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Pat Fitzgerald's comfort zone

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Ten years in, is Pat Fitzgerald too comfortable at Northwestern?

Pat Fitzgerald sits in a hallway at ESPN's Bristol, Connecticut headquarters in August.
Pat Fitzgerald sits in a hallway at ESPN's Bristol, Connecticut headquarters in August.
Northwestern Athletics

EVANSTON — Swing open the doors of the Nicolet Football Center, the multi-purpose home of Northwestern football across the way from Ryan Field, and pause for a second. Look around. Look to your left... There's the weight room. Then maybe a quick glance straight ahead... Snacks! Unlimited snacks for student-athletes! Then to your right... Team meeting rooms, commemorative displays, doors to the indoor practice facility. And a staircase.

That's the direction in which you want to go. Up those stairs, through the glass doors, into the swank second floor lobby of Nicolet, where a sharply outfitted mannequin, clad in full Northwestern uniform garb, will greet you. Take a seat if you'd like.

Or don't. Take a right, then another one a few doors down. That's where you'll find who you're looking for — who most people are looking for. That's where you'll find the one man that hasn't just become the face of Northwestern football nor the brains behind it. He is Northwestern football. His name is Pat Fitzgerald. But really, his name is Fitz.

His office is tidy. And while to call it luxurious might be an exaggeration, it's certainly well-furnished and well-adorned. A big flatscreen TV stares you in the face. Memory-evoking decorations line the walls. It's the kind of room that looks so brand-new, so freshly organized, that it's exactly the opposite. Its neatness derives from its being occupied by the same person since 2006. It's become that person's second home — sometimes, it seems, his first. It's his studio. His hub.

And it's where Fitzgerald is comfortable. He checks something at his desk, then takes a seat at a side table. He leans back, crossing one leg over the other at times, sipping on a bottle of water brought to him by an administrative assistant.

Fitzgerald has a football season ahead of him — and a crucial one at that. A year where the postseason is imperative, and anything less is a failure — a third in a row. But you wouldn't know it. He's relaxed. And he isn't just comfortable in the moment. He's comfortable with where he is in life. He's also comfortable with who he is.

Being the head football coach at a Power Five program is a lot more than just being a football coach. In a span of five days, Fitzgerald will meet with national newspapers, local outlets big and small, make TV and radio appearances, take on Big Ten Media Days, and even jet out to Bristol, Connecticut to navigate the ESPN "car wash," which includes multiple SportsCenter appearances.

Fitzgerald embraces it all though. The day at ESPN isn't mandatory, but at a school like Northwestern, without a sizeable national following, it's imperative. It isn't just free PR; it's great PR. Fitzgerald understands that it's part of his job, whether or not he particularly likes it. It's an opportunity to convey something about himself and the empire over which he rules. And he excellently embodies what he wants that empire to be, or, rather, what he wants it to appear to be. He handles these media and promotional endeavors with aplomb.

That's not to say Fitzgerald has been perfect in front of a camera. He's had his fair share of spats with reporters. He has angered some with his terseness and sarcasm. One might go so far as to say that he dislikes the media as a whole.

But last Friday, at the elegant McCormick Place in downtown Chicago, there was no animosity, no contentious atmosphere. Sitting at a table surrounded by reporters, a long day winding down, Fitzgerald brought his left elbow to the top of the chair next to him, his head to his left palm, and... he was just Pat Fitzgerald. He was open. He was thoughtful. He cracked jokes. He was engaging. He was intelligent. He was honest.

It was the 10th time he had run the gauntlet at Media Days. I asked him to recall his first one nine years ago. "I was just taking it all in," he said. "And I was very guarded. Anytime you go into a new situation, you're guarded. It's that unknown. It's like freshman year in college."

Nine years later, he was anything but. He was no longer that 31-year-old starry-eyed newbie. He was at ease. He was personable. He was charming. But it was impossible to get away from that one adjective that can be so appealing, but at the same time so dangerous: comfortable.

***

Back in 2001, 26-year-old Pat Fitzgerald sat across from Randy Walker, the third-year head football coach at Northwestern University. Walker, a spread-offense visionary, had just won a share of the Big Ten title in only his second year on the job.

