A transcript of Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald's remarks on Day 1 of Big Ten Media Days.
THE MODERATOR: We're joined by Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald.
COACH FITZGERALD: It's great to be with everyone. I hope I'm not interrupting your lunch. I hope the Big Ten took care of you and your lunch is good. Thank you for all that you do, and it's great to be with you again. As Julie (Dunn, Press Conference Moderator) alluded to, looking back a little bit in the rearview mirror, obviously proud of our senior class that just graduated. It was the all-time winning senior class in program history.
To take us to four straight bowl games is unprecedented in our program. Now as I look forward to this year and the senior group that we have coming back, I remember when I was going into my senior year as a student-athlete at Northwestern, coming off a Big Ten Championship. We've got a group of seniors now that -- when I got recruited it was about "expect victory" from Gary Barnett. Now we've got a group of young men that expect bowl games and now are hoping to take the next step and expect championships. That's where we're at as a program. Thirteen returning starters, which include all of our specialists. There's a few more there with 55 returning lettermen.
Offensively, we feel very confident, very strong about the weapons that we have across the board. In all phases skill-wise, we bring back some experience on the offensive line. Defense, I thought we had a very competitive spring. We know we need to improve in areas in all three phases, but most importantly on defense we've got to affect the quarterback more. I thought we took some strides and some steps during spring practice for that, and obviously that improvement will continue as we move forward into Camp Kenosha and as we get ready for the season. Academically, was an unprecedented year for us in 2011 and 2012. It starts with 32 players that were Academic All-Big Ten, which is a program record. For three quarters-to remind everyone, we're on a quarter system academically-there's a fall winter and spring quarter-we had a team GPA of 3.04 as a team, something that we're very proud of. And obviously we take great pride in being ranked as where we're at in the U.S. News & World Report and all the national rankings. But most importantly and humbling, we take great pride in being the No. 1 school academically in Football Bowl Subdivision as far as APR scores. So we believe we're the No. 1 school academically in the country.
And coupled after four straight bowl games, we believe we're a program headed with a lot of positive momentum and headed in the right direction. We've got a very difficult schedule this year. We're the only team that's going to play three BCS-level teams in the non-conference. We're fortunate to have that happen, and with a number of them in our place, but we're going to have a very difficult real challenge right out of the gate, as we go up to Syracuse. It's going to be a difficult challenge for us. With that, I'll open it up to some questions and again, I just thank everyone for being here.
Q. Coach, how confident are you in Kain Colter being a full-time quarterback for this team? Do you see him being the full-time quarterback, or splitting snaps with someone else?
COACH FITZGERALD: I'm extremely confident in Kain as a quarterback. He has more experience going into his junior year than Mike Kafka and Danny Persa did when they were his age. So he's got a lot of experience. We got an opportunity to see his skill set a year ago, especially when you looked at the Nebraska game. I think obviously he did some very special things in that game, but also in every game. He's a very dynamic quarterback.
We're very fortunate and blessed to have a young man like Trevor Siemian that's competing also for the quarterback position, and he's very talented.
So everyone's that has been around our program enough knows, especially our beat reporters, what we feel and what we believe philosophically as a program. It's about players, formations or schemes and plays. So we're going to make sure that what we do schematically marries up and matches with the skill set of our players. And we're very confident in Kain's ability, but we're also very confident in the things Trevor and Zack Oliver can do also.
Q. What's the right number of conference games, do you think? Is it eight, is it nine, is it ten, and is that something you'll all talk about while you're in Chicago?
COACH FITZGERALD: I don't believe we'll talk about that while we're here. We had a brief meeting earlier, and that was not a topic of the conversation.
But I'm a fan of eight, and I think most coaches would be a fan of eight conference games.
To have the four on the road and four at home just seems to make sense for us as coaches, and I know there might be another dynamic if we were to go to nine and how that would all shape up. I think it would really impact our nonconference scheduling also if we were to go to nine games moving forward.
So I'd be in favor of keeping it at eight games. I think we know what that schedule looks like. I think our fans -- and if you look at our schedule moving forward, you know especially as we're going to this new playoff model, I believe if we handle our business appropriately with obviously the challenges of the Big Ten, but also the schools that we have in our nonconference schedule, I believe that's why so many recruits are really excited about our program.
We handle our business. We're going to be poised and prepared to play for the Big Ten championship. And with our strength of schedule, new playoff format, with that being a component, from what I've seen, should help us tremendously.
Q. With two teams ineligible for the title game in the other division and possibility of Penn State taking a step back here given the sanctions, is there a competitive balance, do you see a competitive balance problem growing in the Big Ten, and should the conference do anything about that?
