Pat Fitzgerald is in the middle of the best coaching job of his career
Pat Fitzgerald has posted three 10-win seasons in his 13 years at Northwestern. He’s taken his teams to eight bowl games and the Wildcats have become regular contenders in the B1G West.
The former linebacker-turned-head coach has enjoyed some pretty big moments throughout his career in Evanston. And none of it compares to what happened Saturday in Iowa City.
Northwestern is a division champion for the first time in program history, in case you’ve been under a rock for the last three days. The conference’s Cinderella has a date with Michigan or Ohio State on Saturday, Dec. 1 in Indianapolis with the B1G title hanging in the balance. Not too shabby for a team that started the season with a 1-3 record and wasn’t even considered a candidate to reach bowl eligibility.
After the 14-10 win over Fitzgerald deflected the credit to his players and coaching staff.
“This team has overcome a ton of adversity,” Fitzgerald said Saturday. “The brotherhood that’s in that locker room is the glue that’s kept everything together.”
It’s not just players and other staff that deserve recognition for leading the Wildcats to their first B1G West crown. Whether he’ll admit it or not, Fitzgerald is in the middle of having his best season as a head coach in his career.
Yes, this was a bit of a down year in the division. Wisconsin wasn’t the schoolyard bully this year, giving everyone in the conference a noogie until the lunch money was handed over. Despite Iowa’s strong start, the Hawkeyes crumbled during a crucial stretch in the season. So, I understand why you might be tilting your head at the proclamation that this season — a year in which Northwestern is 6-4 — has been Fitzgerald’s best work since taking over the program more than a decade ago.
Let’s not forget that Clayton Thorson’s status was in question heading into the year, thanks to a severe ACL injury he suffered in last year’s Music City Bowl. The senior was ready to start in the season opener against Purdue, but was placed on a pitch count, splitting reps with backup T.J. Green.
There probably aren’t a lot of head coaches who would be willing to use a quarterback rotation in a season-opening conference game. Rather than risk further injury for Thorson, Fitzgerald eased the program’s all-time winningest quarterback back into the fold.
A few weeks into the season, lead rusher Jeremy Larkin was forced to retire from football due to cervical stenosis. His departure didn’t just hinder the Cats’ rushing attack, it took an emotional toll on the team.
Despite averaging just 102.1 yards per game on the ground (worst in the B1G and 125th nationally), the Wildcats have found a way to win six of seven B1G contests at this point. For goodness sake, they defeated Michigan State 29-19 while totaling just eight (!) rushing yards.
That isn’t just player effort, that’s coaching.
“We start the season the way we did with a quarterback coming off a major knee surgery, fighting his way to get back for the opener,” Fitzgerald said. “Same thing with (linebacker) Nate Hall. And then we got beat up. We had a bunch of injuries, we lost some tough games there.”
And then there’s the 1-3 start, which included losses to Duke, Akron and Michigan. Not many teams are capable of bouncing back from that kind of disappointment in such spectacular fashion.
Fitzgerald made it work.
It’s easy to look at the B1G West and be unimpressed with Northwestern’s accomplishment. Every team in the division has at least four losses this season. The West’s second-placed teams, Purdue and Wisconsin, both have three conference losses. I’d argue, though, that of all the teams Fitzgerald has had in Evanston, this one was one of the least likely to reach Indianapolis.
The Wildcats aren’t done, either. With two games left, Northwestern has the opportunity to hit the eight-win mark for the sixth time in 13 years. There’s still a B1G Championship to be won and a potential trip to Pasadena at stake.
Fitzgerald made it clear that his team isn’t satisfied with simply occupying one of the sidelines at Lucas Oil Stadium on Dec. 1.
“This is not the destination,” Fitzgerald said. “This is one of our goals, you’re thrilled about it, you enjoy it tonight and you wake up and talk about the task at hand. That’s going 1-0 next week.”
Regardless of what happens the rest of the season, Northwestern’s claim to a division title this fall was special. Not only because it was the school’s first, but because of all the adversity, the injuries and the slow start the team had to overcome.
Fitzgerald has talked about competing for conference championships since he started in 2006. Even after posting 10-win seasons, he’s put a high emphasis on climbing to the top of the West. It took a little longer than he would’ve liked, but the Wildcats have finally won a division and will have an opportunity to win a B1G title again.
It took the best coaching year of Fitzgerald’s career to get there.