Fitzgerald a convincing force in recruiting

February, 2, 2011
2/02/11
4:33
PM CT
EVANSTON, Ill. – Fifty national football recruits were asked by ESPN the Magazine what percentage of college coaches lied to them during the recruiting process.

The recruits believed 61.5 percent of coaches fibbed to persuade the recruits to commit to their programs.
Of the 50 questionnaires, one included a Northwestern recruit, who had a different response than most.

“I think that depends on the school,” the recruit said. “The coach I committed to was upstanding and honest. I don’t know if I can say that about every coach.”

That’s what attracts many recruits to Northwestern -- coach Pat Fitzgerald.

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
Jerry Lai/US PresswireIn the past five seasons, Pat Fitzgerald's Northwestern team has won 15 Big Ten games by fewer than seven points.
“What he’s saying is honest and real,” Northwestern junior offensive tackle Al Netter said. “I don’t think once he ever tried to sugarcoat anything or make up any stories. He was always straightforward with me. Whereas some other coaches who I was recruited by, it was like, ‘Come here, you’ll be a great football player. I can see you having a future in the NFL.’ I think it was pretty easy to see through the B.S.
“[Fitzgerald] was always honest. It’s not like, ‘You’re coming here and playing.’ It’s, ‘You come here and work as hard as you can and you can be successful.’”

It’s easy for Fitzgerald to spread that Northwestern word. He has been a part of its football family for nearly half of his life. He starred for the Wildcats as player in the 1990s. After a short stint with the Dallas Cowboys, he bounced around as an assistant at Maryland, Colorado and Idaho for three years.

In 2001, Randy Walker brought him back to Northwestern as a defensive secondary coach, and he was made the youngest head coach in Division I football at the age of 31 in 2006 when Walker suddenly passed away.

Few college coaches across the country know their own program as well as Fitzgerald knows his. He has been through Northwestern’s academic admissions process as a recruit. He wore the Wildcats’ uniform – often with a massive neck roll -- and was a student in Northwestern’s classes. He experienced the role of being an assistant in the program. Now, he oversees everything as the head coach and will be entering his sixth season with that title.

He’s gone through the good times, including a Big Ten championship, a Rose Bowl, now three consecutive bowl games and landing more skilled recruits. He also felt the tougher times, including woeful seasons, six bowl defeats and being snubbed by recruits.

He is Northwestern in a lot of ways.

“I think it gives me instant credibility,” Fitzgerald told ESPNChicago.com before signing day on Wednesday. “Some of the coaches didn’t go their school. I think they’re selling kids on things they want to hear instead of things they need to hear.

“The old phrase is ‘It is what it is.’ I tell the kids the truth. I tell them what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. I learned that from Randy [Walker] and Gary [Barnett.]”

That’s why few around Evanston were worried that Fitzgerald would leave when Michigan showed interest in him recently.

“It definitively would have been surprising,” Northwestern junior safety Brian Peters said. “He has that appeal. He’s played here, he coached here, now a head coach here. He’s been successful. He’s bled purple. It’s not like LeBron [James] going to Miami, but it would be a shocker.”

Netter expects see Fitzgerald in Evanston for years to come.

“When I think of Fitz in 25 years, I imagine him the Joe Paterno of Northwestern,” Netter said. “I honestly don’t know if he wants to, but I think his vision is to be here in the long run.”

Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips is working to make that happen. The school and Fitzgerald’s camp are putting the finishing touches on a contract that Phillips recently said would be for eight years or more.

“It's as important of an assignment as I have as director of athletics at Northwestern,” Phillips said. “Football is the engine that drives us. It drives us emotionally and drives us financially. I have to make sure the state of the football program is as healthy as can be.

“There's no one else I want to coach the football program than Pat. Would I want Pat to be at
Northwestern forever? Unequivocally, yes.”

Fitzgerald has shared the same sentiment, and he does the same on the recruiting trail. He tells players and their families he plans to be at Northwestern throughout their careers, and it’s easy to believe with his history with the program.

What has changed in Fitzgerald’s recruiting pitch over the years is the topic of winning. When he was hired in 2006, Northwestern had only once been to two consecutive bowl games in the program’s history. Back then, Fitzgerald was trying to convince a recruit he could win at Northwestern.

The Wildcats have improved that message in the past three years by going to three straight bowl games. The next step is winning their first bowl game since 1949.

“We’re nowhere we want to be on the field,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re winning, but we should be. We’re not where we want to be yet, and that’s a challenge. We got to keep working our tails off and rolling our sleeves up and getting better.”

Fitzgerald’s goal is to win the Big Ten championship and play in even bigger bowls game. But there are critics who don’t believe Northwestern is capable of competing with the elite BCS powers because of its admission standards. Some have suggested the Wildcats should loosen their requirements.

Fitzgerald disagrees.

“I look at it from, ‘Who are we?,’” Fitzgerald said. “What makes our identity? What makes us unique? What do we stand for as a program? We recruit that. I don’t get concerned about some other hypothetical lowering of standards or some other kid.

“We figure out who can we go recruit, we identify them, and those are our guys. I think that’s an easy excuse, and I don’t buy it. I think actually by what we stand for and who we are, that pool of guys who we go after, they’ve sacrificed in high school, they’ve done the right things, they’ve taken academically challenging courses. I truly enjoy coaching those guys.

“I don’t get guys that say he’s a great player, but he doesn’t work that hard in the classroom. I question his character. If you’re not going to put your name to the best of your ability in everything that you do, I’m not sure I want to coach them.”

Northwestern has yet to prove it can compete for a Big Ten title on a consistent basis with its standards, but it has shown its players nearly always graduate (the program was awarded this year’s American Football Coach Association’s Academic Achievement Award for its graduation), they do well in the classroom (it had 32 Academic All-Big Ten players this season. And they stay out of trouble.

“The mold of the guy who fits here, he can handle his business socially and athletically,” Peters said. “That’s the mold we got here.”

All coaches recruit because it’s necessary, but does Fitzgerald actually like it?

“I love it,” Fitzgerald said. “Shoot, yeah. Are you kidding me? It’s the lifeblood of our program. If you show me any team who is having success, it’s because of the players. As a head coach, it’s your opportunity to go out there and compete. You’re going up against some of the guys you respect and your peers. It’s kind of fun. You still have that competitive vein in you as a coach.

“I just loving giving kids an opportunity to come see our program. Humbly, an opportunity to give a kid a $55,000 scholarship a year to come to Northwestern. That’s a life-changing experience for a kid. That’s a pretty humbling responsibility. I get that power of influence. I like building relationships with kids, and I like getting to know their families, and I love getting out to talk to high school coaches. Yeah, I love it. I love everything aspect of it. Everything. Love it.”

A recruit has to ask himself, can a coach who is so energetic and be so positive be for real?

“There’s just something about him,” said ESPNU Top 150 wide receiver Christian Jones, who faxed in his letter of intent to Northwestern on Wednesday. “His passion for the school is real. You can tell with some of the coaches, and you can’t tell with some of them. When you hear him talk about the program, his players, you know he really cares about his school.”
Scott Powers is a general reporter for ESPNChicago.com. He is an award-winning journalist and has been reporting on preps, colleges and pros for publications throughout the Midwest since 1997.

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