November 2. Circle the date.
*Checks Indiana football schedule*
Wait, what? Northwestern?
No, there isn’t any bad blood to report here. Actually, it is quite the opposite — some mutual respect. And more than that — a measuring stick.
You see, the November 2 meeting in Bloomington between IU and the Wildcats will mark the third of what should be four winnable games for Indiana over a four week span. Even with three games still to go, we’ll know everything we need to know about these 2019 Hoosiers when the dust settles at Memorial Stadium on November 2.
For those of us who have been at this for a while, it may be difficult to think of Northwestern as anything other than the laughing stock of the Big Ten. But that is old news.
The new reality?
Northwestern is a model for Indiana. Scoff if you will, but here are the facts.
For the first time in 90 years, the Wildcats have had four straight winning seasons. You read that right. Indiana hasn’t finished a season with a winning record since 2007.
Last year, the Wildcats won the Big Ten West by three games and played in the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis.
“Oh sure, but that was all against the Big Ten West,” you say?
That was the same Big Ten West that Indiana has gone 3-8 against during the last four seasons.
The point here isn’t to browbeat you with the realities of Indiana football. You’ve surely had enough of that.
No, the point is that rather than focusing on the more fantasy than reality notion that IU will somehow knock off Ohio State or Michigan this season, something they haven’t done in more than 30 years, first you better figure out how you got passed up by a team like Northwestern.
And fix it. Now.
Wildcat head coach Pat Fitzgerald has done the seemingly impossible in Evanston. Indiana fans don’t know what real suffering feels like.
Northwestern went 47 years between bowl games, lost an NCAA record 34 straight games from 1979 to 1982 and averaged two wins per season from 1971 to 1995.
And along came Fitzgerald.
The Illinois native starred for Northwestern on its magical 1995 team that shocked the world and it made it to the Rose Bowl. Fitzgerald was a two time consensus All-American and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year with the Wildcats.
And now he is doing it all over again as the head coach.
There may be no better authority than Fitzgerald in college football on what it takes to bring a program up from the ashes. He has seen it both as a player and a coach.
And interestingly enough, Fitzgerald sees Indiana as a team on the rise — a program not unlike his own that is perhaps on the brink of something special.
“I look at Tom (Allen) right now at IU,” Fitzgerald said on BTN during Big Ten Media Day. “They’re right there, right? They’re right there. I lived that as a player. We were right there.
Once you have that break through, Gary Barnett (the 1995 Northwestern head coach) gave that analogy of priming the pump. You keep priming that pump and priming it, you don’t know how close the water is, but if you stop that water goes all the way back down. But once you get that water flowing you can move it with your finger.”
While Fitzgerald believes IU football is “right there,” Barnett’s analogy has thus far played out a little differently during Allen’s first two seasons at Indiana.
There is energy around the program, the pump gets primed, and the water starts to creep up in the early portion of the season. There is hope in Bloomington!
By November, perhaps no one quit pumping, but the results are the same. The water, and the momentum of a program, has seemingly gone all the way back down.
The pumping has gotten a bit easier at Northwestern recently due to major upgrades to their facilities.
The signature addition is the $270 million lakefront Walter Athletics Center, which was completed in 2018.
“Like going from the Bates Motel to the Ritz-Carlton,” Jay Hooten, Northwestern’s director of sports performance for football told the Chicago Tribune.
As you have likely heard, there is a facilities war going on in college football. Revenue from the Big Ten Network has fueled the fire in Indiana’s conference.
“The number one way you can show commitment (to recruits) is the improvements in facilities,” Fitzgerald said.
While they haven’t overtaken Alabama and Clemson on the recruiting front. Fitzgerald says that there has been a lot more curiosity surrounding the program.
And while Indiana has made major upgrades in recent years, its football facilities are now not on the same level as Northwestern.
In just about every measurable way, the former laughing stock of Big Ten football has surpassed Indiana.
But Indiana did somehow still outperform Northwestern in recruiting in the class of 2019 according to the rankings.
And the Wildcats can’t bring their shiny new lakefront facilities with them to Bloomington on November 2.
Tom Allen cannot dictate IU’s spend on facilities anyway. If he wants to juice the enthusiasm at IU for catching up in the facilities arms race, he needs to win.
Simply put, games like November 2 against Northwestern will define Allen’s tenure in Bloomington.
Allen’s message to his players right now has to be along the lines of something else that Fitzgerald said last week in the context of the emergence of his own team.
“Control the controllable. Go out and earn it. If you guys want to gain respect, go out and earn it.”
Things are very fluid in the Big Ten right now.
If Indiana wants to stay afloat in this rapidly changing climate, they had better go out on November 2…and earn it.
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