Big Ten

Extensions for Chris Collins, Pat Fitzgerald reward achievements and signal best is still to come for Northwestern

Extensions for Chris Collins, Pat Fitzgerald reward achievements and signal best is still to come for Northwestern

When Northwestern announces the reported big contract extensions for Chris Collins and Pat Fitzgerald on Tuesday afternoon, it will be a signal.

Or rather the announcement will be the latest part of an already-ongoing signal that Northwestern athletics — and specifically the school's two highest-profile programs — is ready to take the next step and run with the big dogs of the Big Ten.

The investments, in terms of both dollars and years, are being reported as substantial, keeping Fitzgerald in Evanston for another decade and Collins around for nearly as long. The big-time spending has already been reflected in the facilities upgrades the two programs are receiving. Fitzgerald's program is getting a sparkling new facility on the shores of Lake Michigan. Collins' program is getting a complete renovation to Welsh-Ryan Arena.

Common thinking is that there are many ingredients that go into building winning college programs. Northwestern now has all those ingredients, meaning Collins and Fitzgerald — given big financial rewards for getting their programs to their respective points — should be ready to do more winning than the folks in Evanston have ever seen.

Truth is, though, they've already done that, and that's why these extensions are coming.

Collins has made the most dramatic improvements, in his fourth season getting the Wildcats to the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history. Last season featured a program-record number of wins and a thrilling victory in the team's first-ever NCAA tournament game. Collins has undoubtedly turned what was a perennial basement-dweller into a winning Big Ten program, continuing to attract the highest-rated recruits the program has ever seen.

Fitzgerald has delivered half the school's all-time bowl wins, the 2013 Gator Bowl victory being the program's first postseason win since the 1940s. He's won 77 games in 11 seasons, including a big Pinstripe Bowl win over Pitt to cap last season, accomplishing more than any other coach the university has ever employed. He's carved out a successful recruiting niche at a place with academic standards other programs — even those in the academically powerful Big Ten — don't have to come close to dealing with.

But as much as Tuesday's extensions will be a celebration of the past year and the past few years for both coaches, it will equally be a vote of confidence in the future of the two programs.

Collins has talked for four years now how he's planning to build a long-term winner in Evanston, but with his rapid rebuild, conversation has grown louder and louder that he could be looking for a bigger job. His nearly two decades as a member of Mike Krzyzewski's program at Duke, both as a player and an assistant coach, as well as Coach K's increasing age, have made Collins-to-Duke questions fairly frequent. But Collins is having remarkable success building a winner out of nothing in the area where he grew up. The Glenbrook North product always refers to Chicagoland as his home. Coaching in the Big Ten always provides the best competition — and the best resources — and there's something to be said for Collins trying to do at Northwestern what Coach K did at Duke. That's not to say Northwestern will become one of the biggest college basketball programs in existence. But it's an academically excellent institution where he has already built a winner from almost nothing. More winning, and Collins can lure better and better recruits.

And there's reason to believe that the upcoming season will feature Collins and the Cats reaching more new highs. Four of the team's starters — senior guard Bryant McIntosh, senior guard Scottie Lindsey, junior forward Vic Law and junior center Dererk Pardon — return, as does Aaron Falzon, a sharpshooting starter from 2015-16 who sat out all of this past season with an injury. While few will predict a Big Ten championship, this Northwestern team certainly appears to be heading into 2017-18 among the league's top squads.

There will probably always be concerns that Collins will leave if the wins keep coming, concerns that will grow more concerning when Coach K finally hangs up his whistle in Durham. But the two sides seem, at least publicly, very committed to one another.

Then there's Fitzgerald, who's already been Northwestern's head football coach for more than a decade and has long established himself as the program's all-time winningest coach.

But if you feel Fitzgerald is being rewarded for middling success — even in light of the fact that he's done what he's done at Northwestern, his bowl record is just 2-5 and he had that ugly two-season stretch of 5-7 records after hitting the program's previous highest point in 2012 — he could very well join Collins in preparing for his best-ever season. 2017 could be a big year for the football-playing Cats, as well, as Fitzgerald welcomes back the Big Ten's leading rusher in senior ball-carrier Justin Jackson and figures to get another season of improvement from junior quarterback Clayton Thorson after a much better sophomore season in 2016. With almost the entirety of the Big Ten West heading into this season with new quarterbacks and plenty of other questions — Iowa, Nebraska and Minnesota all figure to be down from last season — Northwestern could find itself in a two-team race with Wisconsin for a spot in the Big Ten title game, an accomplishment that would be as monumental for Fitzgerald's Cats as reaching the tournament was for Collins'.

