NU athletic director discusses Fitzgerald’s contract extension

Colin Becht

“In a 30-second kind of meeting with Pat (I said) that ‘Hey, at the end of the year, I just want you to know, I want to sit down with you and talk about the program and kind of see where things are at,'” athletic director Jim Phillips said. “He said, ‘Hey, I really appreciate that and I will look forward to us getting together.'”

This simple exchange between Phillips and football coach Pat Fitzgerald in October laid the grounds for negotiations between the Fitzgerald and Phillips; president Morton Schapiro; Bill Osborn, chairman of Northwestern’ board of trustees; and Pat Ryan, the former chair of the board that would lead to a 10-year contract extension to keep Fitzgerald the face of NU football.

Phillips talked with Fitzgerald again in the locker room of the Cotton Bowl after the Wildcats’ 45-38 loss to Texas Tech in the TicketCity Bowl about discussing Fitzgerald’s future with the program before meeting with him over the weeks following the bowl game.

Fitzgerald’s new contract will keep him on the sidelines of Ryan Field through 2020, the longest contract ever given to an NU coach.

“When you have the right type of leadership, and certainly that’s how we all feel about Coach Fitzgerald, and you’re headed in the right direction,” Phillips said, “Part of my responsibility, part of any of our responsibilities, is to protect our investment, protect our good staff and coaches.

“It was a natural.”

Phillips has often said he’d like to make Fitzgerald a lifer at NU. Though he wasn’t ready to declare mission accomplished yet, the three-year athletic director said the new contract was “absolutely a step in the right direction.”

“We’re well on our way when you see the commitment from Pat and you see the commitment from the university,” Phillips said. “There’s nothing that any of us would like more than (to make Fitzgerald a lifer).”

With this long-term deal in place, Phillips said he hopes there won’t be any more rumors about Fitzgerald leaving NU for another program. Fitzgerald has been rumored to be a candidate to replace Joe Paterno at Penn State when the legendary coach chooses to retire.

“We all hope that it will end some of the speculation about where Pat wants to be or where he’s going to be over the next decade or so,” Phillips said. “I really believe that we’ve accomplished that.”

According to the Chicago Tribune, Michigan contacted Fitzgerald about its coaching vacancy and was prepared to offer Fitzgerald a $2.5-million-per-year contract. Fitzgerald reportedly wasn’t interested.

“It shows the kind of leader we have and the kind of character and values. He loves Northwestern,” Phillips said. “We’re blessed to have him.”

Though Phillips declined give any specifics on the financials of Fitzgerald’s contract, he confirmed that the coach had received a raise to “a competitive salary. It’s fair for everybody involved.”

The Tribune reported Fitzgerald will receive approximately $1.8 million per year.

To try to prevent other programs from snatching away NU’s marquee coach, Fitzgerald’s contract comes with a buy-out clause.

“It’s cost-prohibitive and it’s fair,” Phillips said. “It makes sense with this kind of deal.”

Beyond Fitzgerald’s salary, negotiations for the deal focused on facilities upgrades and an increased salary pool for assistant coaches.

“Yes, will we look at football facilities and football stadiums and football Monday-through-Friday facilities, training facilities for sure,” Phillips said.

NU is halfway through its facility master plans. Phillips said the next step will be visiting 15 to 20 other schools to examine their athletics buildings, emphasizing that NU was looking at upgrades to more than just its football facilities. Increased revenue from the success of the Big Ten Network has allowed for greater flexibility in NU’s athletics improvement plans.

“I’m humbled and appreciative of the commitment shown by Northwestern,” Fitzgerald said in a statement on Tuesday. “With this support from our administration, our coaches and players expect to compete for championships.”

Though no specific plans have been announced yet, Phillips said NU was considering ways to move more of its athletics facilities, possibly including the football team’s practice field to a lakeside location.

“That’s to be determined as we go through this facility master plan,” Phillips said. “One of the challenges we have, whether it’s academics, athletics, recreation is we have a space issues. So, unlike some of our peers in other places where they have a lot more available land, we’re really…confined to what we have. We just have to be very thoughtful and strategic.”

Fitzgerald and Phillips also addressed a larger budget for assistant coaches in negotiating the coach’s contract. Though Fitzgerald has managed to hang on to most of his assistant staff, the higher cost of living of the Evanston and Chicago area could complicate that in the future.

“It’s part of that overall programmatic evaluation,” Phillips said. “Whether it’s his salary or assistant coaches or facilities or budget, there’s evaluation that you have to do.”

Though the various aspects of Fitzgerald’s new contract will increase the costs of the football program on the athletic department, Phillips said football’s centrality to the athletic department, especially in generating revenue, means it requires extra care.

“It’s about investing in the engine that drives us,” Phillips said. “The residual is really felt by all 19 sports when football has success and football is in a healthy position.”

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