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What does Fitz’s new contract actually mean?

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Important to read between the lines.

Northwestern v Wisconsin Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Northwestern football made national headlines last week when it announced that head coach Pat Fitzgerald would be receiving a 10-year contract extension, keeping him in Evanston through 2030. Fitzgerald’s decision to stay with the Wildcats while receiving interest from NFL teams for head coaching jobs reinforced his commitment to bringing Northwestern to the upper echelon of college football.

Now that the ink has dried, it’s necessary to take a deeper dive into what the contract truly means for Pat Fitzgerald and the future of Northwestern sports. NU has not released any official contract details regarding money, guarantees, buyouts or other clauses, but here’s what we do know.

1. Pat Fitzgerald was supposed to earn over $5 million in 2020, according to USA Today, making him the 13th highest-paid coach in the country

Coming off an excellent season that resulted in NFL interest for his services, it’s safe to assume that Fitzgerald did not take a pay cut. He was previously the fourth-highest paid Big Ten football coach behind Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh ($8,036,179), Penn State’s James Franklin ($5.9 million) and Ohio State’s Ryan Day ($5,646,694).

The Bobby Dodd award winner certainly warrants a top-10 price tag, which would presumably put him in the $7 million range. Not a bad gig for a school with less than 10,000 undergrads.

The other variables that matter here are the buyout and opt-out clauses. The school buyout is what it would cost Northwestern to get rid of Fitzgerald prior to 2030, should the program begins heading in the wrong direction, but that is unlikely.

Day’s buyout from OSU is a whopping $45,464,910, while Harbaugh’s is much less significant at $6,367,929. The average buyout figure for coaches in top-20 total compensation is around $25 million. A hefty sum, sure, but one that Northwestern could afford to pay if things went south.

Many contracts have opt-out clauses that would allow a coach to leave without penalty if a specific job opened up. It is possible that the Chicago Bears head coaching job is desirable enough for Fitzgerald to include in the contract, but based on last week’s events, pretty unlikely.

2. Coaching stability offers a recruiting advantage

The best programs in college football have consistency at the head coaching position. Nick Saban has been at Alabama for 13 seasons, Brian Kelly at Notre Dame for 10 seasons and Kirk Ferentz at Iowa for 21 seasons. Each of those coaches is the face of their respective programs and, as such, demands respect and gravitas. The Wildcats are lucky to have found their guy — Pat Fitzgerald is the perfect embodiment of Northwestern football.

Both Fitzgerald and the university have a lot to gain from a long-term agreement. It allows the university to retain one of the most respected coaches in sports as a public ambassador for Northwestern.

He’s a damn good ambassador, too.

“From the moment I stepped on campus as an undergraduate, I have believed this is the finest University in the country,” said Fitzgerald in a statement announcing the contract.

From a recruiting standpoint, Fitzgerald now gets to tell prospective student-athletes he turned down some of the most desirable jobs in the NFL to build Northwestern into a national power with second-to-none player development. That’s a compelling pitch, and it has already worked with transfer quarterback Ryan Hilinski and four-star wide receiver Jordan Mosley.

3. Could renovations to Ryan Field be part of the contract?

Departing athletic director Jim Phillips last signed Fitzgerald to a contract extension in 2017. The $270 million palatial lakefront practice facility was completed the following season. Fitz made a long-term commitment to NU, so NU returned the favor with the tools to build a successful Power Five football program.

Northwestern football could use some home improvement. Could we see a renovation of the dated Ryan Field, and was that part of Fitz’s decision to stay? It depends on who becomes the next athletic director and the economic state of Northwestern’s mega-donors. Is a new stadium necessary? No, probably not. But a facelift and something to make the place feel more raucous and less like an art gallery would help.

Northwestern’s union with Pat Fitzgerald is a special one, and a 10-year contract is an impressive show of faith. However, as with all things, it’s important to read between the lines. This contract offers some short-term respite to nervous Northwestern fans, but it doesn’t mean Fitz stays in Evanston forever.