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

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

The Daily Northwestern

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Football: Pat Fitzgerald files $130 million lawsuit against NU, Schill

Daily file photo by Alyce Brown
Former Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald looks down during a game last year. Fitzgerald filed a $130 million lawsuit against the University and President Schill on Thursday.

Former Northwestern football head coach Pat Fitzgerald filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against the University and President Michael Schill in Cook County court Thursday.

Chicago-based attorneys Dan Webb and Matthew Carter announced that Fitzgerald will seek more than $130 million in compensatory damages after the University fired him for cause in July. The termination came in the wake of an investigation that found hazing occurred in the program. Fitzgerald is also seeking unspecified amounts in emotional distress and punitive damages, the attorneys said.

Fitzgerald is alleging a breach of an oral contract, breach of employment contract, intentional infliction of emotional distress, defamation, false light and tortious interference with a business expectancy.

“It’s despicable conduct on behalf of Northwestern and my client and his family are entitled to their day in court for justice,” Webb said. “This happened because of President Schill’s decision to breach a contract within two days of it occurring.”

Fitzgerald alleged that NU unlawfully terminated him on July 10, three days after the University suspended him without pay following the completion of an independent investigation led by attorney Maggie Hickey. The investigation concluded that there was not sufficient evidence that the coaching staff knew of the hazing, but did determine that “there had been significant opportunities (for coaches) to discover and report the hazing conduct.”

Fitzgerald is asking for $130 million to fulfill the remainder of his contract — $68 million, through 2030 — and calculated future earning losses of $62 million. Webb said an expert witness will be put on the stand to explain how “(Fitzgerald)’s not going to work again at the same level.”

In response to Thursday morning’s press conference, University spokesperson Jon Yates said NU will “vigorously defend (its) position in court.”

“As head coach of the football program for 17 years, Patrick Fitzgerald was responsible for the conduct of the program,” Yates said. “He had the responsibility to know that hazing was occurring and to stop it. He failed to do so.”

NU noted the initial investigation found that hazing, which included nudity and sexual acts, took place within the program. He added that numerous former NU athletes have sued Fitzgerald and the University over hazing on the football team.

Webb said Fitzgerald and the University reached a fully enforceable “oral agreement” in early July prior to the former head coach accepting the two week suspension. Fitzgerald’s complaint said NU general counsel Stephanie Graham told Fitzgerald’s agent that the suspension would be the only punishment for the longtime head coach.

Webb added information reported in The Daily on July 8, which publicized details of the alleged hazing for the first time, stated the same information that the “whistleblower” provided to Hickey in November 2022. He argued that Schill read the article and “didn’t like the heat.” Fitzgerald was fired two days after the report was released.

Webb described the facts of the case as “egregious” and the “whistleblower” as using “bizarre behavior.”

“The fact that (NU)’s gone out and destroyed his reputation as one of the best football coaches in America based on no legitimate reason or evidence is disgraceful,” Webb said. “Let’s let a jury decide whether that course of conduct and destroying the career of someone who has spent that many years in devoted service to Northwestern, whether that was the right and fair thing to do to someone in their family.”

Webb added he knows the identity of the “whistleblower” and alleged he had a grudge against Fitzgerald. He said during the 2022 season, certain players told the coach that the “whistleblower” was going to make false allegations against Fitzgerald about hazing. Webb said Fitzgerald didn’t believe that would ever happen.

Webb said he anticipates current NU coaches or players may be called to testify. Because he is a lawyer suing the University, Webb isn’t allowed to talk to current players or coaches under the rule of ethics.

Webb interviewed players and coaches under Fitzgerald during his 17 years as head coach, and none saw significant hazing other than “horseplay,” he said. Webb added he didn’t know how to describe that type of act — and emphasized he wasn’t an expert on the matter — but suggested a slap on the arm or a fight in the shower as examples.

“The question is, what actually happened at Northwestern?” Webb said. “If you put young men in a locker room, do they sometimes engage in behavior that someone could say on a given day they were being difficult with each other? Players sometimes do that.”

Webb said he hasn’t received Hickey and her law firm’s full report, adding he talked to the University about an out-of-court settlement but was “unsuccessful.”

Fitzgerald was not in attendance for the press conference on Wednesday. In August, The Record North Shore reported that the 48-year-old was a parent volunteer for the football program at Loyola Academy in Wilmette. Both his middle and youngest sons play on the football team there.

“A man or woman running a business doesn’t know every single fact that occurs every day,” Webb said in response to NU’s statement. “He had a due diligence program to discover it and he did not discover it. That’s all you can do.”

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