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Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern Wildcats face big challenge of culture

The shocking arrest of a Northwestern Wildcats football player will test the culture Pat Fitzgerald has built in Evanston.

Xavier Washington, Northwestern Wildcats

First, the bad news.

Northwestern defensive end Xavier Washington has been suspended indefinitely after a Sunday arrest for felony possession of a controlled substance, the team announced Monday. Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune reported the arrest was for possession of cocaine.

Northwestern expected Washington to slide into the starting lineup next year, helping to replace Ifeadi Odenigbo. He started eight games and tallied 4.5 sacks, trailing only Odenigbo on the team. Washington has had a few breakout games and seemed poised to be the team’s top pass rusher. It was a big offseason and opportunity for the rising senior.

He may still be that. But what he might contribute on the field is secondary now. Now it is about going through the legal process and helping Washington get the help he needs and making right with the law and making right with the program.

Even writing that sentence is odd — and probably imperfect to the situation. This is not a headline you typically see with Northwestern athletics.

I have followed Northwestern football since the 2006-07 academic year. This is only the second arrest I can remember — the first involved a noise complaint and maybe some BB guns, the situation was so obscure it is all but forgotten.

Certainly, there were probably some instances swept under the rug or some alcohol offenses that went away quietly. These are college students, after all. But the Wildcats under Pat Fitzgerald simply have never had to deal with some of the college trouble that goes on around the country.

As far as the public is concerned, there have been no arrests for violence or disorderly contact or anything. While those incidents have gained headlines around the country, Northwestern has quietly gone about its business.

That is both a testament to the character Pat Fitzgerald seeks when he recruits players and perhaps a bit of luck. These are 18-21-year-old college students, after all. They are bound to do something stupid.

Washington, undoubtedly, did something stupid. And the legal process will deal with the consequences for that something stupid. Whether it brings the hammer down or the team tries to get Washington help in some way or he gets a stern talking to and this serves as a warning to a young man making a mistake, who knows?

Suspending Washington indefinitely while the program, the player and Evanston Police sort through everything was the right move. But, without a doubt, this is a test for Northwestern and for Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald has rarely had to deal with situations resembling this. The few times he has, he has seemingly been able to deal with them quickly.

The most notable suspension was Venric Mark, whom the team suspended two games in 2014 for breaking an unspecified team rule. He tried to appeal the suspension and then surprisingly transferred to West Texas A&M just before the season began.

It was unclear why Mark was suspended or the team rules he violated. And seemingly that escalation to an eventual transfer came out of nowhere for the program, robbing the team of one of its best players at the time.

So how does a team unfamiliar handling events like this handle this suspension? How does this change things within the program? Does it change anything at all? Is this just a blip on an otherwise sterling record?

Fitzgerald likes to say they recruit a certain kind of person to Northwestern. Having one go wrong in some way is not going to change the team’s approach or the kind of person they look for. College kids will make stupid mistakes.

Still, the headlines coming from Northwestern are shocking. As one person put it, Northwestern feels like a “big boy” program now, dealing with some outrageously stupid arrest.

Indeed, as Northwestern competes for better recruits and wins more, it may take on some of the trappings and failings of some of those successful programs. There are character risks teams take on in the name of talent. Northwestern does not seem to be a program that makes that gamble. But the Wildcats will not be able to live in Camelot forever or hold a “We do it the right way” attitude forever.

The veneer would come crashing down at some point. The Wildcats would have to deal with these issues at some point.

And so the question becomes how does Pat Fitzgerald handle this situation with Washington? Does Washington stay within the program, still suspended but meeting benchmarks and requirements to make right to his team and the program in addition to whatever legal penalties come? Or does Fitzgerald hold a zero tolerance with things like this and eventually send Washington out?

Much of that may be sorted out as the facts come in and the program, athletic department and school learn exactly what happened. This has the potential to be a precedent-setting situation for the Wildcats. Mainly because this is unprecedented for this program under Fitzgerald.

Perhaps this is all overreacting. Perhaps Northwestern has already carved out a process and procedure to handle situations like this. At this early stage, Northwestern had handled things exactly how you would expect.

Where they go from here, will say something about how they will handle situations like this in the future. It will say something about what Northwestern values in a program.

Do they shun Washington and protect the program? Or do they help Washington and ensure he gets back on the right path?

The way Fitzgerald talks about his role as the head coach of a college football team suggests he will do the latter. Assuming this is Washington’s first misstep with the program and this was not a recurring problem bubbling beneath the surface, it seems that is the direction the team will choose to handle discipline, recovery and reconciliation.

This situation will reveal what kind of program Northwestern ultimately wants to run.

Philip Rossman-Reich is a Northwestern alumnus and former contributor Lake The Posts. He also writes for Orlando Magic Daily and The Step Back.

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