In the upcoming book "Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football," best-selling author John U. Bacon explored how the nation's oldest college football conferences handled one of the most tumultuous years in its existence. You may have read an excerpt describing what went down behind the scenes at Penn State as players fought to help the program survive in the wake of crippling sanctions.
Bacon also embedded himself with three other schools: Ohio State, Michigan, and Northwestern. Time and time again, Bacon highlights the incredible efforts made by college football athletes to stand up for the old-school ideals of the sport as it receives ridicule elsewhere.
Perhaps no place is that truer than Northwestern. A teacher at Medill, Bacon highlights the change in on-field standards -- but not academic rigor -- the institution has seen over the last 20 years, interviewing a host of NU people from President Schapiro to tailgating ex-athletes about how Northwestern has changed -- and what it's changed into.
An excerpt from Bacon's book, courtesy of Simon and Schuster:
Sixteen years after Pat Fitzgerald won his second Big Ten title as a player in 1996, he would embark on his quest for his first as a coach, with fifty-five returning lettermen, thirteen returning starters, and all his specialists coming back.
The 2011 seniors had won more games than any other Northwestern class and had gone to four straight bowl games, a first. And there was this surprising statistic: since 1995, only Ohio State, Michigan, and Wisconsin had won more Big Ten titles than Northwestern's three-and Wisconsin had passed the 'Cats only the year before. You could win a lot of bar bets with that one, even in Chicago.
To win their fourth title since 1994, the Wildcats would have to battle division rivals Michigan, Michigan State, and Nebraska, but they would not have to face Ohio State in the regular season, nor in the title game, since the Buckeyes were ineligible for postseason play. They had to travel to Penn State, but most experts were predicting the Lions would throw in the towel before the Wildcats got there in October. If there was a year the stars were aligned for the 'Cats to grab another banner, 2012 was it.
But even if the Wildcats fell short of exploiting this rare opportunity, Northwestern would still be Northwestern. "Academically," Fitzgerald said, "2011 was an unprecedented year for us." The team had a 3.04 GPA, a 94-percent graduation rate-higher than the student body's- and thirty-two players on the Academic All-Big Ten team, a record even for Northwestern.
"But most importantly," Fitzgerald said, "we take great pride in being the number one school academically in the Football Bowl Subdivision [for APR]. So we believe we're the number one [football] school academically in the country."
Northwestern's 107 football players on the 2012 roster were pursuing twenty different majors, including seventeen in economics and eleven in engineering. Offensive lineman Patrick Ward runs six feet seven and 320 pounds, "but his most impressive stat is his 3.94 in mechanical engineering," President Morton Schapiro told me. "I'm hoping he goes to the NFL, but if not, he'll be the world's largest engineer."
Patrick Ward aside, most Wildcats can't simply bowl over the corn-fed boys at Wisconsin and Iowa, so they have to outwit and outwork them. But Northwestern is a good place to attract the kind of players who can do just that.
"I think everything about us is unique," Fitzgerald told me. "So why stop on campus? The way we recruit is unique, too.
"We approach it as a challenge to find the right fit. How do we define that fit? It starts off the field. I want leaders. I want guys who want to be a little unique. When they're the captains of their high school teams, that usually requires them to step out of the box a bit and be a little bit more mature, which typically leads to a better academic kid-and that fits in here.
"And we like finding winners. An overwhelming majority of our players played on league-champion, sectional-champion, even state-champion teams. And they led those teams."
Fitzgerald was recruiting a mind-set first, a body second.
"So we don't get a dozen five-star kids. Whose opinion is that? What do I care?
"There's a young man out there right now with offers from every school in the Big Ten. But when we watched him play, he was injured early in the game, so he went back to the bench, put a towel over his head, and sat there the rest of the game. Didn't cheer for his teammates or talk to anyone. I don't know if he even watched the game. So, right now, every school in the Big Ten wants him-but not us."
It's not hard to see what Fitzgerald saw in the quarterback he actually recruited, junior Kain Colter, a three-star player out of Colorado. His father, Spencer, played safety for Colorado's 1990 national champion- ship team and went on to become a high school football coach. Kain's mother, Stacy, is a legal analyst for Chipotle.
"My parents definitely preached to me, ‘Get your education,' " he told me, wearing a white, button-down shirt, a navy-blue tie, and a gray sport coat. "You want to make your degree count."