COACH FITZGERALD: I think those matters will be discussed by Commissioner Delany and our athletic directors. As you look at this year and the other division on the other side, there's two teams that are ineligible for the championship.
As a coach, you think about those things. Those are out of our control. Number one, I'd like to play well enough to be in the game. So that's my priority, my focus, and that kicks off here next week.
But from a macro and a big picture standpoint, you know, maybe our division winner should automatically be in the championship, and then you take the other teams that are eligible and we put a committee together, the 12 ADs, and Commissioner Delany as the 13th vote, and kind of how we're doing the playoff. That would make a little bit of sense to me.
I like the idea maybe having two guys from our division in. So who knows? Any way to get to Indianapolis, that's what it's all about, and I think that's what every team's focus is to play for the Big Ten championship.
Q. Matt threw up a lot of yards on the ground to your opposition. How do you plan to address that during the training camp in a couple of weeks?
COACH FITZGERALD: Stopping the run is always a priority, I think, of any football team. Doesn't matter if you're my son Jack, who is getting ready to play his first game of football, the Northshore Titans, or the Chicago Bears and Coach Smith who start their practice today, or the Cats, in between. You've got to stop the run. And it always starts up front.
And we gave up way too many explosion plays a year ago. All the issues that we have, we always start first and foremost with ourselves as coaches. Was it a schematic issue? Was it a teaching issue? Was it a personnel issue? Fundamental, technique? What are the issues? And you're always going to start in there.
We looked at that. In the rearview mirror, we believe we've created solutions. And it's always going to start and end up front. I feel great about the young men we have coming back up there. Three young men have really emerged as leaders in that group. We have Brian Arnfelt back that missed all of last season at defensive tackle. Tyler Scott and Quentin Williams have been multi-year members of our leadership council.
And so I like the leadership. I like the way that group took a step forward in the spring. And, you know, spring is spring. You know your opponent. You know his strengths and weaknesses like the back of your hand. Now it's time to get better and improve in fall camp and see if we can be prepared for the opener of Syracuse.
Q. Since I know you've said about last year's team that you felt you guys were too loyal to some of the seniors, and I know you said that on the radio today. Looking at some of these young guys you have coming back, what kind of competition do you want to see from these guys? What do you hope comes through camp?
COACH FITZGERALD: Well, let me clarify, I think some people have said I've been too loyal. So I guess that's a curse of me. I'm a loyal guy. I learned that from Walk (former Northwestern coach Randy Walker) and I learned that from my parents.
In the rearview mirror, there's a lot of things you'd like to do differently in that five-game stretch. But more importantly, we focus on the way we finished. We felt strongly that we could have gone undefeated down the stretch. We didn't. We identified why we did not do that, what we need to improve. And our young men are working diligently to do that.
And we get back together here in a couple of weeks, and we had 20 of our 21 freshmen on campus for summer school. And we're going to see the fruits of that labor down the road. Will it be in training camp? No, they've been here for six weeks, so they know from our campus that the lake is east and the city is south. And from there on in, we've got a lot of work to do.
So we're excited to have that young group. They were highly touted in recruiting, but Coach Walk used to say all the time: The best thing about a freshman is you become a sophomore. So we're a long way from that group being in that step. So we'll see how it goes.
But I'm excited to have the group and looking forward to seeing what they can do to help our varsity improve.
Q. Did the players or you as coaches talk at all in the offseason about finally winning that Bowl game and how important of a hurdle is that to overcome just for the program moving forward?
COACH FITZGERALD: Well, it's one game. You know, obviously there's a lot of games in between now and then that we have to be successful at to have that opportunity again. I've got a (stuffed monkey) in my office poised and prepared to be completely shredded. We're looking forward to - we're proud to have gone to four straight bowl games, but that's not the destination for our program. You walk in to our team room to my right in our dressing room would be our goals. The first one is to consistently prepare. The second is to win our division. The third is to win the Big Ten championship. The fourth is to win our Bowl game. We don't put a bowl on there because that's out of our control, based on the way the current structure is. So that's definitely a goal, we talked about it in one of our opening team meetings, and then I cover up the goals that don't matter until later on in the season. That's one of those goals that will not matter after we start training camp.
Couple things: number one is it would be great to get that monkey off our back, and number two it would be great to have something else great talked about our program in the offseason. And for our seniors, especially our fifth year guys, it would be their fifth straight bowl game, which would be unprecedented in our program history. For them to be the catalysts, the group that starts that tradition of us being a part of five straight bowl wins. Just has a great ring to it doesn't it? Then obviously we'll have different challenges, so it'll be spectacular.
