CHICAGO — No matter how this season unfolds, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald insisted there is no more unified team than his Wildcats.
For that, he credits the push for them to unionize.
Fitzgerald said he’s “proud of the maturity” his players displayed the past few months.
As the Big Ten opened its annual two-day media event on Monday, some big story lines hung over the college landscape.
A four-team playoff system to determine a national champion is being implemented and the conference would love to be represented in it. Ohio State, for one, hopes to be in the picture after going 24-2 overall and 16-0 in regular-season conference play in its first two years under coach Urban Meyer. So does Michigan State after beating the Buckeyes in the conference championship game and winning the Rose Bowl.
There’s the push by the five power conferences — the Big Ten, ACC, SEC, Big 12 and Pac-12 — for autonomy to make their own NCAA rules. The NCAA’s board of directors will vote Aug. 7, and Commissioner Jim Delany expects it to pass.
There are two new members in the Big Ten, with Rutgers and Maryland joining the conference.
And, of course, there’s the union movement. At the center of it is Northwestern, with former quarterback Kain Colter leading the push to form the first one for college athletes.
“As I look back and reflect upon the experiences that our young men went through and our entire football program went through, that’s what jumps out to me is their maturity,” Fitzgerald said. “As we visited throughout the whole offseason, I believe there’s no more unified football program in the country. We’ve been through more since probably January than most, and it’s been nothing but a positive and nothing more than unifying in our locker room and throughout our entire football program. So I think we’re a leg up from that standpoint.
“And as I look at where we go in the future, hopefully that will just be something that we can draw upon.”
Fitzgerald said he has talked to Colter “a handful of times, especially at graduation” in recent months. Asked if they discussed the union movement, Fitzgerald laughed and said, “No.”
A regional director of the National Labor Relations Board ruled in March that Northwestern’s full scholarship players can bargain with the school as employees, sending shockwaves through the sports landscape.
It’s not clear if the Wildcats support unionization. They voted in April on whether to form the first union for college athletes, but the result is not known because the NLRB impounded the ballots pending an appeal by the university and a possible court fight. The school urged the NLRB to overturn the ruling this month, holding up the football program as exemplifying the university’s integration of athletics and academics.
Either way, this was seen by many as a step toward the end of the traditional “student-athlete era.” If unionization is inevitable at another school even if it fails at Northwestern, well, Delany isn’t sure it is.
“Whether or not it’s got legs in other places around the country — it’s hard to predict or project,” he said. “I would say even at the outset for the most part, these matters of labor are really state-by-state especially for public institutions.”
Even so, it’s at least being discussed elsewhere. Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said there were some conversations with athletic director Gene Smith but none since the spring.
“We had a conversation with our team about it,” Meyer said. “Gene Smith thought it would be important because they might be getting contacted. I asked the guys here (Jeff Heuerman, Braxton Miller, Michael Bennett), ‘Is there something going on; do I need to be aware of it?’ And the relationship is so close, there was nothing to it. So we moved on.”
For Northwestern, it’s an issue that lingers.
“This was a little more than Xs and Os,” linebacker Collin Ellis said. “This is life. This is, ‘What do you value?’ “
What could have been a divisive issue for the football team had the opposite effect, Fitzgerald said.
“As you look at (players’ comments), it was nothing negative about anything about our program,” he said. “It was the maturity they showed to shed light on some things that maybe they had heard about what may be happening at other institutions.”
Players who would have assumed more vocal leadership roles in training camp stepped up sooner. One was quarterback Trevor Siemian.
He made his feelings clear in the spring, saying he did not support unionization.
“It helped people connect in different ways than they had,” Siemian said. “On a higher level, I think. We were talking about some things that have a significant impact on the landscape of college football. I’m 22, and talking to 17 and 18-year-old freshmen about things that probably weren’t brought up in a (high school) locker room. We’re connecting all over the place. In that sense, doing it, you get to know people more, get to know what makes them tick.”