Final Four reality

Closing Time

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.

 

  • PurpleHayes

    Not sure I get the connection in the last paragraph that suggests viewing this game through the NU lens means rooting for OSU, other than the usual “B1G brand” argument. Normally I adhere to that, and I did root for OSU over hated Alabama, but I think 90% of the branding we needed was accomplished last week. I’m really torn tonight–want to be a loyal B1G fan, but U Meyer and the arrogant OSU Nation need to be brought down a notch. I like Oregon’s program and Mariota seems like a great kid. Guess I’ll just sit back and enjoy–and rather than betting on either team, I’m taking the “over” almost no matter what the over/under point total is! Feels like one of those “whoever has the ball last….” kind of games.

    • NU’06er

      100% agree with the notion that viewing this game through the NU lens doesn’t inherently mean cheering the B1G.

      A rising tide with respect to the B1G may lift all boats, but it doesn’t necessarily lift all boats equally or in the same location. If our recruiting gets slightly better as a result of an increase in prestige for the B1G nationally, but that coincides with other B1G teams getting an even larger bump in recruiting, then that is a wash at best.

      Go Ducks.

      • NUNUNU

        Quack.. quack.. quack!

      • Chasmo

        I always root against Big Ten teams in non-conference games and bowls. If the Big Ten drops in prestige, that is good for NU and bad for the B1G football factories. The best players at the best Big Ten schools are there just to play football. Nobody comes to NU just to play football. Kids come to attend a small, elite, suburban private school with outstanding academic credentials that also happens to play every one of its games on national TV. No kid turns down NU to go to Stanford or Boston College or Notre Dame or Duke or Vandy because the Pac-12 or ACC or SEC is rated higher than the Big Ten. But the types of highly rated kids who go to Ohio State and Penn State and Michigan and Michigan State do turn down the Big Ten to go to the SEC or Pac 12. So NU fans should always root against other Big Ten teams in postseason and non-conference play. It can’t hurt NU’s recruiting but could hurt the rest of the Big Ten and make NU more competitive.

        • http://www.LakeThePosts.com/ LTP

          Looks like I missed the boat on the root for OSU sentiment. I get it.

    • http://www.LakeThePosts.com/ LTP

      Heard a great one today. With rumors about Braxton transferring for a one and done, why wouldn’t Harbaugh go after him? Can you imagine that?!!

  • Chasmo

    Is it really fair to Fitz to compare his five straight bowl appearances to Carmody’s four straight NIT appearances? I think not. About 30 major conference teams make the 64-team NCAA tournament each year so Carmody’s NIT bids are really more the equivalent of playing in the Pizza-Pizza Bowl on Dec. 26 vs. Bowling Green than playing Auburn on Jan. 1.
    Fitz played Missouri on Dec. 29 in the Alamo Bowl, Auburn on Jan. 1 in the Outback Bowl, Texas Tech on Jan. 1 in the Ticket Bowl, Texas A&M in the Car Bowl on Dec. 31, and Miss. St. in the Gator Bowl on Jan. 1. Three bids to New Year’s Day bowls plus one to a New Year’s Eve bowl rate higher than four NIT bids, right?
    NU football will probably never contend for the Final Four of Football because it will never be able to recruit the quality depth needed to compete with Oregon and Ohio State, who lose multiple players and still win.
    NU basketball has a slightly better chance win a national title because if Collins — as if by wizardry — added a superstar center like Okafor and a superstar scorer like Parker to the current roster, NU would immediately be a Final Four of Basketball contender.
    Fitz could sign the best two players in the country who qualify academically and NU would still struggle to win a Big Ten title. Collins could sign the best two players in the country who qualify academically and NU would be a title contender. Imagine how good NU would be this year with a player like Parker instead of Taphorn and a player like Okafor instead of Skelly on the current roster.
    The chances of NU ever winning a national title are slim (basketball) and none (football); nevertheless, we fans still will go to our graves dreaming the impossible dream.

    • http://www.LakeThePosts.com/ LTP

      I’ll give you Outback but not now defunct TicketCity Bowl. That was not a Jan 1 worthy bowl but rather a savvy marketing move to try and give that bowl some brand equity by sneaking in the line-up.

    • binky

      Nice point and goes to the heart of what college athletics are about. As NU fans what should we expect our team to be. I would say college athletes or supposed to have developed leadership skills, team work skills, an ability to be oneself beyond their daily limits. Seems so naive to say that but that what sport is supposed to be about. Not not the “circus” as in the roman sense of the word where its entertainment for mildly disgruntled masses. Its a developmental process for young men and women. I don’t know how to resolve the conflict of division 1 sports and the proper place in society. That’s for some one smarter than me. I have the luxury of cheering on my division III school. Where I got to play for the love of the sports.

  • Jason

    Not sure if fitz’s family is part of the readership and that’s why you go easy on him, not wow he does not pass the eye test of a good coach. Horrible preparation, horrible decision making, zero adjustments, zero development. Most coaches cant rest on their laurels of winning 10 games once 3 seasons ago. I hope if we don’t see improvement this year we can all finally agree it’s time to move on. God knows I’m pulling for the guy but I have no reason for optimism. My loyalty is to the team not to him.

  • BoyCott Fitz 2015

    Sigh….

    At this point, I’m just apathetic. it’s just so sad where NU football is and how there’s so little hope for the future, that seemed so bright less than 1.5 years ago leading into the OSU game.

    I have no confidence in Fitz to right the ship, no confidence in him able to win B1G championships. His snarky attitude towards media and fans only turns me off more. Next year will be more of the same, more excuses, but I just won’t care anymore. I used to be such a diehard NU fan. Now, it’s just something that might pass the time on Saturdays.

    We’re lucky we have such great coaches in BBall, Lax, soccer, etc.

    NU’s Admin will never fire Fitz, and NU will never get past .500 in Big Ten play.

    #1 in Graduation rate though. THANK GOD

    BoyCott Fitz