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NCAA Football: Big Ten Conference-Football Championship-Northwestern vs Ohio State Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

A listener and a teacher: How Pat Fitzgerald found success at Northwestern as he goes for his 100th career win

Those who know him say he’s uniquely suited to take his alma mater to new heights.

Pat Fitzgerald is annoyed it has taken him 14 years to earn 99 career wins as Northwestern’s head coach.

“As a competitor, I look more at the other number, and it really ticks me off that there’s probably about 50 games that we should have won but we didn’t, so that number is way too large,” he said.

With a record of 99-79, the winningest coach in Northwestern history prepares to face Maryland after a turbulent offseason that has challenged even the most steady and veteran coaches. At 57-58 in the Big Ten, Fitz will try to even up his conference record as he looks to enter triple digits in the win column.

He ranks fifth in wins among active coaches who are the winningest coaches at their respective schools, and second in the Big Ten behind Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz (162 wins), per Stadium’s Brett McMurphy.

Through his ups and downs as leader of the program, the former star linebacker has provided fans with something so foreign to those of a certain age: competence and hope. His tenure has included monumental wins for a program that has historically been disregarded and referenced more for GPAs than the gridiron. In ESPN host Mike Greenberg’s four years on campus in the late 1980s, the Wildcats won just 11 games. Two years ago, he took his entire family to Indianapolis to watch NU play in the 2018 Big Ten Championship Game.

“When NU ran out onto the field, the whole place went purple,” he said. “My kids started clapping, and I literally had to fight back tears. I had to compose myself to see, you know, that was Ohio State on one side of the field. And that was us running out the other side.”

Hope out of tragedy

Steve Schnur remembers getting a call from former Northwestern athletic director Mark Murphy in what was a reference check of sorts. Murphy wanted the perspective of a program alum on Fitzgerald as a candidate for the head coach opening following the sudden death of Randy Walker. Who better to ask than the quarterback of the 1996 Rose Bowl team?

Walker died in June of 2006, just two months before the start of the season. With everyone in and around the program reeling from the shock and grief, there wasn’t much time to search for a new coach or focus on the significance of the hire.

“I was fully supportive, I just thought it was such a natural thing,” Schnur said. “It was such a crazy, tragic time for him to take over, but Northwestern could not have picked a better fit.”

Despite that, there was confidence and not much surprise from those who knew Fitz from his playing days. Longtime NU football play-by-play voice Dave Eanet said the athletic department likely figured Fitz would eventually earn the job and decided to give it to him, even at the early age of 31. In him they saw a dynamic and convincing person.

Schnur wasn’t surprised at all, but some questioned — fairly — whether a 31-year-old without any coordinating experience was ready for the job. When it came time to assemble a staff, Fitz had to sell a vision.

Credit: Northwestern Athletics

Randy Bates, one of Fitzgerald’s first hires, who coached linebackers at NU until 2017, said he took the job because he saw that plan and was enamored by his boss’ ability to immediately move into that role. The plan? Essentially create a program modeled after his linebacker self.

“There’s a certain mentality that linebackers have in life, and if you spend any time around him, you know he embodies it — that linebackers are just going to run through any challenge,” said Greenberg. “There are a lot of people who spend a lot of time figuring out how to run around challenges. It seemed like there was some hopefulness based upon, obviously, what a great player he had been but also the fact that he had the kind of mentality that I thought had a chance to be very successful.”

A rocky beginning

Fitz’s tenure as head ball coach did not start with a honeymoon period. After starting 2006 2-2 in the nonconference schedule, including an emotional season-opening win at Miami (OH), Walker’s former employer and alma mater, the Wildcats lost their first five Big Ten games.

On homecoming against Michigan State (3-4), NU (2-5) led 38-3 with 9:54 left in the third quarter. Quarterback CJ Bacher had accounted for four total touchdowns, and things looked encouraging following three straight blowout losses. But the defense couldn’t hold the large advantage as the Spartans stormed back from 35 down to kick the game-winning field goal with 13 seconds left.

“He went through the growing pains that every new coach goes through,” Eanet said. “But I think those experiences steeled him for the long run.”

Northwestern finished the year 4-8 and failed to make a bowl game the next year after another sub-.500 conference record. The team currently known for churning out consistently stout defenses allowed 26.2 points per game and gave up 30 or more points seven times. Things remained porous in 2007, when the ‘Cats gave up 31 points per contest. Those statistics ranked 88th and 89th, respectively, out of 119 teams nationally. It didn’t feel like a grinding squad.

