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Coaching Moves

Home is Where the Heart Is

The news that Pat Fitzgerald is on the verge of a long-term contract extension is cause for celebration in Evanston, even if it’s no surprise. Fitzgerald is nothing if not comfortably loyal to his alma mater, Northwestern, and for all the talk that he’s next at Penn State – or Michigan, or another Midwest power – the simple truth is that for all that chatter, Fitzgerald remains ensconced at home, with his family, at the site of his greatest days as a player and a coach, in the perfect situation. So he’ll ink that ten-year extension and prepare for the next generation of Northwestern football, which is good news for all those who appreciate a sense of commitment.

And why wouldn’t other, more distinguished programs come calling? For all its recent success, winning at Northwestern is completely unlike winning anywhere else: it’s more difficult, for starters, with a smaller fan and alumni base, strident academic challenges and a general lack of historic success, to put it mildly. And Fitzgerald continues to win at N.U., in many ways exceeding the successful tenure of his predecessor, Randy Walker.

The challenges presented at Northwestern made Fitzgerald the outstanding college player he was in the mid-1990s; those same challenges make Fitzgerald the outstanding coach he is today. Some coaches, like those who go from rebuilding job to rebuilding job, or those who chase titles throughout the country, revel in beating the odds. Fitzgerald is one of those coaches.

Now, the big question: Why wouldn’t he stay? I’m not talking today but tomorrow, 2012, 2013 and beyond, as Fitzgerald continues to build upon an already impressive resume. Think Penn State fans are clamoring for Fitzgerald today? Wait until he leads Northwestern to 16 wins over the next two years – just wait until the Nittany Lions are looking for their next Joe Paterno, and all signs point towards Fitzgerald fitting that bill.

Penn State can offer prestige, a boost in salary and the chance to be a perennial national title contender. Don’t discount that, ties to the alma mater or no. But it’s not home for Fitzgerald; Evanston is home. He could go elsewhere, but will his heart be in it quite like it is with his Wildcats? Would it be the same?

The parallels with Paterno are very real, but they ignore one obvious correlation. Like Paterno at Penn State, Fitzgerald has the chance to put his stamp on the program – a chance to become Northwestern’s Paterno, to maintain the comparison. He’s not turning down that opportunity, which trumps any offer a power program could put on the table, whether money, the chance for titles, what have you.

Home is where the heart is for Fitzgerald. And he should be commended for it: others have paid lip service to staying home, but the intention of the ten-year extension is to hammer that message, well, home. Fitzgerald’s not going anywhere. And that’s cause for celebration everywhere, not just in Evanston.

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  1. DaUUU!!!!!!!!!!! says:

    I don’t know why (I do but really don’t feel like saying:)) but I like it when a coach stays with a program for a long period of time and try to build a program into a powerhouse. Heck I just love it when a coach in any sport stays with a team for decades, period. I really don’t like it when a coach leaves a program that he has some success with for another program because of its stature and prestige. This is one of the problems that a certain school I root for had to deal with over the years.

  2. Brad says:

    Very nice post, Paul. I don’t have much to add, as you’ve captured the sentiments of our fanbase quite well. Go Cats!

  3. Burnt Orange says:

    I hope he stays. This topic always reminds me of former Tulsa coach Dave Rader. Tulsa was nationally ranked after Rader led them to a 10-2 record in 1991. He was 34 and in high demand by many larger schools. He turned down the money and stayed at Tulsa where he was a star qb. Eight years later he was fired and he has never been a head coach since.

  4. [...] isn’t just a homer stance on Fitz. LTP blog-crush, Presnap Read goes pretty far down this road with the Fitz-next-JoePa angle here toda… Fitz isn’t just the face of the program, he’s becoming the face of the entire [...]

  5. wildcat6 says:

    Part of the deal is facilities renovation – Ryan Field is in need of a major facelift. Northwestern has commissioned a $1 million study from the firm Populous to look at all of NU’s sports facilities, including most conspicuously, Ryan Field and Welsh-Ryan Arena. W-R could be bulldozed and a new arena built. Ryan Field will likely retain its distinctive characteristics, but be otherwise completely transformed. We’re all holding our collective breath to see the results of the study.

    Bottom line, AD Jim Phillips is committed to making it possible for Coach Fitz to have the resources and the facilities to compete for recruits on a national stage, and to win some of these recruiting battles against the likes of Stanford, Notre Dame, Michigan, Michigan State, and others.

    Thanks Paul for the article, and I think the JoePa comparison is particularly apt.

  6. Nuftw says:

    Boost in prestige maybe, but I’m skeptical that PSU would offer a huge salary increase. NU seems determined to keep Fitzgerald and Penn State hasnt shown any inclination for huge coaching contracts.

    Paul: It wouldn’t be a huge increase, but Teddy Greenstein is reporting that the new contract will have Fitzgerald around the middle of the pack in the Big Ten. Penn State would put him in the top third, I’d think. Reportedly, Michigan would have offered between $3-3.5 million for his services.

  7. Manwich says:

    I’d just be scared of raised expectations. when 8 wins and a bowl trip aren’t good enough. When they should be winning the Big 10/12 perennially. when they should be national title contenders.

  8. taybax says:


    Fitz is anything but scared of raised expectations . . . just look at the non-conference schedule over the next decade.

  9. Jay says:

    Great read. Another example: Mike Gundy. He’ll retire as the Oklahoma State HC.

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