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Disabato: Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald has bigger aspirations than Gator Bowl

Northwestern’s PFitzgerald relishes his team's Gator Bowl wJan. 1 over Mississippi State. | AP photo

Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald relishes his team's Gator Bowl win Jan. 1 over Mississippi State. | AP photo

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Updated: February 11, 2013 7:26AM



Pat Fitzgerald prefers his Gatorade the old-fashioned way, chugging it through his lips and down his throat.

He didn’t mind one bit, though, having a cooler full of the sweet stuff unsuspectingly dumped over his head Jan. 1.

“Man, it was cold!” Fitzgerald said of the Gatorade shower he experienced after Northwestern’s 34-20 Gator Bowl win over Mississippi State. “Winning that game was a giant deal. It was worth it.”

A giant deal because Northwestern hadn’t won a bowl game since 1949 — or when a gallon of gas cost 17 cents and the minimum wage was 70 cents an hour.

If Fitzgerald, a Sandburg graduate, has his way, not only are there going to be more bowl games in the Wildcats future, but ones with greater significance.

Of course, winning a Big Ten championship, something the Wildcats haven’t done since 2000, remains a high priority. With 17 returning starters expected back next season, it could happen sooner rather than later.

Fitzgerald is thinking on a grander scale — like where Nick Saban and Alabama were standing Monday night after mopping up Notre Dame.

Yes, the national championship.

“I believe the sky is the limit,” Fitzgerald told me Tuesday night. “Winning a bowl game was the next logical step in our program. But our brand and who we are as a program is getting stronger and stronger. I’m so stoked about the future.”

OK. Wipe that smirk off your face. Stop rolling your eyes.

National championship? Northwestern?

Believe it or not, Northwestern was a handful of plays from going undefeated during the 2012 season. Yes, undefeated.

The Wildcats blew double-digit leads in the fourth quarter during two losses and watched a last-minute lead turn into a loss in another in finishing 10-3.

“We were about five minutes and three seconds from being undefeated this year,” said Fitzgerald, whose wife, Stacy, also is a Sandburg graduate. “That’s the reality. We were that close. So, every day, each workout for next season is going to end with 5-0-3.”

When Fitzgerald speaks, there is conviction in every word. He’s confident, intelligent and dedicated — values that have allowed him to scale massive heights as a player at Northwestern in the mid-1990s, when he was a two-time All-American linebacker and two-time winner of the Bronko Nagurski and Chuck Bednarik awards while leading the Wildcats to consecutive Big Ten championships.

It’s debatable, however, whether what he’s accomplishing as coach at his alma mater is more impressive.

I know, that’s saying a lot. But Fitzgerald has led the Wildcats to five straight bowl games, a program first. With a 50-39 career mark, he’s Northwestern’s all-time winningest coach.

Opponents no longer regard Northwestern as a likely victim on their schedule, but a respected foe.

However, where Fitzgerald arguably has achieved his greatest success is in the living rooms of potential prospects. Young men he has targeted as future Wildcats are buying in to his recruiting pitch and choosing Northwestern to earn a degree and play football.

Local talents such as Patrick Ward, of Providence — whom Fitzgerald referred to as a “great young man,” Tony Battle, of Mount Carmel, and Jarrell Williams, of Richards.

Selling Northwestern academically always has been the easy part. Playing football in Evanston, however, wasn’t nearly as appealing.

Enter Fitzgerald, whose playing resume and love for all things purple has resonated with prospects.

And with the program consistently churning out a winning product, enhanced by the sharpest uniforms in all of college football, Northwestern is becoming a more desirable destination for prospects.

Young men who selected Stanford and Notre Dame now are choosing Northwestern.

Fitz’s ability to attract elite talent will get a whole lot easier once Northwestern’s $220 million multipurpose athletic facility on Lake Michigan is completed, approximately in August 2014. Playing football at Northwestern will become even more attractive to national prospects.

The new facility, with the Chicago skyline as its backdrop, will allow all football program activities to be consolidated on campus, rather than at Ryan Field, located about one mile west of campus. Ryan Field specifically will be used for games.

No question, it’s a game-changer.

“I couldn’t be more excited about the direction of the program,” said Fitzgerald, a two-sport athlete at Sandburg whose first order of business each Saturday morning during the season is to see how the Eagles fared. “We have a nice foundation, but the new facility is going to be huge.”



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