Already steady

While Northwestern's two main recruiting foes – Notre Dame and Stanford – are dealing with coaching drama, Pat Fitzgerald and Northwestern will be kicking back, waiting to see what bowl they'll be playing in. Purple Reign looks at what's going on in South Bend and Palo Alto, and the effect it has on recruiting.

Today, Sunday, figures to be a pretty carefree day for Northwestern football. That's not to say it'll be uneventful. On the contrary, tonight the Wildcats will announce their bowl fate, and there are any numbers of bowls – from the Outback to the Champs Sports – where the Cats could land.

So the day won't be devoid of excitement. But it does figure to be short on drama, at least the kind of drama hovering over South Bend and Palo Alto right now.

Notre Dame already fired embattled Charlie Weis, and, according to reports, is closing in on a successor. According to other reports, though, the school's top two candidate's, Oklahoma's Bob Stoops and Cincinnati's Brian Kelly, don't want the job.

It's quite the opposite over at Stanford, where the Cardinal don't need to replace a fired coach, but rather hang onto one that is attracting all sorts of attention. Jim Harbaugh has been named as a candidate for current job openings (like Kansas) and ones that may emerge in the future (Michigan).

Northwestern, though? As far as anyone can tell, no problems, no drama. Both sides of the Pat Fitzgerald-Northwestern relationship seem to be content. Fitz still signs off from interviews with "Go Cats!" And the university, for its part, ponied up for a seven-year contract extension in June. Although financial terms of the deal weren't disclosed, it seems like NU knows it has a winner in Fitz. And it seems like they will treat him as such.

"This has been one of our top priorities the past few months," Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips said in a statement after the deal was inked. "There is no doubt that Pat is the right individual to lead Northwestern's football program well into the future.

"In three years, Pat has quickly developed into one of the nation's top young head coaches. He bleeds purple and has tremendous passion for Northwestern."

Said Fitz, "It's no secret that I want to be the head football coach at Northwestern for many years to come." And it looks like everyone feels that way.

But things aren't so solid everywhere. And the Stanford and Notre Dame coaching drama/upheaval is of utmost pertinence to Northwestern: The Cats are in constant battles with Notre Dame and Stanford for recruits.

Examples abound of the triangular NU-ND-Stanford recruiting battles.

Safety Devon Carrington told Scout.com – including Purple Reign – that he planned to visit South Bend and Evanston in the fall. Alas, he committed to Stanford in June and never went to either Notre Dame or Northwestern.

Defensive end Blake Lueders, like Carrington, held offers from all three schools. Northwestern, ND and Stanford were all on his five-team short-list, and in June he told Purple Reign: "(Northwestern is) in there. They're definitely in my consideration." He ultimately committed to ND.

The best example, though, of the three-way recruiting battles between these schools is probably Will Hampton. Hampton, a defensive lineman from Texas, committed to Stanford last spring. Then he decommitted, and told Scout.com: "I have about 17 offers right now, but I am only seriously considering Notre Dame and Northwestern."

Having committed to and decommitted from Stanford, and then having entertained the idea of Notre Dame, Hampton ultimately committed to NU, ending an interesting saga and further solidifying a solid crop of D-linemen.

So yeah, the recruiting triangle exists. And when it comes to nabbing commitments, having stability at the head coaching spot can't hurt.

At the moment, Northwestern is certainly the most stable.

Want proof that the coach is an important part of recruiting? Scout.com's Notre Dame page, Irish Eyes, recently ran a story about defensive end Justin Utupo, who committed to Notre Dame but is "formulating a backup plan" based upon what happens with Weis' successor.

"I'm disappointed," he said. "I got to talk to coach Weis and he seemed like a really good guy, so I wanted to play for him. I'll have to see if they change the whole coaching staff or just some of the coaches."

Utupo insists that he's still committed to ND and that he still plans on heading to South Bend. But now there's a but:

"I want to see who they hire to replace coach Weis," he said. "After that, then I'll make my decision, but I'm still committed."

Safety Chris Badger, another 2010 ND commit, was more unequivocal about his intentions to stick with the Irish – "I'm still going to Notre Dame," he said. But again, a but:

"Right now it's kind of wait and see who they hire….I think the biggest thing right now is seeing who they hire and building relationship with them the best that I can…The biggest thing is to fit in with the new coaches and see what happens and then go from there."

