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Who deserves the blame? A look at who’s not cutting it, Part III: Pat Fitzgerald

Is the head coach to blame?

Illinois State v Northwestern Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Any time a team struggles, one of the first areas to examine is the coaching staff and the performance of each coach’s unit. Through two games, there have been ample struggles for Northwestern on both sides of the ball, and with that, there is a plenty of reason to call into question the performance of the coaching staff. Going coach-by-coach can help determine the root of the problems and perhaps answer the question regarding who belongs on the hot seat.

This is part three of a three-part series. Offensive coaches were discussed Tuesday, defensive coaches Wednesday. We now turn our head to the man in charge: Pat Fitzgerald.

Let me start this off by saying Pat Fitzgerald’s job security is absolutely safe. It’s not close. After back-to-back seasons of 5-7, we analyzed how few wins it would take for him to be fired. Negative one was a common answer. Is he too comfortable? Maybe. Until Pat Fitzgerald actually leaves Northwestern, there’s no way to really say that he is or ever will be on the hot seat.

But just because you’re not on the hot seat doesn’t mean that you’re not responsible when your team is struggling. Fitzgerald has made several mistakes in the first two games of the season, but he’s owned up to his errors.

One of those was against Illinois State, when Fitzgerald acknowledged his clock mismanagement that allowed Illinois State to kick the field goal to win with no time left. It was horrible clock management. The odds of Northwestern winning the game went from very small if ISU makes the kick to impossible if ISU makes the kick.

Fitzgerald also took responsibility for small margins of defeat, saying it was his inability to get Northwestern to play its best football when it needed to.

“When we don’t finish, that’s on me as a coach,” Fitzgerald said after the Week 1 loss to Western Michigan. “When you play as poorly as we did, the football gods go against you. We got what we deserved.”

It’s strange to see Fitzgerald’s bunch losing close games, because as a head coach, he has been outstanding in that department. From a Bill Connelly article that I analyzed this offseason:

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.

And then my findings, disproving it:

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.

Zach Pereles

Whether you want to argue it was luck or simply timeliness and clutch play, Northwestern out-performed the advanced stats, winning 10 games despite a second-order win expectancy of 7.2. And that pattern, as both my article and Connelly’s explained, is what has made Fitzgerald so special.

That trend has completely reversed itself through two games. Northwestern had the greatest difference between second-order wins and actual wins last year, absolute-value speaking, at |2.8|, and this year it has the largest at 0.9. Essentially, advanced states say the Wildcats should have one win right now. Instead, they’re 0-2. No team has a worse stat. That’s alarming considering just how good Fitzgerald has been, but it also might just be regression to the mean. In the only two years Pat Fitzgerald went under .500 in single-possession games, 2013 and 2014, the team disappointed en-route to 5-7 records. Right now, though, 5-7 is a pipe dream to many.

Is it Fitzgerald’s fault the team has completely reversed from what it did last year? If we laud him for his success, can’t we criticize him for his failures?

When it comes down to it, Northwestern hasn’t played its best football—not even close—but is also mere minutes from being 2-0. Yes it would be an ugly 2-0. Yes, it would be a concerning 2-0. But it would be worlds away from 0-2.

The biggest measure of Fitzgerald’s coaching prowess will be revealed in the weeks to come. This is the most disastrous on-field start that he’s been a part of since he took over in Evanston. Fitzgerald has emphasized to both the media and his players that he still believes in his team. He has said all the right things about “being accountable” and “making a choice” about what type of team this is going to be. He’s saying all the right things, and he has an opportunity to put a nightmarish start behind him somewhat with a win over Duke. As clichéd as it is, this could truly be the week that makes or breaks Northwestern’s season.

The team needs its head coach and iconic face of the program to step up just as much as it needs its players to.