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Coaching questions, lacrosse expectations and NU memories: Daniel, Mac and Ben’s final mailbag

As they said in Hamilton, one last time.

Cayla Arnold-USA Today Sports

The time has finally arrived for Daniel Olinger, Mac Stone and Ben Chasen’s final mailbag as the co-Editors in Chief of Inside NU. For the last nine months, we’ve enjoyed answering your questions about all things Northwestern. Now, as we prepare to transition the site over to new leadership, we did so one more time.

“Does an NIT bid in 2022-23 keep Chris Collins around?” - AyanKB

Daniel: Given that a slight improvement in overall record and a single Big Ten tournament win was enough to guarantee him at least one more shot in ‘23 and that an NIT bid requires at the very least more wins than losses through a season’s campaign, I’d wager that a trip to the lesser March tournament would be enough for Collins to stick in Evanston for an 11th year. It might be a frustrating reality to many, but given the regression the program has suffered following the 2017 NCAA Tournament appearance, taking a step forward in 2023 after losing one of the best — if not the best — players Collins has had in Nance should help slide him off the hot seat the slightest bit.

Ben: I’ll say probably not, but if the ‘Cats have a legitimate case to make for NCAA Tournament consideration and wind up as one of the first four out or something like that, then I would expect Collins to stick around for at least one more year. In a conversation I and a few other student reporters had with him about a month ago, Derrick Gragg highlighted finishing in the top-third of the conference and qualifying for NCAA Tournaments as his benchmark standards for evaluating coaches across all sports. If Collins can get the team to a place where the NU community really believes they should’ve made the tourney (which would require them to finish at or around the midpoint of the Big Ten), then I think Gragg will be satisfied enough with the growth to keep him. Otherwise, I just think Collins would be falling too regularly and woefully short of his AD’s expectations to stay on.

“Alright, look into the crystal ball — In five years, where is NU football? Men’s basketball? Women’s basketball? Who is coaching each? And what does futuristic Ryan Field look like?” — RevDJEsq

Mac: This is a very good question and a difficult one to answer, too. In terms of coaching, it’s hard to see anyone besides Pat Fitzgerald at the helm of football five years from now unless the program really takes off and he leaves for a better opportunity. For men’s basketball, it’s difficult to picture Chris Collins leading the way unless the ‘Cats make some significant progress next year. No clue who they’d get to replace him, but the dream, no matter how unrealistic, would be someone like Drew Valentine from Loyola-Chicago. For women’s basketball, McKeown is scheduled to remain in Evanston through the 2024-25 season, so we can expect him to stick around for a while longer.

Onto the expectations. I think football is unfortunately trending down. The program has been trending down since the departure of Mike Hankwitz. I’d hope that NU football is still in a decent position to compete for a Big Ten West title in five years, but after last season, I really have no idea. Men’s basketball expectations are entirely dependent on whether or not Collins is here in five years. Collins is a solid recruiter, as we all know, so if he leaves we could see a dip in recruiting. When it comes to women’s basketball, I expect the recruiting to remain great, so hopefully the ‘Cats can get back in the hunt for a Big Ten title soon enough.

Ben: Let’s start with football. Fitz is still there, NU has gone to another Big Ten title game and has also lost more games than it has won over the five-year stretch. Jim O’Neil is gone after the 2022 season, and, in his place, Tim McGarigle has been serviceable. The new Ryan Field is a 39,000-seat beauty, complete with a nice big scoreboard, a bunch of luxury suites and a loud student section in the south end zone.

Basketball-wise, I really want to say that Chris Collins rights the ship in 2022, but ultimately do not think he will. Riding the Saint Peter’s wave, Shaheen Holloway, hired after the 2022-23 season, is leading the way for the ‘Cats. They make their first tournament under the new coach in 2026 and get another first round win before falling on a blown charge call in the Round of 32.

Joe McKeown hangs up his whistle in 2025 after finally getting to host the NCAA Tournament at Welsh-Ryan Arena and making a Sweet 16 run on the back of strong senior seasons from Mel Daley, Jillian Brown and Caileigh Walsh. Kate Popovec takes over and keeps the program in tourney-contending position.

Daniel: Fitz and McKeown are still coaching both of their respective teams in 2027, though I would also believe it if the women’s basketball program was handed off to someone like assistant coach Kate Popovec some time in the next five years. As for men’s basketball, your guess is as good as mine. I’ll try and manifest something here and say that it’s current Saint Peter’s head coach/definite super-genius Shaheen Holloway.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — Pat Ryan’s massive donations to the football program lead to a roving space dome hovering over Lake Michigan for Northwestern to either win or lose games by a score of 17-13 in.

