SAN DIEGO — Soaking wet on the field at SDCCU Stadium, Pat Fitzgerald sent a 12-word message to the entire country.
No 12 words may have ever echoed louder at Northwestern.
“Hashtag Go ‘Cats, man. I’m not going anywhere. This is home forever.”
Gary Barnett turned down Notre Dame, Georgia & UCLA. It looks like Pat Fitzgerald just turned down the Green Bay Packers pic.twitter.com/WXpiXH1egf— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) January 1, 2019
It was a resounding statement from Fitz, who had been linked as a candidate to be the Packers next head coach (and has now made spoken hashtags a staple of his postgame repertoire). There probably wasn’t much of a doubt all along, but more money, a legendary franchise and Aaron Rodgers loomed large. Then, Fitz shut it all down. At a school that historically hasn’t been able to keep legendary coaches like Gary Barnett or the late Ara Parseghian, at a school that previously couldn’t get top coaches to commit long-term, Fitzgerald chose Northwestern. He chose home.
Fitzgerald signaled he felt Northwestern was worth committing to when he signed a 10-year contract extension in the spring of 2017. On New Year’s Eve, he doubled down on that commitment.
On a night when his team battled adversity and won, on a day when he was exchanging emoji-filled text messages with recruits, when Northwestern earned its third-straight bowl win for the first time in school history, it was clear Northwestern is where Fitz is meant to be.
Just look at how the Wildcats responded to a 20-3 halftime deficit. Missing their top two receivers, and several of their best defenders, the Northwestern players didn’t quit when things looked bleak. That’s evidence of a group that buys into its coach and plays unbelievably hard for him. Six Utah turnovers made the win possible, and sure, turnovers are largely predicated on randomness, but when you play hard and you’re in the right positions, things tend to break your way. And at Northwestern under Fitzgerald, they often do.
The Holiday Bowl was a resilient and gritty performance by Northwestern. A performance that was nowhere near perfect, but good enough to win. A Fitzian performance.
When it was Clayton Thorson’s turn to get interviewed after the game, the senior quarterback said he felt Northwestern has laid the groundwork for national titles in the futures. The national titles part was a bit of a throwaway line, but the general idea behind the quote stands. After three seasons of nine or more wins in the past four years, and after finally capturing a division title this season, Northwestern is a rising program heading into the offseason.
“Coach [Gary] Barnett got this thing turned. Coach [Randy] Walker had it going,” Fitzgerald said. “You look back a handful of years ago, we were able to get that monkey off our back, get the first bowl win. Now it’s become a consistent theme of our program, becoming champions.”
A major part of building a program is accumulating enough talented players to withstand losses — something Pat Fitzgerald frequently calls “competitive depth.” Against Utah, that competitive depth showed, and it powered Northwestern. When Bennett Skowronek and Flynn Nagel, the team’s best two receivers, went down in the first half, Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman and Kyric McGowan delivered key performances. Without a starting defensive lineman, linebacker and cornerback — all of whom are among Northwestern’s best players — players like walk-on Chris Bergin, freshman Greg Newsome II and senior Jared McGee filled the gaps and helped put the clamps on Utah on the second half.
Northwestern’s performances aren’t always consistent. The Utah game, more specifically the difference between the first and second halves, demonstrates that trend at an extreme. At this point, though, Pat Fitzgerald has Northwestern in a position where it can play with almost any team on a given day. Fitzgerald’s squad isn’t in the Big Ten’s top tier just yet, but this season was a major step forward anyway.
“We’ve made long-term commitments to each other now,” Fitzgerald said after the game. “We have miles to go. We’re far from the finished product as a program. That’s my job.”
Fitzgerald’s job has been not only to devise schemes and develop players, but be a charismatic salesman for a program that otherwise wouldn’t turn many heads on a national level. He’s given Northwestern a reason to commit to elite facilities, and he’s done it by talking about about family values and backing that talk up with his actions. Going forward, the future is brighter than it’s ever been.
Northwestern graduates the most prolific passer in school history, but it has five-star talent Hunter Johnson waiting in the wings to take over next season. It has dynamic young players in the secondary ready to break out. It has an arsenal of pass-rushers plenty of top 25 teams would envy. It has a sterling lakeside facility that will get Fitzgerald closer to nabbing top prospects. It has a season-opener next season against Stanford, which will give the program a chance to showcase itself to a subset of recruits both academic powerhouses want. It has the full support of the university, which has not always been the case.
Oh yeah, and it has a new rallying cry too.
Hashtag Go ‘Cats.