Northwestern followed its Big Ten West title season by going 3-9 in the worst year under coach Pat Fitzgerald. And the Wildcats had nobody to blame but themselves, Fitzgerald said.
Northwestern failed to find the solution for its quarterback woes as highly touted Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson stumbled through his first season. He completed just 46.3 percent of his passes with one touchdown and four interceptions in six games. The Wildcats finished last in the nation in passing efficiency (84.53) with six touchdowns and 15 interceptions.
“I made it very clear to the entire football program that last year was unacceptable,” Fitzgerald said. “I made it very clear that our quarterback play was unacceptable.”
Fitzgerald fired longtime offensive coordinator Mick McCall and hired Mike Bajakian from Boston College in December.
“We’re going to do everything in our power, everything possible to get that room to play at a championship level like we have for a longtime,” Fitzgerald said. “Do I think they can do it? I absolutely believe that they can do it.”
The Wildcats have six quarterbacks on their roster, including Johnson and sixth-year player TJ Green, who missed most of last season with a broken foot. They also added former Indiana quarterback Peyton Ramsey, who announced his transfer Monday on Twitter.
“I believe competition makes good players great, great players special,” Fitzgerald said. “And if you don’t like competition then you don’t like expectations and you probably shouldn’t be in college football.
Fitzgerald joined the Sun-Times for this week’s Chat Room.
How did you unwind after last season?
Pat Fitzgerald: “Unfortunately, I typically unwind by going to a bowl game, and not being able to earn that privilege was obviously very disappointing. But my family has a place down in southwest Florida, so we were able to duck away there for a little bit, spend some time with our boys. So that was nice.”
You called a Northwestern men’s basketball game on the radio last month. Do you think you have a career in media after coaching?
PF: “Yeah, I’d like to postpone that, I guess, as long as I could. I enjoyed it, I’m a huge basketball fan, and so I think coach [Joey]Meyer does a terrific job and love listening to him and Dave Eanet, Mr. Cat, when I’m in the car driving around doing daddy day care. But it’s something that I would definitely entertain.”
Every time Northwestern has a good season, your name comes up as a candidate for NFL or college coaching vacancies. You called yourself a“Wildcat for life,” but is there any scenario where you could see yourself in another job?
PF: “First of all, it’s humbling to hear that. You can’t control what comes out in the media and you obviously would rather it be positive and I think anytime your name gets mentioned for openings it’s humbling. . . . But I’m incredibly thankful for the support of the university . . . and all of our administration, and to have the support that we’ve had here over my time is unmatched and unparalleled to this program’s history. But my job is always to continue to move the program forward. So as long as we’re all committed and have the same vision and direction, I just see this being the perfect fit for myself and Stacy and the boys, and my hope is we continue to earn that privilege. The other stuff is just always speculations, and I usually try to avoid that at all costs.”
What are your thoughts on the XFL?
PF: “It’s great. The more football in my world, the merrier. I love it. I love the kickoff, I think that’s really cool. I love the progressive extra point after the touchdown. I really like the communication that’s going on. I think that’s really neat for fans as far as on the field mic-ing and things of that nature, but I don’t know how much we could do that in college ball because we’re already paranoid of what people are hearing with our plays and things of that nature. But the instant sideline reporting and some of that stuff, I think that would be pretty cool for coaches. I don’t know if I would want to put our players in that situation, though, but for coaches, I think that would be pretty entertaining.”
Who’s closer to winning the Big Ten: Illinois or Northwestern?
PF: “Without a doubt, it’s us. We’re proud of our rivalry againstIllinois. We’re proud of it, we take it very seriously. . . . I have great respect for coach [Lovie] Smith, his staff and his players, but we’ll have our on-the-field success speak for itself.”