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Pat Fitzgerald

Nov 6, 2021; Evanston, Illinois, USA; Northwestern Wildcats head coach Pat Fitzgerald reacts in the first half against the Iowa Hawkeyes at Ryan Field. Credit: Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

Pat Fitzgerald, one could argue, means more to his program than just about any other head coach in college football.

There are coaches with more wins. There are coaches who have been with their respective programs longer. But Fitz — as he’s known by Northwestern faithful — isn’t just the best coach to come through the football program, he’s also the best player.

He starred at linebacker for the Wildcats in the 1990s, when he was a 2-time Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, a 2-time consensus All-American, a 2-time winner of the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, a 2-time winner of the Chuck Bednarik Award, and the recipient of the Big Ten Medal of Honor.

In 1995, he helped the Wildcats to a 10-1 regular season record and a berth in the Rose Bowl. It was the first 10-win season for the program since 1903 and the first winning record in a year since 1971.

Fitz had 11 tackles in a win over then-No. 9 Notre Dame in South Bend that season — the first Northwestern win over the Irish since 1962. He had 14 tackles in a win over No. 7 Michigan — the first win in Ann Arbor since 1959.

In 2008, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.

As coach, Fitzgerald is responsible for 5 of the 8 winningest seasons in program history. He won the Big Ten’s Coach of the Year award in 2018 and the Bobby Dodd National Coach of the Year Award in 2020. He’s the program’s all-time winningest coach, with more than twice as many wins as No. 2 on the list.

He has 10 bowl game appearances in 17 seasons. Before Fitzgerald, Northwestern had 6 bowl game appearances in 123 seasons. He’s the only coach in program history to win back-to-back bowl games and 1 of only 2 in program history to post 4 consecutive winning seasons.

Fitzgerald’s coaching career began in 1998 at Maryland, where he took a graduate assistant position working under Ron Vanderlinden — his defensive coordinator as a Wildcat. The following year, he worked as a GA at Colorado for Gary Barnett — his head coach as a Wildcat.

He coached linebackers at Idaho for a year in 2000 before returning to Evanston in 2001 as the Wildcats’ defensive backs coach. He worked on staff until, in 2006, following the passing of coach Randy Walker, he assumed the head job.

By Year 3, Fitz provided the Wildcats’ first 9-win season since the 1995 campaign. That was the start of a 5-year period that saw Northwestern win 40 games and go to 5 straight bowls.

In 2015, he produced his second 10-win campaign as a coach. The Wildcats won the Pinstripe Bowl in 2016 to finish 7-6 and then, in 2017, Fitz engineered another 10-win season. It was the program’s fifth double-digit win campaign all-time, but its third in 6 years.

In 2018, Northwestern made its first-ever appearance in the Big Ten Championship Game by winning 7 of its last 8 regular-season games. In the Holiday Bowl against a ranked Utah team, Northwestern scored a bowl-record 28 points in the third quarter to erase a 20-3 halftime deficit and win.

The 2020 season was perhaps Fitzgerald’s best as a coach. Northwestern went 6-1 during the regular season, capturing the Big Ten West division title and returning to the Big Ten Championship Game. The Wildcats also won the VRBO Citrus Bowl by beating Auburn 35-19 — the program’s biggest win over an SEC team in program history.

That year saw NU go 4-0 at Ryan Field, sweep its West division opponents for the second time in 3 seasons, and end the year 10th in the AP poll — the best finish since 1995.

In recent seasons, Fitzgerald has seesawed between spectacular seasons and duds. But that might be the best illustrator of the job he has on his hands. The Wildcats have never had the blue-chip talent their B1G peers have enjoyed.

The program has branded itself as “Chicago’s Big Ten Team” in an effort to boost interest. But it resides in an area that exclusively cares about professional sports — not collegiate ones. There are major challenges both in terms of visibility and attracting talent to the program.

But Fitzgerald’s commitment has been reciprocated.

In 2018, Northwestern opened a sprawling and sparkling new practice facility wrapped in glass overlooking Lake Michigan. It was part of a $270 million investment from the university — a school with the smallest enrollment in the Big Ten — into the athletics program.

In September of 2022, the university announced its next massive project  — building a new football stadium. It was reported in April 2023 that Northwestern planned to submit its redevelopment application to the City of Evanston for the $800 million project.

If not for Fitzgerald, it’s hard to envision any of that happening. Then again, it’s hard to envision Northwestern without Fitz.



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