Football, then, was sold to him as a means to an end. He received offers from Air Force, Arizona State, Nebraska, Texas Christian, and Colorado, among others. But, he said, "I really didn't want to go to a program with a whole lot of tradition. I wanted to go somewhere where they were going to build something. I liked Stanford for that reason. I was commit- ted to Stanford my whole junior year, but I ended up getting hurt, and they brought in another quarterback."
That's how Colter became the Wildcats' quarterback-and how he got his nose bent out of shape, which is virtually a prerequisite to play at Northwestern.
"I wasn't a four- or five-star guy coming out of high school," Colter told me. "None of us were. But the guys we get for our team haven't been told how great they were, how amazing they were, their whole lives. They come to college with a chip on their shoulder. They want to prove they can compete at this level, and they want to work for everything. They're going to do anything for the team-so many guys on this team change positions, without complaint-and those are the guys we look for."
That included Colter himself. When Northwestern's 2011 quarterback, Dan Persa-who had been considered a preseason Heisman Trophy candidate-was healthy, Colter played tailback and receiver. But when Persa went down with a freak ankle injury, Colter filled in at quarterback. He did all three jobs so well-running for 654 yards and 9 touchdowns, catching 43 passes for 466 yards and 3 more touchdowns, and hitting 55 of his 82 passes for 673 yards and 6 more touchdowns, against only one interception-that in 2012 Colter was Northwestern's leading returner in passing, receiving, and rushing, surely the only player in the country who could claim that.
Because the other ten players on Northwestern's offense usually aren't bigger or faster than the guys across the line, it's especially important that Northwestern get a quarterback who fits their system: a smart, quick, coachable leader who can run the spread offense, a system designed to help smaller teams compete. When the Wildcats find their man, they are surprisingly dangerous. The 2012 Wildcats knew Colter would be the key.
If that was Colter's principle mission in Evanston, it would be enough, but Colter was determined to make the most of his opportunity, majoring in psychology with an eye toward medical school. That meant time-consuming labs-so many, he had to miss off-season workouts and seven-on-seven drills his first two years to attend them.
"It's tough. It's really tough," he told me. "Labs are usually later in the day, and those take three hours, so it's really tough to get that in. Some- times I just want to give it up and focus on football, but you have to look at the long run: all of us in this room will have our football careers end sooner or later. You definitely have to have a backup plan, and that's something that Northwestern really helps you with.
"But if you want to be a great football player," he added, still turning it over in his mind, "you have to do a lot of extra work-lifting, watching film, doing drills. If you want to go to the NFL, there's only one time to do that, and it's now."
He's also received a bit of fame-but only a bit. Once you've "made it" as a college football player, you can look forward to being depicted in EA Sports' college football video game. (You can also look forward to EA Sports, the NCAA, and member schools keeping all the profits.) Having started most of 2011, Colter figured he had to be in the video game this year-and he was, on their national third team.
"I was excited!" he said with a laugh. "I bought the game, ran home, opened it up, and put it in-and I ended up being a white guy with red hair."
Only at Northwestern.
Every head coach I talked to cited his team's academic standing, underscoring how seriously his program took the student side of the student-athlete equation, and they were utterly sincere, with the numbers to back it up. But Northwestern was alone in arguing the team's academic success was central to their success on the field. It was not simply a matter of declaring, "We take school seriously, too," but "Because we excel academically, it helps us compete on the field."
When I asked Fitzgerald about this, he straightened his back and set his jaw like he was warming to a familiar fight-one he'd already waged as a Northwestern recruit and player, and now as the head coach. "So I want to know, why do these people think we can't win with bright guys? We win because they're bright guys! We think we've got the best leaders and the brightest guys in the Big Ten. That's how we win! And this school helps us recruit them."
If the NCAA wanted a spokesperson to explain how its core values actually translated to victories, Fitzgerald would make a fine selection. You could argue, however, that more than other coaches, he could afford to put values before victories.
"We can do that here," he told me, "because our president, our AD, our trustees, and our fans have the right kind of compass. They understand who we are, and they embrace it, with no excuses."
This helps Northwestern establish a few tenets necessary to every vibrant learning community: a common identity, lifelong loyalty, and a happy campus.
"Once in a while," Fitzgerald told me, "I have to remind people around here: the current students, down the road, are your alums. And if they had a good time here and have good feelings about the place, that's when they give back. If they didn't, I don't think they're opening their wallets for you. President Schapiro has done a magical job bringing it all together."