“That first year, everybody treaded very lightly out of respect for Randy,” said Eanet. “You’re not going to come in and make drastic changes. It’s not like he was taking over a team and starting from scratch, but at the same time, you have to survey the landscape and figure out exactly what you want to do. I think what we saw over the next few years was the program morphing from Randy Walker’s team into Pat Fitzgerald’s team.”

“Not a snake oil salesman”

Fitz brought his own juice long before senior linebacker Blake Gallagher coined the term to describe motivation without fans in the stands this season, and it started on the recruiting trail. Before becoming head coach, he held the title of recruiting coordinator for two years, so he was familiar with the duties of the job.

He presented to high schoolers the same belief in Northwestern he articulated to Bates. In his early years, he had to sell prospective recruits on a school that hadn’t won a bowl game in 60 years, had poor facilities and finished an average of seventh of 11 in the Big Ten since 2000. What he had was enthusiasm and genuine optimism.

“He pretty much came out and said, ‘Here’s where we are, here’s where our vision is to go” and he was just a straight shooter,” said Green Bay Packers defensive end Dean Lowry. “That meant a lot, especially since in recruiting a lot of stuff isn’t really out in the open. Coach Fitz was somebody from day one who told you how it was, and his vision of the program was very exciting.”

Fast forward nearly 15 years, and the Orland Park native has a lot more to offer recruits than hope, a vision and an education. The school has invested in athletics with a $270 million practice facility, has a Big Ten West title to its name and has made bowls in nine of the past 12 seasons. Northwestern is hardly a recruiting powerhouse, especially in a competitive Big Ten, but its classes under Fitzgerald have steadily improved to the point where NU consistently lands talent over its West division rivals and sometimes blue bloods like Michigan, Notre Dame and Ohio State.

Proof of progress will be on display at Saturday’s season-opener when true freshman Peter Skoronski, a heralded four-star recruit who received offers from Michigan, Penn State, Stanford and Wisconsin, will start at left tackle. The fourth-highest rated recruit in program history represents the wave of new talent on display from the class of 2020, the best group Fitz has ever pulled in.

While many head football coaches are known for keeping a tight grip on their players and programs, it’s Fitz’s ability to connect with and teach his players that makes him accessible. It probably helps that he took the head job only 10 years after he was a senior at Northwestern himself.

Since he took over, he says he’s changed. The same man who once dubbed the phrase “stats are for losers” has embraced analytics. He’s now a veteran of the Big Ten, he’s been more willing in recent years to part with members of his coaching staff, but most importantly, he says he’s a better listener.

“He’s created a really great culture in the program that helps us grow, in terms of being open, asking questions, the transparency piece,” said quarterback TJ Green. “I hope to carry some of those traits that he has shown me throughout my five going on six years into my life into other areas that I want to pursue.”

Credit: Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette

Listening may be what helps him connect with his players and form trust, but it’s also a critical part of his teaching, former players say. It’s helped him maximize talent into production and execute his vision, which is a program that personifies the same doggedness, physicality and smarts he showed as a player. At the center of it all, unsurprisingly, are the linebackers.

Some of the best players to come through Evanston under Fitzgerald have been in the teeth of the defense. Indianapolis Colts linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. said he used to have one-on-one meetings with Fitz all the time, simply trying to learn the game from someone who he aspired to be. In Walker’s final two seasons, he recorded 225 tackles (including 29 tackles for loss), six sacks, seven forced fumbles, two interceptions and nine passes defended, earning two selections to All-Big Ten teams and third-team All-America honors in 2015.

Former quarterback Dan Persa said Fitz has that credibility that’s paramount to the player-coach relationship from his winning two Big Ten titles, two Defensive Player of the Year awards and two consensus All-America honors, all while at Northwestern. He’s proved it can be done in Evanston.

“There’s no better teacher out there,” said senior linebacker Paddy Fisher. “The wisdom and the golden nuggets he has to offer to linebackers especially is second to none. I really enjoy picking his brain and seeing what he has to offer.”

Fisher himself has been compared to his coach at times during his career in Evanston. The tackling machine earned All-America and All-Big Ten honors in both 2017 and 2018, racking up 229 takedowns and forcing eight fumbles.

