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In Which I Praise Northwestern Because Ugh Let's Just Get This Over With

We still reserve the right to use a silly photo of Pat Fitzgerald.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
We still reserve the right to use a silly photo of Pat Fitzgerald. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Yesterday, I wrote at CBS about the gigantic new contract Northwestern gave Pat Fitzgerald. 10 years, ~$1.8 per year, and more money for assistants and facilities. Not bad for Fitzgerald or jNWU. In fact, I argued that this was the best move Northwestern could have made, regardless of Fitzgerald's relatively modest level of success thus far, because if they really want to build their program up to the level of the rest of the Big Ten, they're going to need stability and sustained success in much higher degrees than what they've had thus far. There's a reason why the "just Northwestern" name sticks, after all.

In fact, the exact same thing goes for the basketball team, which still hasn't reached the tournament but now looks as good as it ever has. That's because Northwestern hasn't bailed on Bill Carmody after 11 years and counting; hell, they gave him an extension in January. Think they'd be at this point if they were on the "firing or resignation every 4 year" plan?

So let me expand on that a little more as it relates to us. I generally dislike it when athletic departments force coaching changes, because almost invariably it leads to at least a season and usually more of rebuilding. So yes, two years of starting over is fine in the context of an investment for 10-15 years of better performance down the road, but you can't go through that twice a decade and expect a high-schooler to look at your program and not feel just a bit worried that more upheaval's waiting for him if he commits. Look at Indiana football, after all. Not exactly a history of stability or success there. Same philosophy applies to their basketball team. Bob Knight sticks around for decades and builds the program his way, to great success. Knight leaves, AD starts getting an itchy trigger finger, and the Knight era is looong gone. More on them in a second.

More to the point for us, I'm very glad Iowa has committed itself to being a destination football program over the last 30 years. Hayden Fry and Kirk Ferentz were both excellent hires, and the hiring process is absolutely an important part of building a program. What's also the case is that protecting those hires from knee-jerk criticism in the first couple years, then putting enough cash in their pockets to keep them around once the going gets good is integral toward building a program's reputation too.

For example, has Kirk Ferentz been overpaid since he came to Iowa? Maybe. We've certainly heard that charge levied plenty of times over the years. And yet, he's still here, and Iowa is one of the top 20 jobs in the country. Also, he stayed here when the NFL came calling on two different occasions, and that might not happen if our athletic department gets stingy when it's time to negotiate contracts. Keeping Ferentz around year after year is not merely the maintenance of a status quo, because Ferentz At Year Six is not the same as Ferentz At Year Ten or Ferentz At Year 15. Every year he stays, he becomes more and more a familiar face of the program, and the longer his tenure at Iowa runs, the more attractive this job becomes to whoever's going to take the reins from him down the road. Further, the longer Ferentz stays, the less any opposing coach is going to be able to convince a recruit that there's any chance of bad things happening to the Iowa coaching staff.

So, guess what--Northwestern's in that boat now too, all of a sudden. Fitzgerald just took a major step forward in recruiting leverage with this new 10-year-deal, because the minute someone starts asking about Northwestern's commitment to athletics, Fitzgerald gets to respond quite accurately that he's the most well-secured coach in the conference. That is quite significant, and that will quite assuredly pay dividends for the Wildcats down the road.

This philosophy isn't absolute, by any stretch--sometimes, a coach has to go--but it's why I was reluctant to see Lickliter get the axe after three years, especially since Alford hadn't been around for very long before him, and Tom Izzo's statement on the subject--that Lickliter hadn't really had a fair opportunity to turn the team around--rang true in my mind. Iowa just basically wasted three years in men's basketball just to hit reset, if you'd asked me at the time, and Iowa's not the type of program that ever does something like that in basketball. That's a bad rut to get stuck in.

And yet, they hired Fran McCaffery instead and the team is noticeably better now than it ever was under Lickliter, who as it turns out wasn't really doing much rebuilding at all, choosing instead to ignore AAU recruiting and run off everyone who ever ran the point for him (with the post-firing transfers of John Lickliter and Cully Payne, by the way, that trend is now officially complete). So, yes, the firing made sense after the fact, and athletic departments should not just fall asleep for 5 years after a new hire.

At the same time, though, I get the feeling that Tom Crean isn't long for Indiana, and that's more than a bit of a disappointment.  It's not as if Crean can't coach or otherwise succeed, on the basketball-version-of-BCS-conference level or otherwise: he was dynamite at Marquette, and Marquette's not exactly in the Horizon League. So if a coach roaring success at this major conference university but not that major conference university, and that major conference university has gone through three head coaches and another interim coach in the last six years, where do you think the problem really lies?

At any rate, kudos go to Northwestern AD Jim Phillips for recognizing this situation, because most ADs at BCS schools with light histories of success are usually over-eager to "make a splash" and hire "their guy," when really what they should be doing is instilling some stability and investing in facilities instead of buyouts. It's not sexy, but hard work never is. Except when someone sexy does it, I suppose, but now we're just getting off track. So hail hail, Mr. Phillips, and with any luck you won't be just Northwestern anymore someday. But not yet.