Several readers have asked why Northwestern is being described as a perennial bowl participant and consistent winner by national college football observers, why it appears that coach Pat Fitzgerald's program currently is rated well ahead of in-state rival Illinois by everybody who is evaluating the 2010 season in the Big Ten.
It all come down to recruiting. Academics is an excuse when you don't get the best players. But if you evaluate and recruit correctly, you can find them. Northwestern is doing it. The Wildcats have better recruiters now. Fitzgerald is the face of the program, young and energetic, but he has build a solid organization. They have a lot to sell at Northwestern.
And that isn't all. Athletic director Jim Phillips does a good job of promoting the school, as the Chicago Blackhawks hyped their team during the past two years to build interest.
It is a business and the folks in Evanston realize it. They have done a good job of promoting the program, the coach, the school and the future. Phillips is as important to NU's success as Fitzgerald. He did the same thing at Northern Illinois. His primary objective is to increase NU's home attendance, one of the lowest of any major program.
In case you haven't noticed, Northwestern is getting better athletes. No, they haven't caught up to Ohio State, Penn State or Michigan. But they are getting better athletes than usual. They have a national scope. They are in the mix for players in Texas, Florida and California. They are taking Notre Dame's approach to national recruiting.
At the moment, Fitzgerald has commitments from 13 players. None of them rate four or five stars on anybody's chart but several of them have the potential to be standouts in college, including tight end Jack Konopka of Fremd, defensive backs Sean Cotton of Walther Lutheran and Jarrell Williams of Richards, offensive lineman Matt Frazier of Bishop McNamara and quarterback Zack Oliver of Baton Rouge, La.
One critic argued that Fitzgerald made a mistake by overlooking 6-2, 220-pound linebacker E.J. Lannen of Vernon Hills. But I don't think so.
I saw Lannen last year. He was a very good high school player and he will be a star at Washington University in St. Louis, a Division III school. What that says is all 119 Division I schools and all Division II schools took a pass on him. They saw something in him--or lack of something--that persuaded them not to offer a scholarship. I liked him but the colleges didn't. And everybody came to look at him because of the presence of his teammates, DaVaris Daniels and Evan Spencer, a pair of Division I recruits.
It isn't that Lannen can't play in Division I. Remember, Don Beebe was passed over by Division I schools and he had a very successful career in the NFL. Hopefully, Lannen will carry a big chip on his shoulder and get evaluated by NFL scouts while playing at Washington University.