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Would Pat Fitzgerald leave Northwestern for Texas or USC?

The 2013 college football season began with two big-time programs reeling amid recent regressions to the mean. The pressure to win at a level on par with typical program standards has shined a new critical light on Texas and USC in recent years, and the past weekend’s events – in which the Longhorns allowed BYU, in a 40-21 rout, to rush for 550 yards, accumulate 715 total yards (a Texas school record) and have its quarterback say after the game he could have “pulled it and ran” but wasn’t trying to “pad a stat,” which is almost like Bryan Scalabrine, in a mythical basketball dystopia, saying he didn't want to dunk on LeBron James because he was afraid of hurting his feelings; and USC scored just seven points and passed for 54 yards in a home loss to Washington State – didn’t help matters. Coaches Mack Brown (Texas) and Lane Kiffin (USC) were already feeling the heat entering the season. By the time week 2 ended, at least one widely celebrated national college football writer was calling their dismissals “a foregone conclusion.”

That prognosis may be premature; it’s not like Texas and USC don’t have enough talent. The Trojans still boast one of the best defenses in the land, and burning the redshirt of highly touted true freshman quarterback Max Browne to ignite a stagnant offense might be just the spark Kiffin needs to get his group rolling. There’s hope, too, for the Longhorns: their roster is brimming with former five-star prospects, packed with more speed and athleticism than any program west of Alabama. As dismal as these programs look in their current states, writing them off completely would be silly. This is Texas and USC; they should be winning eight-to-nine games every year off of sheer programmatic inertia.

Which is exactly the point. Texas and USC continue to recruit at elite levels, but the product on the field is far below what either program has inured itself to in previous years. Something needs to change. In college football, that translates to the following: fire the coach, now!

Whether or not that comes to pass, the specter of two of the nation’s highest profile jobs opening up at the end of the season has captured the attention of college football nation, as it should. We’re talking about major shakeups atop college football’s traditional power structure; instability within the upper tiers of the food chain. A breach in the walls of the establishment. Fortifications are needed.

The question, then, looms: where will these programs look to fill prospective job vacancies? When glamorous jobs like this open up, only a small sliver of the college football head coaching profession – and an even smaller sliver of assistants – considered even remotely qualified. The natural inclination is to look at smaller programs with mediocre to uninspiring football histories riding positive winning trajectories. The next criterion? Finding someone who runs their program the “right” way – someone who prioritizes academics over athletic accomplishment, who takes pride in graduation rates and academic progress rates, who almost never doesn’t enamor high schoolers (even those who don’t commit) with his forthright recruiting tactics, who endorses his place of employment with every passing breath.

This is a Northwestern-focused sports site; you know where this is headed. Yes, Pat Fitzgerald’s name is in the news again, and it has nothing to do with his latest appearance at a Chicago Blackhawks game. The possibility of USC and/or Texas firing their coaches in the coming months has lead to murmurs that Fitzgerald might be targeted for the openings. The starting point for comes courtesy of a column from the Chicago Tribune’s Teddy Greenstein, which includes a bunch of interesting quotes and unsourced statements.

Before you dig in, know this: Greenstein, a reporter with more knowledge of Fitzgerald’s thinking than any media member I know (and a writer all NU fans have long since grown to trust), believes there’s a “great chance” Fitzgerald is a Northwestern lifer.

He is not certain.

Promised facilities upgrades and assistant coach retention are cited as reasons Fitzgerald would reject overtures from Texas or USC, but Greenstein does mention something else that’s arguably just as important.

“OK, there is that thing that rules the world.

Texas pays Mack Brown in excess of $5 million a year. An extension signed in 2012 reportedly calls for a salary of $6.1 million in 2020, the final year of his deal. That's some serious cattle.”

Last week, I wrote about Fitzgerald’s salary, specifically the recent pay raise therein, which has increased his yearly take to over $2 million, according to USA Today. That’s some serious coin; it’s also well below the money Fitzgerald would potentially command at USC or Texas. If Fitzgerald’s coaching motivations are grounded in monetary incentive, leaving for Texas or USC would be a no-brainer. I don’t think they are, for a few reasons.

First of all, The last time Northwestern’s coach was reportedly targeted for a high-profile job-opening – when Michigan sought a replacement for Rich Rodriguez following the 2010 season, and reportedly floated a $3.5 million salary to try and lure him – Fitzgerald could have bolted the premises without thinking, jumping at a more lucrative deal and bidding adieu to his alma mater, trading dollars for tradition and innate Wildcats pride. Instead, he remained with Northwestern (netting a 10-year contract extension along the way) – though it should be noted, as Greenstein writes, that the prospect of coaching against Northwestern may have been so unthinkable, that he would have flatly denied Michigan no matter how staggering its potential salary offerings.

Neither Texas or USC comes with that same deterrent – the possibility of facing the team he played, coached and feels a strong emotional connection to on a yearly basis. And depending on how you rank the quality of college football jobs – considering, along other criteria, national prestige, winning tradition, sheer cultural force, etc. – it can be argued Texas and USC are more attractive destinations than Michigan.

