When many of the current Wildcats’ parents were still in diapers, a 22-year-old Mike Hankwitz prepared to take the field at Michigan Stadium for his first collegiate football game as a coach. Decades before the stadium was dubbed ‘The Big House,’ the recent Michigan graduate, who had earned his bachelor’s degree in education just months before, was hired as a graduate assistant under the legendary Bo Schembechler to coach his alma mater in the 1970 season.
The Wolverines took down the Arizona Wildcats 20-9 that September day 50 years ago, as the coaching prodigy earned his first of what would be hundreds of wins to come. The post-grad gig at U of M was the start of decades of coaching success for Hankwitz, as thousands of players and young coaches have learned from the defensive legend throughout his vibrant career.
Fifty-one seasons and nine schools later, the now-73-year-old Northwestern defensive coordinator finds himself with a 399-205-7 record, one win away from 400. The 2020 Broyles Award semi-finalist for the top assistant coach in the country leads a defense that ranks second in the nation in efficiency and is set to play in its second Big Ten title game in his tenure.
Long before he set foot in Evanston, Hankwitz left his mark on numerous other programs. After spending three years under Schembechler, he went on to coach at Arizona, Purdue, Western Michigan, Colorado, Kansas, Texas A&M, Wisconsin and Northwestern, serving as the defensive coordinator at all but Purdue.
Throughout his coaching career, Hankwitz has built up quite the resume. He’s served under four Hall of Fame coaches — Schembechler, Jim Young, Bill McCartney and R.C. Slocum — won 11 conference titles; coached in 32 bowl games, including every major New Year’s Day bowl; coached 14 top-25 defenses; won 38 games against ranked programs and twice against the No. 1 team in the nation; developed 14 first-team All-Americans and won a national title in 1990 at Colorado.
“The greatest asset in football is experience,” said senior linebacker Chris Bergin. “He’s forgotten more about football than anyone on our team knows. The value of knowledge he brings to the team is so special and so rare and something that we’ll carry with us for the rest of our lives.”
After an already full career, Hankwitz joined the Northwestern staff under Pat Fitzgerald in 2008 as the new Wildcat defensive coordinator. He was already acquainted with the Northwestern system since he worked alongside former NU coach Gary Barnett at Colorado in the late ‘80s and early 2000s.
“When I decided to make a change a number of years ago and found out he was available, the first guy I called was Gary Barnett,” Fitzgerald said. “I just said, ‘You’ve got to do everything you can. I gave you an opportunity to go to the Rose Bowl, Gary, so you’ve got to help me get the opportunity to get Hank.’ He said, ‘Sounds fair to me,’ and he did a great job helping me.”
As soon as he arrived on campus, Hankwitz made a noticeable impact. In his first season, NU featured the fifth-most improved defense in the nation, allowing just 20.2 points per game after sacrificing 31 on average the year before. The 2008 defense also ranked top-30 nationally in sacks (18th), pass efficiency defense (25th) and tackles for loss (28th). In the 13 years since, he’s been responsible for training some of the best players and defensive units in program history
“His ability to consistently coach at a high level speaks for itself,” former Wildcat defensive lineman Jordan Thompson said. “If you can do anything for 50 years, you have to love it and be good at it.”
In his 1954 autobiography “This Was Football,” W.W. “Pudge” Heffelfinger, the first professional American football player, wrote that he’d “love to live another sixty years, just to see what’s around the corner for college football.” While Heffelfinger died soon after writing his book and wasn’t able to see how the game changed, Hankwitz has remained front and center to not only watch the game develop but to be a part of that change.
Throughout his 50 years, the game has gotten bigger, faster and stronger. When he first started in the ‘70s, coaches were larger than life, and the Big Ten’s best teams were always captained by Schembechler or Ohio State’s Woody Hayes. He witnessed the formation of the Bowl Championship Series in 1998 and the College Football Playoff in 2014. Decades later, the talent among amateur players has surpassed that of professional players from when he started, and he’s had to work every day in his job to keep up with the ever-changing sport.
