clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

COLUMN: Northwestern's entire coaching staff returns for sixth straight year. And that's not very common. Nor very good.

New, 28 comments
Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

A couple of weeks ago, CoachingSearch.com published an article detailing how Northwestern is the only program in the country to return its entire coaching staff for a sixth straight year. Kansas State, led by the legendary Bill Snyder, is the only other program to return all nine of its assistants for at least a third consecutive year.

"Every head coach wants staff continuity," the article reads. Northwestern's feat is becoming significantly more difficult, with coaching turnover increasing seemingly every year. The metaphorical leash has gotten shorter as more and more assistants are deemed qualified for head coaching positions or considered not deserving of their jobs.

The nine Northwestern coaches coming back for a sixth consecutive season, Pat Fitzgerald (head coach), Mick McCall (offensive coordinator / quarterbacks), Mike Hankwitz (defensive coordinator), Matt MacPherson (running backs), Bob Heffner (superbacks), Dennis Springer (wide receivers), Adam Cushing (offensive line), Marty Long (defensive line), Randy Bates (linebackers), and Jerry Brown (defensive backs / assistant head coach), represent both the good and bad of Northwestern football.

Yes, continuity on the coaching staff can be a good thing. It means that Pat Fitzgerald is doing his job under the watchful eyes of the Northwestern community and Athletic Director Jim Phillips, although the head coach could do no wrong to many Wildcat fans. It means that potential recruits can visit Evanston and confidently meet with the coaches they will play under for the next four years. It means that the systems stay the same, and players get to grow under the tutelage of the same core of coaches. How could this be a bad thing?

Well, when Northwestern has consecutive 5-7 seasons and misses out on the postseason play, perhaps changes should be made. When your offense is 120th among 128 FBS teams in passing (and 116th overall), maybe something should be done. And when you fail to develop recruits to their fullest abilities, would a coaching switch be inconceivable?

The significance of Northwestern's coaching continuity is due to the team's performance. Following the 2015 season, there were 27 head coaching vacancies. Sixteen were filled by assistant coaches. Coordinators at elite programs take head coaching opportunities; Alabama's Kirby Smart went to Georgia, Michigan's DJ Durkin went to Maryland, and Ohio State's Chris Ash went to Rutgers. It's hard to imagine Northwestern's assistants have received similar offers.

This stability has come to define Northwestern football. Stability can be negative, like when you have been entrenched in the bottom third of the FBS since 2011. And I suppose you could call Northwestern's offense stable because of how predictable it has become, or that player development has plateaued into a stable state of mediocrity.

Most of my chagrin — and that of the fanbase — is focused on the offensive side of the ball, since Mike Hankwitz is an absolute wizard, and the rest of the defensive staff have turned what used to be a liability into a huge strength. I wouldn't be surprised if Hankwitz had received calls regarding coaching opportunities this past offseason. But he's nearly 70 years old; it's hard to imagine that he would've headed anywhere else. In fact, the bigger issue — a long-term focus — might be grooming his successor for when he retires.

The offense, however, is a different story, and it starts with offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mick McCall. I'm all for second chances, but McCall has had plenty of opportunities to show improvement. The play-calling is poor (remember when he called a reverse to the short side of the field in the redzone at Wisconsin?) and/or predictable, and the player development has been laughable. It's hard to see highly-touted recruits like Matt Alviti buried in the depth chart, and as Trevor Siemien battles for the Denver Broncos' starting job, it's safe to say that McCall didn't get the most out of that quarterback, either.

Of course the offenses' struggles aren't all McCall's fault; the offensive line and wide receivers have also been major weaknesses for Northwestern. The offensive line has lost Northwestern games, and Adam Cushing deserves some blame for struggling to develop and get the most out of his players.

The wide receiver corps might be even worse. Scratch that. It's definitely worse. They've been awful the past two year and Dennis Springer has very little success to show for his tenure at Northwestern. The wide receivers were so poor last year that teams decided to isolate their corners and play them one-on-one so they could bring safeties into the box, thus hurting the entire offense.

Now, some of the struggles fall on the players. There's only so much McCall, Cushing, and Springer can teach, while the rest comes down to execution and skill. Still, the execution and skill are things coaches are supposed to help their players improve. The lack of success by coaches, players, and the system that is run are all intertwined. It's hard to definitively pinpoint one of those factors as the only source of the problem, but we can confidently conclude that a change should likely have happened.

"We've made some tweaks, but I didn't feel like the personnel on our staff was the issue," Fitzgerald told Coaching Search. "Could we coach better? Yeah, absolutely. Could we play better? Yeah, absolutely. The teaching and the coaching and camaraderie with the players wasn't the issue. We just had to get better performance and be consistent."

Fitzgerald's desire to keep his staff for yet another go-round is questionable at best. College football is a business. People are hired and fired just like at any other company. Fitzgerald clings to stability and consistency in the face of underperformance; that has always been his prerogative and it is ultimately his decision.

But at some point, better performance is absolutely necessary. There are no excuses in the upcoming season.