Fitzgerald Named NU’s Next Head Football Coach

Nina Mandell

Ten years ago, Pat Fitzgerald was known as the defensive muscle behind the Northwestern football team that went to the Rose Bowl, a two time All-American and a linebacker known much more for his brains than his brunt.

“He recognizes what opponents are trying to do as quickly as anybody in the Big Ten,” then-Minnesota offensive coordinator Bob DiBese told Sports Illustrated in 1996. “Sometimes you think he’s guessing, but that son of a gun guesses right a lot.”

Now he’s the newly crowned NU football coach, and Athletic Director Mark Murphy is counting on those brains to rebuild a program still devastated by the death of Head Coach Randy Walker last month.

And by all accounts, even if it’s premature, that’s exactly what Walker would have wanted.

“This is all going to be yours in 2012,” Fitzgerald, a five-year assistant at NU, recalled Walker telling him during a recruiting trip last spring. “You just have to let me come up from Naples with my ponytail and yell at you like I always do.”

Now without Walker to yell at him, Fitzgerald, 31, is the youngest coach in NCAA division I-A football by more than five years. The next youngest head coach, Wisconsin’s Bret Bielema, is 36.

While the decision to give Fitzgerald a permanent contract instead of naming him as an interim coach raised a few eyebrows, Murphy said he wanted to avoid the inner program turmoil and recruiting challenges an interim coach would bring and the challenges of bringing someone in from the outside – a move that left the team relieved.

“I don’t know what it would have been like if they had someone coming in from the outside,” said senior Bryan Heinz, who was recruited by Fitzgerald five years ago before coming to NU as a walk-on. “We’re really tight knit family. We all knew Coach Fitz would be head coach one day, I’m just really excited now I’ll get to play for him.”

Fitzgerald said that when practice starts Aug. 3, it won’t be much different than when the team played under Walker, who had the workout set as soon as the team finished last season. While he has no plans to change any of the coaching staff or the offense, it is unlikely the defensive-minded Fitzgerald won’t be a change from Walker, a coach who was famous for his offense.

“(Fitzgerald) doesn’t really like to talk about when he played a lot,” senior Nick Roach said. “But the thing he pulls from back then is the more defensive mentality they had back then.”

Fitzgerald said he would take over the special teams, a part of the program he coached as an assistant at Idaho, but did not want to talk about if someone or who would take over his spot as linebackers coach.

The Cats open their season Aug. 30 against Walker’s alma mater Miami (Ohio) – a painful way to start a season that the players said they wanted to be about football, no matter how much they miss their old coach.

And with a new person at the top, they said they’re ready for the Pat Fitzgerald football era, even if it’s coming too early.

“I love Coach Walk. He gave me a chance to play here” Heinz said, “But it’s getting to be that time to move on … We’re ready to play.”

Reach Nina Mandell at [email protected]