A few weeks ago, our Henry Bushnell was one of many SB Nation site managers who received an email from Pete Volk, an SB Nation college football deputy editor. Volk was working on an article about the job security of various college football coaches, and posed the following question:
What is the lowest number of wins Northwestern has to get in 2015 in order for Pat Fitzgerald to keep his job?
After a staff discussion in which the numbers "2", "-1" and "0" were thrown around, Henry sent in the following answer:
For Pat Fitzgerald, the lowest number of wins is 0. Seriously. He'd keep his job no matter what.
As crazy as it might sound to an outsider, who sees two straight 5-win, bowl-less seasons, Pat Fitzgerald is still untouchable. Plenty of fans disagree with that, and it's tough to fathom any athletic director bringing back a coach after a winless season, but 'Fitz' -- a Wildcat hero as a player in the 90s, and a great 'face of the program' -- is signed through 2020, and AD Jim Phillips is 100 percent committed to him.
Henry's response did not make it into Volk's article. Instead, the article's introduction referenced Fitzgerald as a coach that "would be in trouble with four wins of so."
So we decided to look into the question further, and tasked Daniel Rapaport with the analysis:
Rapaport: His babyface and social media relevance may make it hard to believe, but 40-year-old Pat Fitzgerald is entering his 10th season as Northwestern football coach. Ten years is a long time. That's certainly long enough to merit a sober evaluation of his tenure and to ponder his job security. Let's first take a look back at how the Pat Fitzgerald era has transpired and the current trajectory of the Northwestern football program.
His first year was a disappointing 4-8, but first year struggles are to be expected for any rookie head coach and especially one who is 31 years of age. Northwestern turned it around the following season and managed to post a 6-6 record, but was overlooked over come bowl season. The third year of Fitzgerald's tenure began his golden age at the helm.
Between the 2008 and 2012 seasons, Northwestern posted a 42-22 record and earned five consecutive bowl berths. The first four bowl games were losses (read into that as you will), but the victory over Mississippi State, a team from some conference called the SEC, in the 2012 Gator Bowl seemed to be Northwestern's national coming-out party. Fitzgerald had built a solid, winning program that was only going to keep getting better. A sustainable formula had been derived. Recruiting was improving and results were following.
Fitz's stock reached its peak price on October 5, 2013, when his 4-0, 16th-ranked Wildcats hosted then-No. 4 Ohio State in a game featured on ESPN's College Gameday. Northwestern was quite literally at the center of the college football world, and Fitzgerald's team put up a more than respectable fight against one of the country's finest programs in front of thousands of recruits watching on television. Fitzgerald was linked to the coaching vacancy at Texas -- yes, Texas -- before reassuring 'Cats fans that he's here for the long haul. Northwestern had arrived and was here to stay, so long as NU could keep its burgeoning superstar coach in Evanston. Or so it seemed.
Now, the program -- and coaching staff -- face more question marks then at any point in recent memory. Back-to-back losing seasons will do that to you. Losing six starters on offense, including a senior starting quarterback, certainly doesn't help matters. As SB Nation's Bill Connelly wrote in his epic assessment of the state of Northwestern football, Pat Fitzgerald and his staff's job security could use a return to .500, but they probably don't need it. It's like deciding if you need that one extra cookie. Sure, it's not a necessity, but it sure would make things a whole lot better.
It's still premature to suggest that Fitzgerald is on the hot seat, but what if Fitz and co. aren't able to return to bowl eligibility? How terrible would Northwestern's season need to be to warrant at least preliminary discussions of a regime change?
It's hard to put a number on these things, because it's imperative to heavily weigh context when assessing a coach and the state of a program. Yes, Northwestern is coming off losing seasons and its next quarterback will likely be making his first start ever against Stanford. But Fitzgerald and his staff are bringing in better recruits than they have since recruiting rankings began, and many of Northwestern's best players (at least talent-wise) are still very young. Justin Jackson comes to mind, as do Clayton Thorson, Auston Anderson, Anthony Walker and Garrett Dickerson. Those guys committed to play football for Pat Fitzgerald and have yet to fulfill their potential. It is reasonable to assume that the powers that be (...Jim Phillips...) want to give those players a chance to develop before considering a change in leadership. That gives Fitzgerald a bit more leeway.
Another factor to consider when judging the success of a season are the expectations going into it. No one expects much from a team coming off a 5-7 season that will likely be led by a redshirt freshman quarterback. And the schedule next year is more difficult than last year's; the season opener against Stanford is a difficult proposition, as are road games against Duke, Michigan, Nebraska, and Wisconsin. Finishing 6-6 would be an accomplishment, perhaps even an overachievement. To do so with such an inexperienced team would spark excitement about what a Thorson- (or Alviti-) led Wildcat team could accomplish in coming years.
The last thing to weigh is just how well-liked-- and for good reason-- Fitzgerald is on campus and how well-respected he is in the college football community. It's worth remembering that Fitzgerald was one of the best players in Northwestern football's history, and to say that he bleeds purple is an understatement. He's led his program with class and integrity and is an excellent ambassador for the university. That goes much further at a school like Northwestern than it would at, say, Alabama. Yes, wins and losses are important, but they're not everything.
Fitzgerald also signed a contract that runs through 2020, so firing him any time soon would force Northwestern to pay two coaches. While my knowledge of economics is introductory at best, that doesn't seem economically preferable.
For all the reasons mentioned above, plus the simple fact that a coaching change almost always sets a program back at least a few years, Northwestern will look for any justification to keep Fitzgerald at the helm this year, next year, and in years to come. So no matter how poor the season, the chances of a Fitzgerald firing after 2015 are about as close to 0 as they could get.
With all that in mind, the number that I keep coming back to is 4. A 4-8 season would rightfully cause concern that the program is trending in the wrong direction. Northwestern hosts Ball St. and Eastern Illinois in the nonconference season, so a 4-8 record would likely be the result of a putrid 2-6 mark in Big Ten play. While Fitz would almost certainly keep his job, 4-8 would prompt significant changes to his staff -- embattled offensive coordinator Mick McCall might be the first to go -- and put a great deal of pressure on Fitzgerald to show marked improvement in 2016.