State win tonight will have enormous implications on the Big Ten brand. Heck, before the title game hasn’t even been played and you had ESPN pundits apologizing publicly to Jim Delany for overreacting about the SEC. Imagine if they actually win this thing.
When you throw in Jim Harbaugh at Michigan things really get interesting. The only saving grace for ‘Cats fans is that should we make it to Indy at some point, we’ll only have to face one of them. You get the sense there is a limited window when the B1G West will be this up for grabs. The easy money is on Wisconsin to create quite a powerhouse, as they’ve managed to maintain 9+ win seasons every season despite ridiculous coaching turnover (when you include the assistant level) but man is it frustrating to look at that division and think we can’t get six wins.
Harbaugh is already turning heads of commitments at other schools. There is little doubt that he’ll turn things around in Ann Arbor, which is good for the conference. Up until now if you listed to national perception since Urban Meyer arrived and the Big Ten were a band, it would be called Ohio State and the Also Rans. Urban Meyer is 37-3 in his brief tenure in Columbus. Meanwhile, Wisconsin has been solid and Michigan State has been a perennial top ten team that just doesn’t get any love. Enter all eyes on Michigan and I actually shudder to think about how steep the competition could get in B1G very soon.
Speculating about the ‘Cats in the College Football Playoff seems a bit ludicrous if you objectively look at the past two B1G seasons. But, if you simply go back to October of 2013 and that fateful night against Ohio State that seemed destined for us to follow-up the ESPN Gameday presence with an upset win over #4 Ohio State you can see what a taste was like. We were #16 in the country and driving for the win late in the 4th quarter when Kain fumbled on 4th and one near midfield. The ‘Cats were about to crack the top ten and then our season went Armageddon. All the momentum from 2012 was gone. Northwestern simply cannot afford a third straight losing season in 2015. We’ll get crushed in recruiting. Absolutely killed, especially when the B1G competition is getting better and more and more like-minded academic schools can claim a better arrow up (see forthcoming post).
I do believe NU will reach the College Football Playoff in our lifetime, I don’t see it happening in the next five years, unless there are significant assistant coaching changes. Clayton Thorson, who has yet to take a snap, is the next hope for ‘Cats fans. I don’t care how great Clayton is, if the offensive line doesn’t improve and our receivers can’t catch balls downfield, we won’t be very good. The basic fundamentals have killed us the past two seasons and that is most infuriating because we’ve got presumably smart players with coaches who stress the fundamentals.
A better question may be, will we get to six wins in conference during Fitz’s contract? Just getting to Indy is a first step, a major step for this program. Knowing that the B1G East winner, a buzzsaw, awaits, well, that is a whole other hurdle to overcome. First things first, we’ve got to win the division. Trying to gauge the reality of making the CFP when you can’t even see Indy with a telescope right now? That’s what being a Wildcat fan is all about.
Chris Collins is proving he’s an instant winner at recruiting and Sunday’s near upset of Michigan State with a very young team exhibits why national basketball experts aren’t using the “if” in relation to THE DROUGHT and why they’re speculating on “the when”. That OT loss to Sparty was a microcosm of the reasons fans are giddy about the future and pulling their hair out in the present. The ‘Cats overcame two large deficits within each half and had three shots to win it in the final two minutes after getting back-to-back offensive rebounds. We went 0-3 and you just felt in future years we’ll win that.
This wasn’t done with a gimmicky 1-3-1 zone and borderline different sport approach to the offense. Collins had several players who were Michigan State-level talent wise. Bryant McIntosh showed why he may become NU’s Aaron Kraft. JerShon Cobb flashed why if he was healthy this team would win 5-6 more games. Tre Demps showed the moxie of a winner, even on a bad shooting day. Guys created, attacked and didn’t back down. The fact Alex Olah has become a borderline liability on offense and that NU had zero size against Sparty, yet we crashed the boards so well showed these are different times. This team is going to take its lumps (see: Wisconsin). But, they’re going to learn to win games people think they shouldn’t. I want to fast forward to next year while retaining the experience. Collins’ second top 100 recruit, big man Aaron Falzon, joins guard Jordan Ash and this Wildcat team all of a sudden has unprecedented depth and some significant experience.
I truly believe next year we’ve got a shot. I really do. Now, after breaking through THE DROUGHT, we can then begin dreaming about Final Four appearances. I can’t get my head around that concept right now. To say it won’t happen in my lifetime? No way I’m saying that. Not after 1995.
Regardless of what the future holds, tonight is a big night for the Big Ten. A win by the Buckeyes and there is no doubt it will impact Northwestern recruiting – whether by bolstering our opponents who want to play for the conference that won the national title – or for NU to capitalize on grabbing kids who want to knock down the Goliath that has become Ohio State. Go Bucks.