Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald flies around the practice field some days like he was still playing. Other days, he gets his kicks by running training camp more like a summer camp.
Sing-alongs before practice, a watermelon-eating contest afterwards. Wall-to-wall music blasted by a guest DJ in between. If this is the most uptight team in major college football — as the Wildcats have been portrayed in some corners — you wouldn't know it watching them go through their paces.
"Must be Thursday," Northwestern assistant Jerry Brown grumbled after a recent practice, "because all I heard out there was country and western. "I mean, I've always said Fitz was a great decision-maker. But when it comes to music," Brown added, breaking into a wide smile, "I'm not so sure."
It's not all fun and games, of course. The Wildcats are coming off a disappointing 5-7 season and already hit hard by injuries and a key defection ahead of Saturday's opener at home against Cal. On top of that, they spent the offseason at ground zero in the debate over whether college players should have the right to unionize.
"It would be naive to think the guys have not been distracted at times. Will it be part of the narrative?"Fitzgerald asked, without waiting for an answer. "Yes, it will." Fitzgerald long ago learned the distance between perception and reality; first as an undersized linebacker at Northwestern who won back-to-back Big Ten defensive player of the year awards and then again a decade later, as an untested assistant who stepped in as the Wildcats' head coach after the sudden death of mentor Randy Walker in 2006.
"Like most people thrust into in a situation like that, you have ideas, but you expect to grow into a job and get better over time," recalled Brown, who's been alongside Fitzgerald since then and is now his assistant head coach.
"Right from the start, Fitz knew how he wanted things done. .... And you saw his energy out there. Put preparation and passion together, and you've got a guy players will follow." Yet Fitzgerald appeared flat-footed last fall, when Northwestern opened its 2013 campaign with four straight wins and led Ohio State by 10 points at home, only to lose 40-30, then drop the next six games in conference play. As the season slipped away, the effort to unionize the players, led by departed quarterback Kain Colter and representatives of the College Athletes Players Association, began to take hold.
The arguments that took place during the offseason, largely in dorm rooms or behind closed locker-room doors, spilled over into public during spring practice in early April, shortly after National Labor Relations regional director Peter Ohr ruled that Northwestern's scholarship football players were "employees." That decision entitled every Wildcat on scholarship at the time, roughly six dozen players, to vote by secret ballot on whether to form a union and pursue collective bargaining with the school.
It was one of several developments in recent months that could significantly alter the structure of college sports — especially big revenue-producers like football and basketball. The result of the April 25 vote remains unknown because the NLRB impounded the ballots pending an appeal by the university. While Colter is still in touch with some former teammates, no one has publicly taken up his role as the leader of the unionizing effort.
A decision in the case isn't expected until mid-December at the earliest, but Fitzgerald made his opposition known right from the outset. He was almost as adamant that his players voice any and all concerns and grievances in full and respect one another's opinions afterward, no matter how heated the debate became. Four months later, when the Wildcats gathered again at training camp, the air had been cleared.
Now, nearly everyone on the squad can point to a moment in that sometimes-rancorous process that drew them closer to a teammate. "You have guys on your team you know on a serviceable level, but you may not really know them," senior linebacker Collin Ellis, one of the team's leaders said at the conference media days earlier this month. "But then they're standing up and really talking about what they believe in and their values, so you get to know them. ... With that, how can you not get close as a football team?"
That unity was on display throughout camp, so much so that Fitzgerald argues few things could have better prepared his team for the sudden departure of running back Venric Mark, as well as season-ending injuries to front-line receiver Christian Jones and defensive tackle Sean McEvilly. Dealing with setbacks — a problem for Fitzgerald's squad just a season ago — may just be this team's strong suit.
Asked whether his teammates might get distracted if the NLRB decision comes down late this season, Trevor Siemian, the senior quarterback who's taken on a leadership role since stepping out from Coulter's shadow, nodded slowly. Then he pointed toward the Wildcats locker room.
"The guys in there," he said, "have already proven to each other that we can handle just about anything that gets thrown at us."