Q. Since after that first game at BC last year, you called Ibraheim Campbell - looked like a lost puppy. What do you expect from him as you guys move forward now that he's got that season under his belt?
COACH FITZGERALD: Well, at the end of the season, I think they called him a freshman all-American, so I think he figured it out pretty well.
He's a very dynamic young man. He's a redshirted freshman that was playing in the secondary with a lot of bullets flying around. You can't put a price tag or a value on the experience as you get in the arena.
And the credit goes to him. He's really grown. He's matured. He's grasped our defense, and he'll be our quarterback, so to speak, of the secondary. And he's got higher expectations for himself than any of us on the coaching staff have for him, and I think that's a hallmark of a champion and that's what he is, a champion.
Q. How do you feel about Coach Tim Beckman pointing out the game against you guys this year and maybe making it into a larger rivalry?
COACH FITZGERALD: I can't speak for Coach and the way that he feels. Obviously I'm not part of that program. But we've got the utmost respect for the school down there in Champaign, and I've got a ton of respect for Tim. We've known each other for a while. It's a great rivalry that we've been a part of.
I'll go back to when I was being recruited, and I have a lot of friends that went to school there, and we stay in close contact and in touch.
When I was in school, we'd actually go down and visit those guys sometimes throughout the year and they'd come up and see us. And there was a great mutual respect.
And I don't follow a lot of those things closely because I take the focus and the attention on to our program. And we're focused right now on our opener. But before that, we're going to be focused on ourselves. We have to get a lot better than we were last year, and that's the challenge as a coaching staff.
Q. Do you have any issues with your peers soliciting Penn State players under the circumstances that you have right now?
COACH FITZGERALD: Again, I'm not going to speak for their circumstances, and I'm not sure about their programs and where they're at.
From our standpoint, we met as a staff -- we actually watched the press conference as a staff. I've got a lot of young coaches on my staff.
And I wanted them to watch President Emmert as he talked about the feelings of the NCAA, and I wanted to use it as an opportunity to educate and help our staff grow from the standpoint of the understanding and the expectations that we have professionally.
Once that was over, we had a very short and brief discussion as a coaching staff that, number one, we're excited about our team, we're focused on our team, and no way, shape, or form are we going to pursue, contact, or reach out to Penn State University.
And that's our situation, and that's how we've moved forward with it and how we'll continue to move forward with it. But to speak to the other programs, that would be a question for those coaches.
Q. Your new uniforms came out this morning. I was wondering what you thought about the final product and if you and your players had any input on that final product?
COACH FITZGERALD: It's been a great offseason working with Under Armour, and we're obviously very excited to be a part of the Under Armour brand, the only Big Ten school to be in the Under Armour uniform and the Under Armour family. And working with the entire organization and Kevin (Plank, founder of Under Armour) and his staff are just absolutely amazing.
The diligence, the attention to detail and the design of the uniform has just been amazing.
And every step of the way, there's been communication with Dr. Jim Phillips, our AD, with myself, for our uniforms in particular, with Mike Polisky who runs our marketing team up at Northwestern, and we put it to our leadership council. And the guys really had a lot of input.
But you can see how it plays on the tradition of our campus, on the uniqueness to our traditions of the Northwestern stripe. And some people have accused me of being the youngest old school person in the country and I'm okay with that. To see the Northwestern stripe prominently in our jersey I think is classy. I think it shows the tradition of our university, not just of our football program.
And I'll just put it to you this way: The technology in that uniform is cutting edge. It's strong and as unique as anything in our country.
Our guys are going to play fast. It's going to keep them a little bit -- I think from a standpoint of the elements of the jersey are going to keep them I think a little bit in a safer place, and we're just going to continue to move forward.
And we're just getting started with that partnership of our two families coming together, and it's going to be a lot of fun.
Q. In the spring you talked a lot in the secondary about the young guys you have there, like Nick VanHoose. Is that a place where you think true freshmen may contribute this year, and are there positions where true freshmen can contribute?
COACH FITZGERALD: When you don't -- when -- a championship, every job is open. Our goal is to win the Big Ten championship. So absolutely, there's competition at every position.
I've got a strong inclination that Ward [Patrick Ward] and Vitabile [Brandon Vitabile] and Mulroe [Brian Mulroe] are going to start up front. And I can continue to go with every position if you want me to.
But we're competing now. We've added depth and good recruiting classes year after year that we believe, as a coaching staff, that if we do the right things, we develop the guys the right way, we coach them up the right way, we come together even further in camp, that hopefully we'll have a chance to be prepared for our opener. If we do things the right way, we'll have a chance to compete for the championship in this league. That's our goal. We're not going to hide from it. And at the end of the day, we have a lot of competition across the board to make our team better.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you, Coach.