It’s easy to forget how much can change so quickly.
As many older readers are quick to remind us writers, young alumni, and younger NU fans, none of Northwestern Football’s recent success should be taken for granted.
After the resignation of coordinator Garrick McGee to become the Arkansas Quarterback coach in January 2008, the Wildcats needed to find someone to fit the dynamic spread offense they had employed since 2000.
Pat Fitzgerald, a then-inexperienced Wildcat head coach, made an ambitious appointment with Mick McCall, who had only one season’s worth of experience as an offensive coordinator. McCall’s transition from Bowling Green’s spread offense was smooth, and his schemes seemed to have a strong chance of success given the offensive weapons Northwestern had at the time.
And successful they were.
After missing bowl games in their previous two seasons, Fitz and the coordinators McCall led the 2008 Wildcats to a promising 9-4 record. While offensive production dipped, averaging only 358 yards/game, the unit’s ability to finish games marked a departure from the previous season’s squad.
In pre-McCall 2007, a horrific loss to Duke that kept Northwestern from a bowl game was the direct result of offensive mismanagement. Quarterback CJ Bacher threw four straight incomplete passes near the goal line while down six with 38 seconds to work with, handing the Blue Devils their first win in 22 games. An end of season drubbing from Illinois made it clear that the Wildcats still had progress to be made on the offensive side of the ball.
McCall’s impact was felt immediately. Before he took charge of Northwestern’s offense, the Wildcats had not won a bowl game since near the end of World War II. The 2008 season began a five year stretch of reaching bowl games, capped off with the Wildcats first bowl victory in the modern era — the 2013 Gator Bowl.
In addition to the bowl appearances, McCall’s impression was most immediately made in recruiting. While he was not, of course, fully responsible for the recruitment of all players, according to 247 Sports, between the recruiting class of 2011 (the class before McCall’s arrival) and the recruiting class of 2020 (McCall’s final recruiting class), the Wildcats improved their recruiting class ranking 28 spots nationally and by 0.0324 in average rating. McCall’s offensive recruiting ability was responsible for nine out of the 20 top-rated Northwestern football recruits in the ratings era.
McCall was also skilled at developing talent and finding diamonds in the rough, helping turn zero-star walk-on wide receiver Austin Carr into an NFL-level player. His first class, that of 2012, now includes two offensive players at the next level in Dan Vitale and Austin Carr, as well as offensive guard Ian Park playing in the Japanese X-League for the Lixil Deers.
Throughout his time at Northwestern, McCall wore two hats: the role of offensive coordinator and that of quarterbacks coach.
The Wildcat OC ushered four quarterbacks into the National Football League in some capacity: Mike Kafka, who was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in the fourth round in 2010, Kain Colter (who went undrafted but signed for the Vikings), Trevor Siemian (who currently plays for the Jets and has played for the Broncos previously), and most recently, Clayton Thorson who was drafted this past year in the fifth round by the Eagles.
On the field, McCall’s unit began his tenure with a bang.
His group first began to show its potency in 2009 with a comeback win from a 28-3 hole against Indiana at homecoming.
The offense only improved further entering the 2010 season, jumping seven spots in points per game from the previous season. McCall took full advantage of quarterback Dan Persa, whose dynamic rushing ability was well-suited to his spread offense, allowing his OC to successfully use his beloved speed option. Persa’s dual-threat nature (as shown below in the Wildcats victory over 13th-ranked Iowa) led a Northwestern offense that was fun to watch.
His offensive firepower reached an all-time high in the 2012 season, however, with the two-headed quarterback attack that balanced the dynamic rushing of Kain Colter with the power passing of Trevor Siemian. McCall loved to use the speed of Colter, who also spent significant time that season at wide receiver, in the QB run game. Northwestern had a program-high 704 yards of total offense against Indiana, which was the Wildcats fifth straight win to start the season.
While the McCall era may have ended on a more sour note, there is no denying the fact that the offense and program improved significantly under his stewardship.
Northwestern has long held the reputation for playing up against higher-rated or more talented competition, and that consistency in doing so started under McCall’s tenure. His contribution to the upward trajectory of the program, despite a difficult stretch to end his tenure, has helped cement the Wildcats as one of the stronger competitors in the Big Ten West over the past few seasons.
Aside from the jokes and #FireMcCall banter, it has to be acknowledged that the former coordinator has played an integral role in shaping the current identity of the Northwestern football program.
As the ‘Cats move forward without him into a new era, that legacy will remain.