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Pat Fitzgerald is one of the clutchest, most overachieving coaches in America

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Entering his second decade as the head coach at Northwestern, Pat Fitzgerald has grown leaps and bounds in his in-game management, improved his recruiting ability and turned Northwestern into a program that is a perennial bowl contender. In six of the last eight years, his Wildcats have gone bowling, and two of his past four teams have hit double-digit wins on the season. He has given the smallest school (and the only private one) in the Big Ten a relatively consistent football program.

Yet when asked to list the "best coaches in America," most people will not name Pat Fitzgerald. You'll almost undoubtedly hear Nick Saban, who has built a dynasty at Alabama. Maybe Urban Meyer, Mark Dantonio and Jim Harbaugh come to mind if the conversation takes place in Big Ten country. But not Pat Fitzgerald.

What you can’t deny, however, is Pat Fitzgerald’s ability to get his teams to overachieve. It can be a somewhat subjective term, especially when discussing coaches, but recently, Bill Connelly was able to quantify which coaches overachieve best using second order wins, or the sum of individual win expectancies over the course of a season. Henry Bushnell explained it last year when discussing Northwestern’s 2015 season:

One of the statistics S&P+ generates is win expectancy — the likelihood, based on all the individual plays that a team ran in a given game, that one team will win... Win expectancies can then be used to calculate a season win expectancy, or second-order wins total. The second-order wins differential is simply the difference between a team's second-order wins total and its actual win total.

In the 2015 season, Northwestern finished 10-3, but also had just 7.2 second-order wins. Essentially, the team won 2.8 more games than would was expected to win using solely advanced stats measuring how the team performed on each individual play and the team it was playing. Since 2005, of the 1344 teams Connelly has stats on, only 15 have achieved 2.5 second order wins or more.

So what Connelly did to compute "overachieving" was rank coaches based on their expected wins differential average per year over their careers at their school; the coach has to have coached at least four years since 2005. Fitzgerald places within the top 10.

For a complete ranking, go here.
Bill Connelly

Of course, measuring overachievement, even with advanced stats, is an imperfect science, as Connelly explains.

Since I'm previewing Big Ten teams right now, I found the standing of Fitzgerald (plus-0.8 wins per year, seventh overall) and Indiana's Kevin Wilson (minus-1.0 per year, second-worst overall) particularly interesting. Fitzgerald is now 34-21 in one-possession finishes in his career, and while a lot of those wins were of the "letting an inferior team hang around for a while, then eking out a W" variety, Fitz remains a source of fascination. He was a ridiculous 26-13 in such finishes in his first seven years at NU, then skewed the other way: 3-8 in 2013-14. But 2015 was a master class in keeping games close and making one extra play. Despite a sub-50 S&P+ ranking, NU went 10-3 because of a 5-0 record in one-possession finishes.

Finishing as far above win expectation as Northwestern did in 2015 was almost certainly a fluke. But Fitz manages to pull off a surprisingly high result more often than not.

(For Connelly’s excellent 2016 Northwestern preview, go here.)

Additionally, as Connelly notes, overachieving alone does not necessarily make a coach "good" or "bad." For example, Saban ranks similarly to former Tulsa and Louisville head man Steve Kragthorpe, who compiled a 32-30 overall record after 2005, when Connelly began studying such a stat.

But in this sense of the word, Fitzgerald has consistently been able to get his teams to win more often than advanced stats say they should over his career. The 5-0 record in one-possession games in 2015 was a feat not likely to be replicated any time soon. Look at his history in close games. You'll see that he succeeds at an exceptionally high rate in close games, but never at a rate such as the one he managed last season.

