Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

75° Evanston, IL
Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Secondary Feature: Mike Hankwitz faces former coach, squad

This weekend will be a reunion of sorts for Mike Hankwitz – one that he is not looking forward to. On Saturday, the Wildcats’ defensive coordinator will match wits against the man who fired him two years ago, Badgers boss Brett Bielema.

If there are any feelings of revenge involved, Hankwitz is keeping them a secret. In fact, Hankwitz said he hasn’t had much time to contemplate the matchup.

“When you get into a season, it is non-stop,” Hankwitz said. “One game to the next. You don’t have time to think ahead.”

In 2006, Hankwitz’s first year at Wisconsin, his crew led the nation in pass efficiency defense and finished fifth in total defense. The defense’s statistics dropped the next year, and Bielema axed Hankwitz.

“Mike is a tremendous human being,” Bielema said at his press conference on Monday. “One of the things that I’ve always tried to pride myself on from a coaching standpoint, especially now as I became the head coach, is business is business and personal is personal. And I really felt, at the time, I needed to make a change – it wasn’t indicated by that we were real bad on defense. It’s just something I felt inside of me and needed to move forward on.”

Before long, Hankwitz received a call from coach Pat Fitzgerald.

“When I found out I had the opportunity to sit down and talk to Hank, there was no doubt he was the perfect fit for what we were looking for here,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s a tremendous teacher, he’s a tremendous role model, he’s a great father and he does a tremendous job motivating our guys on a daily basis. We got a grand slam. We’re very fortunate that Mike came to our program.”

Much like his first season at Wisconsin, Hankwitz engineered a significant turnaround last year at Northwestern – his unit was the fifth-most improved in the country. After allowing 31 points per game in 2007, NU surrendered 20.2 in 2008, ranking 27th in the country. The defense also finished in the top 30 nationally in sacks, pass efficiency defense and tackles for loss.

Sophomore safety Brian Peters said the upgrade started with a change in mentality.

“When I got here, we were more of a read-and-react defense,” Peters said. “Now we’re more aggressive. We make them play off of us. It changes the physicality of the game, and the more physical you are the more ability we have to gain momentum and take momentum.”

Injuries have hobbled this year’s defense, but the players have managed to clamp down when it has mattered most. The Cats came up with game-winning stops at Purdue, Iowa and Illinois.

NU’s final Big Ten test is against a powerful Wisconsin offense that leads the Big Ten in rushing yards. Even though Hankwitz is familiar with the Badgers’ attack, he said his experience at Wisconsin won’t come into play on Saturday.

“I don’t know that there’s an advantage either way,” Hankwitz said. “We’ve adjusted to our personnel here, and they’ve adjusted to their offensive personnel there.”

Hankwitz has plenty of experience adjusting. In 27 years as a defensive coordinator, Hankwitz has coached at seven different schools.

“He has quite the track record, and it’s really impressive,” sophomore linebacker Ben Johnson said. “That’s kind of where we have this unspoken respect for him. He’s been through a lot and he knows what he’s doing, so you listen to him.”

Hankwitz is far and away the most veteran coach on Fitzgerald’s staff. Dating back to his days as a graduate assistant at Michigan, Hankwitz has compiled 40 years of coaching experience. Jerry Brown, the Cats’ defensive backs coach and the second most experienced coach on the staff, has been coaching for 29 years.

“You don’t win 200 games as a coordinator by accident,” Fitzgerald said. “(Hankwitz) will go down in history as one of the best to ever coach in this game.”[email protected]

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881
Secondary Feature: Mike Hankwitz faces former coach, squad