Extensions of reality: Northwestern athletics better than ever

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Northwestern University Men’s Basketball Head Coach Chris Collins (center), flanked by players Sanjay Lumpkin (left) and Bryant McIntosh react to the NCAA Tournament Selection Show during a watch party at Welsh-Ryan Arena in Evanston, Sunday night, March 12, 2017. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

A few days after Christmas, Northwestern’s football team upset Pittsburgh at Yankee Stadium. It was only the third bowl victory in school history.

Around that same time, Wildcats fans — not to be confused with the many Northwestern alumni in the sports media, of course — were beginning to wonder aloud if the basketball team, off to a 12-2 start, might be headed for the school’s first-ever men’s NCAA Tournament. We all know how that ended.

It was a heck of a few months for Northwestern athletics. And the party is still going on, with basketball coach Chris Collins and football coach Pat Fitzgerald both reportedly having signed contract extensions. A press conference was called for Tuesday afternoon at which Collins and Fitzgerald will appear with their boss, athletic department head Jim Phillips.

The new deal for Fitzgerald, 42, reportedly is good for at least the next 10 years. Collins, 43, could be “locked in” until at least the age of 50.

Yes, air quotes are necessary when referring to college coaching contracts, which tend to be about as binding as a year-old post-it note. Every time you blink, another college football or basketball coach has either ditched his school or been fired despite the years left on his deal. Still, Northwestern has never been in better position to sustain success in both major revenue sports.

Everyone is as high as can be on Collins. We can all agree on that.

Fitzgerald has his detractors, a high percentage of whom are loyal to the University of Illinois and see the coach’s excellent reputation as a kind of media conspiracy. There even are scattered Northwestern fans who are less than impressed by Fitzgerald’s 77-62 performanceandseven bowl games in 11 seasons. These people tend to be annoyingly young and roughly as off base as the jealous Illini fans.

Like most of us when we’re in our early 40s, both Collins and Fitzgerald probably think they’re still getting better and have a lot of good years left. Phillips certainly believes they do, and there’s a nation of athletic directors who likely agree with him.

Northwestern has, potentially, its best coaches ever in both sports at the same time. And, according to their contracts, for a long time to come. It’s kind of the dream scenario, isn’t it?

As I often do when looking for some Northwestern perspective, I reached out to a lifelong friend, Kevin Krebs, who played quarterback (and pitched on the baseball team) at the school in the late 1980s and early ’90s. I asked: When he was there and the Wildcats stinking at football and basketball was essentially a given, could he have imagined a daywhen both sports programs were robustly healthy at the same time?

I guess I figured he’d say no. After all, the football teams had won a combined seven games in his four years there. The hoops squads weren’t really any better.

But I was wrong.

“It’s vindicating,” he said. “I really mean it. It’s vindicating for all of us who believed, when everyone else thought we were crazy, that it would eventually happen.”

Nicely put.

Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com

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