Gameday: Ohio State one step in Fitzgerald’s quest back to Rose Bowl

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Gameday: Ohio State one step in Fitzgerald’s quest back to Rose Bowl

Photo illustration by Kelsey Ott and Virginia Van Keuren/The Daily Northwestern

Photo illustration by Kelsey Ott and Virginia Van Keuren/The Daily Northwestern

Photo illustration by Kelsey Ott and Virginia Van Keuren/The Daily Northwestern

Rohan Nadkarni, Gameday Editor

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Pat Fitzgerald’s office contains what you would expect.

Photos, memorabilia and general clutter line the sanctuary of the Dan and Susan Jones Family Head Football Coach. The item most representative of Fitzgerald’s Northwestern tenure rests in his office as well, a seemingly innocuous gift from Fitzgerald’s mentor, the late Randy Walker.

The item? A king-sized Snickers candy bar, given to the NU coaching staff after the Wildcats’ bowl loss in 2005.

On the bar reads a note: “Eat when satisfied.”

The journey

Fitzgerald’s road to Saturday’s contest with Ohio State really began on Jan. 1, 1996.

On that day, the Cats fell to Southern California 41-32 in the Rose Bowl, the last time NU made the Big Ten’s most prestigious game. Fitzgerald, then an All-American middle linebacker, missed the game with a broken leg.

The next year, before the Cats’ loss in the Citrus Bowl, Fitzgerald described not playing in the Rose Bowl as “the toughest thing” he’s ever been through, calling himself “despondent” on the sidelines.

More recently, Fitzgerald has recalled happier memories of making the trip to Pasadena. Two years ago, he told Big Ten Network he took not playing as an opportunity to eat as many In-N-Out burgers as he could, making it his personal mission to gain 20 pounds.

Fitzgerald also revealed his emotions when walking out of the tunnel, not wearing pads like the rest of his teammates.

“You can start to see the field and the San Gabriels as you come out of the tunnel,” Fitzgerald said. “And then we hit the field and right there in front of us the end zone is purple and white.

“I’m not going to lie. I started crying.”

Not satisfied

As the accomplishments piled up for Fitzgerald, so did the heartbreak.

Despite being the only player to win two straight Bronko Nagurski Trophies and one of just two to take home two straight Chuck Bednarik Awards, Fitzgerald’s hopes of playing in the NFL were fruitless. He never made it out of training camp with the Dallas Cowboys.

Eventually, he found himself in Colorado working for Gary Barnett, the coach who recruited him and took the Cats to the Rose Bowl.

But Barnett’s exit from NU marred his memorable tenure. Barnett even admitted to the Chicago Tribune in an interview this week the lingering disappointment of his departure.

“To this minute, I don’t know if I did it the right or wrong way,” Barnett said.

Fitzgerald left Barnett after one year and finally returned to Evanston in 2001. Meanwhile, his former coach flamed out in Colorado amid rumors of sexual assault amongst players in the football program.

Adversity followed Fitzgerald back home.

From the death of Randy Walker due to an unexpected heart attack to the professional sorrows of losing four straight bowl games, Fitzgerald still failed to find that elusive satisfaction.

Even after the school’s triumphant win in January’s Gator Bowl, Fitzgerald set his sights higher, telling fans at a rally after the bowl win that he expected to play in California twice this season.

The season-opening win against Cal came and went. A second trip would mean a return trip to Pasadena.

Almost famous

At some point, every journey reaches a crossroads, which brings the Cats to Saturday night.

Before Fitzgerald can ask his travel agent to book tickets for the Rose Bowl, his team must defeat the Buckeyes, who own the nation’s longest current winning streak at 17.

Fitzgerald versus Meyer fits the narrative of any classic sports movie or hero’s quest.

One program preaches education and graduation, led by a hometown hero who — as a player and a coach — saved his alma mater from decades of mediocrity. The other follows a coach who acts more like a winning mercenary, hopping from program to program in search of more success, while player arrests lie in his wake.

Ohio State has always been Fitzgerald’s toughest foe. The Buckeyes showed the Cats no mercy in 2006, Fitzgerald’s first year on the job, winning 54-10 in Evanston. They have won 28 of the last 29 games in the series. Odds suggest that David will eventually slay Goliath, that NU will climb the seemingly insurmountable mountain that is Ohio State.

But Fitzgerald knows how elusive the storybook path can be.

Barnett, Walker and Fitzgerald’s first four bowl teams never received the ending they deserved.

Now, Fitzgerald is once again on the precipice of something big, a defining moment for a football program that can write its own history in front of the nation’s suddenly watchful eye.

A win means NU belongs in the top tier. A win means “College GameDay” will make trips to Evanston more often than twice in 18 years. A win means that a future valedictorian, super-athletic quarterback watching at home will remember the name “Northwestern.”

A win brings Fitzgerald one step closer to the game he was so tantalizingly teased with in 1996.

A win, however, does not mean Fitzgerald can finally take a bite of that stale candy bar in his office.

Pat Fitzgerald won’t be satisfied until he’s running out of the tunnel Jan. 1, the San Gabriels in the background, and the purple and white on the field.

Email: rohannadkarni2015@u.northwestern.edu
Twitter: @Rohan_NU

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