On September 16, the day the Big Ten announced that they would, after all, hold a 2020 football season, Pat Fitzgerald appeared giddily before the media.
“The guys were absolutely ecstatic,” said the beloved head coach. “I’m ecstatic that they have the opportunity, if they choose so, to play.”
His tone could have been much more gloomy, given the bevy of challenges his team was set to face. But Fitz met every obstacle with the same smiling sense of optimism and sarcasm with which he declared that the ‘Cats would return to the Big Ten Championship game toward the end of their disastrous 3-9 showing in 2019.
When all was said and done, NU made its way back to Indy just as he’d predicted, surpassing the expectations set by just about every expert in the business, and Fitzgerald had coached his best season in Evanston yet.
But the Wildcats’ return to the conference title game wasn’t what made Fitz’s 2020 job so uniquely remarkable. After all, Fitz and Co. graced the Lucas Oil Stadium turf just two years earlier, so that itself wasn’t a first-time feat. Rather, the story behind what made 2020 the crown jewel of Fitzgerald’s coaching career begins months before the ‘Cats kicked the year off against Maryland.
When COVID-19 first sent the world into disarray, Fitzgerald and the Wildcats were just days into their first set of practices with new offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian. Thus, when the world transitioned to a virtual format, so too did the installation of Bajakian’s offense. Whereas other teams may have slacked off during the doldrums of the spring, Bajakian called the time online “a blessing in disguise” because of how well the online spaces worked towards helping the team understand the new offense.
The virtual setup of a new offensive format and playbook was just the first of several pandemic-related challenges through which Fitz would have to lead his team. When the Big Ten postponed the 2020 football season in August only to change its mind slightly a month later, teams were left with only five weeks to prepare before kickoff the weekend of October 24.
Even in some of Northwestern’s most memorable years under Fitzgerald, the ‘Cats have started slowly, perhaps most notably so in 2018, when they followed up a season-opening win at Purdue with subsequent home losses to Duke, Akron (!) and Michigan before running the table in the regular season. With even less time to prepare for the season than normal and no buffer games against inferior non-conference competition, one may have reasonably feared that NU would meet a similar fate against early on against a schedule of exclusively Big Ten opponents.
Instead, the Wildcats were clearly prepared out of the gate and thrashed Maryland 43-3 in their season opener, erased a 17-point deficit to beat Iowa in their first road game and won their next three contests to start 5-0 in the Big Ten for the first time since 1996.
At the core of their early season success was the emergence of several stars. Brandon Joseph, Eku Leota and Peter Skoronski all rose to the forefront, yet it was Fitzgerald’s decision to trust them all with starting jobs after the pandemic-induced opt outs of Travis Whillock, Samdup Miller and Rashawn Slater that gave them the chance to shine in the first place. And their development is a testament to the coaching staff as well. Once again, when COVID knocked, Fitz had an answer.
Then there’s the astonishing fact that the program recorded only two positive COVID-19 tests throughout the season, and none through the entirety of Big Ten play,. While most will credit this to the willingness of the players to collectively step aside from their lives outside of football for months on end, Fitz always set the team’s pace surrounding COVID. At multiple press conferences, he highlighted the importance of wearing masks and washing your hands and talked about how he and his family were adapting their lives to avoid seeing any others. I’m a firm believer in leading by example, and, as is evident by their lack of COVID cases (and how that lack of cases contrasts with the test results of other teams, particularly in the Big Ten), the team followed the example set by its coach.
Northwestern finished the season ranked in the top 10 in the AP poll for the first time in 25 years and did it inn unimaginable circumstances. At any point, the virus could have wreaked havoc on the season. The transition to a new offensive coordinator could’ve flopped. The obscure offseason could’ve thrust the ‘Cats into early season failure. The starting jobs left by those who opted out could’ve been filled by vastly inferior replacements. And the team could’ve lived with wanton disregard for the virus — like much of the college football world and the nation has — which could’ve produced an outbreak.
Instead, at each potential inflection point Fitzgerald’s steady leadership guided the Wildcats down a more prosperous path. When his time at the helm of Northwestern football comes to a close (and let that be a long, long time from now), perhaps the team will have accomplished even more on the field. But when all is said and done for Fitz, I guarantee we’ll look back to his performance in 2020 as a case study in how to lead effectively when the going gets tough. In my eyes, there’s nothing more valuable than that.