Football season is almost here. Or at least it feels that way. Big Ten Media Days begin Thursday in Chicago, with Pat Fitzgerald and Northwestern players speaking on Friday, and we're a mere 10 days away from the beginning of fall camp.
On Wednesday, before facing the chaos of Media Days, Fitzgerald agreed to sit down with Inside NU for a wide-ranging interview. Bits and pieces from the first portion of it will appear in a profile of Fitzgerald on Inside NU next week.
Below is the back half of our interview, in which Fitzgerald addresses concussions in football, the prospect of offering money to recruits under the O'Bannon ruling, his lack of comment on stories about LGBT athletes, and the allegations against Illinois coach Tim Beckman. Be sure to click on and read the footnotes for necessary background information and context.
Inside NU: Do you enjoy the offseason?
Pat Fitzgerald: It depends on what aspect you're talking about. The recruiting side, absolutely. I've been doing fun things with our fans and alumni across the country. Being a dad, absolutely. But just across the board, there's a lot more on my plate in the offseason. Like, in season, you tell me what day it is, and I'll tell you exactly what I'm doing. So structurally speaking, the season is kind of like the reward.
You told [the Chicago Tribune's] Teddy Greenstein in the winter that you thought the union was a really big distraction last year. What's tangible evidence of that? How was it a distraction?
Yeah, you know, I'm pretty much done talking about that stuff. I'm not trying to not answer your question, but that's in the rear-view mirror... You always talk to your guys about eliminating distractions, and when we decided to bring something out of our team room [the attention created by the unionization] into our team room, it created [a distraction]. I'm not talking about, and I'm not going to debate, and I'm not getting involved in any more of those types of things. I think there's plenty of quotes out there. I, and our football program, have moved on.
And I am very, very thankful for our senior class last year. Those guys had a lot on their plate, I think they had more on their plate than any other senior class to keep a football team together, and I think they did an outstanding job, and we were frustratingly close to getting to the postseason. And as low of an expectation as that is, not to achieve that was very disappointing, and I'm most disappointed for them, because they really worked their butts off to try to get us there. And it was really hard for me to watch a lot of those guys stand on the sideline a lot of the year. It was heartbreaking. But I think all but one guy right now is gainfully employed, and I think that's pretty darn good, and I think we'll get the last guy here pretty soon once he truly figures out what he wants to do, and that's kind of what it's all about.
One more question on the union stuff: if the decision on the appeal were to come down during the season, do you have any idea how you would handle the media attention that it would bring? Would you tell guys not to talk about it at all?
I don't think it would be that way at all. And I'm never going to stop our guys. I'm not that guy. I'm not going to tell guys what to say or what to do. I'm going to try to educate them on: "If you do this, understand, these issues may arise; if you do this, these issues may arise. Ultimately, the choice is up to you."
How would you handle it differently than you handled it last offseason though, if it broke during the season?
I think I would bring it to our team, and I would handle it how they wanted me to handle it. And that was the same thing I did last time it came out.
A big topic over the past decade has been concussions... Do you think concussions are a danger to football the sport?
Oh, I think concussions are a danger to any child, any athlete that plays a sport.
But do they endanger the sport as an institution?
I think if there's not enough education from a coaching standpoint, from how to teach young people the right way to play the game; I think if the rules do not evolve, and continue to evolve — and obviously there's been a lot of systemic change; and I think third, the management and the medicine behind how to handle those situations... if those do not continue to evolve in a football context, I think yeah, it could be very difficult.
Those second and third points, about the rules, and how they're handled medically, do you think those two things are at where they need to be at right now?
Well I think they're at as good as they can be right now, because you're talking about medicine, that evolves now. We're doing something different now than we did a second ago... There's 64 other Power 5 teams, I have no idea what goes on at those schools, but I've never seen [a player forced to play with a concussion by a coach]. I never saw that at my grade school. I didn't see that at my high school, I didn't see that here as a player, at Maryland as a coach, Colorado, Idaho, or here as a coach. That's all been handled by the medical staff. Return to play, that's all handled by that group.
