Earlier this month, a legendary figure of collegiate football in Bobby Bowden passed at 91 years old. Though he reached a level playing on the gridiron that many cannot, playing both quarterback and halfback a year at Alabama and three years at Samford from 1948 to 1952, his coaching career is where his true fame was constructed.
He first served as the head man at West Virginia from 1970 to 1975 before leaving for Florida State, where he would spend the next 34 years. The Seminoles were not a traditional powerhouse when Bowden first arrived on the scene, making what he accomplished during his tenure all the more impressive: twelve conference titles, two national championships and the near unmatchable streak of 14 straight finishes in the top five of the AP Poll from 1987 to 2000.
Bowden’s journey in not only having great success but remaining at the same school with whom his identity became synonymous got me thinking — what are the odds Pat Fitzgerald could be on a similar path?
From a mathematical perspective, it seems unlikely on the surface. Only two coaches in Division One history have ever spent more than three decades at one school — the previously mentioned Bowden, Penn State’s Joe Paterno and University of Chicago’s Amos Alonzo Stagg. There have been other close calls, such as Virginia Tech’s Frank Beamer, who spent 28 seasons down in Blacksburg, to legends of the game such as Paul “Bear” Bryant and Tom Osborne, who each clocked in 25 years at their respective programs. In speaking, it doesn’t appear as an insurmountable landmark, but 30 years is a dauntingly long amount of time (said the 20-year old, unwittingly).
Fitzgerald currently holds the sixth longest tenure at single school amongst active Division One coaches, having been with the ‘Cats for 15 years and ready to start season number 16 in just over two weeks. Though that requires him staying on the sidelines with NU until the year 2035, Fitz has an advantage in that he would only be 61 years old by that time, which would still place him as a younger man than some of the other CFB coaches currently vying for that 30-year milestone.
Longest Tenured Head Coaches
|Head Coaches||Seasons w/ School||Current Age (Yrs)|
|Head Coaches||Seasons w/ School||Current Age (Yrs)|
That’s the edge Fitz has had since starting the job at Northwestern when he was just 31 years old. To be only 46 and yet already possess a coaching career that could be argued for the hall of fame is truly a mind boggling feat. For perspective, Ohio State’s Ryan Day is just starting his third full campaign at the helm of the Buckeyes, and still he is only four years younger than one Pat Fitzgerald.
So even though he still has five coaching rivals to pass, there’s a good chance Fitz is the one who can surpass that 30-year barrier. Like Bowden before him, he’s become synonymous with the program he’s with. Save for the brief respite from 1997 to 2000 during which he was a Graduate Assistant and Linebackers coach for a few differing programs, Fitzgerald has been with the NU football team in some capacity every year since 1993. When sports fans think of Northwestern, it’s his name that often comes to mind.
Of course, none of this has stopped the rampant rumors that arise near the end of each season surmising that Fitzgerald could leave Evanston and head to the NFL. Those chatterings were put somewhat to rest this offseason when he inked a deal this offseason to be the head coach of NU through 2030 — at which point he’d reach year number 25 of his tenure — and he very famously turned down a job with the Green Bay Packers years ago.
Seeing that Fitzgerald appears to love coaching and has no intention of leaving the field any time soon and has no inclination of departing for a more “blue blood” program, that leaves a leap to the NFL as the only real impediment on the hope that he becomes NU’s 30-year head man. More specifically, the local task of fixing the Chicago Bears would likely be the only objective that could lure him away from the Wildcats.
That position could be vacant and ripe for hiring as soon as January of 2022, with Matt Nagy entering his fourth season with the Bears and the franchise coming off back to back 9-7 seasons, both of which have been perceived and interpreted as worse than the win-loss record shows. Another year of stagnant offense, be that due to a poor showing from Andy Dalton or a slow start from rookie Justin Fields, and who knows how long Nagy’s stay might be.
None of this is to say that I truly believe Nagy is a lame duck coach with his stint rapidly approaching its end, nor that Fitzgerald has a hankering to bolt following the signing of his latest contract should the Bears’ job open up. Rather, I believe it is the only football-related obstacle that could prevent the “dream” of Fitz as a lifetime coach in Evanston. He’s not leaving for another coaching gig anywhere else in the college landscape, and seeing that he already turned down a prime position in Green Bay, it’s going to take one heck of an offer for him to change his path.
It’s possible that one or more of the five coaches currently holding a longer tenure than Fitzgerald hit that 30-year mark as well, but it’s Fitz who has the best shot. He was once embraced as one of the youngest coaches in the college football history and he still has plenty of years left to give to the program that his legacy goes hand-in-hand with. Overall, I’d say there’s a good shot NU fans in 2036 will remember Pat Fitzgerald as their own Bobby Bowden.