Football: Pat Fitzgerald and the art of the press conference
December 31, 2020
Pat Fitzgerald likes to have fun. It’s no secret.
“I believe in that three-letter word,” Fitzgerald said before the 2020 Big Ten Championship Game. “I mean, if you’re not having fun, I don’t know why you’re doing this.”
He has fun at practice. He has fun in the locker room. He has fun on the field. He even has fun during press conferences.
Fitzgerald addresses the media twice a week during the season. He talks on Mondays to preview the forthcoming game, further reflect on the previous game and comment on other news and notes, and he speaks after each game. He also chats every so often throughout the rest of the calendar year.
And while standing in front of the podium donning his Under Armour attire, Fitzgerald has produced plenty of headlines and soundbites over the years. He’s expressed disdain for cell phones, compared RPOs to communism and even concocted a witty computer metaphor to describe his team’s need to reboot.
But Fitzgerald says way more than those newsworthy items in these pressers. The messages he relays in these weekly calls not only reveal a lot about the team, but also himself.
The Daily reviewed over 13 hours of Fitzgerald speaking to the media since the start of last season and talked with sports linguistics experts to help explain Fitzgerald’s methods at the podium, understand his identities in football and learn more about the 46-year-old as a person.
Fitzgerald has spoken to the media in a press conference setting over 50 times since August 2019. For this story, a press conference is considered a set time when a speaker appears in front of a group of media to answer questions. One-on-one interviews or small group interviews are not included.
The Daily investigated only his press conferences during the fall sports season. The data set also does not include pressers that were set up by a group other than the Northwestern athletic department.
Fitzgerald held 45 of these pressers over the past two seasons, 27 in 2019 and 18 in 2020, which can be broken up into three categories: preseason, midweek and post-game.
Those 45 total pressers, held both in person and over Zoom, lasted about 13 hours, six minutes and 29 seconds. He spoke over 120,000 total words in that time, including at least 5,700 different words, and answered 672 questions.
Pat Fitzgerald, On Zoom
There have been a lot of differences between the 2019 and 2020 Wildcats seasons, both on and off-the-field. From a media perspective, the biggest change has been the Zoom press conference.
Fitzgerald still speaks to the media twice a week, but does so exclusively over Zoom. This has resulted in changes to the ritual of the press conference, most notably in length of presser and number of questions asked.
Surprisingly, Zoom press conferences in 2020 are longer than the in-person pressers of 2019. Both post-game pressers and midweek press conferences are over three minutes longer in 2020 than in 2019.
And while Fitzgerald was at the podium longer, he wasn’t answering as many questions. In 2019, he answered about 20.4 questions per midweek presser and 13.4 after games. Those numbers plummeted to 14 and 9.5 respectively.
That drop can be accounted for by the nature of Zoom press conferences, in which there is a more organized structure for asking questions and little room for follow-ups or questions that expand beyond the football field. In-person pressers have a much easier flow that allows for a much freer range of participation from the media, which results in more questions.
For midweek pressers, despite the three additional minutes, Fitzgerald wasn’t exactly saying more words either. He averaged about 3334.2 words spoken per midweek presser in 2019 and 3542.8 in 2020. But if you take out the Big Ten Championship Game preview presser — a significant outlier in the data set — that number drops to 3323.3 words.
It’s tough to directly correlate these trends to causes. Other than the Zoom factor, one probable cause in Fitzgerald’s 2020 increases is NU’s improved performance on the field. Everyone loves to talk more after winning than losing. Fitzgerald seems to be the same way.
Pat Fitzgerald, The Leader
Most of the research conducted on linguistics in sports is about players and interviews they give after the game on television and radio to a singular person or broadcast partnership. While there are some similarities to Fitzgerald’s press conferences, they are many differences. The research has also never been done in a college football landscape, instead focusing mostly on non-American athletes and sports such as soccer and Australian rules football.
Antje Wilton is a member of the English and applied linguistics department at the University of Siegen in Germany and the publications coordinator for the International Association of Applied Linguistics. She has studied post-match interviews in both English and German, authoring papers on topics such as formulaic language in sports.
She said that while she has not taken a deep dive into interviews with coaches, she thinks there would be a big difference between player interviews and coach interviews because of how their roles differ during a match.
“(Coaches) are responsible, and they are being addressed as being responsible for whatever happens in the match, and the outcome of the match,” Wilton said. “They’re interviewed like politicians, where they’re held accountable for the result of the match.”
If there was a spectrum of interview subjects and how each is handled, with politicians on one side and players on the opposite, coaches would be placed near the center. Like politicians, coaches are held most accountable by the media for their decisions and the relationship can be adversarial. But like players, there is also congeniality and some back-and-forth banter with the media.