“Where would you guys place your expectations for the basketball program? 1 NCAA tournament appearance every 4 years with an NIT mixed in on the off years? Every 6 years? I know the historical numbers see that as a stretch but the infrastructure is there.” — @TortelloJohn on Twitter

Ben: Haven’t thought about this before, but those numbers sound about right. Think about it like this: the football team has made two of the last four Big Ten Title games, the women’s basketball team probably should have just had what would be, in essence, its third-straight tourney year, and almost every other Northwestern program has at least had what would be the equivalent of a NCAA Tournament appearance in the last few years. The argument always made to explain Northwestern’s men’s basketball struggles is that they play in the Big Ten, where there’s a high-level of competition and where their roster is typically the less talented one on the floor in any given matchup.

News flash: all these other programs play in the Big Ten too, and it’s a pretty competitive conference in all those sports, as well! I think that there’s no real reason NU shouldn’t be able to at least be competitive for the Big Dance the majority of years and definitely no reason they shouldn’t be able to make it once in every Northwestern student’s time at the school.

Daniel: As the pessimist of the bunch, I’d say I’m skeptical that Northwestern’s men’s basketball program ever reaches those consistent “heights”. I ascribe Spencer Hall’s rule of reality that “people don’t improve, people don’t get better”, except flip some words and make it college football and basketball teams. Northwestern has always struggled at this sport for good reason, and the statistically most likely outcome would be more of the same suffering in the future.

“Given Fitzgerald’s iconic Northwestern reputation and his strong seasons in 2018 and 2020 that established NU in the Big Ten, I wonder if Fitzgerald’s job is secure for life? How many losing seasons until the fan base puts him on the hot seat for real?” — @joshmiller01 on Twitter

Daniel: I remember being asked this following the first dreadful 3-9 campaign that took place in 2019 and responding, “Pat Fitzgerald could steal Morty Schapiro’s car, set it on fire and drive it straight into Lake Michigan while unloading heavy fire in every direction and still be guaranteed a head coaching position at this school until 2030.”

Yes, every fan should complain that Northwestern has had two absolute duds of seasons in three years. You don’t have to accept it just because he’s the school’s best football coach ever ... but he’s also without question the school’s best football coach ever. This is the same school that would have thrown a parade to have gone 3-9 back in the early 1980s. It’s a scientific miracle that NU transformed into a slightly above average Big Ten football program over the past two decades, a feat rivaled only by the resurrection Bill Snyder performed for the other purple Wildcat team.

I’m not 100 percent sure that if I was the Athletic Director he’d have lifetime job security, but I’d very much understand if that’s where Derrick Gragg is right now. It’s hard to move on from the guy who’s done it better than anyone else.

Ben: Daniel’s got it pretty spot on. I think two things can be true about Pat Fitzgerald: he is pretty committed to his way of doing things, which can oftentimes cause problems if the results aren’t great, but he is also absolutely the best fit to lead this program on account of his institutional knowledge, ability to develop talent and the identity he has built for the Wildcats. I don’t think he could lose every game for several years on end and stick around, but short of that, I think he’s likely going to be at NU for as long as he wants to be.

“How far do you think lax will make it this year?” — @sarah_meadow on Twitter

Mac: Far, I hope. I don’t know if they can compete with a team like North Carolina, especially with Izzy Scane out. That being said, if they continue to play how they’ve played over these past couple of games, I don’t see why another Final Four run isn’t within reach for the ‘Cats.

Ben: Call it facile analysis, but NU has found a way to beat a number of opponents this season, some of them elite programs. The ‘Cats have had some difficulty keeping up with the very best teams in the country, though, and their blowout loss to UNC revealed (at least to me) some issues with offensive consistency without Izzy Scane that will probably worry me come tourney time. I think their ceiling is another Final Four appearance and their floor is another Sweet 16. In any event, very excited to continue watching Lauren Gilbert do insane things.

“For Ben Chasen: Which former Northwestern Affiliated coach would you take, Jesse Marsch or Mike Kafka?” — @MattAlbert14 on Twitter

Ben: Assuming you’re talking about head coaching at NU, I’d go with Marsch. I love Mike Kafka. He’s an NU legend and helped make Patrick Mahomes the quarterback he is today, which is pretty much as much as a football person can do to earn my respect short of being Mahomes himself. But Marsch has established himself as one of the best up-and-coming club-runners there are, and I think that level of coaching and name recognition could do wonders for the NU program (with absolutely no disrespect intended toward Russell Payne, who has done a stellar job thus far in Evanston), whereas Kafka would be just one of many great college coaches.

