Young Fitzgerald now an old man in Big Ten

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Young Fitzgerald now an old man in Big Ten

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald is the youngest coach in the Big Ten, but he is also the conference’s second-longest tenured coach.

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald is the youngest coach in the Big Ten, but he is also the conference’s second-longest tenured coach.

Daily file photo by Paul Geringer

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald is the youngest coach in the Big Ten, but he is also the conference’s second-longest tenured coach.

Daily file photo by Paul Geringer

Daily file photo by Paul Geringer

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald is the youngest coach in the Big Ten, but he is also the conference’s second-longest tenured coach.

Josh Walfish, Gameday Editor

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There are times Pat Fitzgerald shows the enthusiasm of a 37-year-old coaching at his alma mater.

His frequent hip bumps with players and not-so-timid celebrations along the sideline make him one of the most exciting coaches to watch. Despite being the youngest head coach in the Big Ten, Fitzgerald is tied as the second-longest tenured coach in the conference. In a conference known for the longevity of coaches, nine schools have changed head honcho since Fitzgerald took over at Northwestern in 2006. Since January 2007, 11 men have been fired or otherwise left positions as Big Ten coaches, and only Wisconsin’s Bret Bielema, Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz and Fitzgerald remain in the same places they were in 2007.

Fitzgerald said he is shocked to be the second-longest tenured Big Ten coach, but he is just focusing on making NU better every day.

“There’s a lot of things that have happened that are out of my control,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m just honored and humbled to have my role, and hopefully we’re just continuing to improve the program.”

Despite his focus on the team’s evolution, in many ways, Fitzgerald’s coaching style and demeanor match two of the most successful coaches in school history: Gary Barnett and Randy Walker. Fitzgerald played on Barnett’s 1995 and 1996 Big Ten championship teamsand gleaned a lot about love and coming together as a program from the man who brought NU back to the Rose Bowl. Fitzgerald also spent more than five seasons as an assistant coach under Walker, helping lead the Cats to two bowl appearances while picking up many tendencies of the third-winningest coach at NU. The most prominent is the idea of telling a player what he needs to hear and not what he wants to hear, which Fitzgerald said is a dying value in society and crucial to the success of his players.

In six short years, Fitzgerald has climbed the ranks of NU coaching lore faster than most people expected. He passed Walker for second on the list of all-time victories at NU with the upset win over Nebraska last season. He has taken the Cats to a bowl game the past four seasons, and they have been bowl eligible for six consecutive years, including 2012.

Fitzgerald said the loyalty of his staff has helped him to be so effective during his tenure, but that success indisputably starts with the players he coaches.

“It will always be because of the young men in our locker room,” Fitzgerald said. “Our guys have played their hearts out for each other, but they’ve played their tails off for our program and what this whole thing stands for.”

‘In Fitz We Trust’

It’s almost impossible to walk around NU’s campus without seeing somebody wearing a shirt relating to Fitzgerald. From shirts proclaiming their Facebook friend status with the football coach to ones with his actual face on them, each year more and more somehow make use of one of the most popular figures at NU.

For the players, these shirts are endearing. Brian Arnfelt said they reflect how much enthusiasm there is on campus for the squad. The T-shirts that say, “In Fitz We Trust,” reflect the attitude of many of the players toward their beloved coach. Many of them committed to the Cats because of how much trust they had in Fitzgerald and his staff. Arnfelt is one of those players. He was a part of Fitzgerald’s second recruiting class and although NU did not have much success in year one, Arnfelt said he knew this was a program on the rise.

“If anything it motivates you,” Arnfelt said of Fitzgerald’s early struggles. “The first impression with him is so outstanding that if he’s presenting that at that time, imagine what he’s going to do five years (or) four years down the road.”

The patience has paid off for Arnfelt with the program’s marked improvement.

Countless other players tell similar tales of their recruitment. After the win over Minnesota, junior running back Venric Mark said he came to NU because of the vibe Fitzgerald gave off. He said the whole team was like a family and he felt comfortable and at ease with the Cats.

For a transfer like Kyle Prater, the recruiting process was a lot more select. As a high-level recruit coming out of high school, he visited a lot of coaches, but even though he said every coach he met with was great, Fitzgerald stood out.

“What sets Fitz apart from (the other coaches) is his love of the game and his passion for the players,” the sophomore wideout said. “I just love his energy and his passion and how he goes about getting us ready for practice. He’s a fun coach to be around. It’s a blessing to have a coach that cares so much about his players.”

It may not be the common way of approaching football, but Fitzgerald said he prides himself on how he interacts with his players. It is this quality, Prater and Arnfelt pointed out, that separates Fitzgerald from his colleagues.

“We want to be the best player development staff there is in the country,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m a little unorthodox in some of the things that I do because it’s so player driven and player focused, but I think that is what this is all about. It’s all about the young men in the locker room.”

‘Eat when satisfied’

The future is wide open for Fitzgerald and his staff. Fitzgerald’s name has already been thrown around for job openings at Michigan and Penn State. His name comes up invariably for positions all around the Football Bowl Subdivision. Although the media has focused on Fitzgerald being a good, young coach who could have a lot of success at a bigger program, Fitzgerald is signed to coach the Cats through the end of the 2020 season.

The constant swirl of rumors doesn’t seem to faze the sixth-year coach. He said he is honored by all the compliments that have come around, but he remains committed to NU for the near future — at least until his 3-year-old son Brendan gets an NU degree and plays football for his father.

“We as a coaching staff have made a strong statement that this is where we want to be,” Fitzgerald said. “There’s a lot of things I can’t control. I can’t control what the people say positive out of our program. I can’t control what people say negative outside of our walls. And that’s typically why I don’t get too caught up in it. If people are saying positive things about you, it’s humbling. If people are saying negative things about you, you take it with a grain of salt and use it as motivation.”

Fitzgerald was friends with the late Joe Paterno, who coached Penn State from 1966 until he was fired in November 2011. The 46-year career, all with the Nittany Lions, will likely go unmatched by any other coach, but if anybody could accomplish the feat it would be Fitzgerald — the same coach that pinches himself each morning he walks into his office in the John C. Nicolet Football Center and said he doesn’t have “a job, but a responsibility.” However, Fitzgerald said by the time 2062 rolls around, there will definitely be a new head man in Evanston.

With an end goal that seems pretty concrete, Fitzgerald is focused on the here and now and how he can take his alma mater to places it’s never been. He said the ultimate goal is a national championship and graduating 100 percent of his players. However, even if the Cats reach the pinnacle of college football on and off the field, Fitzgerald won’t be satisfied.

In his office sits a king-size Snickers bar from the 2005 Sun Bowl that Walker gave the team and coaching staff after the game, a 50-38 loss to UCLA. On the chocolate bar, there was a note saying “eat when satisfied.” That chocolate bar sits there unconsumed, and Fitzgerald said he doesn’t think he’d ever get around to eating it, even if it never went bad.

“I’ve got a 7-year-old Snickers bar up in my office that’s probably as hard as a brick right now and can kill somebody,” Fitzgerald said. “I don’t think I’ll ever eat that Snickers bar. I don’t think I’ll ever be satisfied.”

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