This is the case with Fitzgerald. He can be tense sometimes and express his displeasure. But he is mostly understanding of and happy to engage with the media. The interactions are also variant depending on time and recent results, but Fitzgerald walks that line between being held accountable and light-hearted engagement very well.
Pat Fitzgerald, Taking the Middle Road
David Caldwell is a senior lecturer in English language and literacy at the University of South Australia and was an editor of the book “The Discourse of Sport: Analyses from Social Linguistics.”
For his honors thesis, he looked at post-match interviews by players in the Australian Football League. His research discovered that these players, whether they won or lost, would balance positive and negative comments to stay fairly neutral. He called it neutralism, which was taken from a type of conversation analysis.
“The primary objective of the genre of the post-match interview is to reflect on and evaluate you as an individual and as a team,” Caldwell said. “But layered on top of that is a cultural context in which that evaluation cannot be only positive or negative. So here, you’re in this situation as a speaker in real time being asked questions where you have to negotiate that. And as a result of that, you get these positive, negative, positive, negative (statements). As a result of that too, you will come across as predictable and cliche because you don’t have any space to maneuver.”
And when a player does deviate from neutralism, Caldwell said, there might not be an immediate response. But there could be potential responses down the line, whether from the media, opponents, or someone else. A prime example of this was seen this past season with Illinois’ Milo Eifler saying strictly negative things about the Cats, and Fitzgerald and the team using it as motivation heading into their rivalry game.
While post-match interviews are not the same as press conferences, the idea of neutralism runs rampant across all sports interview formats. It’s why when coaches and players predict championship runs or other large claims, they make headlines — it goes against the industry norm.
Fitzgerald doesn’t follow the back-and-forth, positive-then-negative-then-positive-then-negative format Caldwell describes, but he has neutralism in him. He just approaches it differently. One way is by never going super negative. He will address areas that are struggling, having issues or not meeting the set standards, but he tries to end on a note of confidence for the future.
One thing Fitzgerald does at almost every single press conference, whether NU wins or loses, is give credit to the opposing team. He does this in many ways, but the simplest and most memorable way is by saying “credit School” or something along those lines.
It’s a very simple phrasing, but it clearly gets across the point. Fitzgerald has a positive attitude in general, so it would make sense for him to compliment opponent’s on what they did well. But there is more to it. It’s also about trying to earn his team more respect, as he expressed after losing to Michigan State earlier this season.
“Please write I believe (the Spartans) played really, really well,” Fitzgerald said on Nov. 28, 2020. “I want to credit their staff and their players. Because it drives me crazy that every time we win a game, the other team played terrible. And that was the only reason why we win. So I want to give credit where credit’s due, and that’s to Michigan State.”
Pat Fitzgerald, The Father Figure
When standing in front of the media after a game or a practice, Fitzgerald is performing his duties as the head football coach of the Cats. But that is not his only identity in this world — and that pops up in these press conferences.
Kieran File is an associate professor of linguistics at the University of Warwick in England. His research focuses on how sporting figures use language, and he has written papers on post-match interviews in New Zealand rugby, David Moyes’ use of language as the manager of Manchester United and other topics.
File said that one of the trickiest things for athletes and coaches to manage in interviews is not just their identity as a sporting figure, but their personalities that extend outside of the arena.
“I think one of the things that is quite tricky for athletes and managers to negotiate in these interviews is that what’s on display often is not just their professional identity but also other aspects of their identity can be made relevant by particular questions or answers,” File said. “More often than not, they’re going to stand up and orient to societal expectations and there are a lot of those that we navigate every day.”
In the case of Fitzgerald, his identity as a father and a husband is revealed fairly often when speaking to the media.
Fitzgerald talks about his paternal role in many different ways. He talks about his wife, Stacy, his three boys and the activities they particpate in when he is not coaching football. He compares the lessons he’s taught as a coach to the lesson’s parents teach their kids. More than once, he has responded to a question by including a quick remark to student reporters about how one day they will be parents.
His discussions of fatherhood can be broken down into these two categories: his actual experience as a father and the coach as a father figure. Each one is an important part of who Fitzgerald is and identifies as, but also how he wants to be portrayed across the country.
Both help him appear as a willing-and-able teacher and leader, two characteristics that have been emphasized in the college coaching ranks for years. Families want coaches they can trust, who they believe will help shape their children into the best possible people they can be. There are few better ways to illustrate your abilities in that regard than to highlight your identity as a father and your enjoyment in performing that role.
Pat Fitzgerald, The Standup Comedian
The tone of Fitzgerald’s pressers is usually light and fun. Fitzgerald likes to laugh and makes jokes whenever he can, even sometimes after a loss.
“I’m trying to lighten up the room here,” Fitzgerald said after losing to Michigan State on Sept. 21, 2019. “You guys are just killing me. I mean holy cow.”
