Football: Northwestern’s defense steps up to get Mike Hankwitz win No. 400

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Courtesy of Northwestern Athletics

Mike Hankwitz coaches in his final game ever. Over 51 years of coaching, Northwestern’s defensive coordinator racked up 400 career wins.

Andrew Golden, Gameday Editor


Football


What can you give the man who has done it all?

Or, better yet, what can you give to the man who has given his all to Northwestern and college football?

For the past 51 years, Mike Hankwitz has roamed a college football sideline, dating back to his days as a graduate assistant for Michigan in 1970. He coached 580 games in his career, the most by any head or assistant coach in college football history.

He has served as defensive coordinator at seven schools since 1982 — his defenses were Top-25 in the nation 14 times during that run. He’s coached 15 first-team All-Americans and five conference defensive players of the year. He’s won 11 conference championships and 1 national championship. He sent over 70 players to the NFL.

His impact on Northwestern’s defense was felt immediately when he took over as defensive coordinator in 2008 — that Wildcats’ defense gave up 20.2 points per game after allowing 31 points per game the year before. Over the past 13 seasons, his ball-hawking units have ranked in the top-seven in turnovers per game ten times.

All his accolades are extensive and impressive, but there was one gift left to give to Hankwitz. One number etched into the team’s mind heading into the Citrus Bowl: 400.

Hankwitz decided to retire after the 2020 season and heading into Friday’s game was positioned at 399 wins with just one game remaining. The team’s defensive leaders had stressed for weeks the importance of getting Hankwitz to that number, but Northwestern couldn’t get it done against Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game.

But on a sunny afternoon in Orlando on New Years’ Day, it did, sending Hankwitz off into the sunset with a milestone win. It was the fewest points a Wildcat defense allowed in a bowl game since 1949.

“I love these guys,” Hankwitz said. “I knew they were going to come out and play their heart out. I knew somehow we’d find a way to win.”

“I’m just so thankful that he and Kathy and Jake chose to come here to Northwestern,” Fitzgerald said. “We would not be where we’re at as a program without that happening, and we’re just so thankful for them and so thankful for Hank.”

Hankwitz established a defensive culture at NU that prides itself on fundamentals and a “bend, but don’t break” mentality. On Friday, his defense fittingly capped off his career with a performance following the principles he had preached for the last thirteen years in Evanston.

The Cats’ gap discipline defensively limited Auburn’s running attack to just 2.3 yards per carry for the game. The Tigers were 2-for-13 on third downs.

Auburn had two chances to score touchdowns in NU territory in the second quarter, but the defense held strong both times, limiting Bo Nix and crew to just six points. In the fourth quarter, with the Tigers driving, senior linebackers Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher stuffed a quarterback sneak on fourth-and-1 that prompted a Hankwitz fist-pump on the sideline. The defense forced a fumble later on in the fourth quarter.

It was a spotless performance for the Cats and it would’ve been perfect, Fitzgerald said, if not for one blown coverage that led to a touchdown in the third quarter.

With time ticking down on the Citrus Bowl clock, Fisher said it was emotional knowing it would be the last time he could be playing for Hankwitz.

The team captain said he remembers when he committed to Northwestern as a high schooler, the defensive coordinator called him on the phone while he was in the Katy High School lunchroom and spoke to him.

“Just being able to play for him is, I mean, it’s so awesome,” Fisher said. “It’s just truly a pleasure and a blessing and something that I’ve never taken for granted.”

As the clock hit zero, Hankwitz turned around and knew what was coming. He put his arms out as two defensive lineman doused him in orange Gatorade. It was the first Gatorade shower he’d ever had, but he called it “the best one I’ve ever had.”

This season’s group will always have a special place in Hankwitz’s heart, because of the hardships it had to face in order to play this season and for the adversity it faced in games.

Hankwitz said it was hard to not get emotional this week thinking about his last game and his career. But he still stuck to his routine of creating his game plan, making some minor adjustments before game time and coordinating with his fellow defensive coaches.

He credits his success over the years to being around great coaches and staff — Bo Schembechler at Michigan, Jim Young at Purdue, Bill McCartney at Colorado and Glen Mason at Kansas were among those he mentioned.

Northwestern’s defensive coordinator frequently defers the success of his defenses to his players and his staff. Fitzgerald said his humility, as well as his care for players, has made Hankwitz such a great coach over the years.

“He’s raised the bar for anyone that’s been around him to get to his level,” Fitzgerald said. “And that’s being a great steward of the game, a great steward of life and the power of influence you have as a coach to do everything you can to make a positive impact in young people’s lives. And there’s no one that’s done that better than Mike Hankwitz.”

Hankwitz said he will first take some time to rest and focus on his health with some extra time on his hands. He then plans to catch up with old friends from his career that he hasn’t had a chance to see due to the grind of a college football schedule.

When a coach starts his career, Hankwitz says they never know how long they’re going to coach. But, with his final stop in Evanston, coaching under Fitzgerald was one of his highlights. And he established a defensive standard and identity that will remain long after Hankwitz has gone.

“Hopefully we raised the bar a little, and next time they can knock it down and win the Big Ten in Indianapolis,” Hankwitz said. “I just feel so fortunate that I was able to come here.”

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Twitter: @andrewcgolden

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