By Chris Emma–
EVANSTON, Ill. (CBS) — As time has passed, little changes for Pat Fitzgerald, from that linebacker’s energy to his devoted Northwestern loyalty. After all, this is home.READ MORE: Accused Teen Gunman's Parents Charged In Oxford High School Shooting
Soon to be in his second decade as football coach at Northwestern, Fitzgerald remains a larger-than-life figure on campus in Evanston. Students still marvel at their encounters with Fitzgerald, whether it’s a quick hello along Sheridan Road or a picture taken at a university event. The former All-American linebacker and 10-year head coach is still the big man on campus.
Fitzgerald is 70-56 with six bowl appearances, something that used to be extraordinary at Northwestern before he picked up the program from his mentors, Gary Barnett and the late Randy Walker, and continued to sustain success. He’s the Chicago-area kid who went to Chicago’s Big Ten Team — as it’s trademarked — and became a figurehead for his alma mater and city’s sports landscape.
The landscape in college sports — and, frankly, the history of Northwestern’s football program — would suggest he would’ve moved to a bigger program with greater resources. He should’ve been bored with the challenges in Evanston, ready for whatever offers better.
“Hell no,” Fitzgerald replied to such a claim.
One could argue there’s no better fit for any college football program than that of Fitzgerald and Northwestern. He’s the proud alum who has taken his football program and the identity of its entire athletic department to new heights.
Fitzgerald remains as comfortable as ever with Northwestern. Five years remain on his 10-year contract, a magnificent $260 million facility along the shores of Lake Michigan is being constructed and the arrow continues to point upward for his program.
In years past, Fitzgerald has been targeted for positions at power programs like Texas, USC, Michigan and Penn State. He’s happy in the comforts of Northwestern, still building away.
Northwestern has built a winner with Fitzgerald simply finding character prospects with talent. The dark days of the Wildcats “laking the posts” for a win here and there are long gone, as are those in which undermanned teams would rope-a-dope with the Big Ten blue bloods. Fitzgerald has recruited the kind of talent that’s expected each season to compete in the Big Ten West division.
Hiccups to the building process came in 2013 and 2014, when the unionization process and labor discussions took a toll on team chemistry. In 2015, the kind of character Fitzgerald seeks in recruiting revealed itself in a 10-3 campaign.
“We’re a damn good football team,” Fitzgerald said. “What it took to get there last year was great work ethic. It was terrific leadership. The guys really owned the standard. We had to restablish it first last offseason. And then some time, early summer in camp, you could see the squad take ownership of that standard.”READ MORE: Two Shot At CTA Red Line Station At Garfield
Still, Northwestern was beaten badly in the Outback Bowl, in a 45-6 loss to Tennessee. It resembled the 38-0 loss to Michigan and 40-10 defeat at the hands of Iowa.
The Wildcats were humbled in realizing the work left to be done in order to join the class of college football’s best.
“We got our ass kicked up front,” Fitzgerald said. “Both sides of the line of scrimmage, we got our ass handed to us. I would say the same thing about the Iowa game and the Michigan game.”
Spring practice began in Evanston on Tuesday, with a hungry team looking to build. Personal records in the weight room have greatly increased, and team speed should show significant improvements. Fitzgerald expects his Wildcats will look even better come the fall.
“Momentum” was the word Fitzgerald continuously used to describe the transition from a 10-win season to a critical offseason.
Northwestern has rising stars on offense in quarterback Clayton Thorson and tailback Justin Jackson, plus perhaps another All-American linebacker in the making, Anthony Walker. Cornerback Matthew Harris returns as an unheralded name who could be in for a huge season.
Collectively, the Wildcats can be even better in 2016.
“The guys have just embraced the process — what it takes to build a team,” Fitzgerald said.
He has embraced the building process, too. The program Fitzgerald entered as a freshman in 1993 had struggled since Ara Parseghian left to head to Notre Dame after the 1963 season. It had been to one bowl game ever, a Rose Bowl win in 1948. Fitzgerald’s first season as a player was a tough 2-9 campaign. By his junior year, the Wildcats played in the Rose Bowl.
Fitzgerald has been building Northwestern ever since, a devoted process he dearly covets.MORE NEWS: Chicago Elite Classic Returns