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Gator Bowl Win Is Only The Beginning For Northwestern

by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)

Approximately 24 hours before Steve Flaherty kicked off the 2013 Gator Bowl with a 65-yard boot that bounced out of the Mississippi State end zone for a touchback, coach Dan Mullen was finishing up his final pre-bowl press conference. For Mullen, there was nothing new about the scene before him. He’s been there before, as recently as 2011, when the Bulldogs smashed Rick Rodriguez-coached Michigan, 52-14, to win his first bowl game as a head coach. A official ushered Mullen off the stage, then pointed to a shiny silver trophy nestled between maroon and purple helmets. “I’d like to get me another one of those,” Mullen quipped, his southern drawl exuding desire and lust. As it happened, Mullen would not get his wish. Instead, the Bulldogs coach will leave Jacksonville empty-handed.

That is the price you pay when your quarterback, junior Tyler Russell, throws four interceptions after committing just six such giveaways all season, when your star receiver Chad Bumphis is limited to three catches and 18 receiving yards, when six penalties turn into 47 lost yards. But this wasn’t about what Mississippi State didn’t do, or about a flawed gameplan, or about poor preparation. It was about Northwestern rising to an unprecedented level of achievement.

For the first time in Coach Fitzgerald’s tenure – and, more broadly, the first time since the Wildcats’ 1949 Rose Bowl victory over California – players, coaches and program personnel had something to celebrate after a bowl game. And when Fitzgerald was finally asked to embrace the moment, he gripped the same silver trophy Mullen so dearly coveted one day earlier, and readily acknowledged his naivete in this celebratory occasion.

“I try to tell guys to act like we’ve been here before,” a raspy-voiced Fitzgerald screeched on the stage at midfield as the purple half of the EverBank Field crowd looked on in joy. “But we’ve never been here.” Moments later, an earlier exchange from senior linebacker David Nwabuisi bled into Fitzgerald’s speech. “As David Nwabuisi just said, ‘We’re here now.’ And we’re here to stay!”

What Fitzgerald was referring to didn’t so much concern physical location as it did historical accomplishment. January 1, 2013, will be remembered as the day Northwestern severed its decades-long relationship with postseason dysfunction – not to mention the execution date of the famous bowl monkey, which lay in tatters after a raucous locker room celebration – and Fitzgerald held nothing back in contextualizing the significance of Tuesday’s outcome. Asked if it was his best win as Northwestern’s coach, Fitzgerald replied, “It’s definitely the win I’m most thankful for.”

The tenor of his words reflected an appreciative and humbled program leader. There was another strong emotional strain: a desire to sustain postseason success. Now that the streak is gone, Northwestern can focus on climbing higher and higher in the postseason pecking order. Clinching a bowl win is an excellent milestone, and a huge relief for a coach who’s constantly pestered by the same old questions about a bowl losing streak that began long before he had any control on the program’s postseason fortunes, but Fitzgerald wants more. And based off the way the Wildcats stormed to a 10-3 record and played every one of its opponents – even in losses – down to the wire, you can’t fault his enthusiasm.

Over the course of 13 games, Northwestern went from preseason Big Ten middler, to better-than-expected upstart to bona fide league title contender. It quieted critics who questioned its ability to overcome academic limitations. It played harder, faster, more disciplined football than some of the Big Ten’s traditional heavyweights. It beat BCS teams from other conferences, and avoided the pitfalls that have held this program back so frequently in years past. Fourth-quarter management remains a problem, but as the Wildcats proved today – and against Michigan State, when it held on to a three-point fourth-quarter lead at Spartan Stadium – there’s reason to believe Northwestern is shedding the “Cardiac Cats” label. Even in defeat, Northwstern grinded every opponent for 60 minutes. This team’s 10 wins were no fluke, nor was its Gator Bowl victory a one-time occurrence.

It’s easy to get caught up in the emotion of a win, but Fitzgerald’s drive for future greatness is completely rational. That’s not something you could say about this program in a different era. For years Northwestern withered in the Big Ten cellar, barely sniffing bowl eligibility. There’s a new standard under Fitzgerald. “Now we have a new streak we can talk about in a positive fashion,” Fitzgerald said. What kind of streak do you mean, exactly? “Our goal is to be champions. This was the first step in accomplishing that mission.”

Striving for conference championships would have seemed like a fool’s errand for previous Northwestern coaches. Not for Fitzgerald. In the closing moments of Northwestern’s win, as the Wildcats got in victory formation to cement the long-awaited triumph, players drenched Fitzgerald in a frozen ice bath – a moment the head coach described as “ecstatic.” In truth, it was more than a traditional football celebration for a single bowl victory, more than a chilling dose of light blue Gatorade on a 70-degree Tuesday afternoon.

It was a launching pad onto bigger and greater things. When Northwestern begins spring practice in two and a half months, you can bet Fitzgerald won’t rest on last year’s laurels. His demands are clear. A Big Ten Championship is the goal.

“We might not be putting a Big Ten championship trophy in our trophy case, but we took a big step toward that today,” Fitzgerald said. The Wildcats will go into next season with a clean slate of postseason possibility, and the Big Ten’s biggest prize as a realistic goal.