“The thing with many coaches who were great players is they have a hard time explaining to a player how to do something,” said Bates, who is now the defensive coordinator at Pittsburgh. “They more or less tell them to do it. I believe Coach Fitzgerald has a great ability to verbalize and explain himself so that a person can understand it and get a clear explanation for what he’s talking about.”

Redefining expectations

When Fitzgerald was promoted to head coach, there were hardly any consistent expectations for Northwestern. Gary Barnett couldn’t sustain success outside of consecutive Big Ten titles, while Randy Walker made three bowl games in his seven years at the helm but had only two seasons of seven-plus wins.

After Fitz’s turbulent start, he guided the program to 40 wins and 25 losses from 2008-12, a stretch of consistency that was then matched only by a period from 1898-1905 in which NU totaled a record of 63-19-9 as members of the Western Conference when they played teams like Evanston High School.

The Wildcats made five straight bowls during that time and finally broke through with its first postseason victory since the 1948 Rose Bowl when they beat Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl to cap a 10-win season and finish ranked 17th — the first time NU ended a season ranked since 1996.

“I remember thinking what a special moment that was, it was clearly sort of crossing the Rubicon,” Greenberg said. “That just was a major breakthrough for the program and that it represented a huge step up to beat an SEC team in a real good bowl game.”

Despite the success, Northwestern’s style of play was erratic and inconsistent. It wasn’t until 2015 when the defensive identity of Fitz’s program was truly forged. Over the last five years, the unit has ranked an average of 24th in S&P+, a modern measure of efficiency.

Since then, he’s elevated the standard of the program to where he’s brought a degree of pressure to win that wasn’t there before. Between 2015 and 2018, NU went 36-17 with three bowl victories and a Big Ten Championship game appearance. Those who grew up during the Fitzgerald era may not view success the same way older fans might.

“We used to live in a world where anything above .500 was a success,” Greenberg said. “Now we live in a world where the expectations are higher than that. When you start winning games, there is an expectation that you’re going to continue to win games and that you’re going to continue to move forward. I’ll use a golf analogy: When your handicap is 20, and you want to cut your handicap down to 10, that’s a lot easier than trying to get from 10 to six.”

It’s easy to lose in light of the success, but Northwestern hasn’t been and still is not an easy place to win. Fitz has to balance a winning football program while not compromising academic standards and maintaining the FBS’ best graduation rate.

“Not every coach could do what he does at Northwestern,” Greenberg said. “It’s one thing to be able to have extraordinary success in a lot of other places, big state schools with entirely different circumstances. You put some of those guys, all the biggest names out there, you put them in Evanston, Illinois, with our academic profile and everything else and tell them go win eight or nine games a year, make a bowl game every year, you show me how many of them could do that.”

Following the historic 2018 season that included nine wins, a Big Ten West crown and a bowl victory, there were rumors NFL teams wanted to interview him for a head coach position, marking the second time in his coaching career NU has dealt with someone wanting to lure him from the shores of Lake Michigan. But he made clear Evanston was home and he had plenty left to achieve.

NU’s 2019 season fell well short of expectations. Instead of building off the year prior, the Wildcats lost nine games with an offense that ranked bottom five in the country. Fitz sparred with the media during press conferences, called out the quarterbacks as being unprepared and simply looked tired.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Northwestern Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

The disappointing campaign led to the departure of 12-year offensive coordinator Mick McCall. After arguably the most successful stretch of Fitz’s coaching career, it served as a reminder that you’re never assured of anything.

“He knows that that’s not where we wanted to be, and we had higher expectations than that going into the season,” Green said. “He’s taken a really critical approach to the program with the hire of Coach Jake [Mike Bajakian], and kind of expanding our knowledge base in that regard. I think he recognized and did a really deep self reflection and internal reflection on the program on what we needed to do to take that next step.”

This year, amidst a pandemic, Fitz’s mantra of going 1-0 this week takes on more meaning than normal when it’s uncertain if the Big Ten will be able to play its eight-week regular season schedule with no bye weeks.

If the Wildcats can do just that Saturday night and go 1-0 against Maryland, they’ll earn their coach his 100th career win in what will be a surreal atmosphere at a fan-less Ryan Field.

“In the next 101 wins on our way to 200,” Fitzgerald said, “I hope we get there a lot faster, and we don’t have those 50 games that drive me crazy thinking about them.”

Mac Stone and Claire Kuwana contributed reporting.

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