Unlike Collins, Fitzgerald doesn't generate as many fears about leaving for another gig. That's due mainly to the fact that he's already coaching at his alma mater and that he's a tremendous ambassador for the university, spotted leading cheers and jumping in the aisles during Collins' team's NCAA tournament games out in Salt Lake City. Plus, Fitzgerald has been a hot commodity at various points during his decade-plus tenure in Evanston and hasn't left yet. Like Collins and Duke, you'd have to feel the only thing that could draw Fitzgerald away from Northwestern would be a gig of enormous stature. The Bears?

While there are plenty of micro signals these extensions send about the two coaches and the two programs, there's one big macro effect that trumps them all: This is as big a time for Northwestern athletics as there has ever been.

Between the crescendo of successes on the court and the field, the national attention these two coaches are drawing and the shiny new facilities these coaches are getting to add to their recruiting toolboxes, it's hard to imagine a better time for both programs.

These coaches have transformed their respective programs from historic Big Ten laughing stocks to winning programs that moving forward could compete for championships in one of the toughest conferences in each of their respective sports. And that's why Collins and Fitzgerald are being rewarded Tuesday.

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

1121_baker_mayfield.jpg
USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 12 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (10-1)

Still the team with the best resume in the country, no one can compete with OU’s wins over TCU, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, the latter two coming away from Norman. Baker Mayfield might not be a choir boy, but he’s the best player in the nation.

2. Miami (10-0)

You might think that being down 28-14 to Virginia in the second half was cringe-worthy, but the Canes made up for things by storming back with 30 unanswered points. Now they finally have to go away from South Florida for the first time since almost losing to North Carolina last month.

3. Alabama (11-0)

Tide gonna roll. But this Cupcake Weekend in the SEC has got to stop. While teams in other conferences are slugging it out against rivals, Bama gets to take a day off against Mercer? It’s just not fair. Also, Bama’s schedule is so soft, there’s no way it deserves to be the No. 1 team in the country.

4. Georgia (10-1)

The Dawgs should wrap an 11-1 regular season this weekend against Georgia Tech. But the SEC title game presents a kind of no-win scenario: undefeated Alabama or Auburn, who throttled Georgia earlier this month.

5. Wisconsin (11-0)

You didn’t need Wisconsin to do what it did to Iowa and Michigan to prove it had one of the best defenses in the country — but that sure didn’t help. Stockpiling national love with those two wins, a win in the Big Ten title game figures to make the Badgers a Playoff lock.

6. Clemson (10-1)

Why’d Kelly Bryant have to go and get hurt for that Syracuse game? The Tigers would be No. 1 and the undisputed best team in the country. Still, though, a win over Miami in the ACC title game ought to get the champs back into the Playoff.

7. Auburn (9-2)

Great job pounding Louisiana-Monroe, Tigers. You shall not escape the wrath over Cupcake Weekend in the SEC. That dumb game aside, Auburn and Alabama will meet in a titanic Iron Bowl this weekend with a trip to the SEC title game on the line — and perhaps a Playoff spot, as well.

8. Ohio State (9-2)

Not that pummeling Illinois is any big deal, but the Buckeyes are still alive in this thing and look like a team capable of making some Playoff noise. First, Ohio State has to win The Game and then the Big Ten title game to knock out undefeated Wisconsin.

9. Notre Dame (9-2)

Out of the Playoff chase thanks to that loss at Miami, Notre Dame squeaked by Navy this past weekend. Hope a New Year’s Six bowl game is enough for the Irish. We know it’s not enough for those ND fans. So maybe join a conference? Just saying.

10. TCU (9-2)

The Frogs can still make their mark on the Playoff race, even if they can’t get in themselves. The Big 12 title game will almost surely be TCU’s attempt at revenge on Oklahoma. Unfortunately, if revenge does come, it will probably cannibalize the conference’s Playoff hopes, too.

11. Penn State (9-2)

Why Penn State gave up 44 points to Nebraska, I do not know. What I do know is that probably no one cared because Penn State is going to go down as the most inconsequential 10-2 team of all-time. Such a bummer considering the preseason expectations for both the team and Saquon Barkley.

12. USC (10-2)

Yeah, I guess there’s still a way for USC to make the Playoff, but it’s hard to imagine that madness unfolding, even in the oft-mad college football. The Trojans get the winner of the Apple Cup in the Pac-12 title game.

