Commentary

Fitzgerald IS Northwestern football

Wildcats coach's devotion to his alma mater has program on verge of new heights

Updated: October 4, 2013, 2:42 AM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- It's Thursday morning, two days before either the biggest game in the post-1996 Rose Bowl history of Northwestern or the most overhyped one, and Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald can't stop doing media.

This is who he is. This is who he has to be.

So in a few minutes of free time as he prepares for Ohio State this Saturday, Fitzgerald gets on the phone for a last-minute interview request and starts off smooth, with a knowing anecdote about this reporter, fed to him by his sports information director, Paul Kennedy.

"Here's a cool little side story for you. The only two teams in the country that trained with the Navy Seals this year -- the Northwestern Wildcats and the Pittsburgh Pirates," he said to a Pirates fan of a columnist. "How about that?"

Always connecting, always selling.

It's days before the biggest game of his coaching career, or at least the most marketed one, but that doesn't mean Fitzgerald is some tight-puckered college football coach.

"I think having fun is the glue that keeps everything together," he said. "It's a little kid's game, and if you're not having fun playing this game, why are you playing at all? But it's also serious business. No question."

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
David Banks/USA TODAY SportsWhile Pat Fitzgerald recognizes the business component of his work, he asserts that "fun is the glue that keeps everything together" and that football is "a little kid's game."
Fitzgerald is one part Harold Hill, selling Northwestern football to high school kids and Fortune 500 companies, and one part Ozzie Guillen, the strong, funny voice of an upstart, overlooked team.

He's also the hot coach, clean as a redshirt freshman's jersey, who, probably -- definitely most likely -- won't jump ship if USC or Texas comes calling.

But mostly, he's just Pat Fitzgerald, a local kid with a thick neck who played a little middle linebacker, the city's premier position, and now coaches his alma mater with a mix of intensity and a showman's sense of promotion.

He is Northwestern football.

The 38-year-old coach, who got the job too early in 2006 after the tragic death of his boss Randy Walker, has turned Northwestern (4-0) from a fringe winner into a legitimate Big Ten, well, not "power." Not quite yet. But close.

This weekend is crucial for Northwestern's ascendance. While the program will never grow to rival Michigan or Ohio State in stature, it could be like the Stanford of the Midwest. That's the goal here.

Because undefeated Northwestern (No. 16 in the AP poll) was on a bye last week, and because it's facing undefeated Ohio State (No. 4) at home in a prime-time Saturday night game -- with ESPN's "College GameDay" in town -- Fitzgerald has been prepped, interviewed and videotaped by every outlet that cares a lick about college football during the past two weeks.

While the school's self-created sobriquet, "Chicago's Big Ten team" is up for debate, Northwestern is taking the city by force.

Even the Michael Jordan statue outside the United Center has a Fitzgerald No. 51 jersey on it.

For a school like Northwestern, perpetually striving amid the football factories, getting "GameDay" and the prime-time slot on ABC -- and all the free publicity it entails -- is the true big time. But it's not, as Fitzgerald notes, the Big Top.

"We're pretty open around here," Fitzgerald said. "It's not like all of a sudden the circus rolled in, 'Hey, the circus is here!' We've got open practice. We've got a lot of media covering our practices in a pro sports town. Is it a little ramped up? Of course. But most of it falls on my shoulders. And the stuff that falls on the shoulders of the [Northwestern running back] Venric Marks of the world, this is old hat. We've been to five straight bowl games."

And they even won one! Northwestern was victorious in the Gator Bowl last season, its first bowl win since 1949, ending a nine-game skid. Yes, nine bowl games between 1949 and 2013.

The Wildcats haven't played Ohio State since 2008, and their only win against the Buckeyes in the past four decades came in 2004, when the Wildcats upset the No. 7 Buckeyes in double overtime 33-27.

Fitzgerald was coaching linebackers and the punt team, too "stressed," he says now, to have enjoyed the moment.