And the South Bend Tribune ran a story about Daniel Smith, a wide receiver who committed to Notre Dame. The crux of the article was that Weis told Smith not to renege on his commitment to ND just because of Weis' ouster.

"He told me, 'You earned this.' And he said, 'Don't let my situation change your decision to go to the university,'" Smith said.

So recruits are neither immune nor unaffected by coaching turnover. And there is at least a wee-bit of drama in South Bend with players who already committed. Who knows what impact this will have on players who are still undecided?

Certainly, things are more stable in Palo Alto. That's not to say, however, that all is quiet on the western front of the NU-ND-Stanford triangle.

Harbaugh is still Stanford's coach, and he recently signed a contract extension through 2014. So there's that. But there is also interest from various schools, and more than enough speculation to go around.

While he's been mentioned as part of the ND coaching circus, it seems unlikely that Harbaugh will end up with the Irish. His brashness doesn't quite fit the mold of Notre Dame's recent hires, plus he caused a bit of a scene last season at Notre Dame when arguing (at length) with officials. But maybe more than anything, remember what happened the last time ND plucked a coach out of Stanford? Ty Willingham? Didn't work out so well.

Other teams, though – be it college or professional – are sure to come calling. Ann Killion, a columnist for Sports Illustrated, recently wrote, "He's suddenly the hottest coach in football – and not just the college game. He's a brash, smart, former NFL quarterback who has taken a forlorn, unworkable program and turned it into a Rose Bowl contender."

And Tim Kawakami, a columnist for the San Jose Mercury News, opined:

"Stanford's Harbaugh [is] a smirking bolt of kinetic energy who probably will not settle in as Palo Alto's Paterno….

"I wouldn't pay too much attention to the contract extension through 2014 that Harbaugh is expected to sign soon. Remember, Willingham left for Notre Dame in December 2001 with three years left on his Stanford contract."

Even if Notre Dame isn't earnestly interested in Harbaugh, one school that apparently fancies him is Kansas. NBC Sports' Web site published this article, stating:

"Less than 24 hours after the resignation of Mark Mangino, a favorite for the job at Kansas is already emerging.

"According to the Lawrence Journal-World, and citing a 'general consensus of those who are close to the program,' Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh is likely to be the guy the school targets as the Jayhawks begin their search."

In no way appeasing anyone worried about Harbaugh possibly leaving, the story adds:

"Harbaugh, who has a contract extension on the table from the Cardinal, has been mentioned as a potential replacement for the Notre Dame job, and would likely be a serious contender for the Michigan job if Rich Rodriguez cannot turn the Wolverines' fortunes around in 2010 and is let go."

Gulp. Harbaugh is a candidate for job openings that aren't even open.

Every which way, there is speculation. Now, as was mentioned earlier, the Notre Dame angle seems unlikely. And Michigan? Well, the Wolverines have a coach, one that's only been there for two seasons. So that figures to be at least a year or two off.

That leaves Kansas as the most obvious suitor. On the surface, Stanford-to-Kansas may seem like a totally lateral move. KU, after all, won just five games this season, plus it is and always will be a basketball school.

There are other factors at play though. Harbaugh is reportedly slated to make about $1.25 million per year at Stanford; Kansas could pay more than twice that amount. And KU recently dumped millions of dollars into athletic facilities – not the kind of facilities on which Stanford generally places its priorities.

So while Notre Dame is zealously seeking yet another coach – its fourth in nine years – and while Stanford will have to watch schools beckon Harbaugh with substantially bigger paychecks, Fitz has more or less stayed out of the rumor mill. Yeah, he's been mentioned for the Notre Dame gig, but the speculation is far less intense than it is with other candidates.

Maybe other schools realize that Fitz really, truly, sincerely loves Northwestern. Or maybe – for some reason – other schools aren't yet convinced of Fitz's coaching acumen.

Whatever the case, the coaching drama swirling around NU's two main recruiting rivals has avoided Evanston. And it looks, for the foreseeable future, that the clouds will stay away.

To reach Purple Reign, please write to Northwestern.Scout@gmail.com.


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