Hayes: If this can happen to Pat Fitzgerald, it can happen to any coach in America
The immediate reaction is what you’d typically expect in the social media-driven world: shock, indignation and eventually the demand for termination.
But what happened at Northwestern on Monday afternoon goes far beyond the decision to fire coach Pat Fitzgerald amid allegations of hazing and mistreatment of players within the program.
These things don’t happen in a vacuum, everyone.
Ignore the signs of the past 2 years all you want. But the age of player empowerment — good, bad and indifferent — is here to stay in college sports.
After languishing for more than 150 years on the short side of the power game with universities and their athletic administrations, players have more power now than they’ve ever had.
In the past 2 years alone, players have:
— Redefined revenue generation, using the ability to earn off their name, image and likeness to take money from powerful boosters previously earmarked to the schools.
— Redefined roster management, by using free player movement — 1 time as an undergrad and unlimited as a graduate student — to control where they play after signing their initial letter of intent out of high school.
Now after the firing of Fitzgerald — the most respected man in the coaching fraternity — players have redefined the power structure in the sport. If you want a coaching change, come forward with allegations of wrongdoing and watch how quickly it all unravels.
This is the tipping point. If it can happen to Fitzgerald, it can happen anywhere.
I want to be very clear: There’s no room for hazing, anywhere. Not in sports, not in society. It preys on the weak.
The weak who could, in the right situation, become the strong.
Players have that strength. And it’s getting stronger with each passing season.
When he announced the firing Monday afternoon, Northwestern president Michael Schill said 11 current or former Northwestern players, “acknowledged that hazing has been ongoing within the football program” — and that “new media” on Monday “confirmed that hazing was systemic dating back many years.”
Schill — and here’s the critical point — said Fitzgerald didn’t know of the hazing but that he should have known as the head coach.
So Schill took anecdotal evidence of hazing and player mistreatment from current and former players — through a 6-month investigation that began in November of 2022, and from media reporting over the past 3 days — and used it as evidence to fire Fitzgerald.
What he learned from the 6-month, 3rd-party investigation initially led to a 2-week suspension, announced last Friday. What he read from what he called “new media” over the past 3 days led to Fitzgerald’s firing.
Think about that. In 3 short days, players had enough power to convince a university president to fire the most impactful member of a world-renowned institution on the basis of allegations — of which Schill admitted Fitzgerald was unaware, but should have known, anyway.
The coach who has the highest APR graduation rate in FBS football, and is the winningest coach in program history. The coach who bleeds and breathes the amateur model, whose tireless work lifted the program from the scrapheap and changed the way they think about football in Evanston.
Fitzgerald is the reason Northwestern has that magnificent football facility on the banks of Lake Michigan, a building so palatial, NFL franchises are trying to replicate it.
He is the reason deep-pocket boosters are lined up to donate to an $800 million renovation to decrepit Ryan Field.
He’s the coach who, year after year, reaffirmed his commitment to Northwestern, a love affair that began nearly 30 years ago as a student-athlete, an assistant coach and his 17 years as head coach.
He ignored countless overtures from the NFL. He said no thanks to Notre Dame and Michigan and Penn State, and you’ve got to be kidding me to USC.
He’s the coach who, if you polled all 130-plus FBS coaches, would be the overwhelming choice of where they’d send their son to play football and get an education.
But as soon as more players came forward over the past 3 days and spoke to the Daily Northwestern student newspaper with more detailed allegations, there was no way out. They alleged disturbing anecdotes of hazing and racism, while another anonymous player told ESPN that 1 of the players alleging mistreatment bragged about “taking down Fitz.”
The only player who did give his name to the Daily Northwestern was former offensive lineman Ramon Diaz Jr., who didn’t play at Northwestern over 4 years in the mid-2000s.
Diaz confirmed the hazing allegations to the Daily Northwestern and added anecdotes of alleged racism. He told the paper that he has PTSD from his time on the football team, and that he has been in therapy for 10 years because of it.
This is how arguably the most respected coach in college football was taken down. With power in numbers.
When it became obvious that too many players came forward with too many stories, there was no wiggle room for Schill.
Early Monday evening, a little over an hour after Fitzgerald was fired from the only head coaching job he has ever had or wanted, he and his wife, Stacy, spoke to the Northwestern team and said their goodbyes.
His sons, Jack — a freshman signee in the 2023 class — Ryan and Brendan were there, too. Loyal to the bitter end.
The age of player empowerment is here to stay.
If it can happen to Pat Fitzgerald, it can happen anywhere.