I think it's just going to continue to get better, because if people aren't doing it that way, they're going to be forced to do it that way, and that's just the right way to handle concussion issues, or ankles, or thumbs, it doesn't matter.
But you know, I've got three boys that play every sport. Shoot, there's as much contact in AYSO soccer as there is in Jack and Ryan [two of Fitzgerald's children] playing football. And the difference is, they have pads on; they're little bobbleheads running around. And that's why I'm a part of the USA Football group, because it's about educating the people that are teaching at that young age, so then the habits are created the right way, so as they continue to evolve through the game, they're healthy and safe. And when Jack was a baby, 10 years ago, or three or four, he's watching SportsCenter and they have the top 10 hits of the weekend. Just getting that off TV, and changing that culture...
So I just think sport in general is evolving, and more conscious of those medical issues, that, you know, I break my ankle like I did, I might have a sore ankle every once in a while, but is it going to create something that may prohibit me from being able to function as a human? Probably not. But when you start talking about anything from the neck up, it's got a chance to do that.
So I think our game, and medicine, are in as good of a place as it's been. Is it where it's going to be five years from now? I doubt it. I just think it's going to continue to evolve. I'd be really disappointed if it doesn't. Especially as a dad. I'm loving that my three boys are playing sports, I think it's great. I think they learn so much about themselves, and how to deal with others, and all the great lessons you learn about sports. But if they tell me tomorrow they didn't want to play, I'd be disappointed, not because I want them to play sports, but because I want them to learn those lessons.
If a player comes to you and says he's worried about his safety, how do you react to that, and what do you tell him?
Well then I'm very concerned about it too. The bottom line is: what's causing that? And then we get them with our experts here, from our medical side, [and ask], "Where are we at? And what's in your best interest short-term and long-term?"
From an injury standpoint, with the way things are structured, if a young man is no longer able to play, he's protected from his scholarship because we are a four-year scholarship school. And then the NCAA picks you up from a medical hardship standpoint. I'm not sure if that's the way it always was throughout college football, but I know it's the way it's been here for as long as I can remember. But it's always going to be, first and foremost, the health and safety of our young men. And where [each situation] is on that continuum is really going to dictate my dialogue with that specific guy.
My bigger concern isn't that young man. My concern is the guy that's keeping it quiet because he wants to play. And that's where I think our concussion education, the protocols that we go through to ensure that [the staff communicates with players]. "What's up with Joe? Something doesn't look right." It's less on the field, and more in the meetings, and walking around talking to guys. I haven't seen [a player hiding a safety or health issue] yet here, but that's kind of an underlying concern for me.
So starting Saturday, [due to the O'Bannon ruling], assuming they don't delay the injunction, you can start offering recruits $5,000 per year in deferred compensation, correct? 1
1As a result of U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilkin's August 2014 ruling in the Ed O'Bannon case, schools can start to offer money to student athletes to compensate them for the use of their image and likeness beginning Aug. 1.
I guess so, yeah. I'm not totally up to speed on it.
Will you do that?
Well I won't do anything until I talk to [Athletic Director] Jim Phillips. That's the bottom line. He makes those decisions.
I look at, like, the cost of attendance, and the minute we were able to do that, not only are we doing it for football, but we're doing it for all 19 sports, and that's the way that we've always done things. So if [the $5,000 in deferred compensation] ends up being what is able to happen, I'm assuming that we'll do whatever it is we can do within the guidelines of the NCAA.
So if it's only football and men's basketball, you won't do it?
I can't answer that.
It's totally Phillips's call?
It's not my call. Yeah, those aren't my decisions.
But I will say this. The first time we could have four-year scholarships, we did it. The medical care, cost of attendance... the list goes on and on. I mean, you walk in there and see the pantry downstairs [full of unlimited snacks]... I mean, it's a pretty good deal. I mean, you walk into Sargent Hall [a dorm and dining hall on Northwestern's campus], that's not the spread.
