Northwestern extends Fitzgerald through 2015

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Pat Fitzgerald has changed the face of Northwestern football, and, in the process, has become the face of the Wildcats program.

Northwestern took a big step toward keeping the face in place Tuesday, rewarding Fitzgerald with a seven-year contract extension through the 2015 season.

"This has been one of our top priorities the past few months," Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips said in a prepared statement. "There is no doubt that Pat is the right individual to lead Northwestern's football program well into the future. In three years, Pat has quickly developed into one of the nation's top young head coaches. He bleeds purple and has tremendous passion for Northwestern."

Phillips wanted to get a contract done by the start of the summer and nearly reached his goal. Northwestern has improved its wins total in each of Fitzgerald's past two seasons, finishing 9-4 last fall and reaching the Alamo Bowl.

Fitzgerald stepped into a very difficult situation in 2006, taking over as the nation's youngest head coach just a week after the sudden death of program stabilizer Randy Walker. The 31-year-old showed his age at points during a very shaky first season in which the Wildcats stumbled to 4-8.

He began to find himself as a head coach after the 2007 campaign, blending competition into every element of the team's offseason program. He made the Big Ten's best coaching hire in defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz, who transformed a sorry unit into a group that reflects Fitzgerald, a former two-time National Defensive Player of the Year at Northwestern. The result with a nine-win team that amazingly included only one All-Big Ten selection (defensive end Corey Wootton).

But with success comes speculation, especially at a place like Northwestern. With Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis on the hot seat late last fall, many tabbed Fitzgerald as a potential successor. It seemed like a perfect fit: An Irish kid from Chicago's south suburbs coaching the Fighting Irish.

Don't hold your breath on that one.

Fitzgerald is extremely happy at Northwestern. He played there. He got his degree from there. He loves Evanston and living near his family and his wife's family in Chicago's south suburbs. He has three sons who he'd love to send to Northwestern. He loves the Big Ten.

And if he did decide to leave, I highly, highly doubt it would be for Notre Dame.

"It's no secret that I want to be the head football coach at Northwestern for many years to come," Fitzgerald said in a statement. "Our football program is succeeding both on and off the field, and we're proud of our recent accomplishments. We have greater aspirations, however, and I'm thankful to our administration for helping us support that vision."

The idea that someone would want to stay at Northwestern for the long haul seems unlikely, and the school has lost successful coaches like Ara Parseghian and Gary Barnett to more prestigious programs (Notre Dame and Colorado). But Fitzgerald's roots run much deeper at the school, and as long as he continues to receive support from the administration -- not just salary but program support -- he should stay put.

You never know what happens in the coaching business, but with Fitzgerald's age (34), he could have a Joe Paterno-like run at Northwestern.