His proclivity for being in a playful mood has become a part of Fitzgerald’s identity as an energetic and amusing interview. There was one stretch in 2019 when — despite the team being on a losing streak — he was having so much fun at the midweek pressers that it was almost like he was performing an improv show at Second City.
— Northwestern On BTN (@NUOnBTN) October 21, 2019
File has also researched humor in press conferences, and found its use by athletes and coaches to be a “double-edged sword” — there’s a lot of risk, but also a huge chance for reward.
“What’s funny is not necessarily down to what the speaker thinks is funny. It’s down to what the audience thinks it’s funny,” File said. “And if you have an audience that comes from many different walks of life, many different ages, many different social backgrounds, then humor can be quite a risky strategy.”
In the case of Fitzgerald, his humor has not led him to say anything he has needed to apologize for or regret. The worst-case situations for his jokes, t-shirt suggestions and roasts of millennial culture have so for only been a lack of laughs.
It can be argued his humor is helping to build Fitzgerald’s brand and help in recruiting. By showcasing his spirit at these press conferences, he is adding layers and elements to his public persona. Fitzgerald is a well-known player’s coach and someone his players tend to love. But it can be tough to see that first-hand when you aren’t able to interact with him in person often.
By watching Fitzgerald act like himself at press conferences, it further shapes an image of who he is in the world at-large. And for a guy who has as much fun as Fitzgerald, that is only a good thing.
Pat Fitzgerald, Acceptor of Blame
When you speak as often as Fitzgerald does, there are certain trends that become apparent. Like his use of the adjective “outstanding,” which he has said about 125 times and used to describe things as varied as opposing teams, a player’s eyes for the football and the state of Ohio.
One of these trends is Fitzgerald’s tendency to put the burden of a team’s loss on himself and say he deserves the blame of a Cats defeat.
File said this is a clear strategic activity, although without directly looking at the context, he would not speculate on the intent. He would say it is often used to deflect blame off players.
“Sports team structures are quite authoritarian structures,” File said. “They’re usually founded on an asymmetrical power difference between coaches and players. By suddenly coming out and taking all the blame for the loss, maybe that is strategically used to appeal to the players.”
He highlighted soccer manager Jose Mourinho, currently the manager of the English Premier League team Tottenham Hotspur. File said Mourinho often will publicly take the blame after a loss to take the pressure off some players.
Fitzgerald appears to do this for that reason as well. He never directly blames or points fingers at a player after a loss. He will say a player or position group needs to play better or improve. He will call out the team for struggling in certain areas. He will say the team has not met their expectations. But he won’t blame a player.
More often than not, he starts by focusing on himself and the coaching staff and what they can do better or how they failed to live up to their standards.
After a last-second loss to Nebraska on Oct. 5, 2019, Fitzgerald was asked about how the coaching staff can improve. In the midst of talking about coaching better and similarities to fatherhood, Fitzgerald said he was never going to let a player become a scapegoat.
“If you guys ever think I’m gonna stand at a podium and drive a bus over a player, you guys are out of your minds. Ok? You’re out of your minds,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m never going to blame our guys.”
Pat Fitzgerald, Critical Thinker
Most of the questions Fitzgerald answers are about the games he coaches in, the program he manages and the opponents he battles. But that’s not always the case.
Fitzgerald has been asked about a lot of things over the past two years that don’t involve the Cats. Some about other college football topics. Some not.
But those questions can be the most revealing about Fitzgerald as a person. Like when he mentions fatherhood in his answers, those questions allow Fitzgerald to engage with his other identities and experiences beyond his role as the head coach of NU.
Like when he was asked last season about SB 206 — the California bill that started the current discussion of allowing college athletes to use their name, image and likeness to make money. Fitzgerald did not just answer from his perspective as the Cats coach, but he also engaged with his identities as a former college football player, a representative on coaching committees, a college sports fan and as a regular human being.
It isn’t just questions about non-Northwestern topics where he can illustrate his personality. It’s also in his answers, his similes and his comparisons. His rants about technology make the most headlines, but it can be even simpler than that.
Fitzgerald has referenced “Tommy Boy,” the 1995 comedy starring Chris Farley and David Spade, multiple times over the past two seasons. When he mentions a movie or a musician, it adds to his public persona and his off-the-field identity.
The purpose of these press conferences are simple: for Fitzgerald to answer questions about NU. But there is more to these events than Fitzgerald’s takes on Ohio State’s defense or Peyton Ramsey’s performance. Fitzgerald reveals a lot about his views on life, the identities he is trying to establish and how he guides as a leader.
Each season, Fitzgerald speaks so much that his transcripts could be turned into novels. And like a celebrated piece of literature, there’s more to Fitzgerald’s words than a first glance might entail.