MnB B1G Preview: Northwestern and the road back from obscurity

Pat Fitzgerald, a Northwestern man through and through. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Be sure to check out SBN's Northwestern site Sippin' on Purple for much more on the Northwestern Wildcats.

In the first couple weeks of the Big Ten preview we devoted a significant portion of our energy to dealing with hopelessness. The first three teams all have their share of hopelessness, be it as the very basis of the program (Indiana), a woeful hire that throws the program screaming off from taking the next step (Minnesota), or a general hopelessness that surrounds a series of embattled coaches (Illinois). Times are tough at the bottom, and there just aren't many avenues out of obscurity when those on the upper tiers are entrenched in their success.

Yet there remains a thread of optimism running through all our early Big Ten preview efforts because there is one program in the Big Ten that has proven it possible to climb up from the gutter and rub elbows with the elite. Northwestern University, that small private school on lake Michigan, long passed over as the Big Ten's punching bag fought back and now stands as the hope for a school like Indiana or Minnesota.

Northwestern, like the other schools we have dealt with so far, has an up and down history that for many years was mostly down. The school fielded a successful program around the turn of the century but a two year suspension in play due to the growing danger of playing football derailed the program for more than a decade afterwards. However, by the 20s Northwestern began to field competitive teams once more* and would go on to win four Big Ten titles between 1926 and 1936.

From there Northwestern slowly began to slide into irrelevance. Bob Voigts led Northwestern to a Rose Bowl as the Western Conference runner up in 1948, but despite that 8-2 record Voigts ended his career six games below .500 as a coach. The next two decades were split between solid seasons and disappointments.

This was better still than the 70's, which would see Northwestern bottom out as a program leading into The Streak: a winless stretch from September 1979 until September 1982 -- or 34 consecutive losses. This is a level of hopelessness that even Indiana has to take its hat off to. Northwestern was redefining "bad" in the Big Ten, and if there was ever a program which looked to be utterly and completely lost in the woods, it was Northwestern in the 80s. But this is a tale of redemption...

*(According to Wikipedia -- so take it with a grain of salt -- Northwestern "set up a committee to investigate the problem with Northwestern football team," which if true is the most Northwestern thing ever. Nerd on nerds.)

Northwestern football wouldn't stay on the mat forever. In 1991 Northwestern hired the offensive coordinator from Colorado, Gary Barnett, to take over as head coach. Barnett's first three years were much the same as the recent past with Northwestern going 8-24-1. Then in 1995 Northwestern made a staggering turnaround to win ten games, including a perfect 8-0 conference record that earned the Wildcats a trip to the Rose Bowl as the Big Ten conference champs.

Northwestern then came out and defended the conference title in impressive fashion with a 7-1 conference record and a trip to the Citrus Bowl. In two years Northwestern had almost completely erased any doubt about the program's continued viability as a Big Ten program. Led by outstanding linebacker and two-time Big Ten defensive player of the year Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern looked to have finally turned the corner. However, success at such a high level was short lived and Barnett's NU teams would bottom out over the next two seasons before he returned to Colorado to take over head coaching duties.

Replacing Barnett was the head coach at Miami (OH), Randy Walker. Walker had been at Miami for nearly a decade and the Redhawks routinely finished near the top of the MAC during his tenure. The start at Northwestern was a wake up call, however. The Wildcats went 3-8 overall and only won one conference game.

It was after that season that Randy Walker and offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson would begin to study the spread offense. Trips to Clemson to learn from Tommy Bowden and future Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez would yield a new approach to the NU offense in the 2000 season.

Behind the revamped shotgun spread offense the Wildcats won eight games and tied for first in the Big Ten. The season is also known for the stunning 54-51 upset of Michigan in which also served as a watershed moment for the burgeoning spread offense era. Chris Brown on that game:

Northwestern defeats Michigan 54-51. This is shocking enough. Northwestern scored fifty-four points against a Michigan team known for great defense and great defensive talent. Doubly shocking. Quarterback Zak Kustok threw for 322 yards and four touchdowns. Not so shocking from a spread QB in victory. Don't they always have to throw for this much to win?

That's why they get in the gun, right?

But wait, there's another stat.

Northwestern Rushing: 332 Yards; 6.64 average per carry. 332 yards.

What? Three-Hundred and Thirty Yards rushing?

How did they do that? Yes their running back had a huge day, but the yards that also made everyone sit up and take notice were the 55 yards from Northwestern's quarterback, Zak Kustok - hardly Vince Young or Pat White in raw athleticism. But the light went off across the country. If Zak Kustok can do it, maybe my guy can too. And even if he's not Vince Young, just the threat that he can make the defense pay if they over pursue by getting me eight yards, then let's do it.

That season led to the third Big Ten title for Northwestern in six years. After decades of complete irrelevance Northwestern had reinvented itself as a program capable of winning Big Ten titles under two separate coaches and with back-to-back three-win seasons in between.

--

Northwestern football isn't all sunshine and lollipops these days. The program is still dealing with the occasional down year, and the Wildcats haven't finished better than third in the conference since the 2000 Big Ten championship season. On top of that, the promise of the Randy Walker days didn't last. His teams regressed the next two years before posting a .500 record over his final three.

Furthermore, any momentum Walker may have been building back up was erased with his sudden death in 2006. Linebacker coach and former star Pat Fitzgerald was tasked with taking the reins, and has thus far kept up the solid, if somewhat unspectacular production of the later Walker years. In six seasons Northwestern has only finished below .500 once -- in Fitzgerald's first year and in 2011 where a bowl loss pushed the record to 6-7. The 2008 Wildcats won nine games and followed that up with an eight win season in 2009. Last season's 6-7 record came after many thought the team was poised to challenge for the Legends division title.

Therein lies the rub. Northwestern -- once a beaten down and left for dead private school football program in the clutches of Woody and Bo -- has fought back to the place where a 6-7 record in 2011 is a disappointment, not a building block back on some 12-step plan to success or a long awaited bowl season. Average wasn't good enough.

Northwestern came into the season backing its quarterback for a dark horse Heisman run and holding hopes of making its own run at the Legends division title. That Northwestern failed to accomplish this is at some point immaterial. Lots of teams fail to live up to lofty standards. Almost the same could be said of fellow Big Ten teams Iowa and Penn State. There is only one conference champion which means that 11 teams left something on the field that they desperately wanted. Almost everyone walks away disappointed. The disappointment is just different.

Northwestern may be stuck in a purgatory of sorts, unable to break back through to the conference title that is getting lost further and further in the rear view mirror, but that kind of sharp disappointment comes not from dreaming, but from having lived. Indiana's or Minnesota's disappointment is ephemeral. It is a quick vision that snaps back to reality where you laugh at the improbability of the whole thing.

Northwestern earned its disappointment by fighting tooth and nail out from under the rest of the conference's heel. That Northwestern fans aren't satisfied with the last few seasons is a testament to just how good Northwestern was. Once you've been to the top of the mountain the air back in the foothills doesn't smell as sweet.

Now, getting back to the top of the mountain is another story, but something has to be said for the fact that a Northwestern fan's disappointment at his team's failings feels a lot more like that of a Penn State or Michigan fan than it does an Indiana fan. You've got to earn that feeling the hard way.

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