He’s never won a bowl game. His career record in the Big Ten is 26-30. And, this season, his Northwestern Wildcats, while compiling an impressive 9-3 record, were perhaps best known for squandering leads.
Nevertheless, Pat Fitzgerald remains as popular in Evanston as the Purple Line, and is considered among the most highly respected football coaches in all of America.
So, how’s that work?
In today’s pressure-packed, results-driven, big-money college sports environment, it hardly seems possible for a major conference coach to enjoy a level of popularity that exceeds his on-field accomplishments, especially after seven seasons at a school. Yet, that’s the story of Pat Fitzgerald—a story unlike any other in college football today.
“Coach Fitz is a fascinating study,” said Chris Emma, who covers Northwestern athletics for FOX Sports Next and Scout.com. “But he’s doing things the right way, and I think that helps a lot with his public perception.”
On New Year’s Day in Jacksonville, Fla., Fitzgerald will lead 20th-ranked Northwestern against SEC foe Mississippi State (8-4) in the Gator Bowl. The 38-year-old coach—who starred at linebacker for NU during the Rose Bowl heyday of the mid-1990s—will be shooting for the first postseason victory of his career, having suffered through frustrating losses each of the past four seasons.
Meanwhile, the NU fan base is hoping to see its first bowl win since the Wildcats beat Cal 20-14 in the 1949 Rose Bowl. In the 63 years since that California dream, Northwestern has lost nine consecutive bowl games, a drought so epic and so unlikely that you’d have to be a fan of the Cubs or Buffalo Bills to relate.
Following a recent practice in Evanston, a reporter asked Fitzgerald if this is the year he finally gets the bowl monkey off his—and his alma mater’s—back. The coach was quick to dismiss the question, replying: “I’m not worrying about that.”
But former Northwestern star receiver Jeremy Ebert, now a rookie on the New England Patriots practice squad, spoke about what a bowl win would mean for his former coach and his alma mater.
“It would mean everything,” Ebert said. “It would be the biggest win in Northwestern history. And we need it. It’s not good enough just to get bowl games every year now. It’s time for us to get over the hump and win.”
After a 5-0 start to this season, the Wildcats left Fitzgerald with plenty to worry about. Losing three of the next five games, NU managed to turn choking away leads into an art. Against Penn State, Northwestern squandered an 11-point advantage and lost 39-28. Versus Nebraska, a 12-point lead fell apart as NU lost 29-28. And against Michigan, a three-point edge devolved into a 38-31 heartbreaker in overtime. But for those three ugly finishes, NU might have had a perfect season.
The Wildcats’ late-game trend became so disconcerting that following the Michigan loss, Daily Northwestern columnist Colin Becht wrote in The New York Times’ college sports blog “The Quad” that, “The Northwestern fan base may not be so silent. After three blown fourth-quarter leads this year and two wasted second-half advantages last season, the clamor for answers to the Wildcats’ recurrent inability to hang on to late leads has grown.”
Yet despite the late-game meltdowns as well as victory totals that decreased in each of the last three seasons before this year’s rebound, no one has seriously questioned Fitzgerald’s coaching or suggested that his job might be threatened.
The coach has a deal that will keep him in Evanston through 2020—the same length contract as NU athletic director Jim Phillips—that reportedly pays him about $1.8 million per year. And despite a Big Ten winning percentage of only .464, Fitzgerald still was rumored as a candidate for the open head coaching positions at Michigan and Penn State during the past two off-seasons. He’s also been mentioned as a potential candidate for the Notre Dame job if Brian Kelly were to leave. So, what explains all the love?
“I think Pat’s popularity can be attributed to several factors,” said Lindsey Willhite, who formerly covered Fitzgerald and Northwestern for the Daily Herald. “Being an alumnus with a direct contribution to the glory years is huge. It’s like having [former NU coach] Gary Barnett back in charge without worrying every day whether he’s leaving for another job.
“Pat gets the whole NU experience, which pays off with alums as well as recruits. He and his wife love the community, so there’s every reason to assume he’s as committed to the school as the school is to him.” He even hugs his father on the sidelines after wins.
All of that helps explain Fitzgerald’s Teflon reputation among Northwestern backers. But what is it about Fitzgerald that makes him attractive to powerhouse programs like Michigan and Penn State?
Again, Willhite offered insight: “Just as he’s embraced for being an undeniable part of Northwestern’s past and future, I think Pat is popular on a national scale because he’s the perfect blend of old- and new-school,” he said. “You see his middle linebacker background, his short hair, and his reverence for college football’s history.
“At the same time, he embraces social media. He does as many radio and TV interviews as possible…. He’ll deride programs that don’t make academics a priority. He’ll be self-deprecating, too. When you go into his office, there’s a decent chance his computer will be on Facebook in order to keep up with his players as well as former teammates and his Facebook friends.”
Teddy Greenstein, who covers Northwestern for the Chicago Tribune, said much of Fitzgerald’s fan appeal derives from his personality: “He’s young, fiery, passionate and knows the game. He played it as well as possible at the collegiate level. And he’s very personable. He plays by the rules and treats his players with respect. He’s relentlessly positive, never ripping his players in the media or on the field.”
And, Willhite said about Fitzgerald, “While he hasn’t won in bunches yet, there’s the sense that he’s recruiting better athletes than any time in the modern era.”
On Jan. 1, we’ll find out if Fitzgerald’s team is good enough to beat an SEC opponent in a bowl game.
“No one’s building a statue for him on campus yet,” said Chris Emma from FOX Sports Net.
But if he finally delivers a bowl victory? “We’ll see,” Emma said with a chuckle. “We’ll see.”
CORRECTION: Pat Fitzgerald’s Big Ten record was mistakenly noted at 36-40.