On the straight and narrow: Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald embodies effective mix of discipline, joy
Nearly every day, Pat Fitzgerald heads west from his Northfield, Illinois, home, then down a stretch of Lake Michigan on scenic Sheridan road. On his left, glimpses of the water are visible between lakefront properties. The 15-minute drive takes him to the $270 million Walter Athletics Center, the palatial training facility overlooking the second-largest Great Lake.
The daily sojourn to and from is one of the Northwestern football coach’s few windows into the outside world these days. COVID-19 keeps him confined to his home or his office, and there isn’t much in between.
Sunday, he deviated. “I actually stopped and got gas,” he said. “So that was different.”
Relative to many coaching careers, Fitzgerald’s road has been just as straightforward. It’s one marked by consistency, discipline and building good habits that lead to great results.
It’s how the former Wildcats linebacker has turned Northwestern from a Big Ten also-ran into a team playing in a second conference championship game in three years. It’s how he’s overseen a team that’s stayed basically COVID-free during the current pandemic.
Good luck finding a better example of a program taking on its leader’s personality than what’s been going on in Evanston the past decade-and-a-half.
“Fitz” oozes enthusiasm but demands rigidity. The identity of Northwestern football is largely that of its head coach.
And it was forged on these very same shores.
So Fitzgerald can sit on a Zoom call with reporters less than a week before his team tries to do the unthinkable, smile and laugh. Poke fun at his voice, which is at about 50 percent capacity a day after yelling through a mask during Northwestern’s 28-10 win against Illinois.
His team’s a three-touchdown underdog against Ohio State in the B1G title game. And yet for all Fitzgerald does to breed a culture of orderliness and perfection of the details, he’s focused on one thing this week.
“We’re gonna have fun,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s non-negotiable. I believe in that three-letter word. If you’re not having fun, I don’t know why you’re doing this.”
There’s a modern-day misconception that freedom means unencumbered access to fulfilling one’s every whim and desire. And yet football programs built the way Fitzgerald’s is reveal a paradoxical truth: joy emerges from lasting success that can only be attained by adhering to a set of rules and guidelines.
Watch Twitter clips of running back Jesse Brown strutting around with the Land of Lincoln Trophy and see if you disagree.
— Pat Fitzgerald (@coachfitz51) December 13, 2020
Fitzgerald, a 46-year-old Chicagoland lifer, learned it firsthand as a player at Northwestern. The hard-nosed linebacker and two-time BIG defensive player of the year led the Wildcats to the 1995 Rose Bowl — the team’s first trip to any bowl since 1949 and only chance to compete for the Roses since.
“I hope like hell they embrace it,” Fitzgerald said. “As someone who won two B1G championships, I loved every minute of it. If I could go back, I’d do it a million times harder and have a million times more fun.”
Fitzgerald’s straight-and-narrow goes back much further, of course.
It began Dec. 2, 1974 in Orland Park, Illinois. That’s when Pat was born to Pat Sr., an administrator for Illinois Bell and later Lucent Technologies, and Flo, an at-home daycare specialist. The Irish-Catholic family still calls the South Side of Chicago home.
The younger Pat began playing football in second grade, squaring off against sixth graders. He blossomed into an all-state linebacker largely due to the tutelage of Sandburg High School coach Larry Lonkac.
Lonkac is a legend in Chicago prep circles.
“Coach Lokanc saw things in me that I didn’t see in myself,” Fitzgerald said. “He took me to areas in my game that I never even imagined I could have. He taught me how to play the position. He was just such an amazing teacher of the fundamentals of linebacker play and defensive football, from your eye control to how to destroy blocks, proper tackling technique.
“He expected us to act a certain way not some of the time, all the time.”
Fitzgerald had offers to play at other major-college schools but wound up staying in the same place he was born and raised. To this day, he’s a loyal South Sider and diehard supporter of the Bears, Blackhawks, Bulls and White Sox.
