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OTE Roundtable: Thoughts on the state of Northwestern

To say “kicking them while they’re down” describes this mess, would be an understatement.

Northwestern v Wisconsin Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Northwestern Week was long ago, but with news last week that Pat Fitzgerald is out as the Head Football Coach (refresher here), the OTE crew took a break from our double secret conversation to share thoughts in a public forum. If you want an Illinois perspective, we also have this post.

On a scale of 1-10 (ten being the most) how shocked are you at how fast this all happened?

RUReady4Brazil: 5. Four years ago I would have said 8 or 9, but with the pace of how fast things are changing with college football now, nothing really surprises me THAT much. That being said, normally glaciers move faster than athletic departments. Reasons include red tape, official procedures, and time to get public feedback that often steers the discussion.

Kind of...: Yeah, from the day to suspension was announced to now feels really fast, but it still also feels par for the course in a way. Basically a 4. At some point, PR flacks are going to realize the Friday afternoon dump is now so well understood that it is probably counterproductive.

MaximumSam: Not shocked at all once they leaked the details of the report.

Buffkomodo: I’m not shocked he was fired. I’m way more shocked at how this situation has been handled by everyone but the Northwestern Daily Student. Kudos to them and their reporting.

BoilerUp89: 3. From what we heard on day 1 (which wasn’t much), I would not have expected Fitzgerald to be fired. From what we started to hear on day 2 (and since then), I’m surprised it took as long as it did.

misdreavus79: 1. If we’re talking strictly about how fast we went from two week suspension to outright dismissal, well, not that shocked. As soon as we read the report we knew this would be the end result, and it was a matter of when, not if. If we’re talking about the overall speed of the investigation, wasn’t it a 6+ month long investigation? In today’s day and age, that’s probably par for the course. I think we just all forgot about the original [news] report that came out at the beginning of the year.

What will Pat Fitzgerald’s legacy be five or ten years from now to outsiders?

RUReady4Brazil: To people outside the Big Ten, it probably will barely be a blip on the radar. Inside the Big Ten, there will be an understanding that what Fitz accomplished at Northwestern was pretty incredible during the time period.

Kind of...: Sorry, but you asked.

I never liked Fitz as much as most people seemed to. Some of his comments—about Northwestern players seeking to unionize, especially—sounded like a dirty cop on a TV show not-so-slyly insinuating that he had a lid on things. You can be a pretty successful “leader of men” while simultaneously being vindictive and a bully. This is old news to us all. In some ways, this is an all-too-common story without much fresh to be added.

A couple of years ago during Wisconsin week, I wrote an appreciation of Barry Alvarez’s time at UW that also suggested that the “coach as don” approach was becoming less and less common, and maybe that was a good thing. Some of it was pegged to Alvarez being the AD, and the sort of power that he was able to accrue over the years, but plenty of it was relevant to any head coach who’d been successful long enough to become the face of his program. With apologies for the self-reference, this was my closing thought:

To be clear, as a UW fan, I don’t think there is some MSU/PSU/Michigan/OSU sex scandal waiting to blow open that will damage Alvarez’s legacy. And I don’t think that is just a matter of luck. But I do realize that the longer one person stays in one place holding significant power, the easier it tends to be for oversight to atrophy.

If Fitzgerald is being unfairly maligned, he can take his chances in court, where a public record can be assembled. Oh, wait. Yeah, once the “settlement for an undisclosed amount” takes place, realize you were right to assume the worst.

Almost 10 years ago, Jim Grobe ended a pretty successful run at Wake Forest. Not quite as good as Northwestern at Fitzgerald’s peak, but not a bad comp. Everywhere but Northwestern, that’s probably Fitzgerald’s legacy. At NW, it will be more complicated. Great player, successful coach. No statue.

MaximumSam: We shall see. Right now, I don’t think his reputation is particularly tarnished. More facts may come out, but right now this just firing feels like damage control for a green college administration trying to avoid criticism. (Disclaimer: You will find few people with dimmer views about college administrators than me). I think he will get another chance to coach football, and if he does well this will be a blip.

Buffkomodo: I think he’ll be a Rorschach test for anyone who talks about him. For some he’ll be the best coach Northwestern has had, and to some he’ll be an enabling monster whose only concern was winning. But the longer we depart from his firing, the more irrelevant this will be because it was Northwestern football.

BoilerUp89: 5-10 years from now Fitzgerald will be coming off a few years at Liberty and taking some SEC job.

misdreavus79: Ask me again in 5-10 years.

How does this impact Northwestern in the upcoming 2023 season and beyond?

RUReady4Brazil: The Wildcats get Rutgers in Week 1 and as much as RU fans complain about things always being bad luck in the Garden State, this is surely an opportunity with kickoff less than two months away. That same opportunity also exists for Northwestern who could still surely beat a less than scary Scarlet Knights squad in Week 1 and equal their entire win total of 2022. If Northwestern wins, this storm will have passed. If they don’t, they have to find a way to win a game against any FBS opponent in 2023 to avoid doomsday. Recruiting is a complete wildcard because NW had the lowest ranked recruiting class in the conference this past cycle and was sitting in 13th for the next until this incident. With the verbal commits already mostly filling up recruiting classes under the new rules, the Cats might have no choice but to go to the portal. A lot depends on who gets the long-term coaching gig (Braun or otherwise), which is par for the course at a Power Five, non blue-blood program.

Kind of...: I guess the dead-enders can say that this was going to be the year Fitzgerald turned it around and the haters can say that Hankwitz made Fitzgerald as the last two years made clear. I’m much closer to the latter camp. They’re going to be bad this year, and beyond that is really up in the air, too. But that very well could’ve been the trajectory anyway.

