Northwestern University is home to world-renowned academics, but its athletic achievements aren’t as illustrious. The Wildcats’ eight national championships rank third-to-last in the Big Ten Conference, and Northwestern hasn’t captured an NCAA title in a sport other than women’s lacrosse since 1941, before World War II ended.
Following a Citrus Bowl victory over Auburn and top 10 finish in the Associated Press rankings — Northwestern football’s best since 1995 — there was inevitable NFL speculation surrounding head coach Pat Fitzgerald. ESPN reporter Adam Schefter noted that Fitzgerald, the Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year Award winner, had received interest from multiple franchises. So when the Northwestern alumnus signed a contract extension through 2030, some were surprised.
“From the moment I stepped on campus as an undergraduate, I have believed this is the finest University in the country, with the potential to offer an unmatched student-athlete experience,” Fitzgerald said in a statement.
In addition to football, several other teams are posting recent bests. Women’s basketball won an NCAA tournament game for the first time since 1993. Softball started undefeated through nine games. Women’s tennis is eighth in the nation, which would be their highest season-end ranking in over a decade; first-year Maria Shusharina has demonstrated a keen ability atop the lineup order, helping the others move down.
“Everyone’s in a spot they’re very comfortable with,” says Claire Pollard, the women’s tennis head coach. “The last couple of years, we were asking everyone to play one spot above where they were really able to be competitive at every position with every team in the country.”
During the pandemic, Pollard used last season’s abrupt end for some soul-searching. She led weekly in-depth analysis sessions over Zoom, which she says built a camaraderie that transferred into strong early results. Still, she knows there is work to be done.
“I’m thrilled for the girls,” Pollard says. “I think the ranking can be very motivating. But you've also got to back it up.”
Pollard’s squad isn’t the only recent success story. Women’s basketball won 12 of their last 18 games. Aided by excellent shot creation and third-year Veronica Burton’s NCAA-leading 4.04 steals per game, the Wildcats earned a #7 seed in the NCAA tournament.
“Everyone’s in a good place,” Kate Popovec, an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator for women’s basketball, says. “We’re playing for something bigger than anything in the regular season.”
Although the team won the Big Ten in 2020, they’ll finally have their shot at a tournament run one year later. “With our reputation, it's been a long time coming,” Popovec says.
These combined results have influenced the overall perception of Northwestern sports. After last season’s 26-4 record, women’s basketball head coach Joe McKeown secured three top-60 ESPN recruits, leading the conference.
“Individual seasons can have a big impact,” says Medill third-year Eric Rynston-Lobel, sports director for WNUR. “The combination of winning a Big 10 title, a newly renovated Welsh-Ryan, a brand new practice facility … It has a big impact on how this program is viewed and people want to come here.”
It's hard to say what exactly is contributing to this above-average performance or how permanent it could be. It's harder still to guess whether Chicago's Big Ten team could ever boast an athletic prominence to rival its academic status. For Rynston-Lobel, it’s a matter of perspective.
“There’s been a lot of athletic success in the past three years,” he says. “It’ll play some role moving forward, recruits take notice.”
Some coaches and pundits partially credit this transformation to former athletic director Jim Phillips. Phillips, now the commissioner of the Atlantic Coast Conference, was responsible for a number of overhauls from April 2008 to January 2021, including the Walter Athletics Center and renovations of Welsh-Ryan Arena.
“You've slowly seen the evolution of our athletic department throughout [Phillips’] tenure, and you've seen success in so many sports. It's unbelievable. And it's exciting,” Popovec says. “Now, within the past five to 10 years, it's not so much ‘academics, academics, academics.’”
In addition to holding roles on NCAA committees and leading fundraising efforts, Phillips also contributed to a changing atmosphere across programs. According to Popovec, he not only knew virtually every student athlete by name, but also their major and hometown.
“He built a really unique culture here,” Popovec says. “I don't think that's going to go away just because he has gone.”