After Northwestern earned its first trip to the Vrbo Citrus Bowl since 1997, Pat Fitzgerald addressed the media to express his and his team’s excitement to make the trip down to Orlando on New Year’s Day. Here’s what the Wildcats’ coach had to say.
On earning a spot in the Citrus Bowl: I appreciate the opportunity to be out with everybody tonight want to thank Steve Hogan, the committee, all the staff, the volunteers, everybody that makes this amazing, amazing Vrbo Citrus Bowl such a special event. We are ecstatic to bring the ‘Cats back to Orlando, just so proud of our players our staff. For everybody associated with our program to go COVID free through the whole regular season and to be Big Ten West Division champs. We fought and scratch last night, and we just didn’t make the plays we needed to make down the stretch in the fourth quarter to be Big Ten Champions, but to have the opportunity to represent the Big Ten in Orlando, we are ecstatic and can’t wait to be down there next week.
On NU’s last matchup with Auburn in the 2010 Outback Bowl: Well, I’m a lot older now, so all the negatives are gone. They all went out one ear. Drake Dunsmore was amazing, the catch and run up the sideline. Just amazing performances by so many of our players. I think Kafka broke a bunch of records that day, if I’m not mistaken. We needed a big turnover. We created one and had an opportunity to win a regulation. It didn’t work out and then got to overtime had some crazy things happen, and then we ended up a little bit short but great respect for the Auburn program. I’m very sorry to hear about my good friend Gus Malzahn. We got to know each other very well as Under Armour family members. That’s tough in our profession, from one coach to another, but I know there’ll be well-coached will get to know him very well over the next 72 hours as a coaching staff, but just look at the record their initial stats explosive, and we’re going to definitely have a challenge, no question about that.
On discussions about opting out of the bowl: There was absolutely zero discussion within our football program whether or not we’re going to represent the Big Ten in the postseason. We just played the Big Ten Championship. We were ranked in the top 25. If we don’t make mistakes, we could be sitting here undefeated right now, and it’s not to discredit Michigan State, which by the way we got a big basketball game tonight against Sparty, so cheer on Coach Collins and those guys. Then obviously last night against a team in the Final Four, we were battling our hearts out and ended up on the short end, so our guys are excited to play. We’ve got a lot to play for. We’ve won three straight bowl games. We’ve got a ton of respect for the Auburn program. And, let’s send our seniors out. You know a lot of things, obviously, Coach Hank going for when No. 400. There’s so many things, but most importantly, I’m excited for our fans. It’s been family only family again yesterday at the Big Ten Championship. And now to be able to go down to Orlando and have I think 10,000 fans, it’ll be great to be playing in front of our fans, and especially for our fans in the state of Florida that have supported us so well in our previous bowl experiences in the great state of Florida. We’re excited to go down there. Then, for our players from Florida, and from the southeast. Man, am I stoked up for them and for their parents, so I don’t know if you could tell there, but we’re excited. I can’t wait to get the film prep going, can’t wait to get our team prepared to play an outstanding team and go compete. We didn’t think we’re going to have a Big Ten season. And if you were to tell me we’re gonna have an opportunity to go to the Vrbo Citrus Bowl at the end of the year when we started our conversation a couple weeks ago, I would’ve said, “I’ll sign up twice,” so heck yeah, we’re fired up.
On today’s college football news: I have absolutely no idea what happened. I’ve been in meetings all day. We’re kind of losers as coaches. We had a tough loss last night, you get home you watch the tape. We’ve got a lot of things we got to fix, and we got to correct. We’re with the guys here right now. We just started meetings, and we’re going to put yesterday’s game to bed here today I’m going to give the guys a couple days off, and then we’ll get back to practice Wednesday and Thursday. We’ll have a Christmas meal on Friday together and be off and then Saturday we’ll practice and then get into a normal game week, but in all honesty, I think the Buckeyes earned it. You win our conference, you win a conference championship, in my humble opinion, you deserve the privilege to play for the national championship, and the big picture, the macro stuff, I’m not smart enough to figure all that out, but I tell you what, that team we played yesterday was incredibly talented, and I believe they’re deserving to be in the Final Four.
On Indiana and Group of Five teams missing out on NY6 bowls: Well, I can’t speak for the Hoosiers. Tom [Allen]’s a great friend, and they had an amazing season, and I’m really happy for him and his staff and his program for him being Big Ten head coach of the year because there’s no doubt that he deserved it. I think from our standpoint, we believe we’ve earned it. We’re divisional champs. I think we showed what we are made of as a team last yesterday, against the team competing in the Final Four. For them, I’m sure Tom will have plenty of things to say and let that go. There’s a lot of great group of five teams and a lot of very talented players in the group of five. The way the structure is set up right now, it’s really set up for strength scheduled and set up for different data points. I think when you get the human element in there, being conference champions really skews some things a little bit. For the undefeated teams, it’s tough. For the teams with with blemishes on the record, if you’re gonna complain, win games. There’s no complaints coming from this guy. If we wanted to be be in the Final Four, we should have won, and we didn’t, but I think the way we’ve played, we’ve earned the privilege to be in the Vrbo Citrus Bowl, and that’s what I’m most excited about.
