Wednesday was the first day of the NCAA’s new early signing period for football, and Northwestern wasted no time taking advantage of the opportunity to officially sign the vast majority of its 2018 class. Pat Fitzgerald and the Wildcats received National Letters of Intent from 16 scholarship players and two preferred walk-ons in the morning. Shortly after, Inside NU talked to Fitz about the day, his busy December, the 2018 class, and more.
Inside NU: You’ve said before that this early signing period is something you like. What do you like about it?
Pat Fitzgerald: Well, I think this is the only year that it’ll be called early signing. I think after this it’ll be called the first signing. It’s great for young men and their families; our class, 15 out of 16 have been verbally committed for a long time, so to allow them to get this process completed and move forward before the holiday season really gets into flux, I think it’s great for them individually. I think for us as a program, it gives us a really good understanding of where we’re at as we move forward, you know with potentially a couple more spots, where we want to go and exactly what our needs may be. I think it’s a win-win for everybody and really happy we moved on from the antiquated way we were doing it in the past. It’s just the first step, we’ll obviously discuss new options and new opportunities after today, but I think it was a good first step.
Do you anticipate that you’re regularly going to sign the majority of your class on this day? What will the February date be used for?
If we do have scholarships available, we would use the February date, absolutely. Like I said, I don’t think this will be referred to after this year as the early signing day, I think this will be known as the signing day. As we’ll see as the numbers flush out, an overwhelming majority of kids are going to sign today. This won’t be known as early, it’ll be the norm, which I think is a good thing.
I know you told Teddy Greenstein that you don’t necessarily think there should be a designated period at all. Can you take me through your potential idea to replace that system and why you think it would work?
Well, it’s not an original idea, it started — I remember sitting in meetings with the Big Ten and Bo Pelini kinda floated the idea of ‘why do we need a signing day?’ There’s a part of me that agrees with it. If we offer a kid a scholarship, there should be a website somewhere where we just click we’ve offered you, there’s a 48-hour cooling off period, and then you get a window, how ever long it is, to decide if you’re gonna sign there or not. There’s obviously going to be checks and balances, I mean when we run out of scholarships at that position, we obviously gotta go and click that that prospect no longer has an offer, so there’s transparency in the offers, there’s credibility instead of having nine, soon-to-be ten assistant coaches operating as independent contractors, offering whoever they want to offer a scholarship to even though the kid can’t commit, and then there’s gotta be a flexibility there if there’s a head coaching change to allow the young person to get out of that NLI like there is right now. Like I said, 15 out of 16 of these kids we signed today verbally committed before their senior years. Just because of a rule, they can’t sign, even though they had already wrapped up recruiting. Trying to find as much transparency — there’s going to be pressure in the decision no matter what, it’s part of the deal anytime you make a decision of this magnitude, but at least mitigate it where you put more responsibility and accountability on the schools — instead of just making a verbal offer, you gotta make a formal offer — and then give the kids the flexibility to sign when they’re ready. But that’s pretty extreme for a lot of people, I get that, and that’s just an idea. I’d love to sit down and talk about those different things and look at it from every angle and get different people’s perspectives, becuase for so many years people fought this December 20 signing date and like I said, I’m sure in three days you guys in the media will have the numbers and you’ll say, ‘yeah, they’re exactly right, an overwhelming majority of the classes are full.’
Has your schedule this time of year been any different this year with the changes, as far as balancing bowl prep and recruiting stuff, or has it been kind of the same as always?
Oh yeah, it was very busy. The balancing of bowl prep is what it is, we have a plan and we didn’t have to tweak that plan at all from a preparation standpoint. But for my travel, yeah, I was in basically three cities a day for two and a half, almost three weeks. But that’s what I should be doing. I should be out recruiting. I think the flexibility now of being able to put the 16 guys that were committed to now being signed, there’s no longer the babysitting, so to speak, that needs to happen in January. Our strength coaches are working with the guys getting here soon, the guys that are going to report early, we’ll be rocking and rolling with them in a couple weeks. And then the other 11 guys, around their winter and spring sports, we’ll be talking about what they should be doing workout-wise, with nutrition and rest and all that, so I think it’s all really positive.
As far as this class goes, with the players you’ve signed, what stands out to you the most?
We obviously have to get better up front on both sides of the ball for us to win a Big Ten Championship, and I think that we’ve added to that competitive depth on both sides. I like the size, speed, toughness, physicality, of all the guys that we signed up front. I look forward to those guys coming into compete at two groups that I think are both improving. Adding another very competitive class is very encouraging to me.
How important is it to you that you were able to get five well-regarded guys from the state of Illinois in this class?
We’re gonna always start and end our recruiting here in Chicago. You’ve heard me say that a bunch, that’s the way we’re always going to operate. And we’re looking for a specific fit for our program, obviously the academics are a big hurdle, the on-the-field fit, these guys gotta come in here and help us try to compete for a championship. I mean, we’re not a rebuild, this is a program that has been built over time. And then, you know, the characters, the guys have gotta fit what we’re looking for and that’s the glue that keeps it all together. Unfortunately, every year we can’t keep every kid here in Chicago that way, so we just try to do the best job we can. I’m grateful for the job our players have done, hosting our unofficial and official visitors, and our recruiting staff with Chris Bowers and Mike Jazinski and our assistant coaches, those guys always do a great job.
The recent news was that you were able to land Drake Anderson, also have Isaiah Bowser in the class, how exciting is the depth you’re building at running back to replace Justin Jackson?
Well I don’t know if anybody can replace JJ, he’s a once-in-a-coaching-lifetime player. Again, adding depth to a position where you always need to have depth is critically important. We graduate a couple guys, Auston (Anderson) and Corey (Acker) and Justin, so to add depth to that position was really important to us. To add Isaiah early and Drake here late, I think we’ve been able to accomplish that.