EVANSTON, Ill. — It has been nearly a year since Northwestern opened up its new $270 million athletic facility, the Walter Athletic Center, which is unquestionably the most lavish in all of college athletics.
It has been long enough for Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald to bask in the serendipitous moments that have accompanied his players settling into their new home. In his first 12 seasons as Northwestern’s coach, Fitzgerald offered recruits the opportunity to beat Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin with the physical trappings of a place like Kent State or Ball State. Certainly, the allure of the university’s education and proximity to Chicago appealed to recruits, but that still required a maturity and foresight that doesn’t always accompany four-star rankings.
So when Northwestern opened Ryan Fieldhouse last year, Fitzgerald found himself cherishing much more than the panoramic views. He looked out his office window last summer during camp to see the offensive linemen using Lake Michigan as a cold tub. “They’re all in the water,” he recalled with a laugh, “looking like a bunch of elephants.” With the location more central to campus and dorms than Northwestern’s old musty home, Fitzgerald revels in the fact that the players voluntarily come back every day after class. “Our guys never leave,” he said. “They got a pretty cool man cave.”
Suddenly, Northwestern has found itself the elephant in the recruiting battle, an unexpected presence among the Big Ten and national blue bloods. In the months that have followed the opening of the facility, Northwestern has found itself routinely competing with — and occasionally beating — a new caliber of competition for a higher-tier prospect. The early returns on Northwestern’s 2020 class, the school’s first full class with the facility open, has combined with Northwestern’s historic Big Ten West championship last season to change the program’s trajectory into a conference contender.
“This is the rocket,” Fitzgerald said, glancing out of the spaceship-like facility. “And that [division championship] is the fuel.”
While Northwestern isn’t suddenly swiping five-stars from Alabama, they have begun to win regional recruiting battles against schools like Notre Dame and the Big Ten teams that they’re attempting to leapfrog in the conference pecking order. Northwestern is ranked No. 17 nationally and No. 4 in the Big Ten in the 2020 class, behind the league’s Big 3 of Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan. Compare that to ranking No. 50 overall and No. 11 in the league last year. (The Wildcats were No. 60 and dead last in the conference two years ago.)
Now there are a lot of ways to splice rankings, and academic schools like Northwestern are typically hurt in overall rankings because they have less turnover and inherently smaller classes. But the empirical evidence that Northwestern is in line for a talent upgrade comes with recruits like Peter Skoronski, a local four-star offensive tackle who picked Northwestern over Michigan, Notre Dame and Stanford. Josh Priebe, a three-star lineman from Michigan, picked Northwestern over Ohio State and Michigan State. (Offensive line is the program’s glaring weakness right now.) Late in the recruiting cycle last year, Northwestern capped its class by dipping into Houston to beat out Notre Dame and Duke for receiver Genson Hooper-Price.
“Recruiting,” Fitzgerald said generally, “has been wild.”
The Wildcats are winning occasionally against the league’s blue bloods, but perhaps more importantly they’ve begun to consistently beat Iowa, Michigan State and Wisconsin. Northwestern has beaten Michigan State three straight times on the field and won 11 consecutive games against division opponents, which has translated to the recruiting trail. The Wildcats also beat out a field of national contenders for former Clemson quarterback Hunter Johnson, who is widely expected to start this fall.
Winning on the field shouldn’t be overlooked in Northwestern’s uptick, as the Wildcats have won three straight bowl games and gone 15-1 in their past 16 Big Ten games. Fittingly, Northwestern opens the season at Stanford, a team it’ll be measuring themselves against both on the field and the recruiting trail for years to come. (Northwestern needs to show better than its winless non-conference slate last season, which included losses to Duke, Akron and Notre Dame.) Stanford’s boom over the past decade began both with the hire of Jim Harbaugh and a much deeper financial and facility investment from the university. Northwestern has the coach it wants for the next 20 years, and now it has the unprecedented commitment to match.
“It’s eye-opening, the recruits gasp when they walk in,” said Northwestern recruiting coordinator Lou Ayeni of the new facility. “It’s a game-changer.”
Some recent staff shuffles have changed the Wildcats on the recruiting trail as well. Both the addition of Ayeni (running backs) and Tim McGarigle (linebackers), two decorated alums, in January of 2018 and the recent promotion of Kurt Anderson to offensive line coach have given them an uptick of energy. The recent promotion of 26-year-old Jonny Kovach to director of player personnel, combined with the experience of director of scouting Todd McShane, has given the entire recruiting operation under Cody Cejda, the director of football operations and strategy, a jolt.
Fitzgerald is still guarded about changing the type of player that has defined his tenure at Northwestern — tough, cerebral and eager to tackle the academic demands at Northwestern. But he’s thinking bigger, asking if the recruits can block the next Nick Bosa or cover the next Parris Campbell.
The elephant is settling into a new room in the Big Ten recruiting hierarchy. And the early results of Northwestern’s new spaceship have been clear — Northwestern built it, and the recruits are starting to come.
More from Yahoo Sports: