Commentary

Northwestern, Fitz a perfect marriage

Originally Published: October 4, 2013
By Chris Low | ESPN.com

The head coach free-agency season in college football is shaping up to be a wild one.

The USC job is already open, and the Texas job might not be too far behind.

You're talking about two of the premier coaching jobs in America potentially being open in the same year. Not only that, but imagine the domino effect that could ensue as a result.

Invariably, Pat Fitzgerald's name will come up. It always does when coaching vacancies occur, whether those vacancies are in the Big Ten, the Pac-12 or even the SEC.

Michigan inquired back in 2011. Tennessee did the same last year, and those are just a sampling of the schools who've called, hoping to pry Fitzgerald away from his beloved alma mater.

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
Jonathan Daniel /Allsport Pat Fitzgerald in 1996, during his days as a Wildcats linebacker.
I realize he's a hot commodity, and I realize that's not going to change.

Look at what he's accomplished at Northwestern, which takes center stage this weekend when No. 4 Ohio State brings its 17-game winning streak to Ryan Field.

I also realize that the lure of USC can be mesmerizing. The same goes for Texas if the Longhorns are indeed looking for a coach come December.

But there's something about Fitzgerald that's different. If there is such a thing anymore in college football as a lifer, I'm going on record and saying Fitzgerald is it.

We've seen Chris Petersen stay the course at Boise State despite repeated efforts to hire him away.

My sense is that Fitzgerald is just as locked in at Northwestern.

It's his school. He grew up in the Chicago area. So did his wife, Stacy. They're deeply invested in that community, and he's in a situation where he doesn't have to play some of the mind-numbing recruiting games with kids that are a way of life at most of the football powerhouses around the country.

There's also something to be said for being at a place that truly gets it in terms of academics versus football and isn't clamoring for a new football coach any time the team doesn't win nine or 10 games.

It's a refreshing marriage -- Fitzgerald and Northwestern -- and I'm betting that it's one that will endure in a coaching world where marriage certificates are increasingly filled out in pencil.

So is one of Fitzgerald's closest confidants, Gary Barnett, who coached Fitzgerald at Northwestern when he was a two-time All-American for the Wildcats and was the face of that 1996 Rose Bowl team.

"Things could always change. But right now, for the next how many years, and I'm guessing the full 10 years of his contract, he's going to be right there at Northwestern," said Barnett, who still talks to Fitzgerald regularly.

"He's going to raise his kids there, and that's where he wants to be. He's always going to have that right to leave, and as I said, things can change. But he's so well-respected, and with the way the administration has treated him, he has too much integrity to make that move."

Indeed, Northwestern's administration has done everything possible to make sure Fitzgerald never has a reason to leave, from awarding him a 10-year contract, to giving him the resources to keep his staff intact, to building a $222 million facility on the shores of Lake Michigan that will be used by the football team and students alike.

"I never want him to feel that anyone here, especially me, is taking his loyalty for granted," Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips said. "I've brought that up to him on multiple occasions. I want him to feel supported at every turn. I want him to feel compensated at the right level, and I want him to know that we care deeply about him and his family.

"He does love the place, and he did grow up in Chicago, like we both did, and was a great player here. He truly does bleed purple. But that in itself isn't enough. You have to support them and give them the resources."

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesNorthwestern has supported Fitzgerald with improved facilities and a 10-year contract.
Fitzgerald, 38, is in his eighth season at Northwestern and is already the Big Ten's second-longest tenured coach. And while a win over Ohio State on Saturday would be monumental, a loss is not going to derail the remarkable progress the Wildcats have made on Fitzgerald's watch.

They've been to five straight bowl games and capped last year's 10-win season with their first bowl win since 1949.

This is one of the biggest regular-season games in school history. But regardless of how it shakes out or what it might lead to, the culture at Northwestern is such where expectations are never going to spiral out of control.

As one longtime coach told me, "Pat is the perfect guy in a nearly perfect situation in terms of not having to deal with a lot of the headaches in recruiting and managing unrealistic expectations that has a way of swallowing you up. He's also one of the ones that's smart enough to realize it."

In other words, if Fitzgerald loses to Ohio State, the season's not going to be branded a disaster. But try losing to UCLA if you're at USC or losing to Oklahoma if you're at Texas.

Winning and winning at all costs simply isn't part of the DNA at Northwestern. Granted, Fitzgerald is a fierce competitor, and the commitment to win at Northwestern has never been greater.

But as one staffer at the university put it so eloquently, "If you win eight games at Northwestern and still lead the country in graduation rates, everybody's high-fiving."

Barnett also pointed out that many of the guys Fitzgerald played with at Northwestern still live and work in the Chicago area.

"That fabric becomes even thicker when so many of your teammates are still right there," Barnett said. "How could you walk away from your teammates and go someplace else?

"It's an ideal fit, and he's done a fabulous job of taking it to another level."

Phillips is braced for more calls to come in at the end of this season. It's part of doing business when you've got a coach who's on the short list of every athletic director in the country.

"If you're looking for a football coach and tremendous leader, why wouldn't you call Pat?" Phillips said. "I say this all the time: As good as you think he is, he's even better. He just is and a great representative of all the things we feel strongly about here at Northwestern."

In a lot of ways, Fitzgerald is to college football what Brad Stevens was to college basketball. Stevens could have had his pick of more glamorous jobs, but stayed true to Butler. That was home for him. It's where he felt most comfortable.

Ultimately, it took perhaps the premier hoops coaching job on the planet to finally lure Stevens away when the Boston Celtics came calling last year.

