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Where are we Wednesday: Focusing on what’s important now

Amidst a litany of distractions, the ‘Cats are tasked with staying the course.

As diversions mount, Pat Fitzgerald will have to center his team around What’s Important Now against Auburn.
Ryan Kuttler - Northwestern Athletics

Thursday night, 2020 will mercifully come to an end. All year long — in all worldly matters, sports included — what once seemed impossible time and time again found a way into reality. Chaos has become the norm, not the exception.

It makes a lot of sense that as the year comes to its conclusion, things have gotten as hectic as ever for Northwestern.

After a massive success of a season following NU’s disastrous 3-9 campaign, the Wildcats booked a trip to Orlando to take on Auburn in the Vrbo Citrus Bowl, arguably the most prestigious bowl game outside of the elusive New Year’s Six. With a win, NU could ring in 2021 with its most prominent bowl victory since its Rose Bowl win in 1949, a year far closer to the last pandemic than the one we’re currently living through.

So, there’s no trouble in the newfound college football paradise that is Evanston, Illinois, right?

Wrong. It seems that there’s been more concerning news on the Twitter feeds of Northwestern fans since the Big Ten Championship game than there was in the entire regular season that preceded it.

First came the transfer portal entries and their corresponding announcements. Since the Wildcats’ loss in Indy to Ohio State, eight players have announced their plans to play elsewhere next season, including defensive line disrupter Eku Leota, agile speedsters Drake Anderson and Kyric McGowan and 2018 rushing star Isaiah Bowser. While this year’s chaos and the NCAA’s change in eligibility rules made the conditions for such transfers more ripe than usual, this is still a program with a strong record of player retention, so the departures of such big names served as a bit of a shock to the systems of those who have followed the team for years.

With the transfers came enhanced speculation surrounding the future of beloved head coach Pat Fitzgerald. It’s no secret that Fitz has been the apple of several NFL executives’ eyes in the past, but the timing of the transfers combined with the now-seemingly-overblown perception of a Chicago Bears head coaching vacancy led many of the Wildcat faithful to fear that the players knew more than the public and that their fearless leader might actually leave his alma mater for a job at the next level.

Then came the Christmas Eve news of the program’s first positive COVID-19 test this season. Like the transfers and the Fitz departure worries, this news isn’t shocking when you consider the context (spoiler alert: COVID-19 is really bad right now), but it adds to the growing list of distractions for the Wildcats — a list that was virtually vacant for Northwestern’s most successful stretches this season.

This brings us to where we are today. What’s important now has long been a mantra of the program. It’s found in public service announcements, hype videos and on team apparel. Its meaning is simple: no matter what has happened in the past, no matter what may steer focus astray, the task at hand should be the only thing in mind.

So, as the ‘Cats take on a blue-blood program from a conference where “It Just Means More” for a shot at greater bowl glory than they’ve experienced in seven decades, they’ll have to turn away from the frenzied talk of the last two weeks and toward what they do best: playing football. Simply put, it’s what’s important now.