CHICAGO – Pat Fitzgerald spent the offseason preaching accountability to his Northwestern football program, stressing the need for his players to own up to the moments that cost the Wildcats games during last year's disappointing 5-7 season.
But Fitzgerald also believes there needs to be more accountability when it comes to recruiting in an age when high school players commit to play college football at a school, only to change their mind. So Tuesday – a day after Northwestern had its two highest-ranked recruits step away from their verbal commitments – Fitzgerald seconded a motion suggested by Nebraska coach Bo Pelini to do away with National Signing Day all together.
In its place, Fitzgerald proposed creating a website that announces that coaches have offered a high school recruit a scholarship and then giving the recruit a 48-hour "cooling off period" to decide whether he will accept it. Fitzgerald said everyone in the country would have access to the site so that it's clear which school has offered a recruit a scholarship and what that recruit's decision is.
The only out? If a coach gets fired or if a program gets put on NCAA probation. Otherwise, once a decision has been made, it's made.
"Some of our fans don't like the idea that if we make a commitment (to a recruit), we're engaged and if you break the engagement in the marriage world, there's no more getting married," Fitzgerald said Tuesday at the Big Ten's annual media days at the Chicago Hilton. "Like it or not, that's the way we're going to do business."
Fitzgerald has a strict recruiting policy that prohibits recruits from visiting other schools once they have verbally committed to play for the Wildcats. If they do, Fitzgerald rescinds the offer. It's a policy that Fitzgerald said recruits understand when he begins a relationship with that player. It's also one that is made clear to the players' coaches and parents.
Fitzgerald couldn't specify whether he is the only Big Ten coach to have such a policy in place. But it's clearly located at the opposite end of the spectrum from coaches like Ohio State's Urban Meyer and others who have made it clear they will continue to pursue a recruit until they have signed a letter of intent.
Trevor Ruhland, the No. 4-ranked recruit in Illinois according to Rivals.com who committed to Notre Dame this spring, understands the policy. Ruhland, an offensive lineman at Cary-Grove said Tuesday he appreciated how seriously Northwestern coaches took his recruiting process. Northwestern was one of five Big Ten schools to offer Ruhland a scholarship.
While Ruhland didn't necessarily agree with a 48-hour window to make a decision, saying the decision process takes longer than two days, he can understand Fitzgerald's thinking. Ruhland, who committed to Notre Dame on May 20, said he took as long as he did because he wanted to make sure the decision was the right one.
"I knew once I made a decision, that's where I was going to go," Ruhland said. "You see these stories of guys flipping schools because they want to get more leverage, but I knew once I said I was going to play for someone, that's where I was going to stay."
On Tuesday, Fitzgerald said there has to be accountability "on both sides of the fence," and added that he believes the way recruits formally currently commit to a college program is antiquated.
Fitzgerald's thoughts mirror those of Pelini, who said that national signing day needs to be done away with. That way, Pelini said, recruits would be allowed to make their their decision official when they are ready rather than waiting until February, when each year, thousands of players sign their letter of intent, declaring where they will play football.
Like Fitzgerald, Pelini doesn't understand the pomp and circumstance of what has become a recruiting national holiday.
"As far as, Hey – you come to an agreement, someone commits to your school, you've made a commitment to a young man to come play in your program, why do we have to wait until a certain day?", Pelini said. "Why don't we just go ahead and sign on the dotted line, let's get it over with and move forward.
"And obviously, that's different than the way things have been for a long time."
Pelini said perhaps by eliminating signing day, some of the early offers that come from coaches would be eliminated as well as slowing down "some of the ridiculous things that go on on both ends – on the institution's side of things and as far as the recruits."
Pelini said, in the end, it comes down to integrity. Fitzgerald agrees wholeheartedly.
On Monday, Northwestern lost a pair of four-star recruits from its 2015 class when twins Andrew and David Dowell – a running back and defensive back, respectively – decommitted, according to multiple media reports. According to the Chicago Tribune, both Lakewood, Ohio, natives, had committed to Fitzgerald in April but are now widely considered to be leaning toward choosing Vanderbilt.
Northwestern currently has 16 players in its 2015 recruiting class.
Fitzgerald said Tuesday he has no intention of changing his policy, calling reversing his course "a slippery slope" that he would be upset to have to travel down if forced. At the end of the day, Fitzgerald said, all he is looking for is for recruits to stand by their word.
Ruhland believes only a small percentage of recruits use a verbal commitment to draw interest from other schools, helping him understand Fitzgerald's thinking.
While he is looking for honest dealings from recruits, Fitzgerald is also committing to holding up his end of the bargain. When that doesn't happen from both ends, Fitzgerald suggests, that is when problems and broken recruiting relationships begin.
"If we offer you, we want you. If we take your (verbal) commitment, we're engaged," Fitzgerald said. "If you want to go date someone else, then you're going to go date someone else and we're no longer. I don't care who you are and that's just the way we do it and we feel good about it.
"I don't want to coach guys who don't want to be at at Northwestern."