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Column: Brandon Joseph transfer should serve as serious wake up call for NU football

Things just went from bad to alarmingly worse.

2021 Big Ten Football Media Day Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

One of the neat things about attending journalism school (an oxymoron of a phrase to many, I’m sure) is that you learn things you might not otherwise come to know about how people consume news. One behavior I’ve found particularly fascinating is the pattern of so-called “news routines” that many of us, in one way or another, have built into our lives.

For some people, these routines could manifest in the form of scanning through the daily newspaper at lunch or turning on the nightly news just before bed. I, for one, wake up every morning and check out the latest from some of my favorite news sites, one of which happens to be ESPN.

With all of this surely interesting, practical and desired knowledge of news routines and my personal one in mind, consider the following: when I awoke on Friday morning, the last morning of what has been a dreadful year for Northwestern football, I once again engaged in my routine.

Given the big announcement of Thursday evening — that Brandon Joseph, just the 14th consensus All-American in NU’s history, was entering the transfer portal — I expected to see something about Joseph and his departure from the Wildcats somewhere in the “Top Headlines” section found in the upper right-hand corner of ESPN’s college football section.

It wasn’t there, which is understandable. It’s the heart of bowl season, the morning of the College Football Playoff’s two semifinal matchups and, in case you hadn’t already heard, this crazy thing called COVID-19 is ravaging its way through the world of sports right now, leaving chaos (and breaking news stories) everywhere it travels. With the story I was looking for out of the website’s front page, I continued to scroll, assuming I’d find something about Joseph soon.

I didn’t. It took a long time for me to find anything on the news that absolutely shook the Northwestern sports world. Twenty-three written pieces and countless items of video and multimedia content later, the headline I was searching for emerged: “Northwestern Wildcats All-American safety Brandon Joseph entering football transfer portal”.

I write all of this not as a commentary on an unfair lack of national media attention for the ‘Cats. Quite the contrary, this is actually as significant of an anecdotal indictment of the NU program and how far it has fallen over the course of 2021 as there is.

Why? Because think about the magnitude of this news had it been presented to the college football world exactly a year prior on the eve of what would become a Wildcat victory in the Citrus Bowl that propelled NU into the AP Poll’s top 10 for the first time since 1996. This story would’ve been everywhere, the very top of ESPN’s college football page included, never mind the (still then) surging pandemic and string of important games on or around December 31, 2020.

But this isn’t New Year’s Eve 2020. This is New Year’s Eve 2021. While Joseph himself bears some responsibility for the drop-off in how big of a story his transfer would’ve been a year ago versus how significant of news it is in reality today, the fact of the matter is that the drop-off in national media interest surrounding his transfer is not in any way aligned with how interested the most elite college football programs will be in acquiring his talents. Joseph and his three remaining years of eligibility will get chased by every school in the country that thinks it has a chance at landing him, as would have been exactly the case a season ago.

As such, the truth about why the story of Joseph’s transfer is flying under the radar nationally is a sobering one for the Northwestern program. The truth is that after starting the year with a Citrus Bowl win that had them looking better-positioned than ever, the ‘Cats have tumbled unfathomable lengths in the national college football landscape. The happenings of a Northwestern team fresh off a 3-9 campaign aren’t important to the national college football media to whom the Wildcats were darlings just a year ago, even when such happenings are as significant as Joseph’s transfer is.

In short, nobody cares about Northwestern football anymore.

To be fair, that’s not an especially new sensation. Even across the last two or three decades, during which they have experienced most of their program-defining successes and none of the historically awful Dark Ages of the late 1970s/early 1980s, the ‘Cats have probably been truly nationally relevant in fewer seasons than they have not been. The real issue, however, is that Pat Fitzgerald’s program does not currently embody the distinct characteristics it has when it has reached the point of national importance.

Think, for a moment, about your favorite Northwestern team of the last two decades. Whichever one it is — the 1995, ‘96, 2000, 2012, 2020 ‘Cats or literally any other successful NU football team of the last few decades that you’ve enjoyed — the likelihood is that it was able to succeed because it followed a familiar blueprint: establish a unique and unified culture and identity from the moment players walk in the door, play tough football, outsmart the competition and force opponents to make mistakes while you’re staying free of fatal errors.

When the ‘Cats won the Citrus Bowl, it seemed as though they did all of these things very well. Over the course of the year, a series of changes made it evident that the team has departed from these principles, and none are more front-of-mind than the hiring of defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil, whose pro-style, aggressive schemes proved themselves to be the antithesis of Mike Hankwitz’s more successful and conservative formations. Hankwitz’s schemes were better aligned with Northwestern’s identity of outsmarting and out-toughing its opponents. Northwestern’s defense was among the nation’s best in 2020, then among its biggest disasters in 2021, and while a series of starters departing Evanston played a significant role in NU’s defensive downfall, it was clear on numerous occasions that players’ performance wasn’t the only problem for the Wildcats’ D this past season.

Now, an already reeling unit has lost its most talented player, and the team as a whole has already worked itself to such irrelevancy that it barely registered on the national scale. Northwestern’s offense, which was similarly putrid to the defense in 2021, seems to at least have somewhat of a consensus first step toward improvement in the new year, with a boost at quarterback widely believed to solve (or at least aid) much of the offensive dysfunction NU experienced this year.

Fixing the defense seems much less simple, but perhaps a good place to start is evaluating the performance of its leader, O’Neil, who has failed both empirically and drastically in his first year at the helm. Easily exploited schemes and frequent miscues defined his 2021 showing as a football mind, and his inability to prevent his most talented asset, Joseph, from leaving speaks volumes about his capacity as a coach off the field.

It’s probably too early in his tenure and too late in the 2021 coaching carousel for Northwestern to fire Jim O’Neil. Still, Joseph’s departure makes more clear than ever that NU’s defense is currently directionless, and responsibility for that fact can fall in no one’s hands but the person that is supposed to be directing it, O’Neil, and the person who put him in that position, Fitzgerald.

In just a few hours, the clock will strike midnight in Chicago and the year will shift from 2021 to 2022. For many, it’ll mark a moment of alarm, a time to depart from the failed decisions and habits of the recent past in favor of more fruitful behavior. For O’Neil and Fitzgerald, the alarm sounded some 32 hours early when Joseph entered the portal, whether they realize it or not.

The new year has come early for Northwestern, and those in charge will either have to either heed the call that the passage of time has brought and change course or prepare to face the consequences.