Dec. 9, 2008

By Adam Caparell

NEW YORK - Great players usually don’t make good coaches, but Pat Fitzgerald is trying to buck that trend.

For a program that’s seen more losing seasons than winning ones, Fitzgerald is doing a pretty good job in just his third season as Northwestern’s head coach. In fact, he’s starting to get the kind of attention he earned back during his playing days in the mid-90s.

“I don’t think I’d put great in front of my name,” Fitzgerald said. “From a playing standpoint, I just got the opportunity to play the game I love as long as they allowed me to play, with the greatest group of guys. From a coaching standpoint now, if it was just me, I wouldn’t be able to do it. We’ve got great and an incredibly unselfish football team.”

Fitzgerald’s teammates from his Northwestern teams are a big reason why the former linebacker was one of 15 men inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame Tuesday. The only two-time winner of the Chuck Bednarik and Bronco Nagurski Awards who anchored a Northwestern defense that helped lead the Wildcats to the 1996 Rose Bowl and back-to-back Big Ten titles, Fitzgerald found himself sitting among fellow inductees like Lou Holtz, John Cooper, Troy Aikman, Billy Cannon and Thurman Thomas in the famed Waldorf-Astoria, thoroughly humbled while simultaneously looking back and looking forward.

“When you really think about what we’ve accomplished in the mid-90s,” Fitzgerald said, “we really reestablished our program and to be the head coach and think back on a day like today just gives me great pride and a great sense of humility.”

Over a decade ago, Fitzgerald was a college football player through and through. He left a lasting legacy in the Big Ten and lasted only three exhibition games with the Dallas Cowboys before deciding to focus on coaching.

It was the late Randy Walker that brought Fitzgerald back to his alma mater in 2001 after Fitzgerald spent several years at different positions around the country. For his first four years as a coach at Northwestern, Fitzgerald spent time at various positions until Walker’s untimely death in 2004 left a program reeling. .

Walker’s apparent heart attack in late June 2006 shook Northwestern to its core as the program tried to pick itself back up from the devastating loss. Just as Walker was seemingly reestablishing Northwestern as a wining program – something it hadn’t truly been since Fitzgerald was roaming the middle – the administration had to delicately look for a new head coach.

The search didn’t veer very far as one of their own stepped up to the call of duty, even when the task of replacing such a beloved coach like Walker seemed too daunting to most.

“I looked at is as a responsibility,” Fitzgerald said. “Being a graduate, being a coach on staff and to be asked to take over the leadership role of our football program, I looked at that as a challenge, No. 1. I’ve been entrusted with that responsibility and it’s time to step up.”

Step up Fitzgerald has, and at only 34 years old he’s living a dream. Albeit a very different one from his high school days.

“When I was 16 years old I thought I wanted to be a high school coach, wear those tight bike shorts, teach some drivers ed and summer school on the side,” Fitzgerald said. “But to be here now, really 13 years removed from the Rose Bowl and about 11 years removed from playing, to be where we’re at as a program is very rewarding, but the work is never done.”

It hasn’t been easy, but Fitzgerald has the Wildcats back in a bowl game for the first time since Walker’s final season in 2005. At 9-3, Northwestern will meet high-powered Missouri in the Alamo Bowl Dec. 29 in San Antonio thanks to a better than expected season. A more balanced offensive attack and an improved defense helped Northwestern finish fourth in the Big Ten when just about every preseason prediction had them finishing as one of the two or three worst in the conference. They just earned a spot in the Top 25 and this nine-win season was just the fifth in the program’s history, a history that dates back to 1882.

“What I try to bring to the table is consistency,” Fitzgerald said. “From Day 1 until the last day of the year I’m going to be the same. Through that I think I’m able to create a vision and set of expectations for our coaches and players. I’m going to work with those guys. A lot of people say that, but I think if you’d ask our coaches and our players I think what’d you see in our football program is a group of individuals that work collectively together pretty well as a group and that’s the environment we try to create.”

What Fitzgerald has created is a whole lot of extra work, but it’s welcomed extra work. Preparing for that Missouri offense won’t be any fun, but it’s a challenge Fitzgerald is really looking forward to even as he jets all over the country the next week, heading to banquets and award ceremonies. He’s even up for a few coach of the year awards.

“To be where we’re at, three years removed from as big of a tragedy you’re going to go through as a program is extremely exciting,” Fitzgerald said.

And pretty rewarding. Few Hall of Famers can lay claim to what Fitzgerald has been able to do in his relatively brief time as a head coach. Certainly none of his fellow classmates can. Then again, none of the over 800 fellow College Football Hall of Famers can boast about the kind of playing career Fitzgerald had.