“Tell us about some of the other stuff — if anything — you’ve been involved in on campus. Student groups, clubs, a barbershop quartet of InsideNU writers, starting lineup on the Quiz Bowl team — whatever it is.” — MNWildcat

Daniel: I’m probably going to have worse answers for this than Mac and Ben given that a lot of my college time has been spent working first for Liberty Ballers and now for Sports Info Solutions, but I think this encompasses most of my tertiary activities through nearly three years of college: as a freshman, I had a work study job as an intramural referee, starting in my sophomore year, I joined the club basketball team here and this academic year, I joined the Northwestern Sports Analytics Group (should also mention that I’m an idiot who decided doing economics as a double major on a whim was a good idea, so my time is pretty limited).

So for any who have ever wondered, “Does Daniel Olinger have a life outside of basketball?”, I’m glad that I can finally answer your question — no.

Mac: Yeah, I don’t really do much either. I’ve done a couple of jobs for work study, such as working cameras for BTN+ and helping students edit essays, but that’s about it. After my time with Inside NU comes to a close, I’ll have a bit more time to focus on other things. For example, I’ll be a Family Ambassador next year! Pretty excited about that.

Ben: For the last year or so, Inside NU readers have gotten to know me as Ben Chasen the journalism major, but there’s actually a whole other Ben Chasen, the political science major, and he, too, is involved in some activities you’d expect given his course of study. I’ve helped lead a number of student activist and political groups (which I’m gonna keep private to maintain the neutrality of the site, but if you follow me on Twitter, you probably could guess where I’m at on the political spectrum) in the last few years. I’m also a tour guide for the undergraduate admissions office, a member of the Board of Directors over at Northwestern Hillel and a Bob’s Pizza trivia semi-regular. Like Mac said, the upside to the end of my time co-running this site is that I’ll have a few more opportunities to get involved in some of the great student organizations that make NU what it is and expand my engagement with those I’m already a part of before I graduate next June.

“What is your best NU sports memory from your time as a student? Worst?” — J Wood

Mac: It’s pretty difficult to pick just one, but if I had to pick a “best” moment, it would probably be women’s basketball winning a share of the Big Ten regular season title my freshman year. The win over Illinois came just a few days before COVID-19 shut everything down, but seeing Pulliam and Co. cut down the nets at Welsh-Ryan Arena was very fun.

In terms of the worst, if I could erase the entirety of the 2019 and 2021 football seasons from my memory, I genuinely think I’d be a better person. Those seasons were just awful. If you want me to choose just one specific memory, take the 2021 game against Nebraska, lock it in a dark room and throw away the key. That’s something I never want to think about again. At least I didn’t have to travel and cover it in-person though, right, Ben?

Ben: Yeah, I’ll get there in a second. A later question asks about my favorite game that I covered, so I’m gonna leave any contests I’ve worked for the site out of this and agree with Mac about the women’s basketball team’s conference-clinching win over Illinois in 2020. Court storming is fun, court storming to celebrate a title is unmatched.

As far as worst games go, sheesh, unfortunately a few come to mind. I’d say probably the football game I covered at Nebraska earlier this year, as Mac mentioned. Just a bloodbath from start to finish. What’s important to understand is that, as much as we like to kid on social media and in some pieces on the site, I think I speak for Mac and Daniel when I say that it brings us absolutely no pleasure to cover the failures of any Northwestern programs. At all times, I want NU student-athletes, ultimately peers of mine, to succeed. And no moment has stood out as more embarrassing for any NU team since I’ve gotten here than that night in Lincoln. Great people, electric atmosphere, just a horrible game.

Daniel: Usually I would just play the hits here and agree with Ben and Mac that the clinching of 2019-20 Big Ten Championship by the women’s basketball team was my most cherished memory. However, I unfortunately could not attend said home game against Illinois and could not participate in the court storming firsthand (thank you 2020 me who decided it was a not dumb idea to work two jobs on top of doing Inside NU stuff and school stuff).