Fitzgerald, a two-time All-American linebacker at Northwestern in the 1990s, had gone undrafted, and had been one of the last cuts by the Dallas Cowboys in 1996. Rather than hang around on the fringes of the NFL, he latched on as a graduate assistant at Maryland under his former defensive coordinator in Evanston, Ron Vanderlinden. Now, after brief stints at Colorado (under his former coach, Gary Barnett) and Idaho, Fitzgerald looked toward his alma mater. There was an opening as a defensive backs coach.

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During their interview, one of the questions Walker threw at Fitzgerald was a pretty common one:

"Professionally, what's your goal?" Walker asked. "What do you want to do?"

"I want your job," Fitzgerald said.

Walker smiled. "Well then it's my job to help you get it."

But neither of the two could've envisioned the way that exchange foreshadowed what would occur on the night of June 29, 2006 — not even in their worst nightmares. Walker tragically died of a heart attack at the age of 52, leaving the entire Northwestern community, and especially Fitzgerald, stunned.

Fitzgerald, unsurprisingly, labels it his lowest moment at Northwestern. Walker had been a mentor to him, as he promised he would be during that interview. Walker's wife, Tammy, asked Fitzgerald to speak at Randy's funeral, another emblem of their relationship. Even now, when Fitzgerald's mind stumbles upon that memory, his demeanor changes. He becomes more introspective, the tone of his voice more sensitive. When asked to label his lowest moment since then, he simply can't. "Nothing else will compare to that," he says. "Tough, tough times."

No more than eight days later, former Northwestern athletic director Mark Murphy tabbed Fitzgerald — at that point a 31-year-old linebacker coach — as the man to replace Walker. He sat in that office, the one he still sits in right now and the one Walker sat in. He had the proverbial keys to the castle, with circumstances no one could have foreseen.

At first, everything went at warp speed. Fitzgerald was learning on the fly. He admits that at the time, he wasn't ready to take over the job.

"I don't think you're ever ready," he says. "It's like when we had [our first son] Jack. [The doctors say], ‘hey, here's your baby,' and it's like, ‘oh, shit. What do we do now? I read all the books, but what are we doing now?'

"So no, I don't think you're ever ready until you do it. You just don't know... But you trust in the way that you've been prepared for it, or been preparing for it, and you go do it."

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Pretty soon, Fitzgerald was indeed doing it. He was speaking at Media Days, and walking into coaches meetings. He would look around. There, to his left, were legendary Penn State coach Joe Paterno and longtime Purdue coach Joe Tiller. Then to his right... there were national champions Jim Tressel (Ohio State) and Lloyd Carr (Michigan). Fitzgerald, 31, the youngest coach in college football at the time by a wide margin, says he reached out to all of the conference's elders for guidance, and was grateful for what he received.

"It's a great benefit being 31," Fitzgerald said at those Media Days in August of 2006. "I'm not too far away from my playing days and I know what it's like to be a student at Northwestern. I know what it's like when the cameras are off, when you have to walk to class in the snow and what it is to sacrifice."

The man had held the head coaching job at Northwestern for less than a month but he already seemed comfortable. He had already established the rhetoric he still uses today, for example. Pat Fitzgerald was going to lead Northwestern, and its "young men" and "football family" to the best of his ability.

But then there was the prospect of coaching football. From the day he was announced as head coach, Fitzgerald had less than two months to prepare his team for the season opener against Miami Ohio. His Wildcats would go 4-8 that year, including a 17-point loss to New Hampshire at home.

Football was secondary though. "Football was more of an opportunity for us to at least have some smiles during a really tough time," Fitzgerald says. "Year one, there were some priorities that I set out for myself and for the program. Number one was lifting up the Walker family. Number two was then working through with the players. There was a big group of guys that were really close with coach... And some guys had lived through and been a part of tragedy, and other guys had never seen it before."

Only after those topics were addressed did football enter the picture. But there wasn't much room left in that picture. Fitzgerald decided that the program had already endured enough change.

"I really loved 99 percent of what we did," he says. "But there was one percent that I wanted to change and make mine. And I didn't want to do that overnight. That would've been totally disrespectful."

So in a way, Fitzgerald says, year two was, for him, year one. In 2007, it was time to build. And that's exactly what he's done.

