The perennial juggernauts have no problem bringing in the blue-chippers. Their programs sold themselves, with top-notch facilities, a full trophy case, and 100,000 fans on a Saturday afternoon. Northwestern cannot match that.
However, things have changed for Northwestern under Pat Fitzgerald's leadership. The program has reached a consistent level of winning, demonstrated by four consecutive bowl appearances.
Northwestern's football program still lacks those key selling points—a sold-out football palace, first-class facilities, etc—that draw the nation's top prospects, but what it does have is the ultimate salesman.
Fitzgerald delivers a no-nonsense pitch as to why Northwestern would be a perfect school. He speaks with experience, having been an All-American linebacker during his Hall-of-Fame career. Fitzgerald's background with Northwestern speaks volumes to recruits.
"He's been there, he's done that, and he's had successful career," said NU commit Adam DePietro, a four-star guard. "He knows what you're going to go through and he doesn't have to pretend it. He has had a lot of success."
College football fans everywhere know Fitzgerald for his fiery passion and often-entertaining sideline demeanor.
When Northwestern trailed Texas A&M by 23 points during the third quarter of the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, Fitzgerald and his Wildcats weren't quitting. He (literally) kicked the 63-year-old monkey, symbolic of NU's bowl drought. The Wildcats began a rally, and nearly pulled out a comeback.
Four-star linebacker Ifeadi Odenigbo was watching that game, and was paying close attention to how the coaches and players interact on the sidelines. Days later, he gave Fitzgerald his verbal commitment.
"Northwestern was getting stomped," Odenigbo said on his announcement day. "What I saw in the players was that they kept on fighting. Coach Fitzgerald and the players refused to lose."
By that point in his recruitment, Odenigbo had developed a strong relationship with Fitzgerald. The linebacker had visited Northwestern's campus on multiple occasions, and Fitzgerald had spoken with Odenigbo countless times.
Odenigbo was looking for a school with strong academics, leading him to pick the hat of either Northwestern, Notre Dame, or Stanford during his announcement ceremony. His relationship, and general overview of Fitzgerald helped make the difference in his decision.
"One thing about Coach Fitzgerald is that he's a passionate guy," said Odenigbo. "When you meet him the first time, you know that right away when he looks in the eyes and talks to you."
Fitzgerald's passion makes him the perfect spokesman for Northwestern. He carries that linebacker's demeanor from his football career, and uses that on the field and in a recruit's living room. During practices and games, Fitzgerald offers up high-fives and chest-bumps to his players.
"He's a great guy, he's a competitor," said ex-USC receiver Kyle Prater, who is considering a transfer to Northwestern. "I love his energy. He's a player's coaches and what player wouldn't want to play for that."
Prater, a former five-star receiver out of Proviso West High School, located just west of Chicago, is leaving USC and has listed Northwestern as his frontrunner. Prater is looking to transfer close to home, so NU makes sense with its close proximity.
However, Prater thought back to his recruitment out of high school, when Fitzgerald came to his living room. That strong bond stayed fresh in his mind, making Northwestern his first—and only—planned visit.
"Coach Fitz is a really great guy and he's one of the best coaches in the Big Ten," Prater said.
One of Fitzgerald's greatest draws to his players is a family atmosphere, which he fosters during the recruiting process.
During Northwestern's Senior Day ceremony in November, Fitzgerald and his wife, Stacey, stood with senior cornerback Jeravin Matthews as he was introduced to fans at Ryan Field for the final time.
Fitzgerald, a father of three, looks after his players like a dad. When Adam DePietro had knee surgery on Monday, he and assistant coach Bob Heffner traveled to Pennsylvania to visit with their future guard.
"He's a great family guy and he understands that faith and family come first before football," DePietro said of Fitzgerald. "That meant a lot to me."
Fitzgerald is able to sell the family feel of Northwestern, and his players embrace that concept.
"When he came over, he talked to my parents and me like we were family already," said NU commit Kenton Playko, a three-star tackle. "That makes me excited to go to Northwestern."
Northwestern's recruiting classes have improved each year under Fitzgerald's direction. NU's 2012 recruiting class will be the program's best since Scout.com began its existence.
The Wildcats are rated 36th in the Scout.com team recruiting rankings, and sit as the Big Ten's third-ranked class.
"We're all pretty excited about it," said DePietro, one of two four-stars in the 2012 recruiting class. "We know we have high expectations and a lot of potential. In order to reach that potential, we have to work really hard."
Led by its head coach, Northwestern has become a major player in the recruiting world. Watch out, perennial juggernauts.