Following practice, Northwestern head football coach Pat Fitzgerald addressed the media for the first time since the day the Big Ten announced football would come back this fall.
On the state of the offensive line: “We’ve got a lot of a lot of talent coming back with Gunnar Vogel and Nick Urban. Sam Gerak has played a lot of football for us. Those three guys are kind of our three wily veterans that have been in in a bunch of games. I see great leadership out there in a group I probably see as competitive of a room as maybe we’ve had through about 12 guys competing right now to play. We’ll see how that transpires here over the next two and a half weeks before game day.”
On the flow of practice right now compared to normal summer: “It’s very different from a standpoint of just the testing that we do daily, and we’re really thankful for our partners that we’re working with every day. We get to see them every morning, and they’re starting to become part of the Wildcat family. So we’re really thankful for that. From that change to you’ve got limited practice opportunities. It’s a balance between getting enough work in mentally — which you can pretty much control — and then the balance is the physical side of it, to make sure your guys are ready physically...having enough contact but not too much contact. It’s a delicate balance, but our guys are guide, and we usually work pretty diligently to having conversations with how our guys are feeling about where we’re at with things.”
On player opt outs and a sense of normalcy: “Right now, we’ll keep our focus on the guys that we’ve got here. I’ll have a release at some point. That won’t be today, but I’ll make a release on guys that have decided to opt out, but we fully support them and their decision. And it’s for a myriad of reasons. So you work through that. I guess I’d call it kind of the new normal. When we’re practicing football, you know, we’re able to really do what we’ve typically been able to do in somewhat of a modified way. In meetings, we’re still wearing masks, socially distanced. We’ve had adjust our meeting rooms, I’ve addressed the team, special teams meetings and unit meetings have all been on Zoom. So we have not had a full squad meeting in our team auditorium. That will trigger into that, also when we get ready to travel, and then game day ops. All those things are being finalized right now, but we feel really good about kind of what our plan is. And I think if we’ve learned anything here watching the other teams is your plan has to be ready to be adjusted. Because, you know, obviously the virus and the pandemic are real, and we’ve got to put every policy and procedure we can in place to keep our guys healthy and safe, and then just get ready to adjust accordingly.”
On following what other CFB teams are going through: “Yeah, absolutely. Dr. Mjaanes, and our medical staff, Kevin Kikugawa, are our guides on everything we’re doing medically. We’re trying to steal a percentage here and a percentage there. That’s why we’re not meeting collectively. That’s why we’ve adjusted our meeting rooms, our weight room, our entrance in and out of the locker room, eating at Nona Jo’s, our cafeteria, all these things have been adjusted. But then ultimately, it comes down to all of our social choices and decisions. And that’s on us as a coaching staff too. I sent out a text to some very close friends a week and a half ago. I said, ‘Hey, we’re going into a pseudo bubble. Hope all as well. It sounds like there’s gonna be some nice weather for golf. Enjoy it. Happy Halloween, Happy Thanksgiving, Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year. See you then. That’s the reality. I go from home to work and back home. And then, for example, Stacy and I have had conversations with our boys about, ‘you got to stay in a small group of friends. This is what we’re doing.’ We’re all kind of approaching it that way. It is what it is, and I’m just really proud of our guys. It’s going to really rely on their choices once we get into game day. I’ve done a lot of research, talked to people privately, and I’ve got some pretty good ideas on why some of these postponements have happened. I also have some little bit more facts that maybe you guys don’t have that I’ll talk specifically to our entire football family about privately as we get closer to the opener and then as we go through the season. Like I said, it’s gonna be fluid and gotta be prepared to adjust.”
On the gap between postponement and resumption: “As a program I wanted to give our guys some space. We took about two or three weeks off, and I basically said to the entire football program, ‘Listen, I’ll see you guys when school starts.’ We had some guys show up that week and throughout that process, and then our medical policies and procedures got tweaked and changed a little bit where there’s a basically a five day onboarding process if you leave the greater Evanston area. So we had to work through that with some guys. Maybe some positions were down a few numbers initially, but I think it was a great job by our players and staff of kind of what this season may be and talking about contingency plans. How are we going to adjust and what are plans? And then how will we adjust practices? So I guess the the word of 2020, maybe one of the words will be fluid, this has been a pretty fluid 40 days and so, but once we got school started up, we got we got rockin’, and I feel really good with with where we’re at mentally. We’ve got a little bit more work to do physically here over the next week and a half.”
On what constitutes a successful season: “From a health and safety standpoint, we want to be able to keep our guys as healthy as they can. So to me that, you know, from a macro level [having a virus-free environment] is absolutely a successful season, if we’re able to accomplish that. It’s our policies, it’s our procedures, it’s the way we execute those, and then obviously, the social choices that we make, and we’re all responsible for that. So I know that we’re all working hard to make great choices and wear masks and have social distancing and great hygiene, control those controllables. And then making decisions and choices on how we travel, the way we’re running day-to-day is all with the health and safety as a priority. But we get out on the field, our number one goal is to win. We’re playing to win a Big Ten West, we’re playing to win a Big Ten championship. That’s what I think all 14 teams are doing. But that’s the micro, and the big picture of the macro is the health and safety of our guys and the whole entire football program.”
