Big Ten

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.