Pat Fitzgerald’s legacy at Northwestern was already cemented when he led the Wildcats into the Gator Bowl. But in beating Mississippi State 34-20, Fitzgerald’s cemented legacy is now coated in titanium. ChicagoSideSports.com called it Teflon. This (admittedly nerdy) blogger would say adamantium, but I’ll leave Wolverine references to other Big Ten universities.
Anyway, the Gator Bowl win was Northwestern’s first postseason victory since Harry Truman occupied the White House. At the conclusion of the 1948 season, NU won its first postseason game when it defeated USC in the Rose Bowl. The 2012 Wildcats also became the program’s first to reach 10 wins since 1995, when Fitzgerald was a standout linebacker on the Wildcats’ Rose Bowl team.
Fitzgerald personified NU’s Big Ten-winning squad. His tenacious, ball-hawking style set the tone for Darnell Autry and a ground-and-pound offense that wore down opponents.
These Wildcats won with an entirely different style. Yes, Northwestern ran well — No. 15 in the FBS, in fact. But where Autry was a grinder for the ’95 Wildcats, the ’12 team employed explosive Venric Mark and the multi-talented Kain Colter out of a spread offense. NU matched SEC speed and upped the ante on both sides of the ball.
Northwestern converted an astounding 10-of-19 third downs and forced four turnovers. It wasn’t pretty — NU gave away three turnovers of its own — but it was convincing.
A season that made history 17 and 64 years in the making was tauntingly close to being even more memorable. Fitzgerald’s team came one point and an overtime away from winning the Big Ten Legends Division. The Wildcats also went 2-0 against the SEC. Along with Tuesday’s defeat of Mississippi State, Northwestern topped a nine-win Vanderbilt team in Week 2.
MSU and Vandy may not be the benchmarks of SEC greatness, but the two won a combined 17 games. Vanderbilt accounted for nine, including its victory in the Music City Bowl. James Franklin may not have the same lineage with Vanderbilt Fitzgerald has at Northwestern, but the former is etching his name prominently into the program’s annals.
Franklin is the only coach in Commodore history to coach consecutive bowl participants. Vandy’s win is just the third the program has in the postseason all-time, and the nine wins of 2012 are the Commodores’ most in nearly 100 years. Perhaps most impressive is that VU finished above .500 in the vaunted SEC.
Vanderbilt can no longer be dismissed as not truly representative of SEC football; not under Franklin’s watch. Northwestern can showcase that notch in its 10-win ledger with pride, just as the Commodores can boast of their 2012 without qualification.
The two programs can be, and often are lumped together for their academic standards. “The brainy ones,” “the nerds,” whatever lazy stereotype that can be trotted out for VU and NU, has. But with Fitzgerald and Franklin on the sidelines, damn good football programs are labels that can be applied equally. Their respective rises in the ultra-competitive football landscape, coupled with Stanford’s dominance out West, dispels the lamentations of Malcolm Gladwell types regarding the 21st Century student-athlete.
Expectations and rumors have tied Franklin, Fitzgerald and Stanford’s David Shaw to other openings. Perhaps Franklin will venture elsewhere. Maybe the allure of the NFL will tempt Shaw away — though the Stanford alum re-upped his contract, remaining with his alma mater much as Fitzgerald has at Northwestern.
Perhaps his legacy on The Farm will be as solidified as Fitzgerald’s at Northwestern. His Cardinal can win the program’s first Rose Bowl since defeating Michigan in 1971. It’s not as dubious a streak as Northwestern’s skid that ended today, which proved anything can be broken.
Fitzgerald’s legacy, however, is starting to look pretty difficult to dent.