But eight years later, it's still time to build. And in some sense, Fitzgerald is exactly where he was in 2007. Amazingly, he's still the youngest coach in the conference. He still has the same haircut. Once again, he's trying to remodel a losing team into a winning one. And opinions are mixed on whether or not he's capable of doing that. It's almost as if we're still entirely unsure of whether or not Fitzgerald, now entering his 10th season at the helm, is a good football coach.

But in another sense, Fitzgerald is drastically different. Despite being the youngest, he's also the second longest-tenured head coach in the Big Ten, trailing only Iowa's Kirk Ferentz. He's one of the conference's representatives on the American Football Coaches Association Board of Trustees. And he feels a responsibility to aid new head coaches, like Rutgers' Kyle Flood or Maryland's Randy Edsall, even if it's they who are actually his elders.

All that experience, along with the progression of his life away from football, has transformed him.

"I think I've become more patient," Fitzgerald says. "I think fatherhood has something to do with that too... When I first took over, it was ‘go go go go go go go.' [But] I've just really evolved. I think I've been a better listener.

"Early in my head coaching career, it was almost like being in a wind-tunnel. But it's like when you're a player, there's a certain point when the game slows down for you. And I think a few years back, the role slowed down for me. I haven't seen it all, but there's a lot less that I haven't seen now over 16 years at NU."

And it shows. It shows in his relaxed nature. It shows in his assertiveness. It shows in his comfort with, and in his understanding of who and where he is.

***

The guy who once aspired to "be a high school head coach, teach PE, and do a little driver's ed" couldn't care less.

As late afternoon at McCormick Place turns to early evening, Fitzgerald sits at his assigned table for the final session of the day. Reporters come and go, asking about Jim Harbaugh, Ohio State, Tim Beckman, or the faults of the current recruiting system. One frames a question by rattling off big-time, non-conference games that will affect the national perception of the Big Ten: "Minnesota-TCU, Michigan-Utah, Ohio State-Virginia Tech..." Finally, before the reporter can name a fourth, Fitzgerald cuts him off: "Northwestern-Stanford."

The table never gets overcrowded. Perhaps the occupancy reaches 10 at one point. Perhaps it doesn't. Over Fitzgerald's shoulder though, there's a gaggle surrounding another table. It stretches three rows deep. Some on the outer edge stand on chairs, just to get a view — surely they find it impossible to get in a question.

That's Harbaugh's table. Harbaugh has never coached a game in the Big Ten. Fitzgerald has coached over 100. Harbaugh has won 29 games as a college head coach. Fitzgerald has won more than twice as many. But it's Harbaugh, the glamourous coach in the glamourous role, who is getting all the attention.

If you believe various rumors and reports, back in 2013, that could have been Fitzgerald. Lane Kiffin and Mack Brown were headed out the door at USC and Texas respectively, and Fitzgerald, coming off a 10-3 season in which he led Northwestern to its first bowl win since 1948, was a hot commodity. Widely considered two of the top five jobs in college football, Texas or USC would've brought Fitzgerald both a fat paycheck and Harbaugh-like attention. They would've brought throngs of reporters, just like the one a few tables away.

But Fitzgerald couldn't care less. That's right, the guy who once aspired to "be a high school head coach, teach PE, and do a little driver's ed" couldn't care less. He doesn't dream of bigger, and from an outsider's perspective better things. The level of comfort he's attained here and his connection to Northwestern override the allure of them.

"When coaching firings start happening in December and January, some guys get that itch," Fitzgerald says. "‘Oh yeah,' [they think] ‘what job can I maybe go get?'" He feigns excitement, accentuating his impersonation.

"But when you have your dream job, it's not that way."

Fitzgerald has done hours upon hours of talking over this period of several days. But there's one thing he's consistently emphatic about: how much he enjoys his job. And "his job" isn't just being a college football coach. His job is being Northwestern University's football coach.

What others view as the pitfalls of Northwestern, Fitzgerald accepts enthusiastically. He sees the fact that he must deal with the university's academic standards as a positive. And when asked what the highest moment of his head coaching career has been, he doesn't choose one. He chooses nine. Every graduation day. And he truly means it.

Sometimes, Fitzgerald admits, the recruiting aspect of being a college coach can get out of control. He even brings up the possibility that its insanity could drive coaches to the NFL. So I ask him if he'd ever want to be an NFL coach.

