Northwestern football greatly exceeded expectations in 2015, winning 10 regular season games for the third time in school history. It was a very successful year for the program, which has broken ground on a state-of-the-art indoor facility and put together a few good recruiting classes in a row.
On the surface, it makes sense that Pat Fitzgerald, at his National Signing Day press conference last week, confirmed that his entire coaching staff will be back next season.
This means embattled offensive coordinator Mick McCall will lead Northwestern's offense for a ninth consecutive season. In 2015, McCall saw his unit post an anemic offensive S&P+ of 21.0, which was good (bad?) for 111th out of 128 FBS teams. (A more detailed explanation of the statistic can be found here). Specifically, the passing offense — headed by McCall, who is also the quarterbacks coach — was terrible, averaging just 138.5 yards per game. That's the ninth-worst mark in the country.
McCall came to Northwestern from Bowling Green in January 2008. A day later, Wisconsin defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz joined McCall in Evanston. Since then, the Wildcats have reached six bowl games in eight seasons.
Such continuity between a head coach and his coordinators at a Power Five school is almost unheard of, especially in the Big Ten. In fact, the only two schools in the entire FBS with a longer-tenured head coach/coordinator battery are Utah and Ohio. Both edge out the Wildcats' trio of Fitzgerald, McCall and Hankwitz by around a year.
There are many benefits to having such long-lasting coaching stability. Recruits want to know that the coaches who visit them at home and sell the program to them are as committed to it as they are. They want to know the coach they're supposed to build a relationship with won't bolt for another college or NFL job during their four years in school. It also helps to have a defined offensive and defensive system in place with coaches who have been running said system for years.
There's a reason so few FBS schools have kept the same head coach and coordinators for so long though. Top football schools — the Alabamas, Ohio States and Oregons of the country — constantly have their assistant coaches poached by other schools or NFL teams. Lesser programs are also regularly forced to bring in new position coaches and coordinators, often from within, when successful ones jump at more prestigious jobs.
Northwestern hasn't had to deal with much of that during Pat Fitzgerald's tenure. NFL teams are not clamoring to bring in Hankwitz and his consistently productive defensive system. While assistants at most schools are regularly changing jobs every few years, those at Northwestern are staying put. Guys like linebackers coach Randy Bates and defensive backs coach Jerry Brown, for example, have been with the program for 11 and 24 seasons respectively. Both guys coach high-performing defensive units for the Wildcats and seem to be more than qualified to assume bigger roles at other schools. That's what happens at other Big Ten and Power Five schools. Top assistants leave. It doesn't happen at Northwestern.
It's hard to pinpoint exactly why that doesn't take place in Evanston. One plausible explanation is that the assistants are in fact coveted, but choose to stay. However, that's extremely rare in the coaching profession if a coordinator title is offered to a position coach.
Another plausible explanation is that Northwestern just isn't developing the innovative coaching talent that warrants interest from around the country. Programs pay a lot of money to guys like D.J. Durkin and Tom Herman because of the stellar jobs they've done at their old schools. Guys like that don't come from Northwestern.
An interesting third plausible explanation is that this is by Fitzgerald's design. Is it possible that he goes after assistants with lesser upside who he knows will stay with the program for a long time? It definitely seems logical, and perhaps it's this caution and risk-averse behavior that prevents the program from acquiring top-notch coaching talent.
How does that pertain to Fitzgerald's willingness to stick with underperforming assistants? Because it's that same caution and risk-averse behavior — which also could be termed loyalty, or comfort — that prevent Fitzgerald from making a change. His decision to retain McCall and other offensive position coaches is grounded in a fear of losing the continuity and familiarity that are currently in place.
That's an issue, and it could be part of what prevents Northwestern from stepping further forward as a program. The coaches currently working under Fitzgerald, at least on the defensive end, are getting the job done. Some are doing significantly more than that. But the current upward trajectory of the program can only carry it so far. What Northwestern needs to take the next step are assistant coaches who excel, so much so that they catch the eyes of other schools. Some continuity might need to be sacrificed along the way.
While it would be crass, and even irrational, to make wholesale staff changes after an incredibly successful season, maybe for this program to take the next step, it has to change the way it operates. It's difficult to do that after a 10-win season. But it's okay, and often necessary, to appreciate and build upon success while also striving for change and improvement in areas of failure. Even after multiple down years for the offense, Fitzgerald and Northwestern seemingly haven't done that, and their tendency to cling to the status quo could come back to haunt them.