“I never think about 51 years or that it goes back to 1970,” Hankwitz said. “That’s part of the fun, the way the game has changed. Offenses. Defenses. When I first started, we had 120 guys on scholarship. Then it went to 105. Then it went to 95. Then it went to 85. I’ve had to make adjustments all along. And then to see the evolution of offenses. When it started, it was the I-Formation and the wishbone. And then it went to 11 personnel, three wide receivers, a tight end and went to the spread. Then a running quarterback. It’s been a fun challenge in coaching to stay ahead of the game and keep adjusting, keep adapting to the innovations. That’s part of the fun of it, obviously.”
Beyond the changes within the game, he’s worked with players and coaches spanning multiple generations, some decades younger than his own child, and still managed to stay not only relevant but incredibly respected.
“You wouldn’t think someone in their 70s would be able to relate to players like he can,” said Nate Hall, former Northwestern and current Houston Texans linebacker. “I think that goes with him adapting to the game. He’s been in the game a long time. He’s adapted his defenses and been able to level with everybody — the coaches he’s worked with, the players, just everybody in the organization — and that takes a special type of person and a special type of leader to be able to do that.”
However, his current and former players noted that his ability to relate to them extends far beyond football, as he’s actively worked to understand them both on and off the field, despite their age and generational differences.
Thompson said he and his teammates always loved when Hank attempted to use the slang that the players would use around the practice facilities. When the players asked him where he learned the lingo, he would say, “Well, I’m around you guys a lot.”
Football has been a consistency throughout Hankwitz’s life since he entered the workforce, but his open-mindedness and willingness to transform — not only to run a more skilled defense but to garner such respect and appreciation from players — has allowed for continued success.
“He’s one of those guys who isn’t afraid of change and understanding different eras,” said Montre Hartage, New York Giants safety who played under Hankwitz from 2015-2018. “He grew to understand us because he wanted to make everything work. You have a guy who doesn’t sacrifice his persona in order to make the team better. He’s actually flexible with that and grows to learn players. He’s all about adapting.”
The hallmark of Northwestern’s defense has been fundamentals and discipline, values that Fitz and Hankwitz both preach to their team through their old-school teaching philosophies and embodied as players. Earlier this season, when asked about NU’s defensive prowess, former Ohio State coach Urban Meyer called Hankwitz the “doctor of fundamentals.”
“Coach Hank’s an old-school guy,” Northwestern linebacker Paddy Fisher said. “He’s a very fundamentally sound and technique-oriented DC. It’s just crazy to see the stuff that he comes up with and the plays that he calls. He is very well calculated and very precise with all his calls. I wouldn’t want to play for anybody else.”
The Wildcats have never been known for their flashy play under Pat Fitzgerald, but their attention to detail, precision and consistency has quietly allowed them to post some of the best defensive stat lines in the nation, despite not having the same firepower personnel their opponents might. Even during NU’s 3-9 campaign, the worst season by win-loss record in Hank’s Evanston tenure, the defense still finished 26th in total defense and 27th in efficiency nationwide.
“With a team that isn’t a bunch of five stars or a bunch of guys that aren’t the biggest, fastest and strongest, we pride ourselves on fundamental, technique and sound football, and that’s something we emphasize so much and work on tirelessly,” Bergin said. “Coach Hank’s ability to develop players and how he game plans for other teams schematically, the combination of those two things has led him to be the best defensive coordinator in the history of our game.”
Bergin was a walk-on himself, and under Hankwitz’s system has grown into one of the team’s most important defensive weapons, ranking seventh in the Big Ten in total tackles this season. Blake Gallagher and Fisher, who were both three-star recruits, join Bergin as three of the conference’s top seven tacklers, and the latter likely prepares to begin his NFL career in a matter of months. Hankwitz most recently helped develop Brandon Joseph, another three-star, into the nation’s leader in interceptions as a redshirt freshman and turned a two-star Hartage into an NFL-rostered defensive back.
That on-field emphasis of fundamentals and consistency instills certain values in Hankwitz’s players, which many former Wildcats claim they’ve carried with them since leaving the program.
