We’ve been here before. After firing Rich Rodriguez in 2011, Michigan football needed a new leader. Then-Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon moved quickly to request a meeting with Northwestern Head Football coach, Pat Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald promptly met with NU athletic director Jim Phillips, and after wooing the university administration with plans for new facilities he wanted, signed a contract extension through 2020. In 2017, he signed another extension that keeps him in Evanston through 2026.
In 2018, after an unprecedented season that featured the Wildcats’ first ever Big Ten West title and Big Ten Championship appearance, rumors started to swirl again of a Fitz departure. This time, the rumors were a bit more connection-based. Current Green Bay Packers president Mark Murphy initially hired Fitz as Northwestern’s head football coach in 2006 when Murphy was NU’s athletic director. In 2018, Murphy attempted to lure him to Green Bay.
Fitz promptly shut down the rumors publicly after Northwestern’s memorable 2018 Holiday Bowl Victory, declaring “Hashtag ‘Go ‘Cats,’ man, I’m not going anywhere. This is home forever.”
In his last column for the Chicago Tribune, Teddy Greenstein reported that Fitzgerald “brought up the prospect at a family dinner. He asked his three sons what they thought. The reply: No, we’re Bears fans. ‘OK,’ Fitzgerald responded, ‘I guess the discussion is over.’”
In 2019, following Fitz’s worst season in Evanston (3-9, 1-8 B1G), rumors of his jumping to the NFL were non-existent.
After another Big Ten Championship appearance for the second time in three years, though, and a much more competitive conference title game than the one in 2018, rumors around NFL teams seeking Fitzgerald have gained momentum again.
Some national writers and different members of the media speculated about the possibility of Fitz leaving NU for the NFL throughout various parts of Northwestern’s 2020 season. But, Adam Schefter, the king of NFL insiders, recently added fuel to the fire by writing an article stating that two NFL teams have already inquired about Fitzgerald’s interest in a head coaching job. More teams are expected to make formal interview requests after the Citrus Bowl.
For the most part, Fitz has both ignored and repelled the rumors. He cunningly downplayed and avoided them in a recent interview with Dave Revsine of the Big Ten Network, but also failed to resoundingly reject the rumors like he did postgame in San Diego.
After seeing such historical strides being made in Evanston, many are skeptical Fitz would leave right now. Some believe he’s perfectly comfortable at Northwestern and wouldn’t depart for the next level before winning a Big Ten Championship or making the College Football Playoff at his alma mater.
Given Fitzgerald turned down such a sought-after job in Green Bay, it’s reasonable to say there can’t be too many jobs for which the 45-year-old would consider leaving NU. Still, this time may be a bit different than the other times higher profile schools and pro franchises have tried to lure Fitzgerald from the North Shore.
As many know, Fitzgerald is an Orland Park native and Carl Sandburg High School graduate. He grew up a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and remains one to this day. If there is one job that NU fans should fear Fitz may leave his collegiate program for, it would be the job in Halas Hall.
Of course, there is an interesting link between the two positions, and it’s not just geography (it sounds like Fitz doesn’t want to have to move his family while his kids are still in school). Pat Ryan, the NU mega-donor for whom a litany of campus buildings and programs are named, has ties to both the Northwestern athletic department and the Bears. Ryan is the one who helped finance the massive, sparkling new facilities Fitz requested in 2011 and always has an ear in the administration.
It can’t help NU fans’ nerves that the 12-year partnership between Phillips and Fitzgerald just concluded with Phillips taking one of his his own dream jobs, becoming the next commissioner of the ACC.
Ryan maintains a strong relationship with Fitz, per this CBS Sports report, and will likely have some influence in what happens one way or another. The timing has never been right for the Bears to give Fitz a serious look. He became NU’s coach in 2006, when Lovie Smith led the Bears to the Super Bowl. The organization fired Smith at the end of the 2012 season, and Fitz won the Gator Bowl a couple of days later, Northwestern’s first bowl victory since 1949.
In both the 2013 and 2014 seasons, Fitz went 5-7. The Bears let Marc Trestman go after the 2014 campaign, but Fitz compiled just a 10-14 record in the prior two years. The next Bears HC, John Fox, was fired in 2017, and while Fitz had success at NU in ‘16 and ‘17, it wasn’t enough to warrant Fitzgerald garnering serious interest from the Bears instead of a supposed NFL rising star like Matt Nagy.
FiveThirtyEight gives the Bears a 32% chance to make the postseason, and if they fail to do so, there’s a good chance they may be searching for a new head coach.
Fitz may not leave if offered the Bears job. Still, if there were ever a time where the stars aligned for Northwestern’s winningest coach to leave the school, the opportunity to coach his childhood favorite team could prove to be too much to pass up.