13. UCF (10-0)

Finally we get our much-anticipated UCF-USF showdown this weekend. Make it count, Knights. This is probably gonna be Scott Frost’s last regular-season game in Orlando.

14. Washington (9-2)

It’s hard to say who has the edge in the Apple Cup, but certainly the stakes are high, with the winner going off to play USC in the Pac-12 title game. Can either team make the Playoff? Well, probably not, no.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Is this it for Mike Leach on The Palouse? He could be a hot candidate this offseason and leave for perceived greener pastures. Winning the Apple Cup would go a long way toward making that happen.

16. Mississippi State (8-3)

A win in the Egg Bowl means a 9-3 regular season for the Bulldogs with their three losses coming against three top-10 teams.

17. Oklahoma State (8-3)

Poor Okie State has been so good all year and had two losses to the two best teams in its conference, and then it went and lost to K-State for some ridiculous reason. The Mullet deserved better in 2017.

18. Northwestern (8-3)

The Cats are the fourth-best team in the Big Ten, simple as that, with wins over Michigan State and Iowa and conference losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. As commendable an effort as you’ll find in a highly competitive league. Plus, Fitz’s team is on a six-game win streak that could end up extending to eight.

19. Stanford (8-3)

Already with a win over Washington, Stanford could close the regular season with two wins over top-10 teams in its final three games. Also Bryce Love is back in the groove after back-to-back 100-yard games.

20. Memphis (9-1)

The Tigers have lost just one game all season, to the best Group of Five team out there. Heck of a season by Memphis.

21. Michigan State (8-3)

A 17-7 win over Maryland couldn't have been the most exciting way for anyone to spend their weekend. Sparty's had a mighty fine season, though, considering how badly things went in 2016.

22. LSU (8-3)

The SEC has seemingly gotten increasingly better as the year has progressed, with LSU and Mississippi State making for a solid-enough middle tier. But remember when LSU lost to Troy? That wasn’t good.

23. South Florida (9-1)

If not for that loss to Houston, USF’s showdown with UCF this weekend would be for Group of Five supremacy. Even without that, though, this should be a highly entertaining affair.

24. Virginia Tech (8-3)

The Hokies have a chance to salvage their tumble at the close of the season with a win at Virginia. But given how well the Cavs played at Miami this past weekend, a VT win is no sure thing.

25. Iowa State (7-4)

I understand the math and all, but can't the Big 12 just suspend its rules and send Iowa State to the title game? We all want to see the OU-ISU rematch. Why are you preventing us from being happy, Big 12?

See how they stack up: Week 11 college football top 25 rankings

1114_miami_hurricanes.jpg
USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 11 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 11 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (9-1)

The Sooners probably won’t be No. 1 in the Playoff rankings, as the committee will almost surely move Bama up a notch. But OU has an incredible resume, one much better than the Tide’s, with wins over Ohio State, TCU and Okie State. No one in the country can compete with those wins.

2. Miami (9-0)

The Canes are too legit to quit after pulverizing Notre Dame on Saturday night. That signature win teamed with the prior week’s win over Virginia Tech makes that near loss to lowly North Carolina seem like forever ago. Welcome to Miami, indeed.

3. Alabama (10-0)

A great win on Saturday night by the Tide in what seemed like their first actual game of the season. The schedule has been soft as silk, but now Auburn’s status as an SEC juggernaut makes the Iron Bowl a colossal clash.

4. Georgia (9-1)

Knocked off the top of the college football mountain, the Dawgs still deserve to be in the Playoff field, just a one-loss team with that one loss coming to another top team and that still-excellent win at Notre Dame. The resume’s still there, but now the SEC title game will be for all the marbles.

5. Wisconsin (10-0)

Bucky’s sitting pretty after making Iowa look like an FCS team on Saturday — especially impressive considering what Iowa did the week prior. Expect Michigan and Minnesota to provide decent enough challenges, but it seems like Wisconsin’s set up for a Big Ten title-game date with Ohio State.

6. Clemson (9-1)

Miami is the king of the ACC, but thankfully the ACC title game looks to be a Playoff play-in game between the Tigers and Canes. The champs still have as good a shot at this thing as anyone.

7. Auburn (8-2)

Two-loss Auburn in the Playoff? It’s not crazy at all after what the Tigers did to Georgia on Saturday, destroying the No. 1 team in the country and setting up what will be another titanic Iron Bowl meeting with Bama.

8. Notre Dame (8-2)

The Irish’s Playoff hopes sank like a ship in Biscayne Bay thanks to the demolition Miami dolled out on Saturday night. ND’s resume is still fine — two losses to two Playoff-caliber teams. But with no conference title to play for, a two-loss ND team might as well be a six-loss ND team.

