Kain Colter took a knee as chants began to bellow from the purple-shrouded sections of EverBank Field. Northwestern had just claimed its first bowl victory in more than six decades, and its fans were cheering just two words: “Pat Fitzgerald.”
“This is the exclamation point we were looking for,” a teary Fitzgerald told a field reporter after the Cats topped Mississippi State in this year’s Gator Bowl. “This is the one last negative we needed to erase, and this is only the beginning. We’ve got something special going on in Evanston.”
He’s not kidding.
At 38 years old, Pat Fitzgerald is already Northwestern’s all-time winningest coach, with 52 victories strung together over the past eight years. And as his no. 16 Wildcats continue to ascend through the polls, you get the feeling that he’ll be adding to that total quite often this fall.
“To this point, it’s the chemistry that we were able to forge in the offseason,” Fitzgerald says about his undefeated team. “This group learned a lot from last year on how you deal with adversity, positively and negatively.”
Fitz certainly knows something about that. A two-year recipient of the Chuck Bednarik Award and the Bronko Nagurski Trophy for the best defensive player in college football, Fitzgerald paced a dominant Northwestern team that ranked first in scoring defense and went 10-1 in 1995. But after breaking his leg against conference rival Iowa, he was shelved from the ‘96 Rose Bowl. In his absence, the Wildcats allowed 41 points and lost to USC.
Soon enough, Fitzgerald would be on the sidelines for good, only now with a clipboard and headset. After a brief stint with the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys, he took assistant positions at Maryland, Colorado and Idaho before returning to the Cats as a recruiting coordinator and linebackers coach, buoying Napoleon Harris to All-Big Ten honors and an NFL Draft selection in his first season on staff. He would solidify his place in Northwestern’s system for the next four years, earning a reputation as a voracious recruiter and a diligent game-planner. When head coach Randy Walker stunningly died of a heart attack in the summer of 2006, it was fitting that Fitzgerald received a sudden promotion. He’d have his work cut out for him in the wake of such a tragedy.
“I’m glad that it wasn’t just about me. The guys in the locker room at that time really focused on supporting the Walker family, and supporting each other. I’m really proud of the job that we did as a program, and I think it really put things in perspective now,” he says.
There were obstacles to overcome on the field too. Fitz’s first season was plagued by shoddy play on both sides of the ball, and Northwestern finished a paltry 4-8. At only 31 years old, Fitzgerald was the youngest head coach in the FBS.
“I think I would describe myself in those first couple years as an above-average linebackers coach with a head coach’s whistle,” he laughs. “Now, I understand the responsibility and the day-to-day routine of the role.”
Fitzgerald’s Wildcats rapidly improved, going 6-6 in 2007 and 9-4 in 2008. They reached a fever pitch last year, when Northwestern finished with 10 wins for the first time since that 1995 season. And unlike ‘95, last season ended with the elusive bowl victory.
Now Fitz and Northwestern have their eyes set on the Rose Bowl again. As a former star who’s made the trip to Pasadena, Fitzgerald enjoys a unique connection with his players.
“I think the same intensity he had as a football player, and the attention to detail he had in studying game film, is imparted to the rest of the coaching staff,” says Jerry Brown, a defensive backs coach that’s been with NU since 1992. “The number one thing is he’s blessed. He just has a feel for the pulse of his team. I think he truly believes that it’s the players’ team. All coaches like to believe it, but for some it’s just lip service.”
Fitzgerald lived in the dorm that some of his players live in, used the same practice facilities and took lectures with a few professors that are still at the school today. But above all else, he adds, “there’s something a little special about being at your alma mater that you just can’t describe with words.”
Credentialed and dedicated as he is, Fitzgerald’s staff says his best quality is his desire to always learn more. There’s no handbook on how to coach, Fitz points out, and after thrilling late-game losses to Nebraska and Michigan last year knocked Northwestern from an even bigger bowl, he’s still seeking advice on how to improve.
“He’s a guy that never stops learning. He’s always trying to get knowledge, and he instills that in us and everyone he touches. It really never stops,” says offensive coordinator Mick McCall.
“The minute you stop learning is the minute that you should retire,” Fitzgerald adds. “I’m a totally different leader than I was [in 2006]. Then, I did not do a great job of leading the program and trusting our coaches and allowing them to do their jobs. That was my fault, and I think that was a great lesson learned.”
Much of that learning takes place on it for the next 40 years of their life, not the four years that they have here.”
Fitzgerald says his primary responsibility is being an educator, something he doesn’t take lightly. Last year, Northwestern football ranked best in the country in academic progress rate and graduation rate, and the program continues to balance stringent standards in the classroom with high standards on the field. After he learned from his head coach, Gary Barnett, Fitzgerald understands that success is built on communication, humility and trust with his players.
“There’s validation now with that bowl championship. What we believe in works,” he says. Northwestern will continue to strive for more validation during one of its most hyped seasons in history.