While 2020 has come out the gates in relatively crummy fashion, the decade leading up to it were some of the Big Ten’s best. Huge TV deals, and overall success highlighted the 10 year span in the conference.
In an attempt to reflect upon the good times — the period of time from 2010 to 2019 — we at B5Q have set out to grade each football and basketball program over that time span.
Next up, we take a look at the Northwestern Wildcats.
Football grade: B-
Historically, the Northwestern football program has struggled in the Big Ten. In fact, prior to 2000, the Wildcats had only played in three bowl games since becoming a founding member of the Big Ten in 1896. As the conference’s only private school, the Wildcats’ academic standards and lack of football tradition have made it difficult to build a consistent winner in Evanston.
That all changed in 2006 when the school hired former Wildcat all-conference linebacker Pat Fitzgerald to lead his alma mater as head coach. Since then, the perception of the Northwestern football program has changed significantly.
The past decade has undoubtedly been the most successful in the history of the program. Since 2010, the Wildcats had a total record of 72-56, played in seven bowl games and had three seasons of 10+ wins. The Wildcats have given Big Ten West rivals Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska trouble in the past decade, beating the Badgers three times, the Hawkeyes five times and the Cornhuskers four times. Point being, Northwestern was a tough out during the 2010s and developed into one of the most consistent programs in the division.
Fitzgerald’s program overhaul reached a pinnacle in 2019, when the Wildcats won the West division and played in their first ever Big Ten Championship game. Northwestern would go on to lose to Ohio State, but just seeing those purple and white uniforms on the big stage in Indy was a huge accomplishment for the program.
Despite a 3-9 record last season, the worst of the Fitzgerald era, Northwestern has established itself as a legitimate, winning football program. The Wildcats’ lack of top-end NFL talent, keeps them from earning a straight B. However, the work Fitzgerald has done in Evanston over the past decade has been remarkable, given where the program was when he took over.
Basketball grade: D+
The Northwestern basketball program has been a Big Ten bottom feeder for most of its history, and not much has changed in the past decade. The Wildcats finished with a 161-166 record between three seasons under Bill Carmody and seven seasons with current head coach Chris Collins. The Wildcats have struggled to make strides in the Big Ten, having finished over .500 in league play just once in the past ten seasons.
At the start of the decade under former head coach Bill Carmody, Northwestern earned two NIT bids and even made the quarterfinals in 2011. But a 4-14 conference record in 2013 resulted in Carmody’s firing after an uneventful thirteen seasons at the helm. Enter current head coach Chris Collins, a former Coach K disciple who was long considered to be a candidate to eventually replace him at Duke. After posting a losing conference record each of his first three seasons, Collins’ team finally broke through in his fourth year in Evanston.
In 2017, the Wildcats notched a program-record 24 wins and earned their first NCAA Tournament berth in program history. At the time, Northwestern was the only Power Five school to have never made the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats defeated ninth seeded Vanderbilt, earning their first ever tournament win, before falling to number one seed Gonzaga in round two. This fairy tale season was the best in Northwestern program history and took their grade from a D to a D+.
After their breakout 2017 season though, the Wildcats have found themselves at the bottom of the league once again. Collins’ teams have finished dead last in the Big Ten each of the past two seasons, going a combined 7-33 in conference play. Northwestern will always be one of the most difficult Power Five schools to win at so kudos to Collins for at least getting this program to the Big Dance once.