By Daniel I. Dorfman–
CHICAGO (WSCR) Northwestern made the right move on Tuesday by extending Pat Fitzgerald’s contract through 2020. Now they have to follow up and get Fitzgerald, as well as the rest of Wildcat athletics, better facilites.
Fitzgerald came into the job under the most trying of circumstances in 2006, following the sudden death of coach Randy Walker just a few weeks ahead of training camp. Despite being one of the youngest coaches in the game, Fitzgerald has maintained the positive momentum which was established under Gary Barnett and Walker and the program that had been a laughingstock is now competitive year in and year out. Thirty four wins over five seasons may not sound great in certain parts of the SEC, but for Northwestern, this is one of the best runs in school history.
Obviously, Fitzgerald means a lot for the Wildcats. But the same is true in reverse. Northwestern means a lot to Fitzgerald. The Orland Park native ends every interview with “Go Cats!” and he seems to bleed purple. His father assists on the sidelines near Fitzgerald at each home game. The enthusiasm and optimism that made him an All-American linebacker in 1995 and a major cog in the Wildcats winning Big Ten championships in 1995 and 1996 are still there today. Even in the rough hours after Walker’s death almost five years ago, it would have been understandable if Fitzgerald was distraught. But he managed to keep a positive vibe around him. No one was surprised when then Athletic Director Mark Murphy named Fitzgerald the head coach the day after Walker’s funeral, and Murphy’s decision proved to be correct.
So with the Fitzgerald housekeeping out of the way, it is now time for current athletic director Jim Phillips and NU president Morton Schapiro to follow through and get better facilities on campus.
According to the Tribune, a sports architecture firm will provide a report at some point over the next few months on building an athletic facility near the lakefront and on campus. Hopefully for Fitzgerald, and the rest of the program’s sake, they can work out something, even in these challenging economic times when dollars are so sparse and people argue that money can be spent in other ways. But like it or not, facilities are important to potential recruits who can continue to provide a positive light on the program. Walker always said one of the reasons why the program turned the corner is the upgrade to the NU structures including a desperately needed facelift to what is now Ryan Field.
Fitzgerald’s contract extension may be worth $1.8 million per year along with a large buyout to keep other schools away. Moreover, there is no indication he is going to have Barnett type constant dalliances with other programs after every season. However, if nothing happens in terms of new buildings near Sheridan Road, it’s not that hard to presume that at some point Fitzgerald will decide he will have done as much as he can do at Northwestern and move on to greener pastures. Apparently Michigan came calling a few months ago and it’s unrealistic to think he would continue to turn down fatter paychecks.
Given the academic requirements at Northwestern, the Wildcats are likely not going to be a constant threat to win the Big Ten. But given where the program was before 1995, remarkable progress has been made and there is no reason to stand for the status quo.
The Northwestern leaders made the right decision to sign up Fitzgerald for a long time, now they need to take the next step and give the coach better facilities to show off his talent.
And while they are at it, hopefully they can find a way to do something about the basketball facility. I’m sure Bill Carmody would like to see that as well.
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Daniel I. Dorfman is a local freelance writer who has written and reported for the New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer and the Boston Globe among many other nationally prominent broadcast, online and print media organizations. He is also a researcher for 670 The Score. You can follow him on Twitter @DanDorfman To read more of Daniel’s blogs click here.