However, Northwestern has already learned-just as Chicago did- that simply having a Big Ten football team doesn't do much for your school. If it's the laughingstock of the league, you might be better off without it.
"We've made a commitment that athletics would be important," AD Jim Phillips said. "Does that mean the tail's wagging the dog? That won't ever happen around here. I never lose any sleep wondering what my head coach is up to, and we'll never be confused about why the athletic department is here. It's to support the school's educational mission.
"It isn't winning at all costs, but either you're going to get into the game or you're not. We keep score! We keep score of U.S. News rankings and Nobel Prize winners, too! Why would we accept any less than the standards of excellence the institution was founded on?"
Northwestern's renewed commitment to athletic success has convinced everyone the school belongs in the Big Ten, and can play with the big boys.
"I don't think anyone wants us to go D-III anymore," President Morton Schapiro told me. "We're very happy in the Big Ten. When you look at our nineteen sports, we're really pretty good. In the last nine seasons, our women's lacrosse team has won seven national titles. We've won"-he pauses to do the math in his head-"one hundred and eighty-two games and lost just ten."
But even at Northwestern, football is the focal point.
That brings us back to Pat Fitzgerald. The support he enjoys is essential, but winning games is still largely up to him. That starts with finding the special class of players who can win in Evanston and value what North- western offers.
"I don't know what being Ohio State means," he told me. "I never played there. I've never coached there. But I do know what being North- western means. And we know how to find the kind of people who will appreciate it."
Case in point: defensive end Quentin Williams. He was a tenth grader at Central Catholic in Pittsburgh when his mom died. His father, an urban planner, his brother, Nate, and he had to start making their own meals. One load was lifted when Nate, a linebacker, got scholarship offers from Duke, Virginia, and North Carolina, but he was captivated by Fitzgerald, the same way Fitzgerald had been captivated by Barnett.
Two years later, Fitzgerald came after Quentin, who was not particularly big or fast but, he told me, "I was always taught that football is a team game. I was a captain in high school, and we won state our senior year," all but defining Fitzgerald's ideal recruit.
Quentin was leaning toward Stanford until he asked his brother about Fitzgerald. "He couldn't think of anything negative to say: ‘I love that man.' "
Still, Quentin was the last Northwestern recruit to fax in his letter of intent. But by 2012, all his doubts had been erased. "This was the best decision I've ever made."
Going into his fifth year-which is strongly encouraged in the North- western program-Williams and his classmates wanted more. After Fitzgerald's "welcome back" team meeting in January of 2012, receiver Demetrius Fields gathered team leaders Kain Colter, David Nwabuisi, and Quentin Williams together in the team room. "It was the first time in my career," Williams recalled, "the seniors got together after Fitz left the leadership meeting. We were sick and tired of losing. We were sick of watching senior classes fall short. You could see it in our eyes that day. We didn't care how long the meeting took. We were determined."
"In 2011," Colter added, "we had tons of talent. But for some reason, we just threw away too many games we should have won. We noticed we weren't close enough as a team. You play harder for guys you know and respect. So in that meeting, we decided that was the main problem, so we were going to start working as a team, eating as a team, doing everything together to get closer."
The idea was to make their attitudes contagious. "Take the team by the hand," Fitzgerald told them. "It's your team. Show them how to do it."
Being contagious didn't necessarily mean being polite-or even liked. "We had to call some people out sometimes," Williams said. "It wasn't fun, but it was necessary."
We journalists often write about coaches who "have" their teams- when their players are following not just their rules and playbook, but buying their philosophy.
Michigan's Brady Hoke had his team from his first team meeting in
2011. Penn State's Bill O'Brien had fought to keep his team through the off-season, and despite the NCAA's best efforts, he had succeeded. Ohio State's Urban Meyer still didn't feel that he had his team, but he was working on it.
But at Northwestern, not only did Fitzgerald have his team, but, in a real sense, the university did, too. Most of the players had declined schools like Stanford, Georgia Tech, and Virginia to wear the purple. They knew what Northwestern offered-and they had decided that's what they wanted.
The question remained: Would that translate to another 6-6 season, capped by another bowl loss-or worse? Or would that create something better, even historic?
It wasn't just Northwestern fans or Big Ten backers who should have been pulling for the Wildcats, however, but every person who cares about college football. Because if Northwestern could not compete with this squad, this coach, this athletic director, this president, and this approach, then the entire enterprise of college football would be taking another big step toward becoming a glorified minor league.