Home is Where the Heart Is
By Paul Myerberg // May 10, 2011
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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Tags: Joe Paterno, Northwestern, Pat Fitzgerald, Penn State
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