So I'm for whatever makes it better for the student-athletes' experience. And I've said it, and I know we've got to talk about it, but I'm just tired of hearing about basketball and football. Things need to be done and created for all of the [roughly] 500 student-athletes here, it's got to be for everybody. And I still don't think we are perfect there, but I think it's improving everyday. But it's got to be to the complete student-athlete experience, not just football and basketball. Otherwise, let's call it what it is. It's just about money. Fine. Great. If that's what we're doing across the country, then alright, then create the rules that way. But everybody kind of dances [around] that a little bit.
2 In February of 2014, after former Missouri football player Michael Sam came out as gay, the Chicago Tribune published a story that quoted Illinois coach Tim Beckman, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, and Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey reacting to Sam's announcement. Chris Hine, the Tribune reporter, also reached out to Fitzgerald. In the article, he wrote, "Fitzgerald declined to comment through a spokesman, saying he did not want to discuss hypothetical situations."
In a Q and A the Tribune published two days later with Fitzgerald and Greenstein, the coach was asked, "Do you think you have coached gay players and do you ever talk to them about that?" Fitzgerald said, "First part, I don't know. We talk to our team all the time about respect — understanding and respecting what makes us unique. We talk about being part of a family back home, a family here, a campus community. ... Respect everyone's uniqueness and differences."
In November, the Daily Northwestern did a long expose on LGBT athletes at Northwestern, and, in relation to Fitzgerald, it read, "When the Daily asked to speak with Fitzgerald about the topic, he again declined to comment through a spokesman." Tyler Pager, the Daily reporter, also wrote that a New York Times Magazine journalist "fears Fitzgerald's lack of comment may prevent a player from being open about his sexuality."
I'm not sure what you're asking.
Well would you care to comment now if I asked you, would you be comfortable having an out gay player on your football team?
Oh, absolutely. Yeah, absolutely. I'm somewhat familiar with what you're talking about, but I think if you look at our program, right down at the bottom, one of the foundational building blocks of our values is respect. And we respect everyone's uniqueness, everyone's differences. We always have, and we always will. We are totally in line with not only the University's mission, and belief in diversity and inclusion, but I think also more importantly, I've got quite a few friends that are gay, and openly gay, I have family members that are gay and openly gay that I'm very close with. But I typically don't get heavily involved and engaged — and maybe I need to, maybe I should, but I have one small experience with things politically charged, and when in doubt, I like to stay out of it. I don't think that's always going to be in my best interest because, as I've learned through my ten years, the minute I say apples, here come the articles about oranges. And then one article about apples.
So absolutely I would. And I wouldn't be surprised if teammates of mine were [gay]. But back then, it wasn't in vogue, and it wasn't I guess mainstream to be an openly gay athlete. And I still don't know if it is. But, just like our campus, I think that's the best part of being in college, meeting people that are from different areas, different races, different religions, different sexual orientations... you can go on and on with all those things. Especially with my own personal experience, it was a little bit of a sheltered life until I came to Northwestern, and then that eye-opening experience of like, "Wow! There's a whole other world out here!" and to learn and grow from that, I think that's what college is all about.
So why did you decline to comment, just because you didn't want to get involved?
I didn't even know about the request until after the fact. 3
3 According to Northwestern assistant athletic director for communications Paul Kennedy, Pager approached him and asked to speak with Fitzgerald about his story separately from the standard media availability during a game week. Without consulting Fitzgerald, Kennedy declined. Pager did not ask Fitzgerald about the subject during his regularly-scheduled availability. During his interview with Inside NU, Fitzgerald claimed the request from the Daily never got through to him. Daily Editor-in-Chief Sophia Bollag says that after Kennedy declined Pager’s request, Pager asked Kennedy if Fitzgerald had any comment, and Kennedy said he did not.
Kennedy also claims that the Tribune’s request earlier that year never reached Fitzgerald, saying he likely used the "hypothetical situations" reasoning in his email to Hine, the Tribune reporter.
The allegations against Tim Beckman from his former player, did you have any reaction to those? 4
4 On May 10, 2015, former Illinois offensive lineman Simon Cvijanovic published a long series of tweets accusing Illinois head football coach Tim Beckman of mistreating players, including himself. Since, various allegations against other coaches in the Illinois athletic department mistreating student athletes, including a former women's soccer player suing the school for the alleged mishandling of her concussion and a $10 million federal lawsuit brought by former Illinois women's basketball players against head coach Matt Bollant for his allegedly racist treatment of players.