Instead, I’m going with the entire Citrus Bowl experience to end 2020 and begin 2021. Being down there in Orlando just felt like a three-day celebration of every great thing that team accomplished, and the game was more of the same, with Northwestern progressively stomping an Auburn team said to have more talent than it, but had not played with the same unity and cohesive direction of the ‘Cats. I was truly lucky to be there for the capstone accomplishment of one of the better football teams to ever grace Ryan Field.

As for the worst, it’s the game I attended as a fan freshman year against Iowa. Watching a team whose season was already lost get shut out 20-0 in the rain as Hawkeye fans jeered at us and Aidan Smith blasted slant patterns into the dirt was enough to make a man consider his standing in life.

(But also go ‘Cats)

“Favorite sporting event you’ve covered at NU?” - @Bradley_Locker on Twitter

Mac: Despite the poor result, covering the Big Ten men’s basketball tournament a couple of weeks ago was really fun. I really enjoyed the atmosphere and seeing the ‘Cats come back and win against Nebraska was great. However, my sleeper pick for my favorite event I’ve ever covered was the football game against Illinois in 2020. Not only did I see Northwestern take the HAT at home, but it was in a nearly empty Ryan Field. That was definitely an experience I will never forget.

Ben: Going to cheat a little and pick two favorite moments The very first sporting event I ever got to work for Inside NU was Northwestern football’s momentous upset of Wisconsin in 2020. After that win, it felt like everything was possible for that NU team (which I believe was one of the best ever in program history, credit to the focus and determination of that roster and coaching staff during an incredibly hard time to succeed), and it was such a formational moment for me as a relatively new member of the Inside NU staff.

Then there was NU field hockey’s national championship win in November of 2021. I had covered the team all year long and was making the trip with NU Sports photographer Ryan Kuttler, who was my freshman year roommate and is one of my closest friends in Evanston, and Lia Assimakopoulos, a real mentor of mine in this role and a former field hockey player herself, so that alone was great. But the real joy was seeing Tracey Fuchs’ team of fantastic Northwestern student-athletes’ dreams come true on one of the biggest stages in the sport and watching them celebrate with their friends, family and program alumni afterwards.

Daniel: The Citrus Bowl I wrote about in the first question is definitely up there, though I’d also like to throw in some praise for the Purdue game from that 2020 football season. That win in West Lafayette occurred right before the season-defining victory over Wisconsin, and just further established how special that team was truly becoming. I’ll never forget sitting that press box over a) Adetomiwa Adebawore chasing down running back Xander Horvath on a screen play despite trailing him by 10 yards to start, b) Greg Newsome putting the clamps on David Bell and letting everyone on Purdue’s sideline know about it and c) getting yelled at over the loud speaker to “GET OFF THE FIELD!” as me and Eli Karp stood there in pouring rain trying to record a postgame reaction video for the site. What a time.

“Why?” — Our friends at Crimson Quarry

Daniel: I am deflecting this question and instead asking one of my own — why is it always “We are Penn State”, and not “Why are Penn State?”

“How many dollars of cryptocurrency does Fitz own?” — @forgetprotocol on Twitter

Ben: LOL. Fitz, degrader of the evil cell phone and champion of good clean American fun, probably doesn’t invest any of his assets in crypto. But if he did, I’d bet on him being an Ethereum guy. No real reason why, just feels right.

Daniel: I believe that if he was pushed on this it would all be a big misdirect. He’d deny ever having any crypto — only because he’s been screenshotting and stealing NFT’s for the past year to no end, and now “owns” more poorly drawn apes than anyone on planet earth. And yes, this all ends with one of the NFT’s being listed as one of the options to be the starting quarterback week one in 2024.

“Soooo who’s next in line” — @Lassimak

Dan, Mac and Ben: First off, let us express our thanks to everyone who has read and engaged with the site this past year. It’s been a blast running the show, and it wouldn’t be possible without our incredible staff and, of course, you all. We’ll each get to say farewell in our own pieces later this week, but we wanted to hammer that home collectively first.

So now the big news: we’re incredibly excited to announce that Sarah Effress will be the next Editor in Chief of Inside NU. Sarah’s an incredibly capable writer and leader, and she’ll be supported by our new Director of Operations Didi Jin, our new Director of Staff Engagement Michael Barthelemy, and our newest managing editors, Gavin Dorsey, Iggy Dowling and Bradley Locker. Together, we’re confident that they’re going to continue to provide the great content you’ve come to expect from our site and continue to shape Inside NU’s growth as a publication and an organization. Ben will be staying on as Senior Advisor to ensure a smooth transition and support the new executive and editorial staff with anything they may need.

Thanks for reading, we’re out.