Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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The evolution of a coach

Pat Fitzgerald walked into the press room in Raymond James Stadium with a steely resolve. On fourth-and-goal with the game-and Northwestern’s 61-year bowl drought-hanging in the balance, the 35-year-old coach had called one of the most audacious plays in school history. The play failed, but there was not a hint of sorrow in Fitzgerald’s voice.

“I would do it again,” Fitzgerald said. “But next time I’d score and we would be celebrating.”

Speculation ensued in Evanston. Where did the play come from? What was he thinking? Why not put the ball in the hands of his star quarterback, Mike Kafka?

In a column printed in The Chicago Tribune on Jan. 3, David Haugh offered an answer to doubters.

“This was a call Fitzgerald made from the shoulders down, all guts and heart, and good for him. This may not have been the right call for every team every time, but this was the right call for Northwestern at the moment Fitz made it.”

Fitzgerald has a unique understanding of NU; it’s a comprehension only an insider could possess. One of the most accomplished players in school history, Fitzgerald is the only NU player in the past half-century elected to the College Football Hall of Fame. He has played or coached on five of the seven NU teams to make bowl appearances.

Suffice it to say when he decided to call the play-about a “nanosecond” before he actually called it-Fitzgerald knew what was at stake for NU.

“He’s like the guru of the program,” senior linebacker Quentin Davie said. “He knows everything.”

Tragedy Strikes

On the night of June 29, 2006, Fitzgerald received a call from defensive backs coach Jerry Brown. Fitzgerald and Brown, NU’s newest and longest-tenured assistant coaches, respectively, had known each other since Fitzgerald’s playing days one decade earlier. Brown was-and still is-a mentor for Fitzgerald, often advising the young linebackers coach.

But on this night, Brown had no good news. Instead he called to say that Randy Walker, NU’s eighth-year coach, was dead.

What ensued was a whirlwind for all involved. A memorial service was held one week later for the 52-year-old Walker. That same day, Fitzgerald-Walker’s hand-picked successor-was named coach, making him the youngest in Division I.

“I’m determined to continue Coach Walk’s legacy and build upon his successes,” Fitzgerald said at his introductory press conference. “Northwestern will continue to have a football program built upon great work ethic, attitude and investment.”

NU opened its season two months later at Miami (OH)-where Walker had played and coached-with a resounding 21-3 victory. Fitzgerald’s first season didn’t go as smoothly as his first game, and the Cats went on to lose seven of their next eight contests. But NU rebounded, finishing the season on a high note with a win over Illinois.

“It has been a tough year,” Fitzgerald said after the Illinois game. “You just have to trust in the plan, but first you have to trust in yourself. I’m so proud of those guys in that locker room. I know that they trust in themselves, I know that they trust in this program. I’m just really excited in the future.”

THE TRUST FACTOR

Now, Fitzgerald is entering his fifth season as coach. After NU finished 4-8 in Fitzgerald’s first year, the Cats finished at least .500 in each of his three subsequent seasons. The landscape of the Big Ten has changed significantly since 2006, and now Fitzgerald has the fifth most conference experience of all eleven Big Ten coaches.

Fitzgerald has amassed 27 wins since 2006, 22 short of the school record. And there is no end in sight. In April, he signed an extension through the 2015 season, and he has repeatedly stated he is here to stay.

A few months shy of the distinction of “nation’s youngest coach,” Fitzgerald’s youth is on display as he flies around the field, correcting his players and demonstrating proper technique.

“He’s got a more youthful, closer-to-being a-player attitude,” defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz said.

But Fitzgerald is barely the youngest NU alumnus to coach his alma mater. Rick Venturi, a quarterback who graduated in 1968, was hired one decade later to coach the Cats. Venturi won just one game in three years before parting ways to coach in the NFL.

For offensive coordinator MickMcCall, Fitzgerald’s appeal goes further than age. Rather Fitzgerald has been able to do something in four years that other coaches haven’t done in decades at the helm.

“(The players) trust him,” McCall said. “Anytime you’ve developed that trust factor within one another and you’ve got an open line of communication, they’ll do anything for you. And that’s why our guys will play their fannies off for him.”

A Special Season

Fitzgerald was part of the last NU team to make consecutive bowl appearances, but after he left, NU had trouble maintaining a high level of play.

Gary Barnett departed when the Cats finished last in the Big Ten in 1998. It took Walker just two years to win a Big Ten championship, but NU finished 10th in the conference he next two years.

Now the Cats have a chance to do something no NU squad has done before, and the players are well aware.

“This year means everything,” senior cornerback Justan Vaughn said. “Three years in a row (making a bowl game) means we’re here to stay.”

For Fitzgerald the question is not about the 2010 season in particular.It’s about consistent success.

“I’m looking forward to when we stop answering those questions about the first time this and the first time that,” he said. “We’ve got to get over a few more of those hurdles, but our program is moving in the right direction.”

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881
The evolution of a coach