Football: Northwestern players reflect on their relationships with DC Mike Hankwitz

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Daily file photo by Joshua Hoffman

Defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz stands on the sidelines. Hankwitz will be retiring at the end of the 2020 season.

Greg Svirnovskiy, Senior Staffer


Football


Northwestern defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz loves trains.

For senior linebacker Paddy Fisher, that’s the first and most tangible memory that comes to mind of his soon-retiring coach: a five-minute walk from fall practice in Kenosha, and a conversation about westward expansion and the railway.

Fisher chuckles about it now.

“I realized how laid-back and how vintage Coach Hank was,” he said. “How much he was just like an old school guy.”

Hankwitz, who on Monday announced this year would be his last at NU, has spent 51 years coaching collegiate football, including the last thirteen in Evanston. Previous stops include Arizona, Western Michigan, Colorado, Kansas, Texas A&M and Wisconsin; he’s coached 47 all-conference players and 14 All-Americans in the process.

Pat Fitzgerald, a two-time all-American himself from 1995 to 1997, fought to keep his emotions in check in a press conference Sunday when discussing Hankwitz and his contributions to NU. Fitzgerald remembers learning Hankwitz was available when he was searching for a new defensive coordinator in 2008. He immediately called former Northwestern coach Gary Barnett and asked him to pitch Hankwitz on coming to Evanston.

“I said, ‘You gotta do everything you can,’” Fitzgerald said. “‘I gave you the opportunity to go to the Rose Bowl Gary, you gotta help me get an opportunity to get Hank. Sounds fair to me, so payback. He did a great job.”

Hankwitz’s defenses have anchored the Cats ever since, and NU has been to nine bowl games in the 13 years the coordinator has been on the coaching staff. The defense Hankwitz put together this season ranks among his greatest. NU ranks second in the country in defensive efficiency and defensive points scored against (14.6); the 313.9 yards per game put up by opposing offenses is the 13th-smallest total in the nation.

As Fitzgerald put it: “It starts and ends with Mike Hankwitz.”

Senior linebacker Chris Bergin came to campus as a preferred walk-on with no scholarship. He’s now a nominee for the Burlsworth Trophy, presented every year to college football’s most outstanding player who began his career as a walk-on. Bergin attributed much of his growth with the Cats to Hankwitz’s teachings and experience.

Bergin characterizes NU’s defense. The Cats’ recruiting classes are seldom within the top 40 in the nation. Yet Hankwtiz’s defenses have consistently performed far beyond what works on paper.

“When you get here a lot of guys are not even close to where they end up being,” Bergin said. “Coach Hank’s ability to develop players, how he game plans other teams schematically, just the combination of those two things has led him to be the best defensive coordinator in the history of our game.”

Sophomore defensive lineman Eku Leota will remember Hankwitz best for his actions off the field. Leota struggled with his mental health during his freshman year, and recalled missing a practice in the middle of the season. When he showed up the next day, Leota was expecting to be chewed out by Hankwitz.

“He was trying to get me better mentally, trying to ask what was wrong,” Leota said. “That really changed my relationship with Hankwitz after that day, just being more comfortable around him.”

With 399 wins on his dasher as a college football coach, Hankwitz — recently dubbed the “doctor of fundamentals” — has the opportunity to go for win No. 400 against Ohio State on Saturday in the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis. Fitzgerald has never beaten the Buckeyes as head coach, and the Cats haven’t won against Ohio State since they took down a rebuilding squad under Jim Tressel in 2004.

The matchup against the Buckeyes isn’t just about redefining NU’s season or bringing down a College Football Playoff hopeful. It’s also about sending a storied defensive coordinator off in glory.

”We want to send Hank off with a win and get him to 400 career wins,” Fisher said. “He’s doing an unbelievable job. He’s always done an unbelievable job with play calling and calculating play calls in the right time and the right situation. We’re playing for him.”

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Twitter: @Gsvirnovskiy

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