EVANSTON — Most of the players have left the field after practice, and Pat Fitzgerald paces on the periphery of Ryan Fieldhouse, wasting no motion on turf so new it’s dusty. He picks up a ball of stray athletic tape he sees near the door, and promptly tosses it in the trash. He turns back for his post-practice media responsibility, the next of many engagements he has on this sunny April day.
On a day many deemed a celebration and a showcase for Northwestern’s freshly-minted lakeside athletics facility, Fitzgerald doesn’t bask in the glitz of the expansive, crisp field or the glimmer of the Lake Michigan waves outside the massive window panels. To Fitz, as he’s widely called around the same school he attended in the the 1990s, this building is just...a building. It’s one Northwestern badly needed, and he knows that. He can’t thank the donors, trustees and the University enough. He knows just how hard it was for this school to commit to this building.
But for Fitz’s football revolution to truly take place at Northwestern, for the smallest school in the Big Ten to pull its weight in a conference full of some of the nation’s tradition-filled goliaths, he needs more than just a beautiful building. He needs an army full of purple-wearing rabid fans, and he needs enough of them to turn Ryan Field, over a mile from the Evanston campus, into a feared stronghold.
“My hope is to move this needle as far as I possibly can with what I can do and what I can control in my role,” Fitzgerald said after speaking of Big Ten championships and consistent sellouts at Ryan Field. “There’s a lot of people that kinda need to come along with us. Am I being a little bold right now? Hell yeah, I am. That’s what my expectations are.”
“So I’d like to see people raise to mine at some point here. I’m hoping that’s going to happen because we gotta keep doing it. We’ve won 27 games over the last three years, that’s top 15 in the country. Our attendance isn’t top 15 in the country. Our atmosphere isn’t top 15 in the country. We gotta get our students to come out and let’s get this thing going. This is a together thing.”
His passion for gameday atmospheres and tradition-building is multifaceted and nuanced. On a practical level, better crowds and fan commitment will give the Wildcats juice on the field and potentially attract better recruits. Realistically, however, better crowds won’t drastically improve on-field results.
The real heart of Fitz’s challenge to fans is a hunger to cultivate football culture at his alma mater. At Northwestern, this is a tall, tall task.
NU has a history riddled with losing, having lost more games all-time than every school not named Indiana. The Wildcats hold the record for the longest losing streak in the history of Division I football with 34. The school, with a current enrollment of just over 8,100, is the smallest in the Big Ten by a significant margin. Because of stringent admissions standards and a mostly academics-first student body, the average Northwestern student does not care much for football. Most students are content to tailgate and skip the game, if they decide to plan their Saturday around football at all.
For the football program, tough academic standards mean Fitzgerald and his staff are limited in the players they can go after in recruiting. This doesn’t mean winning is impossible — Stanford manages to win at a high level with similar academic requirements, but Northwestern’s history as a football program is far worse.
Even Stanford, often dubbed the gold standard of what Northwestern could be, doesn’t have a notably strong football culture around the game. Fitzgerald doesn’t want to be Stanford, though. He wants to win like Stanford — with crowds like Nebraska.
“I’m looking forward to when we have 390-plus sellouts like the Sea of Red,” Fitz said. “We got a long way to go, man. This is just the beginning.”
“I am so fired up about where we need to go,” the coach continued, his voice rising and his cadence picking up. “I am going to challenge everybody that touches our program to step it up. Step it up. The University stepped it up. I think we’ve stepped it up on the field. We all now need to collectively step up the program. Quit bitchin’, quit belly-achin’, become part of the solution and let’s go. All of us. All of us collectively.”
Fitz has always been passionate. He frequently speaks of Big Ten titles and improving the Ryan Field experience. But rarely does the Northwestern grad swear in a media session or address fans like he did Saturday. This rant, if you want to call it that, must have been brewing. It was off the cuff, in response to a question about whether Ryan Fieldhouse changes the expectations for Northwestern football.
Fitz’s already-high expectations will not change, but he’s hoping — actually, demanding — that everyone else’s will. He wants students and fans to expect more of each other in their support for the program. The next jump for the program could very well be its most difficult: ascending from (usually) good to great. Ryan Fieldhouse should help Northwestern and its ardent head coach tremendously in the pursuit of this jump. But now, in an uncharacteristic, fiery plea, Fitz issued a call to arms. On-field success, in a vacuum, isn’t enough.
Fitz wants to make Northwestern into a football giant.