Skip to main content

How desirable is the Northwestern job? Very, because it’s a Big Ten job

Andy Staples head shotby:Andy Staples07/11/23


Northwestern’s search to find coach Pat Fitzgerald’s successor probably won’t begin in earnest until the fall. It’s too close to the season to go looking for a permanent head coach.

So what kind of job is Northwestern? Jesse Simonton and I pondered that Monday night as we discussed Northwestern president Michael Schill’s sudden about-face that resulted in Fitzgerald’s firing. Simonton said that given the circumstances of the firing, the recent on-field state of the program (4-20 the past two seasons, 0-11 on American soil last year) and potential roster defections, Northwestern might be viewed by coaches as the toughest Power 5 job in America.

I pushed back, but for the wrong reasons. I cited the success of Mike Elko in his first year at Duke, the gradual progress of Clark Lea at Vanderbilt in two seasons and the quick recruiting gains of first-year coach Troy Taylor at Stanford. Those things are all true, but that’s not why coaches will covet the Northwestern job. The answer is far simpler than that.

It’s a Big Ten job.

That meant something before, but it carries especially heavy weight now. In 2024, when the next Northwestern coach leads the Wildcats onto the field for the first time, the Big Ten will be a 16-school monolith dividing more than $1 billion in television revenue each year. Northwestern’s share of revenue from the league office will be more than any SEC school receives and could come close to doubling what the schools of the ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 receive.

Nearly everyone will want this job. For the full discussion, watch the lightbulbs pop over my head and Simonton’s head as we adjust our thinking in real time for a Power 2 world instead of a Power 5 world. Then read on to spin the possible scenarios further.

In the past, when jobs at high academic schools in power conferences opened, the candidates were a mix of power conference coordinators and smaller school head coaches.

  • Stanford’s Taylor was the head coach at Sacramento State. His predecessor David Shaw was an assistant on Jim Harbaugh’s Stanford staff.
  • Duke’s Elko was Texas A&M’s defensive coordinator. His predecessor David Cutcliffe was hired away from his second stint as Tennessee’s offensive coordinator.
  • Vanderbilt’s Lea, a former Commodores player, was Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator. He replaced Derek Mason, who was Stanford’s defensive coordinator before taking the job.
  • Fitzgerald was an assistant at Northwestern when head coach Randy Walker died in 2006. Walker, a one-time Northwestern assistant, had been Miami’s head coach before taking over in Evanston. Miami (Ohio), that is.

See the pattern?

But given a resource gap that is about to get wider, this job also should theoretically attract some of the better head coaches in the ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12. No, Clemson’s Dabo Swinney doesn’t need to consider it. 

Yet Wake Forest’s Dave Clawson probably should at least listen if Northwestern calls. Clawson has taken the smallest school in the FBS (by enrollment) from a doormat to a program that routinely wins eight or more games a year and in 2021 won the ACC Atlantic Division title. This rise has coincided with a tremendous effort from Wake Forest’s administration to raise money and give Clawson what he needs to be competitive. Athletic director John Currie and his team have partnered with Clawson and his staff to create perhaps the nation’s best pound-for-pound football program.

But what if it didn’t have to be that hard? What if the administration didn’t have to move heaven and earth to keep the program on level footing with peer institutions? What if the money simply flowed in from the conference office like the water flowing through Lake Michigan (conveniently visible through the glass walls of Northwestern’s palatial football complex)? Clawson is notoriously picky. He probably wouldn’t even consider a school that didn’t have excellent academics. He doesn’t want to coach at a football factory. But what if he could check those boxes while having something close to the same kind of money Swinney has to spend at Clemson? It would make Currie’s sales pitch incredibly difficult to get Clawson to stay.

What about Oregon State’s Jonathan Smith? He’s an alum who has worked a miracle with the Beavers program, but how much will those school ties bind if the Pac-12’s next media rights deal isn’t even in the same universe as the Big Ten’s? The style Smith has developed in Corvallis would feel right at home in the Big Ten. The 16 consecutive run plays in last season’s comeback win against Oregon looked like something Barry Alvarez would have called in his naughtiest dream.  

According to 2021-22 data submitted to the Department of Education, Northwestern’s athletic department made about $18 million more in revenue than Oregon State for that school year. That gap is about to widen dramatically.

Plug in Baylor’s Dave Aranda or Kansas State’s Chris Klieman or KansasLance Leipold for the same reasons. All are accomplished coaches at the Power 5 level who don’t have access to the funds of the Power 2 level. 

Yes, Northwestern’s job is going to be quite difficult in the wake of Fitzgerald’s ouster. But given the new conference hierarchy, there likely won’t be a shortage of interested coaches.