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Fitzgerald’s vision at Northwestern? 2020

The record

Northwestern’s record under
Pat Fitzgerald:

Overall Big Ten

2006: 4-8 2-6

2007: 6-6 3-5

2008: 9-4 5-3

2009: 8-5 5-3

2010: 7-6 3-5

Totals: 34-29 18-22

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM



Ron Vanderlinden knew right away.

He knew this kid playing linebacker for Sandburg had what Northwestern needed.

He knew Pat Fitzgerald, the kid, could make a difference.

“I saw a guy who made plays,” said Vanderlinden, then Northwestern’s defensive coordinator. Holding that job made Vanderlinden a guy who desperately needed playmakers.

“I saw an intensity about him,” Vanderlinden went on. “I saw a game where the other team took the ball right down to the goal line, and I saw a fire.”

Vanderlinden said that during the 1995 season, Fitzgerald’s junior year at Northwestern, when the Wildcats shocked the world by beating Notre Dame and advancing to the Rose Bowl by winning the Big Ten championship.

That fire still burns.

Tuesday’s announcement of the extension of Fitzgerald’s coaching deal with Northwestern through 2020 was a surprise only in its length. Some people were expecting the date to be replaced by a word: infinity.

“You can recruit guys who have ability and potential, but in the end, it’s performance,” Vanderlinden said. “And Pat performed.”

And continues to. Thrust into the job prematurely days after the sudden death of Randy Walker, Fitzgerald has become the face of Northwestern’s football program. He’s led the Wildcats to three bowl games in succession, and four straight .500-or-better seasons.

The last time Northwestern went to three bowls in as many years? Never.

The last time the Wildcats won as many or more than they lost four years running? That would be 1935 to ’38, under Lynn “Pappy” Waldorf.

Whatever that motivational intangible is that makes others work harder and perform better, Fitzgerald has it, and transmits it to his players, just as he transmitted it to his teammates when he played linebacker.

Vanderlinden saw it. So did Gary Barnett, Fitzgerald’s head coach. So did the rest of the Big Ten.

Fitzgerald proved too small for the NFL — the Cowboys cut him from his rookie training camp and the next day he was back in Kenosha, watching the Wildcats — but that early playing exit led, after a brief job in radio sales, to coaching. Two years as a grad assistant, one year for Vanderlinden at Maryland, the next for Barnett at Colorado, led to a full-time assistant’s job at Idaho in 2000. The next fall he was at Northwestern.

Where, the guess now is, he will never leave. And not because of the money, a reported $18 million over the next 10 years.

A few years ago, the suggestion was made that Notre Dame should go after Fitzgerald, even as it pursued and won the services of another Northwestern coach, Ara Parseghian, decades before. Notre Dame, which canceled a recruiting visit for Fitzgerald when he was at Sandburg, went in another direction, and the Fighting Irish have been in disarray since.

Northwestern? It’s sitting pretty. It has its man.

Fitzgerald has said in the past he’d like to emulate Joe Paterno and stay at his school forever, and now, backed by senior administration and his athletic director, he has the opportunity.

Here are some scary numbers. Fitzgerald is 36. When Paterno was 36 he was in his 14th season as Rip Engle’s assistant at Penn State and three years from succeeding his mentor at Happy Valley.

This season will be Paterno’s 45th at the Penn State helm and Fitzgerald’s sixth in Evanston. If Fitzgerald coaches that long, he’ll be 76 in season No. 45. In 2050.

“Football is the most addictive drug in America,” Fitzgerald said soon after succeeding Walker. “Once you have it, it’s really hard to shake.”

At 34-29, Fitzgerald is the first Northwestern coach with a winning career record since Parseghian (36-35-1). Waldorf’s 49 wins in a dozen seasons is the all-time Northwestern victory record. Fitzgerald could be two years away from winning 50. Eventually, one of those wins will be in a bowl game. The Wildcats still are winless in postseason games since winning the 1949 Rose Bowl.

After that? The fire will still be burning within Fitzgerald, just as it was at Sandburg. As he said before his first game as head coach, “I’ve got nine more fingers for Rose Bowl rings.”



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