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 6 college football top 25 rankings

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USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 6 college football top 25 rankings

A special, if somewhat sad edition of the top-25 rankings this week. Saturday delivered another terrific day of college football, but we also must remember and celebrate one of the best rock n rollers of all-time, Tom Petty, who passed away earlier this week. So, in addition to the usual top 25, you get some bonus rankings, my picks for the 25 best Petty songs ever. Enjoy.

With Week 6 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Clemson (6-0)

It wasn’t a blowout, but the champs rolled on with a comfortable-enough win over Wake Forest. Of bigger concern is Kelly Bryant, who left the game with an ankle injury.

No. 25: “Saving Grace” from Highway Companion, 2006

2. Alabama (6-0)

Bama held on to win by eight after a 21-point third-quarter lead shrunk down. But was it ever really in doubt for the Tide? They will no doubt roll through a weak schedule leading up to the Iron Bowl.

No. 24: “The Wild One, Forever” from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, 1976

3. TCU (5-0)

Defensively, the Frogs kept West Virginia out of the end zone through the first 41 minutes. Offensively, Kenny Hill had himself a day and matched the Mountaineers’ late charge. Oh, and TCU is now in complete command of the Big 12.

No. 23: “A Woman in Love (It’s Not Me)” from Hard Promises, 1981

4. Georgia (6-0)

The Dawgs delivered another SEC pounding — yawn — and have outscored their conference foes by 100 points in three games. Expect that number to balloon further with Mizzou on the schedule next.

No. 22: “Rebels” from Southern Accents, 1985

5. Penn State (6-0)

Saquon Barkley had a negative rushing total in the first half Saturday, and this one was somehow never in doubt. Barkley finished with a pair of touchdown runs as the Lions look far and away the best team in the Big Ten East.

No. 21: “The Same Old You” from Long After Dark, 1982

6. Wisconsin (5-0)

Things looked a bit dicey with Wisconsin tied with Nebraska in the third quarter. But the Badgers ran away, closing with three straight touchdowns and winning easily on Jonathan Taylor’s huge night: 249 yards and three touchdowns on 25 carries.

No. 20: “Shadow of a Doubt (A Complex Kid)” from Damn the Torpedoes, 1979

7. Washington (6-0)

I doubted Washington early, and at this point I’m not sure why. The Huskies pounded Cal on Saturday night — yes, Chris Petersen, a night game — and are one of three teams (Alabama, Ohio State) in the top 10 nationally in both scoring offense and scoring defense.

No. 19: “Century City” from Damn the Torpedoes, 1979

8. Washington State (6-0)

Wazzu’s still undefeated, taking complete advantage of an Oregon team without its starting quarterback, holding the Ducks to just 10 points, Oregon’s fewest since the LeGarrette Blount punch game.

No. 18: “Hometown Blues” from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, 1976

9. Miami (4-0)

What a wild finish in the rivalry game with Florida State, but Miami finally stopped its losing streak to the Noles. The Canes’ defense allowed more than 400 yards, but Malik Rosier threw three touchdown passes.

No. 17: “Listen to Her Heart” from You’re Gonna Get It!, 1978

10. Auburn (5-1)

Just like Alabama and Georgia, Auburn is clobbering everyone else in the SEC. Since only beating Mercer by 14, the Tigers have smoked Mizzou, Mississippi State and Ole Miss by a combined 144-47 score.

No. 16: “Runnin’ Down a Dream” from Full Moon Fever, 1989

11. Ohio State (5-1)

Somehow, the guy who was one of the most focused-on college football players of the summer, J.T. Barrett, is low-key having a phenomenal season. Saturday against Maryland: 320 passing/rushing yards and four total touchdowns.

No. 15: “Louisiana Rain” from Damn the Torpedoes, 1979

12. Virginia Tech (5-1)

Josh Jackson threw for 322 yards in the Hokies’ 13-point win over Boston College. You would’ve liked to see a bit more, but it was a nice bounce back after the loss to Clemson.

No. 14: “Ways to Be Wicked” from Nobody’s Children, 1995

13. Oklahoma State (4-1)

Okie State finally got to rest up after losing to TCU and almost losing to Texas Tech. The TCU loss looks better and better, but the Cowboys need to hope for a slip-up from the Frogs and not slip up themselves in the back-to-back gauntlet of West Virginia and Oklahoma.

No. 13: “Learning to Fly” from Into the Great Wide Open, 1991

14. Notre Dame (5-1)

Not expected to do much after last year’s eight-loss debacle, the Irish are kind of really good. They’re the No. 6 rushing team in the country, adding to their total with 341 more rush yards against North Carolina.

No. 12: “You Wreck Me” from Wildflowers, 1994

15. Michigan State (4-1)

Out of nowhere, here comes Sparty. A sensational defensive performance against a top-10 Michigan team in rain-soaked Ann Arbor, plus a not-so-bad loss to Notre Dame, has Mark Dantonio’s team skyrocketing.

No. 11: “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” from Stevie Nicks’ Bella Donna, 1981

16. West Virginia (3-2)

A valiant comeback attempt by Will Grier & Co. was shut down by Kenny Hill, but that doesn’t take away from West Virginia managing to look good on the road against one of the country’s best teams.

No. 10: “I Won’t Back Down” from Full Moon Fever, 1989

17. USC (5-1)

You don’t really get any points for beating up on terrible Oregon State. But things are about to get much tougher for Sam Darnold and USC with back-to-back games coming against Utah and Notre Dame.