"I don't know," he says frankly. "I haven't put a whole lot of thought into it. I really haven't."

Fitzgerald says he has friends in the NFL who tease him about recruiting. "How's that recruiting nonsense going, buddy?" they say.

Fitzgerald has a simple, and almost symbolic retort. "How's moving every two years going... buddy?"

"Typically, this profession has been pretty nomadic," Fitzgerald says. "But when you feel like you've got the job you were called to do, you don't look at it that way.

"I'm fired up to be the head coach at my alma mater. I love every minute of it. Every minute of it."

***

Now step back out of the office. Take a left, then another one once you reach the reception area. Down the stairs, back out through the doors, into the steamy summer air. Before you depart, take a look to your right. There's Ryan Field. And in less than a month, it's what happens there that matters. The second-floor office, the weight room, the meeting rooms, the practice facility... they'll all still be in use of course. But what happens inside of them will become almost entirely obscured by the on-field product.

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It's easy to become enamored with a man as comfortable in his own shoes as Fitzgerald. He shrugged off potential moves to Los Angeles and Austin. He appeals to boosters with his school spirit and dedication and also to students and his players with his youthful exuberance.

On many levels, Pat Fitzgerald is winning in Evanston. That much has been clear since he took over the program in a time of complete devastation. He's comfortable wearing all the hats he has to as Northwestern's head coach. The mentor. The teacher. The father figure. The figurehead. The salesman. The football coach.

But it's often said that uncomfortability breeds growth and comfort impedes it.

Has Pat Fitzgerald become too comfortable?

Back in 2006, Fitzgerald was flung out of his comfort zone. Tragedy and dramatic change forced him to grow; to evolve; to improve. For several years, he did just that.

However, along with that growth came the expansion of his comfort zone. And therefore somewhere along the way, he slid back into it. At the moment, he seems to be more embedded inside of it than ever.

This comfort has manifested itself in many ways. Fitzgerald has retained his entire staff after two 5-7 seasons. Last year, the preseason "scrimmage" at Kenosha turned into a "light workout," with many absentees. Kenosha as a whole has, year after year, reportedly gotten easier. And last year, it took requests from players for practices to intensify and for Fitzgerald to rediscover the disciplinarian in himself.

Fitzgerald maintains that the program is trending upwards. "Absolutely," he says. "If you take out wins and losses, I don't think we've been in a better place." He mentions facility upgrades and academics. He takes pride in Northwestern's stellar graduation rate. And even on the field, recent recruiting classes suggest that there is more talent in the program than ever before.

But you can't just take out wins and losses, even if poor luck has played its part. The wins and losses are exactly what must change.

It's okay if Fitzgerald is comfortable with his players' academic excellence. It's okay if he's comfortable with the program's facilities. It's okay if he's comfortable with how he is "preparing his young men for life." Because in those areas, he's doing an exemplary job. And that isn't unimportant.

But has his satisfaction with those aspects of his job infringed upon what should be a dissatisfaction with the one aspect that appears in his job title? Has his comfort in those departments morphed into an overall comfort that has blinded him to his team's on-field shortcomings?

Time after time, Fitzgerald repeats that "no one wants to win more" than he does and that the losing seasons have weighed on him heavily.

But with a contract that stretches into next decade, with job security that is unfathomably high, and with no personal ambition to move further up the coaching ladder, what, nowadays, is pushing Fitzgerald to grow? What drives him to evolve? What pressure does he feel to improve? The comfort... can he rid himself of it?

Ten years ago, Pat Fitzgerald wondered the same things about the then-79-year-old Joe Paterno.

"How long are you going to do it?" Fitzgerald asked the Penn State stalwart, who coached at the school and only at that school for 46-straight seasons.

Paterno didn't know. "I'm still learning," he said.

It's an adage Fitzgerald thinks on often. But at just 40, Fitzgerald knows he's got a lot still to learn.

"I think you learn from your players everyday," Fitzgerald says. "I mean, there were some things I saw last night just doing some research that I'll share with the team today. I think that's an ever-evolving thing. I don't think that ever stops.

"If it does, I'll probably step aside, go coach some grade-school football."