MaximumSam: I thought they looked bad coming into the season and firing the coach doesn’t strike me as a fix. They are also stuck in interim coach hell. If Braun wins four games, is he the guy and they sign him up for another half decade?

Buffkomodo: It doesn’t affect them at all. They were gonna suck again anyway. Now, perhaps they’ll just suck 1 Nebraska game more this year.

BoilerUp89: Things are probably going to be ugly this season, but there were always likely to be ugly. I actually think there is a slightly higher chance that they break thru to 5 wins this year under Braun than Fitz (just because of the unknown).

misdreavus79: They were already going to suck, and you can’t get much worse than 1-11 (yes, 0-12 isn’t much worse). So this isn’t going to do all that much for 2023. It’s 2024 and beyond that should matter.

More generally, how do you feel hazing should be handled in college athletics?

Buffkomodo: Ooph. This is a hard question. If I’m a college coach at this moment, I’m in my captains’ and assistants’ ears about making sure this doesn’t happen at my program. However, I think simply saying “it shouldn’t happen and hazing should be done away with” is an insincere way of looking at hazing.

Hazing occurs everywhere and is so loosely defined. It’s hazing for NFL rookies to have to pick up the tab for the first time that they go out with their position teammates. It’s hazing to make freshmen setup or carry balls in basketball simply because their freshmen. It’s hazing to have players try and tackle their parents at the last practice in some of those youth football practice videos I see online. None of those things will put you on the front page of the paper though. None of those things I care enough about to stop.

In my humble and honest opinion, the hazing you should be worried about and stop is the hazing that can be considered sexual abuse and hazing that can be considered dangerous. Making people do stuff naked. The whole concept of the car wash. Making people drink too much of a beverage. That sort of stuff needs weeded out and done away with. You can do that by empowering people to come forward and actually outing and banning players guilty of abuse from playing affiliated college sports. However, too often some of the ring leaders are extremely talented and college sports apparatuses are only in it for money so I doubt that would ever come to pass. I mean if you can transfer away from a domestic assault charge, who cares if you’re a massive dick and creep to freshmen, am I right NCAA?

BoilerUp89: Coaches should be held fully responsible for what goes on in their programs. Players should be held fully responsible for their actions. Stop treating athletes and coaches differently than everyone else. Actions that would result in jail time or firing everywhere else should be treated that way in college athletics. Otherwise you continue to feed the monster.

MaximumSam: I don’t know that it’s something that needs a lot of attention. Don’t do weird sexual stuff and don’t ply freshman with two gallons of Everclear. Otherwise, I don’t think the NCAA needs to micromanage every interaction among the players.

misdreavus79: For the sake of this conversation, let’s define hazing as “abuse, of a physical or psychological nature.” Should players be subjected to “abuse, of a physical or psychological nature?” No. Will it continue to happen? Probably. But, as soon as the powers that be become aware of it happening, they need to put a stop to it.

And of course, as is the case with any spectrum, we can workshop 77 different ways where we can push the boundaries to the limit, stopping just shot of “abuse”, but as soon as we do that, we’re just workshopping which forms of abuse are acceptable, aren’t we?

As has already been said above, everyone should be held responsible for their actions. Players get kicked out for “violation of team rules” all the time. This shouldn’t be any different.

RUReady4Brazil: The short answer that I mentioned to the group is that I don’t think “old-school hazing” really works anymore. It was really going out of style when I was in high school and talented players were quitting because they felt they were being “pushed” too hard, even when it was all verbal in most cases. Physically, I didn’t need to see a freshman fight a senior in the middle of a torrential downpour to know if he had or didn’t have the intestinal fortitude to be counted on in big moments. Tough, albeit nowhere near Junction Boys level training camps told me what I needed to know about my teammates.

Hazing warrants serious discussion and many of the points were brought above I am in agreement with. Buff states it quite well in what type of abuse needs to be curtailed; “hazing that can be considered sexual abuse and hazing that can be considered dangerous ...” I would include BoilerUp’s comment as well, “Actions that would result in jail time or firing everywhere else should be treated that way in college athletics.” The one area that I struggle to define is what would be considered psychologically/emotionally dangerous because that can mean any number of things to any number of people. Naturally, the sport of football is more dangerous physically than some of the hazing rituals I have heard in other sports which makes it a little different on that end as well.

As a former player, my high school basketball team (coach fired for toxic environment) was actually worse than my college football team. In college though I was not the level of player that would have stayed with the team if I had to deal with any sort of “nonsense.” What we will see is that the powerhouses in particular sports won’t have problems like this because players will just transfer if they really feel uncomfortable and the school will be in huge hot water if said player is transferring because of a toxic environment, compounded by NIL obligations financially. What concerns me is at a type of place like Northwestern or even Rutgers (i.e. the Mike Rice situation) where being such an underdog requires at least some of the players (and even coaches) have an intensity that borders insanity. Couple that with the need for everyone to “buy-in” to turn things around plus the normal social dynamics of any group of 18-22 year olds and there is always going to be a risk of actual criminal behavior. Even though that is human nature in one sense, it cannot be tolerated no matter the reason.

At the end of the day, what happens off the field should be under all the same laws as we would see in public so it comes down to voters/legislators passing quality laws and high integrity courts to interpret those. How we get universities to be more transparent is an age-old problem, but I do think player empowerment, including but not limited to NIL, is going to allow more visibility without the need for “whistleblowers” per se.

Let us know your thoughts in the section below.