Following the 2020 season, Pat Fitzgerald had just led his team to a Big Ten West title, a Citrus Bowl victory, and NU’s first top 10 ranking in the Associated Press poll since he played for the Wildcats in 1996. After the season, Fitz was rewarded with a 10-year, eight-figure contract by the university.
In that moment, it appeared clear: Fitzgerald was invincible at the helm of the program. It did not matter what the record on the field was, Fitz’s seat never even reached lukewarm; now, less than three years into his new deal, the longtime face of Northwestern has been fired, and he has no one to blame but himself.
It is a stunning fall from grace for Fitzgerald, who was revered as one of the best coaches in college football for many years. He took what was a historically bad program, excluding the few years he played for the ‘Cats, and made it prominent on a national scale. He is the all-time winningest coach in NU history, and his 10 bowl appearances are the most of any regime.
For a school with notoriously tough admission standards, a lack of student interest and a history of poor play, Fitzgerald found ways to win. It was his triumphs through the adversity that made NFL teams interested in tapping him to run their organizations: the Green Bay Packers, New York Jets and Chicago Bears all contacted Fitz during their head coaching searches. Fitz was at the height of the entire sport; but now, his legacy will always have huge asterisks next to it because of the culture he fostered inside Northwestern football.
Back in January, I said in a piece that “If Northwestern wants to return to being a competitive Big Ten team, it is time to stop being stubborn and modernize.” At that time, I was talking about the archaic version of football that Northwestern trotted out onto the field every week. However, it is the exact same stubbornness and living in the past that cost Fitzgerald his job early Monday evening.
Fitz prided himself on being an “old-school” mentality type of coach, and he seemed to fail to keep up with the modernization of society. This is the same man who blamed cell phones for lack of attendance at games, called the RPO communism and has refused to use NIL money to attract high school recruits to Evanston. It seems his refusal to modernize carried over to what was going on inside the culture of the program as well.
As reported by The Daily Northwestern, and confirmed by Inside NU’s Bradley Locker, multiple allegations of sexual hazing were occurring inside Northwestern’s locker room. Multiple reports have confirmed the “running” of players, where upperclassmen restrained a player and dry humped him. Furthermore, Locker reported that the “car wash”, a hazing event where players would be forced to rub up against naked players to enter the showers, had occurred even when 2007 graduates were playing.
It is hard to believe that if it was happening in 2007, and still happening in 2022 as the whistleblower alleged, that Fitzgerald had zero clue of this annual incident for 15 years. In fact, I am wondering if Fitz may have participated in this type of action as a player in the mid-1990s.
While hazing, like what has been alleged, might have been more acceptable in the ‘90s, there is zero tolerance for any mistreatment of players today, and Fitzgerald knew that. When investigator Maggie Hickey found that “there had been significant opportunities to discover and report the hazing conduct,” it showed that everyone in the program knew, yet she could not prove it. Plausible deniability was the name of the game. Fitzgerald seemed to believe that as long as no one could prove he had direct knowledge of the hazing, then he would be in the clear and the treatment could continue, and to be fair, he was absolutely correct.
Northwestern knew 11 players came forward and alleged that sexual hazing occurred inside NU football, but all they gave love tap on the wrist. Originally, Fitzgerald received a two-week, unpaid, suspension; however, the suspension was right in the middle of an NCAA dead period. The ‘Cats could not contact recruits, host visits or hold practices. Summed up, Fitzgerald’s two-week paid vacation became a two-week unpaid vacation, and for someone whose contract was reportedly closing in on $6 million a year, it’s not like NU put a dent in their former head coach’s wallet.
On Friday morning, NU sent a clear message: Fitzgerald was more important than any wrongdoing in the program he oversaw, and if it wasn’t for the work of tremendous student journalism, Northwestern would have swept this whole thing under the rug and moved right along.
This same level of leeway allowed Fitz to go 4-20 over the last two seasons and not have to even think about his job security. If any other program went 1-11 and had not won a game on American soil, the head coach would have been handed a pink slip and told to pack their office, but not Fitzgerald.
Not only was Northwestern hamstrung by his massive buyout, but no one could even imagine a Northwestern without Pat Fitzgerald. It is because of this that he was allowed to send out his outdated offense onto the field every Saturday, even though the game had evolved into spread offenses that put pressure on the defense and score points. No one questioned him when he hired friends into prominent positions, even though everyone could see they were not a good fit for what the program needed. Even after the last two horrid seasons, athletic director Derrick Gragg was way more restrained in his criticisms of Fitzgerald than he was of Chris Collins, because at the end of the day, Gragg appeared to answer to Fitzgerald. The only man who appeared to have any say in what Fitz did was Pat Ryan.
Fitz was the face of Northwestern, and he knew it. He had created a cult of personality that attracted casual Northwestern students and alumni to become diehard ‘Cats fans. He preached culture and the “Wildcat Way,” a style of play that launched Northwestern into its most successful era in program history; however, after reheat has been learned over the last 96 hours, we have to ask what the culture was inside NU football.
Fitz proudly said to us last season, that despite being 1-11, the culture of the program was still there. We now know that the culture of the program had a giant black eye on it, and whether he knew everything or not, it happened under his watch. He believed his overwhelming support from fans, alumni and players would make it impossible for the university to implement any actionable consequences, but no matter what, the University only will look after itself in the long run, no matter how important the individual is.
This pains me to write. Like many, I looked up to Fitzgerald. As someone who loves coaching, Fitzgerald represented everything I wanted to be in a coach, and his message of culture, with the victories that came with it, made me believe that culture was the key to success.
Fitz was so intertwined into the fabric of Northwestern that I never thought this day would come, and definitely not for a hazing scandal. However, his own stubbornness to evolve — both on the sidelines and off of them — cost him his job. He had the possibility to move Northwestern forward, both on and off the field; instead, he has now set the program back.