|ESPN.com: Big Ten||[Print without images]|
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Most outsiders view Northwestern as a stepping stone, the type of place an up-and-coming young coach would leave as soon as a better opportunity presented itself.
History supports the belief.
Ara Parseghian left Northwestern for Notre Dame after upgrading the Wildcats program in the 1960s. After years of flirtation with other schools, program restorer Gary Barnett left for Colorado following the 1998 season. Lynn "Pappy" Waldorf was named national coach of the year at Northwestern in 1946 and coached Otto Graham before moving on to Cal.
If Pat Fitzgerald continues to win in Evanston -- his victories total has increased from four to six to nine in his first three seasons as a head coach -- the big debate will not be if, but when he leaves for another job. It already started last fall among the Chicago media, especially as Notre Dame considered whether to retain Charlie Weis.
Given his last name and his hometown -- Orland Park, Ill., an Irish-Catholic area and Notre Dame hub in Chicago's south suburbs -- Fitzgerald will have a hard time convincing anyone that he wouldn't be a good fit in South Bend.
Just like he would have a hard time convincing anyone that Northwestern could be a destination job.
"Obviously, those people didn't play here," he told ESPN.com on Monday. "They didn't experience what Northwestern football means, and I did. This is a dream come true for me to be here. This is where I decided to come as a student-athlete, the success we had on the field.
"I want to be here for a long, long time. Stacy and I love raising our boys here. I love the young men that we get to coach, and obviously the support from the administration and from [athletic director Jim Phillips], I couldn't ask for anything more."
Phillips said last week that talks are already under way on a contract extension for Fitzgerald, who took over as coach after the sudden death of Randy Walker in 2006. A deal should be announced before the start of preseason camp.
Money could be an obstacle, as it has been in the past. Barnett has publicly questioned Northwestern's ability to pay top dollar, and he remains close to Fitzgerald, his former player. Northwestern doesn't have as many deep-pocketed boosters as most of its Big Ten competitors.
Paying and retaining assistant coaches was a struggle for Walker, who lost top offensive assistants Kevin Wilson and James Patton to Oklahoma. But Fitzgerald kept all but one of his assistants from 2008, and the school has made some facilities upgrades, including a new FieldTurf surface for its indoor practice facility.
Fitzgerald Watch will continue as long as Northwestern keeps progressing, but the 34-year-old doesn't get caught up in it.
"It's not an element of my life," Fitzgerald said. "The most important thing for us here is for our program to keep going in the right direction. We have a program in place now that the guys understand what we want and how we want it done. I've got a lot of confidence that we're going to continue to improve, if we can continue to recruit the right fit."