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Let's talk about loyalty

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Pat Fitzgerald's "loyalty" isn't the reason for Northwestern's up-and-down season.

Pat Fitzgerald leads his players arm-in-arm onto the field before Northwestern's game against Minnesota on Oct. 11, 2014.
Pat Fitzgerald leads his players arm-in-arm onto the field before Northwestern's game against Minnesota on Oct. 11, 2014.
Josh Rosenblat

On the Monday following Northwestern's season-opening loss to Cal, InsideNU's Kevin Trahan wrote an article titled "Let's talk about leadership." In it, he discussed the lazy tactic sportswriters, fans and so-called experts use to "analyze" a team's performance, especially in collegiate sports. To recap, with Northwestern down 31-7, the television commentators began discussing the role Northwestern's leadership was playing in the team's poor performance. But when Northwestern came back to make a game out of it, such talk vanished. Trahan called using leadership as an explanatory angle a pre-written and cliché "crutch" that sportswriters use to push a narrative.

He pledged for a story using such an angle would never be published on this site.

Alas, here we are, almost two months later. This article could become the same classic, narrative-driven look at Pat Fitzgerald's loyalty that does its best to use pseudo-analysis to explain how his allegiance to his players and certain other things has been the direct cause for his team's uneven play and 3-4 record. It could become just the article that InsideNU promised would never appear on its site again.

But it won't.

That, like discussing leadership as a cause for a team's on-field performance, would be unfair and lazy.

Loyalty is a strictly qualitative variable that can, in some circumstances, impact more useful quantitative ones. Loyalty is not a trait that has a direct impact during games. Pat Fitzgerald's loyalty isn't calling plays, taking snaps or making tackles.

Over the past several weeks, the most popular narrative surrounding the program has been Fitzgerald's insistence on playing senior quarterback Trevor Siemian despite him being clearly limited by injury. Both Siemian's and the team's performances over the past couple weeks have been subpar and, thus, much like leadership was to blame for Northwestern's very slow start against Cal, Fitzgerald's loyalty to Siemian and other upperclassmen has come under fire.

It may even lead someone to ask, "Is Fitz too loyal?"

Someone has actually asked Fitzgerald that question. It was ahead of the 2012 season at Big Ten Media Day in July.

Q: Since I know you've said about last year's team that you felt you guys were too loyal to some of the seniors, and I know you said that on the radio today. Looking at some of these young guys you have coming back, what kind of competition do you want to see from these guys? What do you hope comes through camp?

COACH FITZGERALD: Well, let me clarify, I think some people have said I've been too loyal. So I guess that's a curse of me. I'm a loyal guy. I learned that from Walk (former Northwestern coach Randy Walker) and I learned that from my parents.

The sarcastic answer is the perfect and only one because, frankly, it just doesn't matter.

First of all, what does being "too loyal" even entail? In this context, it probably means continuing to play certain players even when there are others on the roster that would give the team a better chance to win games. Does that mean that because Fitz still lists Treyvon Green ahead of Justin Jackson as the starting running back on the team's depth chart (despite Jackson basically tripling Green's total carries on the season) his loyalty to the senior is hurting the team? Does the fact that Siemian continues to play over unknown and unproven backup Zack Oliver mean that Fitzgerald is more loyal to Siemian than Oliver? Would it really make any sense for Fitzgerald to be any more loyal to one player than another?

Northwestern does not have a loyalty problem although the program does seem to have a problem with others' loyalty. Pat Fitzgerald's so-called loyalty, just like a lack of leadership, is not the reason for Northwestern's on-field performance.

To borrow from Trahan's article on leadership again:

When we see Northwestern struggle on the field, let's do our best as writers and as fans to provide substantive analysis of why that might be happening, rather than apply some intangible to the situation that probably isn't even applicable. We might want to think the reason for a loss is that simple, but the truth is, it's generally just a lazy excuse to skip around actual analysis.

So, until the next time a lazy narrative coined by amateur psychoanalysts that blames personality traits for a team's performance arises, you won't see another article like this on this site.