No. 9: “Anything That’s Rock N Roll” from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, 1976

18. Oklahoma (4-1)

Iowa State played out of its mind, had a linebacker throwing passes and pulled the upset of the year. Baker Mayfield played well, the Sooners were just derailed by fumbling at the worst possible time. And like that, the Playoff chances take a nosedive.

No. 8: “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” from Greatest Hits, 1993

19. North Carolina State (5-1)

Don’t talk back to the Wolfpack, who now have beaten Florida State and Louisville this season. A Week 1 home loss to South Carolina — how did that happen? — is all preventing the Nov. 4 game against Clemson from determining the ACC.

No. 7: “Breakdown” from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, 1976

20. Stanford (4-2)

With a big win over previously undefeated Utah, the Cardinal are really still in the mix for the Pac-12 crown. Two losses (even two good ones) might box Stanford out of the Playoff race, but Bryce Love & Co. are a good team.

No. 6: “Don’t Do Me Like That” from Damn the Torpedoes, 1979

21. South Florida (5-0)

No game for the high-scoring Bulls this weekend. All eyes are on the season finale against UCF.

No. 5: “Even the Losers” from Damn the Torpedoes, 1979

22. Louisville (4-2)

Not even Lamar Jackson’s 427 total yards and three total touchdowns could put Louisville past NC State. The Cardinals have allowed 37.3 points per game in their four contests against Power Five teams this season.

No. 4: “Free Fallin’” from Full Moon Fever, 1989

23. San Diego State (6-0)

Another win for the Aztecs and another big day for Rashaad Penny. They’ve got six wins, two of them coming against Pac-12 teams, and can’t possibly lose to another Mountain West team, right?

No. 3: “The Waiting” from Hard Promises, 1981

24. Michigan (4-1)

The Wolverines’ offensive ineptitude really bit them hard on Saturday night, as the Big Ten-iest game of all-time ended in Michigan State walking out of the Big House with a win. Michigan can’t run the ball, nor can it throw the ball, which is a horrendous combination.

No. 2: “American Girl” from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, 1976

25. Utah (4-1)

The Utes are undefeated no more, losing to a good Stanford team on Saturday. In a crowded and competitive Pac-12, Utah gets no rest: USC next and Oregon, Wazzu and Washington down the line.

No. 1: “Refugee” from Damn the Torpedoes, 1979

Others receiving votes

UCF (4-0)

The Knights are rolling just as well as any Group of Five team out there, dropping 51 points in three quarters on Cincinnati.

Georgia Tech (3-1)

Off week for the Jackets, who have the second-best rushing offense in the country (shocking, I know) and a one-loss record in a crowded ACC.

Iowa (4-2)

The Hawkeyes finally got to exhale from those back-to-back losses to Penn State and Michigan State, two of the best-looking teams in the Big Ten. Iowa beat up on Illinois for a near 30-point win.

Texas Tech (4-1)

Scoring 65 points against Kansas is always fun! A good tune up for the Red Raiders who play road games at West Virginia and Oklahoma over the course of their next three games.

LSU (4-2)

Good for Coach O to go into The Swamp and get a huge road win over a ranked Florida team to stop his program’s free fall. Beating Florida is a whole lot better than losing to Troy.

Florida (3-2)

The Gators somehow lost a home game to an LSU team that lost to Troy last weekend. But I wanted to include Florida here to sign off with what The Swamp did to honor Tom Petty. It was awesome.

Other Tom Petty songs receiving votes

“Baby’s a Rock N Roller” from You’re Gonna Get It!, 1978

“Letting You Go” from Hard Promises, 1981

“Straight Into Darkness” from Long After Dark, 1982

“Make It Better (Forget About Me)” from Southern Accents, 1985

“The Apartment Song” from Full Moon Fever, 1989

“Surrender” from Anthology: Through the Years, 2000

New quarterback but similar result as Illini get walloped by Iowa

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USA TODAY

New quarterback but similar result as Illini get walloped by Iowa

Illinois had a new quarterback at the helm of its offense Saturday, but the result was all too similar for Lovie Smith's team.

Jeff George Jr. got the start and had some flashes early on, but the Iowa Hawkeyes dominated the Illini for a 45-16 runaway win in Iowa City.

Illinois actually hung with Iowa for an entire half, holding a second-quarter lead and trailing at halftime by only four. George led a game-tying, 85-yard touchdown drive in the second quarter, and the Illini took the lead after intercepting Nathan Stanley and turning that giveaway into a field goal. But an Akrum Wadley touchdown run in the final seconds before halftime brought an end to Illinois' last lead of the day.

George had the Illini in a position to retake the lead midway through the third quarter, but an 89-yard Iowa pick six pretty much sealed the deal, swinging the momentum entirely in the Hawkeyes' favor. They poured it on in the fourth quarter, scoring four touchdowns to turn an eight-point game into a 29-point rout.

Illinois matched Iowa in many respects, both teams going over 440 total yards. But George's three interceptions proved to be difference, especially when one of those turnovers was taken back for a back-breaking touchdown. George and Stanley threw for a nearly identical number of yards, but Stanley had just one pick to George's three and also threw a trio of touchdown passes.

After making the quarterback change after last weekend's loss to Nebraska, Smith saw an offense that moved much better than it had in previous weeks under Chayce Crouch's leadership. But the Illini still turned the ball over at critical moments and failed to produce many points. This time, though, the defense couldn't hold up its end of the bargain, either, especially late as the score snowballed.

Illinois dropped to 2-3 with the loss and is 0-2 in its two conference games. Iowa stopped the bleeding after losing back-to-back games to Penn State and Michigan State.