Fitzgerald welcomes raised expectations for Northwestern

Coming off rare bowl victory and 10-win season, Wildcats motivated to keep momentum going

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On the topic of maintaining an edge at Northwestern after a historic season, Pat Fitzgerald left no doubt.

"If we don't keep winning, it's going to be like (last year) was a great year for Northwestern football, but it's still Northwestern,'' Fitzgerald said. "We don't want to hear that thought.''

Fitzgerald staunchly believes those words, which came out of his mouth days before Northwestern's season opener 17 years ago. A Tribune story from Aug. 18, 1996, quoted the All-America linebacker fresh off a Rose Bowl appearance the prior year sounding eerily similar to the bright, demanding Big Ten head coach he would become.

Clearly, the face of Northwestern football has changed as little as Fitz's haircut since the last time he tried navigating the program through the land of raised expectations, which is where the Wildcats find themselves after a 10-win season and their first bowl victory in 64 years.

Given the hype accompanying a season that starts Saturday at California, if Northwestern isn't 4-0 heading into an Oct. 5 showdown against Ohio State, the fine student journalists at the Daily Northwestern might plan a five-part series on the perils of the two-quarterback system. So much goodwill carried over from last year's Gator Bowl victory that the preseason sleep study Northwestern conducted on players could have been done to make sure no Wildcats are resting on their laurels.

"You have to control the noise,'' Fitzgerald said Monday — and he wasn't talking about campus construction.

Around Evanston, they again believe anything is possible with the purple, including a trip to Pasadena. Yes, somebody has pointed out the last season Northwestern played Cal — Jan. 1, 1949 — the Wildcats won the Rose Bowl. Such is the lovable monster Fitzgerald has created heading into his eighth year: The strength of Northwestern lies in its confidence. The trick comes in Fitz and his staff not allowing that confidence to morph into Northwestern's biggest weakness too. Overconfidence can undercut a college football team quicker than bad defense.

Nothing illustrates the importance of resisting complacency better than Fitzgerald's message from '96 — the last time Northwestern came off a 10-win season. The coach who often uses Twitter to share meaningful quotes for his players should consider tweeting one from the days he wore No. 51.

In fitting symmetry, a Northwestern middle linebacker on Monday sounded a lot like someone conditioned by his coach.

"Expectations for us as a team are the same as they were last year: We're looking to go 1-0 each game,'' Damien Proby said. "We're looking to focus on us.''

Of all Fitzgerald's considerable strengths that make him one of America's best young coaches, establishing a mindset represents his biggest. He found a way to get quarterbacks Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian to buy into the idea of sharing the position. He can cover concerns over an offensive line introducing three new starters by calling running back Venric Mark the toughest player in the Big Ten and his wide receivers the deepest group he has coached. Publicly, Fitz performs with infectious enthusiasm, but his commitment to promoting what's right about college football is no act.

His personality blends affable with edgy, such as when he took a veiled shot at the rest of the Big Ten's soft opening-week opponents by saying Northwestern had the most to gain with a victory Saturday. He can be corny and compassionate, intense yet introspective. He will tweak freshmen for being homesick or overhyped, yet, minutes later, humbly attribute his 7-0 record in season openers to one thing no coach can control.

"It's luck,'' Fitzgerald said.

So the so-called dilemma of keeping a talented team on track mentally delights Fitzgerald, who realized perception had changed when every offseason interview started with the same question. Can Northwestern win when everybody expects; the way traditional Big Ten powers do?

Leading an academically successful football team as balanced as an Olympian's diet no longer is enough. Stringing together back-to-back 10-win seasons for the first time in school history would go a long way toward confirming Northwestern's new reality.

"Our internal expectations far outweigh external expectations, and they've been that way for a long time,'' said Fitzgerald, 38. "Am I happy to see external expectations changing? Yeah. But at the same time, everybody under the age of 40 knows Northwestern is a winner. We've got to control the 41-year-olds and above.''

That older audience still remembers the way Northwestern responded in 1996 the way a brash Wildcats linebacker vowed — with nine regular-season victories, a realistic goal this year in an improved conference.

The younger crowd would say nine wins is not good enough at Northwestern, which says everything about a program more relevant than ever.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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Twitter @DavidHaugh

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