In the ensuing three games against the Buckeyes in which Fitzgerald coached, Ohio State won by a combined score of 157-27. I don't think he enjoyed many of those moments, either.

But this is Northwestern's moment now.

It's a different program, more mature and more athletic. Still a 7-point to 7 1/2-point underdog, but better.

Now, it's Fitzgerald's job to win the big game, not just sell it. Part of that is taking pressure off his players.

"If I can help shoulder the burden, keep their routine the same, then mission accomplished," he said. "I like coaching my guys. This is just part of the gig, man."

For some coaches, doing media is a Belichickian chore. For others, it's a way to get the next big job. Fitzgerald has grown into his role as franchise spokesman.

Fitzgerald says they're nakedly trying to "sell a story" this week about the wonders of the Northwestern program, which bills itself as a nearly perfect blend of athletics and academics.

"I understand what my role is helping our program continue to grow," Fitzgerald said.

How good is Fitzgerald at this part of the job?

"It's really helpful, it's exceptionally helpful, when you can point to someone like Pat leading your football program," athletic director Jim Phillips said. "If people feel good about what's happening with football -- or the leadership at the university -- it certainly makes my job easier generating resources for our programs."

Basically, Fitzgerald doesn't make the rich alums run for the Purell after shaking his hands.

Fitzgerald's success has changed the paradigm at the school. This past spring, Phillips had to fire Bill Carmody, who built up the woebegone basketball program but couldn't sell the program and couldn't make the tournament. Former Duke assistant coach Chris Collins has had instant success at recruiting. Basketball could follow football's example soon.

Phillips and Fitzgerald have made for a good team, and, as the coach's salary continues to climb ($2.2 million in compensation in 2011, according to USA Today), so, too, has the university's dedication to the football program. A $220 million multiuse facility is being built on campus, which will most notably house the football operations in a central location, perfect for recruiting.

While the team prepares for Ohio State and tries to tune out the periphery noise, Phillips and his staff prepare to entertain sponsors, favored alumni, recruits and guests. This is a big weekend for them, too.

"It's maybe like the wedding that gets out of hand, that starts with 150 people and turns into 1,000," Phillips said in a phone call. It's a busy time for Phillips -- it's also homecoming -- and he'll be up on campus, or entertaining guests at his Wilmette, Ill., home from 4:30 a.m. Friday until he goes to bed early Sunday morning.

While Fitzgerald recruits teenagers, Phillips recruits checks to fund the athletic program, from the title-winning women's lacrosse team to the basketball programs.

Prospective Wildcats for nearly every sport will be on campus this weekend. Phillips has to wow them, too.

"It's almost immeasurable the residual that you feel off something like this," Phillips said. "Marketing, branding, selling and raising money. We're joining with corporate sponsors at a level never seen before here. It's far bigger than a 7:07 p.m. kickoff."

But that kickoff is when Phillips can relax and the actual athletes have to perform.

College football is a dirty business when you stop to think about it. After all, the unpaid student-athletes who play Saturday night are the reason this kind of shadow economy exists.

Northwestern prides itself on being a kind of oasis in a world in which the underbelly of college football dominates the news. Northwestern educates and graduates its athletes.

But against Maine, Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter made news by wearing a wristband to help popularize the unity of college football players against the NCAA. Fitzgerald didn't like that Colter did it without telling him, which was the whole point of the exercise.

Fitzgerald's response, however misunderstood and muted, was a rare piece of negative news about the program in the Fitzgerald era. Was he, gasp, just another football coach?

In some ways, yes, of course. But he's not a villain here.

"We're 100 percent behind Kain and his ability to speak freely about how he feels about college athletics," Phillips said. "No one is trying to put a gag order on him to be able to speak what he feels strongly about."

The fuss quickly died. Now, everyone is just excited that the circus is finally coming to Evanston, Ill.

"If you can't enjoy this," Phillips said, "you can't enjoy much."

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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