Family values carry Northwestern football

The Northwestern football program operates differently than others do; incorporating a family-like atmosphere on the field and in the locker room. It's a process which starts in recruiting and continues through four years with the program. Like brothers, each Wildcat must strive for the university's high standards while always holding each other accountable, both on and off the field.

Located at the very top of the Academic Performance Report scores was Northwestern, boasting an unprecedented number of 995.

Open up the police reports in the newspaper this summer and you won't see a Wildcat football player listed. In fact, one hasn't been seen in numerous years under head coach Pat Fitzgerald.

Yet at the same time, NU has played in a school record four consecutive bowl games. Fitzgerald will tell you the team's success both on and off the field is no coincidence.

While speaking on behalf of his football team, Fitzgerald refers to his coaches, players, trainers, graduate assistants, support staff, student managers, and even water boys as part of the Northwestern football family.

It may sound like a cliché, it is anything but. It's a system of values and standards in which the entire Northwestern football program must strive for.

"You can say it sounds hokey or whatever," said NU senior guard Brian Mulroe, "but it's truly a brotherhood. ... I don't think you can get it anywhere else."

The building of a family-like culture starts during the recruiting process, naturally, where Northwestern does things differently than others. Before scouting any highlight film, Fitzgerald and his staff do an extensive background check to ensure the prospect fits NU's values.

A two-time All-American linebacker with the Wildcats, Fitzgerald knows from first-hand experience how one can succeed at Northwestern.

With that in mind, Fitzgerald uses an honest, no-nonsense approach when explaining his football program to a prospect. A recruit must choose to either buy in or look elsewhere. Fitzgerald doesn't care if it forces a blue-chipper away from Northwestern.

"We tell the guys what they need to hear; not what they want to hear," Fitzgerald said. "We do it because we've earned trust. That takes time; it happens through communication. We work diligently to do that."

Each prospect who visits Northwestern's campus will spend time with Wildcat players. It serves as a test which identifies whether that recruit can fit with his teammates and coaches. Fitzgerald will ask his players if that prospect deserves to become their teammate. Some prospects buy into the team chemistry, some don't.

"[The coaches] ask 'what do you think? Is he going to fit in?' They really take your word and run with it," said NU senior linebacker David Nwabuisi.

It is that process which makes Northwestern different than most schools, but it's a necessity to ensure NU's high standards are upheld.

"Every school sells it, but you can't fake it when you get on campus," said Fitzgerald. "I think that's when it gets revealed how tight-knit our guys are, the camaraderie and chemistry within our young men."

The family values aren't anything new to the Northwestern football program. As a prospective recruit, Fitzgerald met with Gary Barnett's Wildcats and forged an immediate bond with many of the players who would later become his teammates.

"The number one reason why I chose Northwestern was the players -- it wasn't close," said Fitzgerald. "I got on campus, on my visit -- loved the guys. Came back for my official -- loved it. Even before I was offered, I loved the guys. ... That was number one."

The process of filtering to find the right kind of recruits ensures each Wildcat shares a common goal.

"We make sure the guys really know what they're coming here for; to get a good education and to win a Big Ten championship," said Nwabuisi. "Those are the kind of guys Northwestern recruits, the guys with the right values and beliefs."

New full-time starter Kain Colter must serve as a team leader for Northwestern.

It's the standards and values held within the Northwestern football family which provide an environment of accountability, both on the field and away from the locker room. It's a player-managed system which requires positive decision-making.

As a head coach, Fitzgerald can sleep well at night knowing he won't be getting a phone call from the local police about one of his football players.

"It's a blessing to work with young men like that," said Fitzgerald. "I don't have to babysit, I don't have to do class checks, I don't have to do all that garbage that, unfortunately, some [coaches] have to do because from (ages) zero to seventeen, these kids are allowed to go be crazy. Those are the kind of guys that I don't cohabitate with very well. That's just the way that we do it."

Each Wildcat player is responsible for his own actions and those of his teammates; just as brothers do for one another.

"Everyone is looking out for each other, every has everyone's back, keeping an eye out for people, making sure people aren't doing dumb things," said Mulroe. "It's great to be accountable and people appreciate that."

The reality exists that college athletes -- especially football players -- often wear a target on their back in the community. Even the slightest poor decision could result in a major strain to that program's image.

"We definitely realize at all times, whenever you step outside that locker room, it is us against the world," said Nwabuisi. "We've got to help each other stay out of trouble, protect each other, watch over each other, watch the other guy's back."

Northwestern was the only Big Ten school which has not seen one arrest during the 2012 offseason. That correlates with the important values places in the program and university.

"Within our family, we have a high set of standards and expectations, a lot of integrity in the program that we try to live by," said NU junior quarterback Kain Colter. "We definitely don't want to let anyone in our family down."

As the new full-time starting quarterback for the Wildcats, Colter must take reins of an important leadership role, both on the field and in the locker room.

Colter must lead the huddles, organize and manage team workouts, and help keep chemistry high. Off the field, he must serve as a positive example to younger teammates.

"Being the quarterback, I want to be the guy that everyone looks to for how to do things the right way, how to work," he said. "I want to give them that example."

It starts in the recruiting process and continues through four years in Evanston. It's character -- a high standard for Northwestern.

"The young men look after each other," said Fitzgerald. "It's about character. If you recruit character, you're going to have character guys in your program."

The reason Northwestern is successful on and off the field exists in the board hung high in the Nicolet Football Center auditorium; a set of values which each player must strive to reach.

Like brothers, each Wildcat must abide by the program's strong values and ensure each other follows suit.

"Whether it's the coaches, the players, the training staff, everybody is willing to make sacrifices," said Colter. "That's what it means to be a family."

Chris Emma has covered recruiting, college athletics and professional baseball for FOX Sports Next since 2009. Emma covered the Nebraska Cornhuskers for Big Red Report, and currently covers the Northwestern Wildcats and Chicago Cubs. He currently resides on Chicago's north side.
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