Not really. Maybe I'm unique, but I don't get caught up in the wind that blows on social media. It's a heavy wind. If I were to take everything I read on social media as fact, I don't know where my mind would be. So I don't know enough about what's going on. I mean, I've read some articles about some of the things that have been reported as fact, as far as lawsuits and things of that nature.
It doesn't matter where you're at. If it's Jack, Ryan and Brendan playing grade school sports, or the NFL level, you never want to see young people not have a positive experience with what they're going through. Is it going to be hard? Is it going to be challenging? Is it going to be difficult? Is it going to be incredibly rewarding for you to grow and get better, and sometimes have disagreements? [Yeah]. I mean, I'll talk to our guys, especially as men, sometimes we're going to have to agree to disagree. But going back to your question, we are going to treat you and coach you with the utmost respect. Will I, on occasion, say some things I shouldn't say? Yeah, but I'm going to follow it up with, "Hey, I want to make sure we're on the same page here." I'm not attacking you as a person, I'm attacking your action on the field. It's got nothing to do with you as a person. And if they have a problem with it, we might even sit down and talk about it. But I don't want those things festering where a guy is like, "Aw, geez!" [and communication breaks down between the coach and player]. But like I said, you never want to see a guy not have a positive experience.
But whether or not the allegations are true — and I'm not even wondering about what goes on in your program — do you think those kinds of things happen around college football a fair amount? Is that somewhat common?
You know, I've been here so long, I've been here sixteen years, a long time, six as an assistant, 10 as a head coach. And I guarantee you, if you were to take every name on the roster, and call a guy, there's going to be somebody that doesn't like me. There's going to be somebody that didn't like his experience. And my hope is, what we taught him, and what he learned while he was here, now, as things have progressed in his life, he looks back and says, "You know what, I learned a lot. And I'm better because of it. Doesn't mean I liked it." And it's kind of like family — "I love ya, doesn't mean a like ya." And you've got a big group of people, it's going to happen from time to time.
But we've got quality control things in place. All of our seniors do an exit interview, with not only myself, but independently, with anonymity, with professors on campus that oversee the Committee on Athletics and Recreation. And I'm not a part of that. And I get bullet points back, and areas where some themes have maybe come up. And we're maybe going to address those. And that's the other reason why I've had a leadership council for a long time. I mean, we were just at my house a week ago, we had our leadership council barbecue, and the first thing I asked the guys was, "How's summer? What can we do better?"
So I think you have to ask the right questions to get the right answers. And this has nothing to do with coach Beck[man] and their situation, but just the way that we want things here, we try to have an open door so the guys can come in and talk, and even if they don't want to talk face-to-face. Whatever they need. And then I know Jim [Phillips] has got things in place from an athletic department standpoint, and mechanisms to help and support our student athletes, and they can be anonymous too, so we can get them the resources they need.
So is it perfect? I don't think so. But I don't know if that's fair. You just try to have mechanisms in place to make the process and the experience as great as it can possibly be.
Do you think there are those mechanisms in place at other schools though? And do you...
I hate to speculate. I don't want to do that.
And the stuff down there [at Illinois], it'll all play out. Again, just going back to what I said initially, you hate to see any person not have a positive experience. Is it going to be perfect? No. But a positive experience, grow and get better. But at the end of the day, it'll all play out, and I think people will improve. Processes will improve. Experiences will improve. You hate to see anybody go through something like that, but if that's what it's going to take, then that's what'll happen.
One last question... if you're circling one team on the schedule and saying, ‘Damn, I really want to beat that team,' who is it?
Maybe I'll look at it the other way around. Over the last two years, we've beaten ourselves. And we can't do that. That would be where my focus is right now. We've had way too many inconsistencies, and that starts with me and our staff. To me, that's the bottom line.
A few more notes as we look ahead to Friday:
- Northwestern will release an official injury report sometime next week, prior to the start of fall camp.
- Practices during camp will remain closed to the media, as they have been since the middle of last season.