He joined the coaching ranks immediately after graduating from Northwestern in 1998. It took him just three years — two as a graduate assistant at Maryland and Colorado, one as linebackers/special teams coach at Idaho — to work his way back to Evanston as an assistant.
On July 7, 2006, the then-31-year-old was introduced as the youngest head coach in college football. Fitzgerald took over for Randy Walker after his unexpected death earlier that year.
That magical Rose Bowl run in ’95 was a flash in the pan. Northwestern was coming off 23 straight losing seasons, and it had eight more through Fitzgerald’s first season as head coach.
But there’s no denying what he’s been able to build since. Fitzgerald is 105-80 with nine bowl appearances and Big Ten West championships in 2018 and 2020.
The ‘Cats’ turnaround from going 3-9 last season to playing Ohio State in Indianapolis on Saturday is particularly remarkable.
With Fitzgerald in charge, a school that made a point to not prioritize football during his playing days came up with $270 million to build one of the sport’s most pristine team facilities.
That’s helped boost recruiting, but between its higher academic standards, small stadium and overall reputation, Northwestern isn’t a destination for oodles of 4- and 5-star players.
It’s the perfect place for guys who fit the culture, though. Who are willing to put in the work to reap the rewards — whether they’re from the same land of deep dish and hot dogs as Fitzgerald or all other reaches of the country.
More than 20 members of the current roster are from Illinois. Just two Chicago-area athletes signed with the Wildcats on Wednesday as the Early Signing Period opened.
“Recruiting’s the lifeblood of your program,” Fitzgerald said. “You know how I feel about it. I love building up relationships with families and young men.”
Those relationships have been crucial this year as the entire nation stares down a pandemic that’s killed more than 300,000 people. Fitzgerald credits his players and medical staff for ensuring a COVID-free season to date.
It’s certainly an easier feat to pull off in a place that emphasizes accountability.
“To me that experience of being a college student, you give up as an athlete already, and then to have the COVID pandemic on top of that, our guys have just been so disciplined and sacrificed so much,” Fitzgerald said. “Just so thankful for how they’ve looked after each other.”
Doing things a certain way not some of the time, all the time.
Northwestern’s reputation as a team that doesn’t beat itself is well-deserved. And yet the Wildcats still manage to bring authentic joy to the game.
Fitzgerald is the ultimate mix of humor and moxie. He’ll lean hard into an axiom like the “Fightin’ Rece Davises” bestowed upon his team by ESPN analyst Joey Galloway — in reference to Northwestern’s apparent lack of athleticism — then turn around and brush aside the notion of motivation from bulletin board material. He’s got a team of multimedia specialists pumping out content to his more than 49,300 followers but has decried the evils of smartphones and social media on more than one occasion.
“When the ball goes up in the air, all that stuff doesn’t matter,” Fitzgerald said. “Gosh, it’s great for blogs and it’s got to be unbelievable for Twitter. What great stuff, right? … Whatever. Whatever gets our guys going, I don’t care. [Fitzgerald’s coach at Northwestern] Coach [Gary] Barnett used to make up all these t-shirts. I thought they were pretty cheesy. I cut the sleeves off to show off the pipe cleaners.
“It’s not a magical game. It’s an awesome game. That’s what makes it so much fun.”
Would he ever take the fun to a program with even more resources and tradition to go with it?
Fitzgerald has been courted plenty. But the longer he stays at his alma mater, the harder it is to imagine him anywhere else.
Maybe if he accomplished another Rose Bowl trip or something more — his team is a weird loss to Michigan State away from playing for a Playoff trip this weekend — that conversation would change.
But the only conversation this week is about what quarterback Peyton Ramsey and the FBS’ No. 2 scoring defense can do against Justin Fields and a historically potent Ohio State team with national championship aspirations.
To many, a win Saturday is unthinkable. Then again, not so long ago, so was Northwestern being in this position in the first place.
What would it mean to Fitz? Another beautiful view out the driver-side window.
“It’d be a hell of a ride home on I-65.”