On fun plans for the trip to Orlando: I was stoked to come see the mouse and head over to Universal and take in all the sites. We’ll figure something out. My plan right now is tomorrow and Tuesday to have some shenanigans around our facility for our guys, have some fun for him. We’re going to be off the field, let them recover, but we’re gonna have some fun with it with our golf coaches tomorrow at our beautiful Ryan Fieldhouse and have some fun with that, and then maybe some laser tag or something. We usually have a bowl week in Chicago. Our typical experience here is I’ll take the guys to a Bulls game or a Blackhawks game. We’ll then do just a meat-fest somewhere where we’ll take them to some great restaurant in Chicago and guys will get after it, and then we’ve typically gone down to Catholic Charities and fed the patrons at Catholic Charities and then maybe done a concert here or there, but obviously, with the pandemic, those things are all out the window, and we’re going to err on the side of caution. Like I said earlier, to be COVID free for the whole year, I’m really proud of our guys. So we’ll get down. I think we’ll be able to have a welcome event and then maybe one event there in Orlando, and then my plan is I’ll do five events this winter quarter and spring quarter once everybody gets a vaccine and things open up here around Chicago. I’ll probably take the guys to a Cubs game and get a rooftop. I’ll take him down to the South Side where I’m from and go watch the White Sox, who I think has a chance to be ridiculous this year, not that I’m biased or anything. And then, we’ll probably do a luau or something on our beach here on the shores of Lake Michigan here this summer, we’ll do some fun stuff. That’s what college football is all about, having fun enjoying the heck out of this, and especially for our seniors, I’m going to try to do some things in the offseason and let them enjoy the fruits of their sacrifice and dedication this year so just really proud of those guys, so I want to make sure they have a bowl experience. It’ll just be unique this year.
On players opting out of the bowl games: Even if they did, I wouldn’t tell you.
On the defense: It starts with my Mike Hankwitz, our amazing defensive coordinator. He’s announced his retirement. This will be his last college game, and he’s got 399 wins, so this would be a really special one for our program and obviously for Hank. He’s a coach’s coach. You look at my head coaching career here and our success, I mean Mike Hankwitz is in the DNA, the fabric, the architect, take whatever you want to say. I’m just so grateful for him. He’s done a great job coaching our players, developing each and every one of them. Same thing with our staff, where he’s at his best is just talking ball. He’s just an amazing teacher of the game of football. It’s funny when I bring up ideas back when he first got here, he’s got that great, “Well Fitz, you know I did that back with Bo Schembechler,” and it’s just like “My gosh, this guy’s like a walking college football encyclopedia.” It starts and ends with Hank, and then we’ve got great players man. Our guys play for each other. They just give everything that they’ve got for each other, and I think that’s why we’ve been able to be pretty darn consistent, not only this year but throughout Hank’s entire tenure. There’s ebb and flow, there’s ups and downs, we had some of that yesterday and it’s going to happen when you play a Final Four team, but he’s just been so special and I’m just so thankful for him.
On winning four bowl games after the losing streak: It took a lot of work it took a lot of great players sacrificing. It took a staff that was dedicated to getting that monkey off our back, so to speak. I think there’s different breakthroughs for teams, different breakthroughs for programs, and that was kind of one of the last negatives about our program that every time there was a narrative a story or anything written about the program, they’d say, “Yeah they’ve had success, but they can’t win this, and they can’t do that.” I got so many amazing emails and text messages yesterday after the game from our players that were here in the 70s, 80s and early 90s, and we stand upon their shoulders, It was tough times around here, and the support that we’ve had from our great president Morty Shapiro and our Board of Trustees and the best director of athletics in Jim Phillips, who’s now moving on to an amazing role with the ACC as their Commissioner. It happens because of people, and it happens because of that type of support, and it happens because of amazing staff but unbelievable players, and I think back to all those groups that we were close, and we couldn’t get over it that the Auburn game was one of them that we played back. Our last time we competed against each other, what a hard-fought game, and you walk in that locker room being a yard-and-a-half short, and you look at those seniors, and it just rips your hair ou,t so I think that was one that we needed to get done, and to get three in a row now it’s changed that narrative to be a consistent winner. We play great teams, it seems like every bowl game we play in we play great teams. We’re typically not favored in the games, and I’m sure this will be something the same, and it’s going to be a great challenge against a very talented Auburn team that you know from my vantage point looking at me think that we’re ranked as high as No. 8 in the country early now to talk about their talent, their coaching and their scheme, so we got a lot to learn about them, but from afar, I’m obviously very impressed.