I'm not suggesting that the Dallas Cowboys (or the hometown Chicago Bears) are going to be making a run at Fitzgerald anytime soon.

But even lifers occasionally have dream jobs.

Barnett, who left Northwestern for Colorado, thinks Fitzgerald already has his dream job.

"You generally leave a job because you run out of challenges or run out of support," Barnett said. "He's not going to run out of challenges at Northwestern, and he's clearly not going to run out of support with this current administration and fan base."

He's not running out on them, either.

•  •  •

Bob Stoops has a point

Oklahoma's Bob Stoops has taken aim at the SEC again, and he might have a point.

[+] EnlargeBob Stoops
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesOklahoma coach Bob Stoops made another pointed remark toward the SEC this week.

His "propaganda" comment before the season in talking about the SEC and how it's put on a pedestal by the media was one thing. But I agree with him about the crop of quarterbacks in the SEC this season. They're lighting up SEC defenses, and most of the coaches I've talked to in the league concede that's been the biggest reason for the big offensive numbers.

"A few years ago, we [the Big 12] had all the quarterbacks, and now all of a sudden, we can play a little better defense and some other people can't play defense," Stoops said this week. "Funny how some people can't play defense when there's pro-style quarterbacks over there."

For what it's worth, Stoops isn't the only one who thinks Big 12 defenses got too much flak over the last few years compared to the lineup of quarterbacks they had to face, including the likes of Robert Griffin III, Sam Bradford, Brandon Weeden, etc.

Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin had a similar message this spring.

He said the media (me, in particular) didn't give the Big 12 quarterbacks enough credit for some of the big defensive numbers that had been surrendered in that league.

•  •  •

Sumlin on USC's radar

Speaking of Sumlin, look for him to be at or near the top of USC's wish list. He's a terrific recruiter and has proven that his offense can work anywhere with any type of quarterback. I still think there's a better chance that Sumlin's next move will be to the NFL, but USC will make a hard push. Texas A&M will do everything it can to keep him, including paying top dollar.

•  •  •

Sarkisian, Wilcox gain notice at Washington

[+] EnlargeLane Kiffin, Steve Sarkisian
Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesCould Steve Sarkisian, who was a USC assistant alongside Lane Kiffin, be a candidate to replace him?

Washington coach Steve Sarkisian also makes a lot of sense at USC, particularly with his ties to Troy and an up-tempo offense that's not completely void of the power running game. If Sarkisian makes the move, the Huskies might take a long look at defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox. He's done wonders in reviving that defense, which was abysmal when he arrived in 2012. The Huskies are fourth nationally in scoring defense and allowing just 10.8 points per game. Wilcox is destined to be a head coach and will probably get a few looks after this season.

•  •  •

Looking back on Kiffin at Tennessee

The firing of Lane Kiffin as USC's coach wasn't a huge surprise, even though the timing was odd. He's obviously not a popular figure in Tennessee after bolting on the eve of Vols' signing day after 14 tumultuous months. The fans on Rocky Top were singing karma when he was fired. It's true he was a train wreck at managing the Tennessee program and kept compliance officials working overtime, but the players who played for him liked him and felt like they were extremely prepared each week. Between the white lines, Kiffin did a solid job of coaching that Tennessee team in 2009.

•  •  •

Alabama seeks answers on Clinton-Dix

Alabama hopes to find out next week how many games junior safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix will miss after filing a waiver with the NCAA to have him reinstated. The feeling is that it won't be more than three games. Clinton-Dix accepted a loan over the summer from strength and conditioning staffer Corey Harris, who's been placed on administrative leave. Clinton-Dix paid the loan back (under $500) prior to the start of the season, and the best news for the Crimson Tide is that this situation doesn't involve any more players.

•  •  •

Winston gets test vs. Maryland

Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston has been one of the most dynamic freshmen in the country. He's second nationally in passing efficiency, but will face the best defense he's seen so far this season on Saturday against Maryland. The Terps can get after the quarterback. They already have 17 sacks in four games, which is tied for the lead nationally, and are stout in the secondary, too. They've only given up one touchdown pass this season.

•  •  •

[+] Enlarge Jordan Matthews
Frederick Breedon/Getty ImagesJordan Matthews was highly productive against some very good SEC defenses.

The amazing consistency
of Jordan Matthews

The defensive coaches I've talked with in the SEC say that Texas A&M's Mike Evans is the receiver they least look forward to facing, with his great size, leaping ability and deceptive speed. And while Evans is terrific, it might be awhile before we see a receiver in this league that's been as consistent as Vanderbilt's Jordan Matthews. In his last 14 SEC games going back to the end of his sophomore season, Matthews is averaging 120.5 receiving yards per game. He's had more than 100 yards receiving in 10 of those games. Without Chris Boyd on the other side this season, opposing defenses have been shadowing him, too, but he just keeps putting up big numbers.

•  •  •

Offense at the speed of Baylor

There's fast and then there's Baylor fast. One coach told me that he's never seen a team on tape playing as fast as Baylor is this season. The Bears have scored 69 or more points in each of their first three games. If they top 60 on Saturday at home against West Virginia, they would become just the second team in the last 90 years with four straight 60-point games, according to ESPN Stats & Info. Oklahoma had five straight in 2008. The thing that's so impressive about what the Bears have done offensively is that Bryce Petty is their third starting quarterback in the last three years, and yet they just keep rolling along. He leads the country in QBR (98.4) with Marcus Mariota second and Teddy Bridgewater third.

Chris Low | email

College Football

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