By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) It’s been rumored that USC is interested in him.
In recent years, his name has been linked to open head coaching positions at both Penn State and Michigan. And last winter, as Notre Dame prepared for the National Championship Game, he was mentioned as a potential replacement if Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly were to bolt South Bend for the NFL.
Yes, popular national opinion clearly has placed Northwestern’s 38-year-old Pat Fitzgerald among the game’s elite echelon of coaches.
And for years I’ve been trying to understand exactly why.
Because, when it comes to Fitzgerald’s reputation in Evanston and the reality of his record, the numbers simply don’t add up. I know, because this week I crunched them. And what I confirmed is that the digits leave Fitzgerald’s resume looking far more black-and-blue than purple.
But before we get into that, I’d like to point out that it’s not that I think that Pat Fitzgerald is a bad coach. I don’t. Rather, I think he’s a decent one, and believe that the former standout linebacker at NU is a very good fit for his alma mater’s football program. But I also think his legend in Evanston is very much outpacing the accomplishments of his teams.
Entering this season, NU was as ballyhooed as it had been since the Wildcats last went to the Rose Bowl. Back in August, Chris Dufresne of the Los Angeles Times predicted that NU would reach the Orange Bowl, while as recently as Oct. 7, BTN.com’s Tom Dienhart had the Wildcats playing in Pasadena on New Year’s Day.
That bloom, however, went off the rose over the past two weeks when Northwestern was crushed 35-6 by Wisconsin after falling 40-30 to Ohio State. Instead of riding atop the Big Ten standings, NU now instead finds itself in the cellar at 0-2 as it prepares to host Minnesota this weekend.
But, really, Northwestern’s let-downs against the Big Ten’s heavyweight programs shouldn’t come as a surprise – no matter what the Cats’ expectations were this season. Because the reality is that Fitz’s performance against top competition has always been on the fritz.
This week, just like I did a year ago with Lovie Smith’s record with the Chicago Bears, I broke Fitzgerald’s career record down into thirds and examined how well he’s fared against teams with above-.500 records, teams with sub-.500 records and teams with .500 records. For the first seven seasons of Fitzgerald’s tenure I used NU’s opponents’ final season records. For this season, I used the team’s current records.
Six games into his eighth season as head coach of the Wildcats, Fitzgerald is a solid 54-41 overall (.568 winning percentage), but only 26-32 in the Big Ten. That .448 conference winning percentage is well below the .625 mark (10-6) that his predecessor, the late Randy Walker, posted during his final two Big Ten campaigns before Fitzgerald inherited the program.
Fitz’s career records, however, only tell part of his coaching story. To learn more, I dug deeper. And what I uncovered was that with six games remaining in the 2013 regular season, Fitzgerald has fared extremely well against teams with losing records, posting a 38-8 mark (.826). He’s also 1-1 vs. teams with .500 records. But it’s against teams with winning records where Fitzgerald’s high-flying rep hits reality with a 15-32 record (.319).
Drilling down further, Fitzgerald’s performance against winning competition in the Big Ten is even worse.
Against conference teams with losing records, Fitzgerald has posted a 21-5 mark (.808), and is 1-0 vs. .500 Big Ten teams. But against league foes with winning records, he’s just 10-26 (.278). On top of that, Fitzgerald has a 6-17 (.261) all-time against ranked opponents.
Those numbers – along with last season’s bowl win, NU’s first since 1949 – may have made Fitzgerald beloved among the NU faithful. But if a powerhouse football program is really looking at Fitzgerald as the guy to add a true big-time punch to their program, they should first think long and hard about it. And then dig deeper.
Because, while reputations can often mislead, I’d argue that numbers don’t.
And when it comes to Pat Fitzgerald, they don’t add up to a picture that’s anywhere near as pretty as his glossy national rep.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.