Mick McCall was not a good offensive coordinator.
At least, he hadn’t been for the past seven years. It’s tough for me to remember too much before that. As a 20-year-old somewhat lifelong Northwestern fan (I grew up in Chicago, my parents both went to D3 schools and only really cared about pro sports, and I liked the color purple, so I gravitated up north pretty quickly), I don’t remember much about the 2012 Gator Bowl season. I am even hazier on the years before that, with the exception of a few key players and plays.
The analytics, though, say that Northwestern’s offense hasn't been better than mediocre since he took over in 2008. Despite having some generational talents at his disposal, by Northwestern’s standards and any standards, a McCall-run unit cracked the top 50 in SP+ just twice, and never after 2011. Those numbers have gotten worse since 2014, with NU’s offense finishing worse than 90th (out of 128 or 130) in four out of the past six seasons and below 115th in two of them, including 2019.
If traditional stats are more your thing, well, McCall’s units have finished in the top 40 of the FBS in team yards per game just once in his 12 years, and have been outside of the top 100 in four of the last six, including both 2018 and 2019. Scoring offense? Once in the top 50, 94th or worse four of the last six years and twice in a row.
The offense didn’t pass the eye test either. Last season, Northwestern still ran the same spread offense that they did during McCall’s first few years with the team. The overall play-calling was questionable. Still, their zone running scheme, which most of college football hasn’t messed with too much, complete with a willingness to let QBs run, worked well when the offensive line was doing their part. It’s even better with somebody like Justin Jackson at RB.
The passing game, though, was significantly the worse for wear. Even with Clayton Thorson under center, Northwestern’s limited route tree, predictable situational passing play-calling, and reliance on counterintuitive concepts with a low hit rate (4-yard out routes to the far side of the field, sprint/roll-outs away from the QB’s throwing arm, etc.) didn’t look great. This season, without Thorson, things looked downright abysmal.
All of that is to say that Pat Fitzgerald made the right decision and waited too long to do it. Consistent readers of this blog or followers of Northwestern football certainly could have guessed that. It is, of course, understandable why the famously loyal Fitzgerald waited until now. The program was winning games consistently, appeared to be on an upwards trajectory, and the offensive struggles just never seemed to cost anybody much (except for fans’ hair) until this year.
Gratitude is due to McCall, a man who represented the program well, and, though you wouldn’t know it from fans’ reactions, was merely a below-average offensive coordinator during his time in Evanston. He was a part of plenty of winning teams, drew up the occasional great play (the Skowronek catch to seal the Big Ten West, for example), and made enough money to retire comfortably.
The main reason vitriol around his performance grew to the level it did was his longevity, rare to the point of unheard of for a coordinator in a Power 5 program with an output that was consistently mediocre or worse. The fact that he stuck around wasn’t his fault, but none of that matters anymore. The team, especially the offense, bottomed out, and the necessary move was made. Congratulations are also due to Fitz for that, at least.
Yet the focus now shifts to McCall’s successor. After all, Fitzgerald, a defensive coach to his bones, has only hired two offensive coordinators before, and Garrick McGee was only around for two years before he resigned, not long enough to judge his tenure. There are significant questions as to how effective Fitz can be when it comes to making decisions as to who will lead the offense forward.
Northwestern fans will be awaiting a new name with bated breath. But at this critical juncture, can Pat Fitzgerald capitalize on this chance? It will be Northwestern’s most important decision of the 2010s and will likely set up what happens in the 2020s.
The longtime Wildcat head coach is in unfamiliar territory. He hasn’t hired a coordinator of any kind since 2008, the year he brought in both McCall (to replace McGee) and defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz after the firing of DC Greg Colby (another move that fans had been agitating for).
Hankwitz, who was, interestingly enough, initially regarded by many as the weak link between those two moves, is 72, but he isn’t going anywhere. Consistently, Northwestern’s defense is among the best in both the Big Ten and the nation. Though they tailed off a bit this year, the Wildcats initially showed flashes of that dominance yet again.
Indeed, the defensive staff has hardly seen any change since 2008, and the moves Fitzgerald has made on that side of the ball have largely panned out. Esteemed defensive line coach Marty Long has been with him from the beginning, and his units continue to excel. After linebackers coach Randy Bates moved on to become the defensive coordinator at Pitt two years ago (where he has been phenomenal), Northwestern alum Tim McGarigle ably filled his shoes. Matt McPherson’s performance in place of the retired Jerry Brown with the DBs is a bit more suspect, but it is too early to call the move a failure.
Offensively, recent assistant hires have had successful early returns as well. The most questionable current position group, wide receivers (other than quarterbacks, handled by McCall), has seen Dennis Springer remain in charge for eight years.
But Kurt Anderson’s first offensive line, despite replacing three starters, was a solid improvement over 2018, and he is already recruiting like a madman. And Lou Ayeni, who has had to deal with more significant injuries and losses in two years than many position groups do in a decade, has found contributors at running back behind every nook and cranny. He’s turned true freshmen, former wide receivers, and even a defensive back into positive additions already.
Fitzgerald’s hires over the past five years have clearly impressed. But he is a different coach than he was the last time he brought in a new coordinator, and hiring a coordinator is vastly different than hiring a position coach.
In 2008, Fitz was entering his third year as the head man and was just 33 years of age, without a wealth of experience coaching at a Power 5 school. He went for experience, hiring two guys who had seen and done a lot more than he had. That worked. But a hire in 2019 requires a different outlook.
Fitzgerald is the veteran now, suddenly one of the longest-tenured coaches in the country. That means he can pick and choose. The aforementioned loyalty, which has perhaps caused him to keep coaches around a bit too long in the past, helps a lot here, as does a reputation for non-intrusion, especially when it comes to offensive play-calling.
And there are options out there. From currently unemployed guru Matt Canada to youngster Tommy Rees (two names who have been tossed around a lot by the national press already), there are plenty of other coaches or offensive coordinators at smaller schools with a track record of success who might be ready to make the jump. Fitz will have many resumés to sift through.
That’s not even touching on guys like Mike Kafka, or even Indiana offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer, each of whom seems unreachable, but both of whom, nonetheless, have been floated as candidates.
Fitzgerald has virtually nowhere to go but up offensively, but there is also not a whole lot of margin for error. Of course, after one bad season, his job is nowhere near on the line, but an unimpressive hire could cost him. If that famous loyalty rears its ugly head again, another few years of bad offense could start to really change the perception around this program.
One thing’s for sure: the answer to that question, positive or negative, will define the next five years of Northwestern football.