In a move that was, to many, disappointing, but in reality not altogether shocking, Northwestern announced last Friday that it would retain its entire coaching staff for the 2015 football season.
Since the news, which was first reported by the Chicago Tribune's Teddy Greenstein, broke, reactions have been all across the board. Some believe coordinators and position coaches aren't being held accountable for failures. Some believe Fitzgerald is being too loyal. Some believe Fitzgerald and athletic director Jim Philips are accepting mediocrity. Some, however, believe the coordinators deserve at least one more shot to show that they can return to 2012 levels of production. Some believe the failures were in large part due to injuries and uncontrollable circumstances, and that firing a coordinator like Mick McCall would be a mistake.
One reaction seems unanimous though: Pat Fitzgerald has brought a new kind of pressure on himself. Fitzgerald has chosen to put faith in his heavily-criticized assistants, and in doing so, he has left himself vulnerable to criticism if the losing continues. After the announcement, our Kevin Trahan wrote:
"It is now firmly on [Fitzgerald] if things don't improve... if the wins don't start coming, then this decision could backfire."
So let's say the wins don't start coming. Let's say over the next two years, Northwestern only notches a combined 11 victories. What would that mean for Fitzgerald? The assumption would be that many of his assistants would be unable to survive the persistent mediocrity, but how would that alter the way in which Fitzgerald is viewed, both by the fan base and by Phillips? Will it really mean that Fitzgerald will be held accountable?
It's easy to say right now that he should be and will. I -- and I assume most Northwestern fans agree -- am on board with the idea that he should be. But I'm not sure that he will be. In fact, Fitzgerald's decision to retain his staff could have exactly the opposite effect.
Should the losing continue, all Fitzgerald's recent decision will have done is bought him another year. It's not that Fitzgerald himself would be in danger of being fired after next season if it once again ends without a bowl. But this buys him another season with the "coaching staff changes" card still in his back pocket. It prolongs this portion of his tenure at Northwestern.
If next season results in McCall and others getting the ax, we're conning ourselves if we actually think Fitzgerald will be held accountable. Instead, the internal narrative within the program will be that new assistants will bring a fresh new approach -- just as it would have been if changes had been made after this year -- and then even if improvement doesn't immediately come under the new assistants, the narrative will be that an adjustment period of at least another year is necessary. Fitzgerald is still a long succession of events removed from feeling real pressure from NU administrators, and all this recent staff decision does is push the next of those events back another year.
Of course, this all revolves around a big "if." Fed up fans might refuse to believe it, but there's a very real chance performance improves in 2015 and McCall and others validate Fitzgerald's decisions. But the point is that the risk involved in the decisions -- if they don't pay off, Fitzgerald will come under increasing pressure -- is nearly non-existent.
After a Friday interview with Phillips, the Tribune's Greenstein wrote an article that gave us some insight into how NU's AD views the program and its current state. First of all, Phillips did tell Greenstein that he holds Fitzgerald "ultimately responsible for the direction of the program," and that he gives Fitzgerald "51 percent of the vote" on staff decisions. But that's nothing new. That's always been the case. Later in the article, Phillips' commitment to Fitzgerald shows. A couple of Phillips quotes are telling:
"I think the world of Fitz. I'm the guy who gave him a 10-year contract (through 2020). I feel that has been as wise a decision as I've made. There is no better fit for the program." - Phillips
"He deserves my support and that's what he has - my unabashed support," Phillips said. "I believe in him and I know we're headed in a better direction."
So while fans and the media think that Fitzgerald should be held accountable for his retainment of assistants if the decision doesn't work out, we'd be foolish to believe that he actually will be. At the moment, he's untouchable. Hanging on to McCall and company for another year only gives Northwestern more opportunities to deflect blame and extend his untouchability.