Northwestern football has been in the national headlines for a few days, and the program reached its low point Monday night: Pat Fitzgerald, the team’s head coach since 2006 and arguably the best player and coach in program history, was fired in the midst of hazing investigations going on within the program.
It’s not clear whether Fitzgerald knew about the hazing going on, or if he did, to what extent. However, one thing is clear, Northwestern had no choice but to move on from the most notable coach in its athletics program’s history.
As Northwestern tries to move forward from the scandal, things are going to get worse before they get better.
Fitzgerald was one of the top coaches in the Big Ten and recently signed an extension to keep him in Evanston until 2030; but now, Northwestern is searching for their next coach less than two months before the college football season begins. Amidst the reports that the football program is going through, Evanston is a less attractive location.
While Northwestern is keeping their assistant coaches, with David Braun being the day-to-day liaison, expect a mass exodus in January 2024. If Fitzgerald was fired due to possible knowledge of hazing, other staff members might be too. Also, some might not want to be there at all.
Coach-wise, Northwestern is also in a tough spot relative to the rest of the conference. The Big Ten has a lot of mainstay coaches — Jim Harbaugh, Mel Tucker, Ryan Day, James Franklin, P.J. Fleck, Brett Bielema, Kirk Ferentz, to name a few — who have had success and will not be going anywhere in the relative future. Lincoln Riley and Chip Kelly, with USC and UCLA respectively, join the Big Ten in the 2024 season. This is the immediate competition the head coach will have to go through. With Fitzgerald, Northwestern won the coaching battle against many Big Ten teams. Under whoever’s next, the same cannot be said.
Even before hazing allegations put Northwestern in a cloud of uncertainty, the team finished 1-11 last season and has not won a game in the United States since October 2021. Their one win last season was against a Nebraska squad with Scott Frost as coach making questionable decisions, and we all know how that went.
That 1-11 squad had arguably its four best players in Peter Skoronski, Evan Hull, Cam Mitchell and Adetomiwa Adeboware, depart for the NFL. Is there any argument that next year’s team can be better?
Yes, the football program just had a decent transfer class come in. Ben Bryant should get the first starter reps come training camp and A.J. Henning slots in as the wide receiver one, and those both help the team that was the worst offense in the Big Ten last year. But, Henning expressed his frustration on social media after Fitzgerald was fired.
Another effect of Fitzgerald’s firing is players now have a month to enter their names into the transfer portal. Though none have yet, expect a few to: Fitzgerald has been the reason many talented players commit to Northwestern. They buy into his culture, his style, his playbook. This is all gone. Players will look elsewhere, as will the ‘Cats’ newest class of recruits.
To summarize it all: the team that went 1-11, lost its four best players with a hazing investigation that leaves darkness over the program, and is in a strong conference that only seems to get better. It’s hard to see Northwestern succeeding in the immediate future.
Is there hope? A little. Northwestern is still a Power Five program with elite academics in a strong conference. But, combine the lack of success over the past two years with what’s come up recently, and that hope is slim.
There will be decommitments. There will be transfers. There will be negative connotations associated with Northwestern, just like there are now with Fitzgerald’s entire term that was covered in gold for Northwestern fans.
The light at the end of the tunnel is farther away than many may think, and it might be a while until Northwestern football finds it.