NU to sweeten deal for coveted Coach Fitz

Many think Pat Fitzgerald's departure from Northwestern is a foregone conclusion.

Why would a coach with so much upside stick around a program with limited tradition and resources? Northwestern rarely has been able to retain its most successful coaches -- Ara Parseghian and Gary Barnett are two who left -- and Fitzgerald is projected to fall in line with the others.

It might be time for folks to adjust their thinking.

The Chicago Tribune's Teddy Greenstein reports that Northwestern is putting together another significant contract extension for Fitzgerald, who received a seven-year contract through the 2015 season in June 2009. It's the school's latest proactive move to keep Fitzgerald at his alma mater for as long as he'd like.

While Fitzgerald hasn't expressed serious interest in leaving Northwestern, other programs are expressing interest in him.

Last week, he declined a chance to discuss Michigan's head-coaching vacancy with UM representatives.

Just how serious was Michigan about Fitzgerald?

The reality is that Michigan's interest in Fitzgerald was so sincere, representatives of the school laid out salary parameters, according to sources. ... Had negotiations ensued, Michigan likely would have offered around $3 million, according to sources.

As a private school, Northwestern doesn't release Fitzgerald's salary, but I've heard he earns around $1.25 million a year. So leaving for Michigan would have come with a significant salary increase.

Northwestern officials had concern about Notre Dame pursuing Fitzgerald for its vacancy last year. And according to league sources, Penn State has serious interest in Fitzgerald as a candidate to replace Joe Paterno when the time comes.

Greenstein reports that the Michigan situation caused Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips to ask Fitzgerald to shorten a recruiting trip and return to Evanston. Fitzgerald met with Phillips and university president Morton Schapiro last Thursday.

To show their commitment, Phillips and Schapiro asked Fitzgerald about his priorities. According to sources, topics included beefing up the recruiting budget, boosting the salary pool for assistant coaches and relaxing an NU rule that limits official recruiting visits to prospects who have either been admitted or on track to be admitted to school. ... The result of those discussions -- and the pending extension -- give Phillips the hope and belief that Fitzgerald will become NU's Paterno.

Northwestern is trying to avoid a Parseghian redux with Fitzgerald, and it's hard to fault the school for being so aggressive.

Fitzgerald grades well in a lot of the external factors programs want in a head coach. He brings youth, energy, intensity, an academic focus and an athletic background as a College Football Hall of Famer that makes him a good recruiter and a strong public representative for a program. He still has a long way to go as a game coach, which showed up in several contests this season, and he has yet to field a legit Big Ten title contender. Northwestern's victories total has dropped in each of the past two seasons.

Northwestern is probably overextending itself a bit to cater to Fitzgerald, whose loyalty to the school runs deep.

But for a school that has wavered on its commitment to athletics in the past, this isn't a bad strategy.