On approaching his 100th career win: “Any type of milestones like that, I want to first and foremost think about our players, the guys that I’ve had the privilege to coach. It’s been a true blessing. I feel very, very thankful for for all them and for their families. It’s, it’s really special, when you kind of start to think back about that. On a personal note, I’m kind of mad that it’s taken this long, as a competitor, quite frankly. 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 that we didn’t. So that number is way too large. And in the next, 101 wins on our way to 200, I hope we get there a lot faster, and we don’t have those 50 games that drive me crazy. How have I changed as a leader? I think I’m a much better listener than I ever have been. I think it’s a challenge as a young head football coach to prove yourself. I think you want to be able to be someone that exudes confidence and belief in yourself first, but it’s almost like quarterback play, what comes first — confidence or experience? It got debated when I was 31 — is he ready to be a head coach, he’s never coordinated? Well, when you coordinate, you’ve never been a head coach either. So I just think you really learn that it’s a different role. It’s a different position within the staff, within the athletic department, within the university, within the alumni, within our community, within the Big Ten, within the landscape of college football. So when you look at that macro aspect of it, I think I’ve changed, I’ve grown. I’m just incredibly thankful for our players and for our staff and for all their families, to everything that they’ve meant to our program. It’s because of them that we’ve had the success and a lot less because of me.
On the return of TJ Green: “It’s been great to have TJ back out there practicing this week. I’m so happy for him. He has worked just tirelessly to get back from this injury. I know he’s having fun, and he’s probably a little bit sore right now being back on the field here midweek. It’s been a long road, and I’m really happy for him.”
On his feelings on returning to play: “I kind of feel like we’re 1-0 right now from getting back out to practice. I was really concerned that that might not happen. But I’m just thankful for the diligent work of the conference, of our presidents and chancellors, and then the ADs and our other head coaches, collectively, as a group to get this accomplished. It’s been a long road to get back on the practice field. And now to be, whatever it is, 17 days, I think, till the opener, it’s really, really exciting. I think our guys are going to be stoked. It’s going to be a little bit different, right without fans in the building. And so I think, I think Gally [Blake Gallagher] came up with the bring your own juice phrase. I watch games starting on Thursday, and you just see the different environments. Certain teams are really excited to be there, they’re kind of creating their own juice and having energy and having fun. And there’s other other guys that look like they’re getting a root canal. I think it’s a blessing that we get a chance to play and I know our guys will be very excited to get back out on the field and play the game. They will love it.”
On if a game can’t be played: “At least what’s been articulated to me from the conference is that if a game is not played it will be recognized as a ‘no contest.’ So that what is my current understanding. I’ll go back to the word of one of the words of 2020 of being fluid. I don’t know if that’ll change.”
On the biggest coaching differences this year: “I gotta wear this instant shield at practice, so I’m gonna be wearing this bad boy on game day. So that’s been a big change. Ghere’s just been a ton of change. We had a walkthrough today, everybody’s in masks. When you look at what our medical team has had to go through and do, we’re just really thankful for them. It’s been a long road to get to this point, and we understand there’s going to continue to be tweaks and changes. Our attitude is just been, ‘hey, whatever doc says. and Kevin Kikugawa says, that’s what goes and let’s go execute it.’ If we have questions, ask the questions and make sure we’re all on the same page. We’re just fired up to get an opportunity to play. I feel the same way, I feel very fortunate to have an opportunity to coach a team this year and look forward to going out and competing to the best of our ability.”
On Peyton Ramsey: “He’s brought experience. He’s been through a bunch of Big Ten games, Big Ten battles. He’s a veteran, he’s a guy that’s been out in the arena, you can tell that. And so I think his comfort level and who he is, and what his game is, is very high from his experience level. It’s been fun to watch that now.”
On the changing logistics: “The good news is, I call it the UPS of what we do, the logistics of what we’re doing, has nothing to do with the head ball coach. So I just coach football and get our guys motivated to play. That’s on this gentleman named Cody Cejda, our director of football operations. Tomorrow we’ll have our kind of two-week out debrief to our 36-hour game day routine. Everything that’s been going to be tweaked and changed is all for trying to steal a percentage here or percentage there, to try to make sure we keep our guys as healthy and safe as we can. When I say percentages, it’s like, ‘Alright, if we’re going to go on the plane, do we really need to keep the middle seat open? Well, we recommend that you do, even though we’re all negative on the plane. Should we wear masks when we’re in meetings? Yes.’ So we’re constantly having that type of communication. But the health and safety of our guys is the driving force. Are we going to go the day the game? I don’t know about that. That would be that would be a concern. Maybe for a night game. But I don’t know when we’re playing. Do you guys know when we’re playing? So until we know all those logistics, we can’t get everything finalized. But you guys are all on Twitter. So you’ll probably know before I do.”
On coaching contingency plans: “We’ve had all those types of discussions. If I end up unfortunately getting the virus and I can’t coach for two weeks, we’ll kick into that plan. What happens if, Mike Bajakian or Mike Hankwitz or Jeff Genyk end up having an issue, boom, we go into this plan. We’ve kind of talked it through each specific position coach on exactly how we would execute and adjust, so we’ve got plans in place for that.”