9. Ohio State (8-2)

Guess who's still lurking in the Playoff race? It seemed Brutus was dead as could be after getting woodshedded by Iowa last weekend, but then Ohio State put a whooping on Michigan State and everyone’s ears perked up again. Appearing destined for the Big Ten title game, things could get interesting.

10. TCU (8-2)

The Frogs will most likely still get a crack at a Big 12 title — and revenge on the Sooners, who picked em apart on Saturday — but the Playoff might be out of the cards now.

11. Oklahoma State (8-2)

You know who’s still really good despite having losses to the two top teams in the Big 12? Okie State. That was some game between the Pokes and the ‘Clones on Saturday. If only the Mullet could be unleashed on the Playoff. Alas.

12. USC (9-2)

Dramatically overrated in the last batch of Playoff rankings, the Trojans now seem to be the cream of the unimpressive Pac-12 after Washington’s loss. All sorts of madness would have to occur in order for USC — or any Pac-12 team — to land in the final four.

13. Penn State (8-2)

Great job beating up on Rutgers this weekend, Penn State. Now what? With games against Nebraska and Maryland left, will any preseason favorite (outside Florida State, of course) get less attention down the stretch than the Lions?

14. UCF (9-0)

Central Florida is that Group of Five team this year. If it beats USF in the regular-season finale, people you know will be like, “Why shouldn’t UCF be in the Playoff?” And you’ll just have to give them a look and walk away.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Wazzu has to win one game and it’ll play USC for a Pac-12 title. Despite the lack of Playoff stakes, the Cougs winning a conference championship would be a pretty big deal.

16. Washington (8-2)

Of course, standing in Wazzu’s way is Washington, which tripped up against Stanford and could follow up last year’s Playoff appearance with absolutely nothing.

17. NC State (7-3)

The ACC and SEC seemed to have flipped roles overnight. The once-mediocre SEC now has three playoff-caliber teams and a couple other decent ones. The once-awesome ACC now has two of the best teams in the country and then … NC State.

18. Mississippi State (7-3)

The Bulldogs put up one heck of a fight against Bama on Saturday, and if it wasn’t for that ridiculous sequence of play-calling following Bama’s missed field goal, they might have won. Oh well.

19. LSU (7-3)

LSU beat Arkansas on Saturday, which isn’t a terribly difficult thing to do. 2017 will go down as a “what if” year for the Bayou Bengals. As in, what if they hadn’t lost to Troy?

20. Stanford (7-3)

Two of Stanford’s losses have come against ranked teams. It’s now beaten Washington and could beat Notre Dame in two weeks. It has one of the best running backs in America. So shouldn’t Stanford be better?

21. Memphis (8-1)

Since losing at UCF, Memphis has rolled everyone, winning five straight by an average of 47.8-27.2. Good job, Memphis.

22. Arizona (7-3)

The Wildcats are 7-3 this season and have scored at least 45 points in every one of those wins. That includes last weekend’s win over Oregon State, in which Khalil Tate ran for 206 yards and two touchdowns. Dude's good.

23. Northwestern (7-3)

Meow. The Cats are winners of five straight, even if their overtime streak came to an end. The quest for a 9-3 finish is on, with only Minnesota and lowly Illinois left on the regular-season schedule.

24. Michigan State (7-3)

Two losses in three weeks for Sparty, who got absolutely steamrolled by Ohio State this past weekend. Michigan State will likely be rooting for Michigan in The Game as it would figure to wrap its regular season with wins over Maryland and Rutgers.

25. West Virginia (7-3)

The ‘Neers have only lost to Virginia Tech, TCU and Okie State, which is not too bad. But that’s a couple losses too many in the high-flying Big 12.

Others receiving votes:

Virginia Tech (7-3)

Things have bottomed out for the Hokies, who have lost back-to-back road games to Miami and Georgia Tech after a 7-1 start. Without the loss to the Jackets, Virginia Tech’s resume would look real nice. But alas.

Iowa State (6-4)

There was almost another Attack of the ‘Clones this past weekend in a thriller with Okie State. But the Pokes came out on top, sending Iowa State to its fourth loss. That dream Big 12 title game featuring the ‘Clones? A fantasy. Sigh.

Michigan (8-2)

Michigan only has two losses, which means it has to be kinda good, right? Well, it’s lost its only two games against ranked teams and its best win is Florida, so … no, I guess not.

South Florida (8-1)

Way to beat UConn, South Florida.