Forman: NU ready to make it over mountain, get bowl win

Matt Forman

Sitting in the Nicolet Football Center after Northwestern’s 33-31 victory over Wisconsin, coach Pat Fitzgerald spoke passionately about his team’s accomplishments. Hanging behind him on the walls were three signs with headlines reading: Wildcat Values, Play Northwestern football and Northwestern’s Objectives/Goals.

In 2009, the Wildcats embodied every concept, accomplished every goal and did everything asked of them on Fitzgerald’s motivational boards. Except one thing. Win a bowl game.

That phrase, which has haunted NU since 1949, was covered in tape for most of the season. Only after this week’s game did the tape get removed. It’s official – the Cats are headed to a warm-weather bowl. And as the team posed for a photo in front of the scoreboard following the upset win, safety Brad Phillips turned to his 20 fellow seniors. Phillips and the others knew they have one thing left to do.

“We’re not done here, we’re not satisfied, we’ve got to win that bowl game and take this program to the next level,” Phillips said. “That’s the next mountain we’ve got to get over.”That’s the same mountain Fitzgerald referenced after the Alamo Bowl loss to Missouri last year, the same mountain Fitzgerald referenced in spring football practices and the same mountain Fitzgerald referenced Saturday.

“We’re a couple miles away from the crest of the mountaintop, and that’ll happen whichever bowl opportunity we get the great privilege to play in,” Fitzgerald said. “We need to get over (it) to eliminate all the naysayers and the negativity toward our program … to be talked about and represented throughout the nation (the way we want to be.) It’s a golden opportunity.”

Not much has changed in terms of talking about the mountaintop, but NU climbed it one step at a time this season. Now, the Cats have positioned themselves to ascend to the peak. The reason they’re here? Those very same ideals Fitzgerald preaches about and has hanging in the team’s conference room.

First, Fitzgerald’s Wildcat Values sign takes the shape of a pyramid. The top point says, “W.I.N,” an acronym that stands for “What’s Important Now.” NU didn’t let fourth-quarter collapses to Syracuse, Minnesota and Michigan State lower its expectations for the season. The team knew where it wanted to be, thanks to the 1-0 each week mentality.

Beneath that are the words “effort” and “respond.” Let’s just say I never expected this team to be able to win three consecutive conference games, two against top-25 opponents. It took effort to do that. And for “respond,” Fitzgerald’s roster is littered with players who have responded, most notably the seniors. They responded to Randy Walker’s death in 2006.

Mike Kafka spent two years watching C.J. Bachér after getting injured as a redshirt freshman. Andrew Brewer spent two years fighting for a starting spot at wide receiver after playing several games at quarterback as a redshirt freshman. And Zeke Markshausen ran track at UW-Parkside before transferring to NU, walking on to the team and spending three years on the practice squad.

“Honesty”, “family” and “respect” are below that, and the last row has attitude, trust, character and investment. But attitude and investment are shaded white, highlighting their importance. It’s safe to say NU’s senior class bought into Fitzgerald’s plan. The Leadership Council kept everyone tight-knit and in the right mindset.

The “Play Northwestern football” sign says to take football one play at a time, one game at a time and one day at a time. The Cats made play after play against the Badgers, and didn’t get ahead of themselves. In the big picture, Saturday didn’t mean much. NU could have been 7-5 or 8-4 and ended up with the same bowl destination. The seniors made it about something more: Pride, and winning their last game at Ryan Field.

Fitzgerald’s objectives for his team are to prepare for life, be a champion and earn a NU degree. The fourth-year coach will graduate 100 percent of this senior class. They’ve been prepared for the world through their turbulent ride and their NU education. Be a champion? I don’t really know how you define that, but for argument’s sake, they are.

One of NU’s two goals is to consistently prepare for victory. Don’t look now, but the Cats could be 12-0 and smelling roses. Without several starters, they lost on a last-second field goal to Syracuse. NU let Minnesota grab victory from the jaws of defeat, and it held a halftime advantage over Michigan State on the road. The Cats could have topped Penn State if Kafka didn’t get hurt. That’s preparing for victory.

But there’s still that one goal remaining. The Cats will get a chance to chase the 61-year-old monkey off their backs in a little more than a month.

“We definitely want to go out and get this win, it’s something that we talked about a lot,” Kafka said. “It’s getting that win and finishing and putting that exclamation point on our season.”

Sports editor Matt Forman is a Medill junior. He can be reached at [email protected]