NU pulls out the hankies, gets bowl win for retiring coach
Northwestern got exactly what it was hoping for at the Citrus Bowl, a perfect send-off for defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz.
The Wildcats jumped to a 14-0 lead and coasted to a 35-19 victory over Auburn on Friday in Orlando, Fla.
The focus all week was on the retiring Hankwitz, 73, and when the game ended he received the first Gatorade bath of his coaching career. It was an emotional ending, with coach Pat Fitzgerald pulling Hankwitz in front of the TV cameras during postgame interviews. Hankwitz will step down after 51 years in college coaching and 13 at Northwestern.
"He's the GOAT, like the guys call him," Fitzgerald said after the game. "He's the best -- he's the best person, he's so humble, he's an amazing teacher. Even today, we're adjusting all the way to the last series. He's a coach's coach."
According to Northwestern, this was career victory No. 400 for Hankwitz. To put that in perspective, only three head coaches have won more than 400 games -- John Gagliardi, Joe Paterno and Eddie Robinson.
Hankwitz has been all over the place. His longest run was at Colorado from 1985-94 and was defensive coordinator when the Buffaloes won the national championship in 1990. He had brief turns as interim head coach at Arizona and Colorado.
"When I had a chance to come here, I didn't realize how fortunate I was," Hankwitz said after the game. "I heard so much about Fitz. When I met him I was immediately impressed.
"I can't say how appreciative I am of him giving me this opportunity because he values family. He makes you feel appreciated too, makes your efforts feel appreciated. Hopefully we've raised the bar a little and hopefully next time they can knock it down and win the Big Ten."
Hankwitz played on a significant team in college football history, the 1969 Michigan squad during Bo Schembechler's first year, which included teammates like Dan Dierdorf and Jim Mandich.
Asked what he plans to do without a team to coach, Hankwitz mentioned traveling and visiting old friends.
"My teammates from my senior year at Michigan, the '69 team, have been just amazing down through the years, keeping in touch with me and following my career and wishing me well," he said. "I'm so looking forward to getting back to a game and seeing all those guys."
At the same time, there were a couple of good milestones for Northwestern in Orlando. The Wildcats won their fourth straight bowl game -- a pretty good achievement considering the first bowl win in school history happened in 2012 -- and earned a decisive victory over an SEC team.
Quarterback Peyton Ramsey was named the game's MVP after throwing for 3 touchdowns and running for another. The final score was an 8-yard pass to Libertyville's Riley Lees, who finished his career with a trip to the end zone.
"I think we're really physical and it showed up today," Fitzgerald said. "I thought our guys came down here to play physical Big Ten football and I think put our brand of football on display for the entire country and made a pretty strong statement against a team that was ranked in the top 10 early in the year."
While the Wildcats bid Hankwitz a fond farewell, it will be interesting to see if they can sustain this season's success, which included the second trip to the Big Ten title game in three years.
Northwestern expects to have a first-round draft pick in offensive tackle Rashawn Slater, who opted out before the season. Cornerback Greg Newsome, who played at Glenbard North, declared for the NFL Draft after three years on campus, which is rare at NU.
Recruiting has been on the rise, no doubt thanks to the improved football facilities. Assuming Fitzgerald stays and he can hire another good defensive coordinator, the bar might remain high in Evanston.
And Fitzgerald promised to always have Hankwitz on his mind, referencing an odd habit of former Atlanta Falcons coach Jerry Glanville.
"He (Hankwitz) will be my Elvis," Fitzgerald said. "We'll have tickets for him wherever we play."