clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Grappling with the complicated legacy of Pat Fitzgerald

In the wake of his firing, Pat Fitzgerald’s legacy sits in a gray area, and it's okay to have conflicting emotions.

Big Ten Championship - Northwestern v Ohio State Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Pat Fitzgerald has been fired.

A mere week ago, that sentence was inconceivable.

In a stunning but necessary turn of events, what seemed unthinkable just a few days ago, has transpired. After 17 seasons as Northwestern’s head coach, Fitzgerald has been let go for his failure to prevent hazing and a toxic environment within the school’s football program.

The Monday afternoon decision, although controversial, was the correct one. Whether Fitzgerald himself knew about or participated in the hazing is a moot point. The fact of the matter is that hazing transpired under the watch of Fitzgerald; he failed to protect his players. As a result, the fifth-longest tenured FBS coach will not be on Northwestern’s sideline on opening day.

Where do we go from here? How will we remember a man who is unarguably, both on the field and on the sidelines, a Northwestern legend?

I grew up a diehard Northwestern fan. Like many of you, I adored Coach Fitz. I bought into the culture and ate up the blue-collar, tough-as-nails narrative. Fitz was easy to root for; his teams played hard and his interviews were colorful. I was crushed to see the allegations of a rampant hazing culture and heartbroken to learn of their validity. It’s okay to feel mixed emotions. This subject is complex and uncomfortable.

If you loved the 1995 team that took a trip to the Rose Bowl with Fitzgerald manning the middle of the defense, that’s completely understandable. If you adored the 2009 or 2012 campaigns under Fitz’s leadership, that remains okay too. If, like me, the trips to the Big Ten Championship in 2018 and 2020 nearly moved you to tears, those emotions do not get erased.

The recent news does not invalidate any positive memories you have had with Northwestern football. However, these memories must be qualified to be understood properly.

All of the wins during Fitzgerald’s tenure can still be celebrated, along with the great players, classic games and breathtaking plays. Yet, these must be supplemented with the newfound knowledge that, even in winning seasons, not every individual was able to enjoy the celebrations because of secretive rituals that hurt, traumatized and belittled some players. Even if those experiences are the minority, those practices cannot be and should not have been tolerated in a culture that prides itself on integrity and honor.

This does not mean that Fitzgerald wasn’t a force for good during his time in Evanston. The outpouring of support and testaments to Fitz’s upstanding nature from former and current players makes it clear that he was admired and esteemed. But, both can be true: Fitz can have transformed some lives for the better while allowing for some of the lowest points in others.

As the widespread and vocal testimonials on behalf of Fitzgerald continue to roll in, it is crucial to reckon with a less than black-and-white reality: none of the stories describing instances where Fitzgerald was supportive, uplifting and honorable (which are also part of his legacy) make it impossible for him to have overseen a program that permitted some terrible misdeeds.

In addition to winning games and awards, Fitzgerald is also credited for building the team’s culture. But in light of the information learned in the past few days, this culture has its own complicated legacy. This culture, with more wins than losses on the gridiron, evidently had an ugly underbelly with cracks. No amount of wins or awards can justify the inhumanity detailed by several former players and staffers.

All this to say, Pat Fitzgerald’s legacy in purple is complex. He is one of the greatest players in program history and the winningest coach by a significant margin. That won’t go away, but it is forever tarnished with an asterisk. Despite his achievements, Fitzgerald is now unlikely to see a statue commemorated in his honor outside of Ryan Field. His image, along with Northwestern’s, is permanently stained. This hazing scandal is destined to become an unsettling, if not defining, chapter in the history of both.

In the coming days, both the university and the football team will have a lot to answer for. It will be difficult to navigate the path forward, both on and off the field, but we do know one thing for certain: that path will be without Pat Fitzgerald.