Of the two programs of interest, USC seems like a more likely, and better, overall fit. Athletic director Pat Haden has spoken with Fitzgerald at various events is reportedly a “huge fan of Fitzgerald’s.” USC also boasts an esteemed scholarly reputation, but the football team’s academic performance has not kept up with the university’s in recent years. A lagging (and declining) APR score of 945, when juxtaposed with Northwestern’s 996, tops in the FBS, could be something Haden – considering the postseason bans attached to APR scores below 900 (And starting in 2014-15, when the APR floor is raised, 930) – seeks to remedy with a coach whose program’s recent academic performance has been close to perfect.

All things considered, Texas might be a “better” job, but one source with deep knowledge of Texas and the Big 12 recently told me Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin, Baylor’s Art Briles and TCU’s Garry Patterson – guys with ingrained Texas recruiting ties – would all get looks before athletic director DeLoss Dodds ever began to think about calling Fitzgerald.

But would Fitzgerald even consider leaving in the first place? I’m not so sure. Everything Fitzgerald does – from his mandatory “Go Cats” salvo uttered to conclude every press conference, to his frequent interaction with students on campus, to his Twitter-based Wildcats enthusiasm, to his never-not purple-infused wardrobe – says he is a Northwestern lifer, that the personal connection, both as a player and coach, is too strong to sever, too deep to relinquish – even if it means chasing a more prestigious job promising, among other things, his current NU salary multiplied twice over, an immense national spotlight (critical, adulatory or otherwise), and the opportunity to groom the nation’s best, five-star-recommended high school players into the sort of annual championship-contending powerhouses Brown and Kiffin have failed to produce of late.

Winning at USC and Texas affords a certain level of celebrity winning at Northwestern does not. It’s difficult to decipher whether that carrot – the prestige of the Trojans and Longhorns compared to the Wildcats – really means anything to Fitzgerald. He seems to be an atypical case. Winning Big Ten championships and taking Northwestern to Rose Bowls would be a special accomplishment for Fitzgerald, perhaps even more special than standing atop the college football mountaintop at USC or Texas would ever be. Northwestern has a special place in Fitzgerald’s heart, a deep sentimental bond he truly seems, from an outsider’s perspective, willing to prolong deep into his coaching livelihood.

Sports Illustrated’s Stewart Mandel, a Northwestern alum, explained why he gets a similar impression about Fitzgerald in a recent InsideNU Q&A.

Do you think Pat Fitzgerald is a Northwestern “lifer”?

SM: I do. I may be naïve. They can’t just take it for granted. Jim Phillips is smart about this. If he continues to have success, they need to pay him appropriately and they need to invest in the facilities, which they’re doing.

As long as that is to his liking, then I would think you’re safe from losing him to another college. And then it’s just a matter of the NFL, and I’ve never talked to him in detail about that. I know if I tried to, he would try to change the topic. But the guy just bleeds purple – it’s not a cliché. It’s true.

I think the fact that he not only played there, but played there when they went to the Rose Bowl – I think he’s really driven to prove to people that that wasn’t a fluke, that you can do that regularly at Northwestern.

The motivation to build Northwestern into a perennial Big Ten championship contender, a task no coach has ever accomplished for long stretches, is what would – in this premature hypothetical – largely drive Fitzgerald to remain with his alma mater. The NFL is always a possibility, and people who know Fitzgerald will always tell you something along the lines of, “The only job I can see him leaving for is the Bears.” That’s not really relevant, not right now – the Bears just fired a long-tenured head coach, Lovie Smith, and began their first season under new boss Mark Trestman with an encouraging 24-21 victory over the Bengals Sunday. As it stands, a potential professional coaching job is not within Fitzgerald’s realm of coaching potential. And besides, the Bears seem to be doing just fine.

It’s the possibility of two alluring college jobs that has NU fans worried. There’s one thing that cannot be forgotten, despite early pinkslip submissions from various media members: Brown and Kiffin haven’t been fired yet, nor is it a guarantee either program would even inquire, much less offer a job to Fitzgerald. As is, this is merely a discussion point. Future events – say, Texas and USC flaming out in epic fashion, failing to qualify for the postseason – could add momentum to early speculation. To date, this is purely imagined, conceptive. Remember that.

But the idea has been planted, and so it shall percolate in the back of Northwestern fans’ minds the rest of the season, each win coming with the nagging fear of their coach’s rising profile, as interested employers take delight in his accomplishments.

Observing Northwestern’s incremental rise under Fitzgerald has been fascinating. The Wildcats have risen from Big Ten obscurity while ostensibly flouting the academic negligence that pervades major college football. Fitzgerald has dragged Northwestern from “laughing stock” to “plucky middle-tier outfit” to “Big Ten challenger” in a remarkable seven-year span, a methodical process powered by recruiting success, increased institutional and monetary support and a unique ability to congeal mostly overlooked high school players into cohesive, disciplined, winning football teams. Fans couldn’t stomach the thought of someone else coaching their team.

They shouldn’t worry. Not right now.