Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald caused a stir with some comments he made at a charity golf outing on Monday. Fitzgerald urged the estimated 100 people in attendance – supporters of the Northwestern Gridiron Network, NU football’s official booster organization – to show up for games at Ryan Field this season. He singled out the Wildcats’ homecoming date with Nebraska, whose fans tend to travel well for road contests, according to the Chicago Tribune:
"It's a pretty boring state, so they're really excited to see Chicago," Fitzgerald said, . "I talked to the state senator about putting state troopers out on I-80 (to block them)."
Fitzgerald also discussed NU’s 14-point win at Cal last season. After the game, you'll recall, Bears coach Sonny Dykes alleged the Wildcats faked injuries to disrupt his team's uptempo offense. The two coaches were said to have exchanged words during the post-game handshake. "The way it went last year," Fitzgerald said Monday. "I look forward to shaking that coach’s hand after we beat ‘em."
Fitzgerald's remarks sparked all manner of outrage. Some Huskers supporters pointed out on Twitter that they filled one side of Ryan Field for a game in 2012 and that, because of how loud they were, NU had to use a silent count. Others relayed photos of national championship trophies. Still others made threats. Avinash Kunnath over at California Golden Blogs wrote:
"Talking about setting his sights high. Fitzgerald is so confident he can beat a team that went 1-11 last year HE WENT ON RECORD. The confidence, the bravado, the enthusiasm. He has all those things, plus seven losses in eight games."
It’s late July. Football season is upon us, but it's not here yet, and we just want it to start already. So when coaches talk – and more specifically, when they mention teams they’ll be facing in a couple of months – people are going to listen. But the reaction to Fitzgerald's comments was laughably overblown. First of all, let’s consider where Fitzgerald was and who he was speaking to. Do you really think he finished up his golf round, saw the group NU fans before him and thought to himself, "Ok, time to annoy Nebraska residents"? It seems likely that he was instead just playing to the crowd, trying to stoke excitement for the upcoming season.
I also struggle to comprehend why the Nebraska comment elicited such strong backlash. Reasonable minds can differ on whether Nebraska is a boring state. People who live there will argue on its behalf, and Chicagoans will nod in agreement with Fitzgerald. Also, pointing out that Nebraska has won national titles doesn’t accomplish anything – the last of those titles came nearly two decades ago -- and rebutting with, "Well, Northwestern football is boring" completely misses the point.
As for the Cal comment, it seems pretty benign, all things considered. Doesn’t every coach have that mindset going into every game? Fitzgerald wants to beat Cal and shake Dykes’ hand afterward – as Dykes wants to beat Fitzgerald and shake his hand afterward. Maybe Fitzgerald didn’t need to state the obvious – and maybe Cal's flipping of NU commits played into it – but, again, he was imploring a group of fans to show up to his team’s home games. Fitzgerald is confident NU can beat Cal; so what? Without last year’s mini-controversy in Berkeley, would we even be talking about this?
The funniest part about all of the fuss, though, is that the most absurd characterization of Fitzgerald’s comments came not from a Nebraska or Cal fan, but a national outlet. College Football Talk’s headline on a blog post: "Pat Fitzgerald launches verbal bombs at Cal’s Dykes, state of Nebraska." Verbal bombs!
*to avoid confusion: NU refers to Northwestern, not Nebraska