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Collins, Fitzgerald extensions signal lofty goals for Northwestern

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With his football and basketball coaches signed long-term, Jim Phillips continues his overhaul of Northwestern athletics.

Photo via @NU_Sports on Twitter.

The signs are there. Take a walk along the lake on Northwestern’s Evanston campus, and you’ll see it. Venture a bit further west from the campus, past Central St. onto Ashland Ave. toward Welsh-Ryan Arena, and it’ll be there too. And if you took a brief L-ride into Chicago on Tuesday, you would’ve seen it there as well.

That “it” is a new Northwestern. Northwestern now has world-class athletics facilities. Northwestern can now compete for some of the country’s best recruits. Northwestern is, in many ways, on an equal playing field with its large, public Big Ten rivals. And, at least for the better part of the next 10 years, the new Northwestern will be led by Pat Fitzgerald and Chris Collins.

“At Northwestern,” Athletics Director Jim Phillips said, “we have found leaders for our football and men’s basketball programs who most assuredly fit our institution.”

The fit at Northwestern is natural for both men. Fitzgerald grew up in Orland Park, Illinois and was an All-American linebacker for the Wildcats. Collins spent his childhood in nearby Northbrook. Both know the area well. Both understand the history of athletics at Northwestern.

When Phillips announced contract extensions for football coach Pat Fitzgerald and basketball coach Chris Collins at the Under Armour Store in downtown Chicago Tuesday, his commitment to the two men was clear. You don’t give out lucrative 10 and eight-year extensions unless you’re all in.

Collins will make upward of $3 million per year in his new deal, the Chicago Tribune’s Teddy Greenstein reported. That number would make him one of college basketball’s 10 highest-paid coaches. The number’s of Fitzgerald’s deal haven’t been reported, but it figures to be more than the $3.35 million he earned last year, which was the 28th most of any college football coach. The deals are “mutually binding” and “cost-prohibitive” according to Phillips, meaning that there will be protections for both the school and coaches if either side decides to part ways with the other.

It’s important to note that Fitzgerald and Collins’s salary bumps aren’t the only ways Phillips and donors are pumping money into the future of Northwestern sports. Not even close.

There’s the Ryan Fieldhouse project on the lakefront — that’ll cost $260 million. Then there’s the Welsh-Ryan Arena renovation — $110 more million. And the Trienens Performance Center — throw in another $20 million. The total cost of current athletics facilities projects is approximately $400 million, Phillips said Tuesday.

The price to overhaul virtually an entire athletics department is steep, but Phillips is looking for a greater return on his investment.

“We have really tried to invest in these two sports in order to get us to a different place,” Phillips said.

Though the deals for Collins and Fitzgerald may seem like a beginning — and they might be just that — Fitzgerald views his deal as a continuation of the programs’s momentum in recent years. An affirmation of job done well, but not done yet.

“When there’s a great fit, it just works,” Fitzgerald said. “This is a program extension. This is a commitment to a championship.”

That commitment is exciting; longtime fans know that it hasn’t always been there in the past. But with it will come pressure, too. Collins and Fitzgerald are paid like the country’s top coaches are, so there’s an expectation that the duo will get results that match their monetary counterparts. For Collins, that’s the likes of John Beilein, Gregg Marshall and Scott Drew. Though we don’t know Fitzgerald’s future salary for sure, it figures to fall in the range of coaches like Chris Peterson, Mike Gundy and Bobby Petrino.

The expectations are big for both men, but that’s how it should be. Collins said it himself after Northwestern basketball’s enthralling victory over Michigan this past season. “Anything good in life involves handling pressure,” he said.

For Northwestern to compete with the powerhouses of the NCAA, a department rebuild was necessary. The extensions for Collins and Fitzgerald are just one part of that.

On the lakefront, the spine of what will be a state-of-the-art athletics facility now exists. For Northwestern’s two major sports programs, that same spine now exists in the form of the long-term security of its two coaches. Whether or not the progress of those two programs — Northwestern’s largest construction project — will follow the progress of the facilities in the form of a champion, well, that’s the $400 million question.