“I think the biggest thing is discipline,” Hall said. “That’s one quality that I took away from Coach Hank in my professional playing career and in my personal life. There’s a certain level of discipline that’s required to play football, and if you can carry that discipline with you throughout life, I think you’ll be well off.”
Despite his incredible focus in games and the stoic demeanor he displays, the players’ fondest memories with their defensive coordinator have been when his energetic and playful side shines.
“They always say coaching keeps you young,” Thompson said. “However old Coach Hank gets, he’ll always be a kid at heart.”
For someone who preaches discipline on the field, Hankwitz shows a different personality off it with his players and always provides comedic relief. His spirit and physical ability have defied his age for years, his players said, as he insists on demonstrating drills in practice even into his early 70s.
Hall said he always loved how Hankwitz would dress up for Halloween. Hartage remembered a time when they were in a serious meeting, and Hank jumped out from a closet in which he was hiding and screamed, before immediately leaving the room with no explanation. Gallagher recalled a time when he modeled a throwback uniform reveal, and the entire team busted out laughing to see their coordinator squeeze into a jersey he probably hadn’t worn for half a century.
Many college football programs released their uniforms today that will celebrate the 150th anniversary of college football. Best reveal? Northwestern. Guy modeling the faux retro is the Wildcats 71-year-old defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz pic.twitter.com/9RXGrvILps— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) August 14, 2019
For such a strategic mind, he’s certainly had his fair share of fun in his career, said his players, and has forged such relationships with them as a result. But beyond the laughs and on-field success, Fitz and the players said it’s his humility and caring nature that makes him such a joy to work with.
“There’s probably no more successful coach as far as wins in college football right now than Hank, and the humility that he approaches every day with — from the way that he works with our staff, the way that he teaches fundamental football — he’s incredibly unselfish,” Fitz said. “He’s a great teacher of the game, a great teacher of life, a terrific man. It’s been just a joy and a privilege to work with him.”
“There are so many other names that get talked about as great D-Coordinators in this country,” he added in a postgame interview with Molly McGrath following Northwestern’s 17-7 win over Wisconsin. “Mike Hankwitz never gets mentioned, and I hope he becomes a household name.”
Thompson recalled his freshman year in 2015 when NU played in the Outback Bowl. The night before the game, he went for a walk around the halls and came across his DC in a room, exhausted and frustrated, having spent hours just trying to get the schematics perfect for the next day.
“After that, I realized that when I stepped on the field, Coach Hank was going to be one of the people that I thought of,” Thompson said. “He puts so much on the table and so much on the line for all the guys. He really does love the game, and he really does want to see all of his players have success.”
After a vibrant career in which Hankwitz truly taught generations of defenders and coaches, he’ll have the chance to reach his next milestone on the big stage — facing the rival he so desperately wanted to beat throughout his playing days. In Saturday’s Big Ten Championship game against No. 4 Ohio State, the Wildcats will be playing for more than a conference title — they’ll be playing for their beloved coach in what will be one of the final games of his incredible career, as he plans to retire this offseason.
But for Hankwitz, even knowing the magnitude of his final season and the incredible achievements that lie ahead, his humility prevails.
“I don’t know if it means anything unique,” Hankwitz said. “I’m still doing it because I love the game, and I love working with the players. I love the accomplishment we have when we all work together and win. I’ve been fortunate to have been on a number of championship teams, and that feeling is hard to replace because when you win, and especially when you win a championship, it takes everybody contributing.”
Ultimately, if the Wildcats can take down the mighty Buckeyes, their trip to Indianapolis could provide a poetic culmination to one of the most impressive careers in college football history. While the coordinator has been here many times before, having coached 11 conference title-winning teams, his players and staff, both current and former, know the implications behind Saturday’s matchup and are determined to send their coach off on the right note.
“He’s learned so much throughout his career,” Hall said. “Even this last Big Ten Championship in 2018, as a 70-some-year-old man, he learned a lot from that game and that experience being with Northwestern in its first Big Ten Championship game. I know when they get back to that game, he’ll be ready.”