NFL Head Coach Carousel, Look No Further than the Holiday Bowl

Black Monday has come and gone in the NFL and 8-head coaches bit the dust in the 2018/2019 edition.  This means there are 8 openings at the most prestigious level within the football coaching profession.  I’m frustrated by a lot of things these days, but nothing drives me crazier than the predictability of head coach candidates in the NFL.  It’s either re-tread head guys hopeful that a change of scenery is the missing link, or the hot coordinators who happen to have headed the best statistical units from the year before.  One approach is wishful thinking, the other is being purely results oriented.  The one wild-card in the NFL coaching carousel is the occasional plunge towards plucking someone from the major college ranks, and this year, a candidate has emerged from a place less heralded in a national sense, but near and dear to my heart.

If you’ve read any of my previous articles, there’s a good chance you’re sick of hearing me wax poetic about Pat Fitzgerald and the program he’s built at Northwestern.  Anyone who follows college football understands that Fitz, year in and year out, has a knack for getting the most out his ragtag bunch in Evanston.  Quite frankly, I didn’t think there was much more to be said. Then came the Holiday Bowl on New Year’s Eve. In a bowl season marred with guys sitting out, limited motivation, blowouts, and flat-out bad football, The Wildcats mounted an epic second half comeback to defeat the Utes of Utah 31-20.  The comeback was epic due to the totality of the plot, not just the disparity on the scoreboard. 

Utah was sure to be a tremendously bad matchup for NW right out of the gate.  Winners of 11 of their last 12 bowl games, and with the game being played in their backyard, the Utes pride themselves in making statements in bowls. According to head coach Kyle Whittingham, their bowl-game dominance has become the main rallying cry for their entire program.  Boasting the 12th ranked adjusted run defense in the country facing a Northwestern attack that does most of its damage on the ground, their defensive front was utterly dominant from start to finish in 2018.  Going into the game, it was hard to imagine a realistic scenario in which heavy underdog Northwestern could move the ball. 

Early in the 1st quarter, it was evident that the line of scrimmage would belong to Utah.  Already on their 4th string tailback, the Cats lost their two leading receivers for the remainder of the game on the opening drive. Their best safety was ruled out prior to the game, and his backup was knocked out of the game by the 4-minute mark of the 1st.  A persistent, soaking rain began to fall. Utah cruised to a 20-3 halftime lead, and it appeared things were only going to worsen for the 2018 Big Ten West champs.  Negative rushing yards, an overwhelmed offensive line, walk-ons at receiver… things were looking about as grim as could be.  I’d typically never underestimate the culture that Fitz has built, but I must admit, I thought the game was over. In fact, I tweeted at halftime that it would be one of his greatest ever accomplishments if the cats could find a way to make the final score respectable. 

Utah received two things in the second half:  the opening kickoff and a relentless beating. Northwestern used grit and guile to steamroll their suddenly beleaguered foe en route to a 28-0 second half thumping. Utah never knew what hit them. I honestly think the biggest factor in the turn of the tide was the utter shock that the Utes experienced just from Northwestern getting up off the mat and continuing to fight.  Personnel, talent, 40-times, size, strength, injuries, weather conditions, game-flow, matchups, historical trends…. All of these factors pointed towards smooth sailing in the second half for the Pac 12 South Champion Utes.  It’s far from the norm in modern football, but Northwestern does not care about any of that nonsense. They play 60 minutes for each other and for a greater good. The scoreboard, circumstances, and opponent do not matter.  This is why they’ve flourished in the face of adversity more than any program I’ve ever seen.

 Coach Fitzgerald has been courted for several years by many of the nation’s top programs. Now finally, the mighty National Football League has come calling. Leading up to the game, rumors swirled regarding the Green Bay Packers requesting to meet with Fitz.  As you’d expect, amidst all the noise, he kept his team focused on the task at hand.  I’d be shocked if Fitz left Northwestern. Referring to his linebacker instincts, he often jokes about having ‘neck-roll’ in his blood. Well, he also has purple in his blood. He built the program back up from the ashes, and I don’t believe he’ll ever feel like his work there is done. That said, getting consideration from the Packers is a tremendous honor, and I couldn’t be more curious to see if his approach would hit home with high maintenance, millionaire athletes. It’s a different beast entirely, but I believe with the right candidate it can be done. 

At the end of the day, coaching is about interacting with people.  I was reminded of this during University of Texas’ head coach Tom Herman’s pre-Sugar Bowl press conference. I’m paraphrasing here, but part of his lengthy opening statement was that he’s constantly reminding himself and his staff that their job isn’t to coach players, or coach offense, or coach defense, or coach special teams… The job is about coaching people. By the way, as a 12-point underdog in the game, Texas proceeded to bury a talent-laden, yet disinterested Georgia bunch. 

If you want to build a self-sustaining successful football program, no matter the level, the game MUST be approached as a metaphor for life.  It’s just different from other sports. The physical and mental grind are nearly impossible to mimic in the outside world. This needs to be acknowledged before you can move forward.

Without fail, the team will embody the persona of the head coach.  This is why it’s so critical to choose an inspirational alpha male who’s committed to an attention to detail and has the ability to develop selfless leaders. In New York, the talk of sports radio is finding an offensive-minded head coach to help cultivate rookie quarterback Sam Darnold.  Choosing a head coach that has a background in an area you are lacking can often lead to a cycle similar to that of a dog chasing its tail.  I’m convinced this is why the head-coach turnover is as big as ever, and the failure rate is so astronomically high.

I’ve always said that if I ever had the chance to be a head coach, I’d work my way backwards, not forwards, towards building a championship team.  The game is territorial, I need an offense that can gain a yard on 4th and 1, and a defense that can get a stop in the inverse scenario.  This is where I’d start, and then I’d proceed to build competitions working my way down from here.  Now let me play owner for a minute. I know that in order to win a championship, my team will need to overcome adversity at some point.  I need a leader in my head coach who embraces this.  I need a leader who doesn’t compromise when it comes to effort.  I need a great communicator who understands leading by example is a farce, and works tirelessly to cultivate leaders throughout my roster.  About 3,000 more lines down in my requirements would be his offensive or defensive proficiency. 

Within my first few weeks coaching at Susquehanna, I learned that a great head coach keeps his finger on the pulse while allowing his coordinators to coordinate.  This should be no different at the NFL level.  If your pitch is your scheme or your previous stats and/or record, don’t waste my time.  If an NFL team is able to pry Patty Fitz out of Evanston, God bless.  I doubt this will ever happen.  That said, the point of this article is that great leaders can come from anywhere.  The NFL, specifically it’s stubborn ownership brass, need to break this broken hiring cycle, think outside the box, and begin to hire truly qualified candidates.  This is imperative in terms of rejuvenating a league where only one coach consistently gets the best out of his 53.  Don’t be surprised if they are the ones left standing the first Sunday in February. That’s what they build for.

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