Year Wins in one-poss. games Losses in one-poss. games Record in one-poss. games
2006 E. Mich Mich. St. 1-1
2007 Nevada, Mich. St., Minn., Ind. Duke 4-1
2008 Duke, Ohio, Iowa, Minn., Mich. Ind., Mizz. (Alamo Bowl) 5-2
2009 E. Mich., PUR, Ind., Iowa, Ill., Wisc. Cuse, Auburn (Outback Bowl) 6-2
2010 Vandy, C. Mich., Minn., Ind., Iowa PUR, Mich. St., Tx. Tech (TicketCity Bowl) 5-3
2011 BC, Neb. Army, Il 2-2
2012 Cuse, Minn., Mich. St. Neb., Mich. 3-2
2013 Ill. Minn., Iowa, Neb., Mich. 1-4
2014 Wisc., ND Cal., NIU, Minn., Mich. 2-4
2015 Ball St., Neb. PSU, Purdue, Wisc. -- 5-0

The success in 2015 was unprecedented; although Northwestern has won at least five one-possession games in a single season four times in the last decade, the program had never gone unscathed in such a season under Fitzgerald until 2015. Additionally, it's worth mentioning that the only two years in which Fitzgerald's record was under .500 in one-possession games were the only two seasons since 2008 in which the Wildcats failed to make a bowl game.

In 2015, it became inherently obvious that the divide between Northwestern and the college football elite was a major one, yet the Wildcats were able to win 10 games, and there's something to be said for that when it comes to Fitzgerald's overall ability.

It is also important, however, to gauge how Fitzgerald wins these close games. Does he let bad teams hang around, helping boost his one-possession record, as Connelly suggests above? Going over every one-possession game from his tenure at Northwestern, it appears this is not the case.

Opponent Q4 comeback NU Q4 comeback One-poss. game at start of Q4
NU Wins E. Mich. (2009), Ill. (2009), C. Mich (2010), Wisc. (2014) Ind (2009), Iowa (2010) E. Mich. (2006), Nevada (2007), Mich. St. (2007), Minn. (2007), Ind (2007), Duke (2008), Ohio (2008), Iowa (2008), Minn. (2008), Mich. (2008), Purdue (2009), Iowa (2009), Wisc. (2009), Vandy (2010), Minn. (2010) Ind (2010), BC (2011), Neb. (2011), Cuse (2012), Minn. (2012), Mich. St. (2012), Ill. (2013), ND (2014), Ball St. (2015), Neb. (2015), Penn St. (2015), Purdue (2015), Wisc. (2015)
NU Losses Mich. St (2006), Mich. St. (2010), Ill. (2011) Duke (2007), Tx. Tech (2010), Cal (2014) Ind (2008), Mizz. (2008), Cuse (2009), Auburn (2009), Purdue (2010), Army (2011), Neb. (2012), Mich. (2012), Minn. (2013), Iowa (2013), Neb. (2013), Mich. (2013), NIU (2014), Minn. (2014), Mich. (2014)
Record 4-3 2-3 28-15

A few notes on the chart above:

  1. A comeback is classified as a game in which one team entered the fourth quarter down by more than one possession. The intersection of "NU wins" and "Opponent Q4 comeback" would indicate that Fitzgerald let a team hang around in the fourth and cut the Northwestern lead to a single possession in the final quarter, but still escaped with a one-possession win. Of his 34 one-possession wins, Fitzgerald has just four of this nature.
  2. For simplification purposes, all games that went to overtime were deemed "One-poss. game at start of Q4."
  3. All games are classified under which the year the majority of the season took place. So the 2010 bowl loss to Texas Tech, which took place on New Year's Day, 2011, is classified as 2010.

Fitzgerald's ability to win close games that are close throughout the fourth quarter is on an elite level. As Connelly writes about his findings:

It certainly seems to drop some heavy hints regarding those who are particularly good or bad at pulling out close games. Don't mess with Pat Fitzgerald...

In the past 10 years, only six coaches have been better at squeezing wins out of, comparatively speaking, the ability of their teams. In 2016, Northwestern has eight games in which its win expectancy is between 35 and 65 percent. These games will determine how successful of a season Northwestern has, and having Fitzgerald on the sideline is a huge, huge help.

Under Fitzgerald, Northwestern has been exceptional at winning toss-up games, games in which his team was, on balance, outplayed, and games against teams that were better in general, but weren't for one Saturday. And that's where the coaching prowess of Pat Fitzgerald is shown: getting the most out of his players, especially in crunch time, on one of the most consistent bases in the nation.