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How much has Northwestern's recruiting improved under Pat Fitzgerald?

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When people talk or write about Pat Fitzgerald’s tenure at Northwestern, they often refer to how he has improved the program’s recruiting. This assertion is rarely (if ever) challenged or debated, because it doesn’t really seem like it needs be. Northwestern’s players look bigger, stronger and faster now than they did when Fitzgerald took over in July 2006.

Even Dan Persa, Northwestern’s starting quarterback from 2010-11, agrees. He said this of the Wildcats after visiting a practice in August. "The guys just look different," Persa told Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune. "They're so physically developed. It's never been like that." As Greenstein later notes in the article, Northwestern’s players are more physically developed these days largely because of improved recruiting.

But how much has Northwestern’s recruiting actually improved since Fitzgerald became head coach?

I charted the mean star rating of Northwestern’s recruiting classes, as measured by Rivals.com, from ’07 to ‘14 (assuming the 15 players currently committed eventually sign). To provide some context, I listed the national rankings of those classes and Northwestern’s win-loss records over Fitzgerald’s eight seasons at the helm. I also included the '06 class (and the Wildcats' '05 win-loss record), former coach Randy Walker’s last, to illustrate the bump Northwestern’s recruiting received after Fitzgerald took over.

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It makes sense that a program’s recruiting would improve if it wins more games, but has that been the case with Northwestern? After a dip in ‘08 (-0.44 stars), Northwestern’s recruiting classes have mostly trended upward. There was a nearly +0.4-star difference between the ’08 signing class and the ’09 one, which makes sense, because Northwestern went 9-4 in ‘08 after going 6-6 in ‘07.

Likewise, Northwestern endured a bit of a recruiting slump between ’10 and ’12 – its average star rating fell from 2.94 to 2.76 – as the Wildcats’ win total dropped from 8 in ’09 to 7 in ’10 to 6 in ‘11. In ‘13, following Northwestern’s 10 win season, which also included the program’s first postseason victory in more than six decades, the Wildcats’ average star rating changed +0.25 from the previous year.

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The encouraging thing for Northwestern fans (as we noted last week) is that the Wildcats’ 2014 class – if it stays intact – is shaping up to be Fitzgerald’s best to date, despite Northwestern’s major downturn in wins (10 in ’12 to 5 in ’13).

To no one’s surprise, Northwestern’s recruiting improved considerably between ’06 and ’07. Most new coaches cause a recruiting “bump” in their first year on the job, and the one that resulted from Fitzgerald’s hiring was considerable: a +0.50 increase from ’06 (Walker’s last class) to ’07 (Fitzgerald’s first). 15 of the 19 recruits signed in ’07 committed after Fitzgerald was hired; of those 15, only four were given two-star ratings.

Those results fall in line with a trend Paul Myerberg of USA Today detailed in an excellent feature last September. Of the 79 coaching changes made at the BCS level since the start of the '03 season that Myerberg examined, the average star rating of the new coach’s first class exceeded that of the previous coach’s last one 55 times. Northwestern’s class jumped from no. 82 to no. 53 between ’06 and ’07 on Rivals’ team ratings, far exceeding the average bump (+ 8.94) Myerberg computed from those 55 cases.

Fitzgerald said the following about his first class at his signing day press conference on February 7, 2007. “With it being my first, that’s really the only one I can speak about. I feel really confident that these guys can come in and compete with the current talent and the current leadership that we have in our program. I think they’re a great complement to the current guys that we have in our program.”

After the initial bump Fitzgerald’s hiring brought bout, Northwestern’s recruiting appears to have slightly improved when measured by star ratings, and is set to cross the 3.0-star average threshold for the first time on signing day '14. Its place in the national rankings, however, has not changed: Northwestern's '07 signing class and projected '14 class both rank no. 53 in the country.

It's worth pointing out that Rivals' ranking system tends to rank larger classes higher. Northwestern's classes under Fitzgerald have been relatively small on the whole: 19 commitments in '07, 20 in '08, 18 in '09, 17 in '10, 17 in '11, 21 in '12, 19 in '13 and 15 in '14. (if you're interested, here's an FAQ on how Rivals calculates its team rankings).

It’s also important to keep in mind that the star rating system is not a foolproof talent gauge. Sometimes scouting services overrate and underrate players; Fitzgerald, a two-time defensive player of the year at Northwestern, has noted before that he was a “zero-star” player. But star ratings are pretty helpful when projecting how well a recruiting class will perform at the next level.

And if the star ratings have accurately rated Northwestern’s recruits, Fitzgerald has more talent now than he did earlier in his tenure. The challenge for him going forward will be to use that talent to avoid five-wins-or-fewer seasons, like the one his team endured in ’13, and maintain a place in 8-wins-or-more territory.