The athletes were down on a knee, catching their breaths after a long practice, when 2018 Big Ten Coach of the Year Pat Fitzgerald addressed the team. He mentioned highlights of the day, where he believed the team could improve, and how “salty” their upcoming opponent will be. The Wildcats play Utah on Dec. 31st in this year’s Holiday Bowl matchup.
Then he mentioned an upcoming event, one that he considered “a true highlight” of the previous year: the team will head down to the Catholic Charities of Chicago to distribute meals and donate warm clothes to Chicagoans who have fallen on hard times.
Giving back to the community was the highlight.
Coach Fitzgerald didn’t remind them of last year’s 10-win record including a Music City Bowl victory over the SEC’s Kentucky Wildcats. He didn’t mention that Northwestern has a nation-leading football graduation rate – a staggering 99%.
He didn’t have to. The buzz around Northwestern’s $260 million lakefront complex was one of confidence. The Wildcats had built an identity and wore their purple with pride.
A few weeks prior, the Big Ten Championship Game, the Wildcats represented the West and took on heralded Ohio State. The Buckeyes travel well and they have a fantastic football team, but there was plenty of purple in Lucas Oil Stadium, and the ‘Cats played their hearts out. When Clayton Thorson capped an 85-yard drive by throwing a touchdown pass to Cameron Green, it was clear that we were witnessing something special. Charlie Kuhbander’s extra point made it 24-21 and the ‘Cats were only three points behind a top-5 team in the nation. It wasn’t a gift, it wasn’t a fluke – the Wildcats were going toe-to-toe with a national power.
Joe Gaziano was beating Ohio State offensive linemen in head to head matchups. No tricky stunts or blitzes, he was just beating them.
Blake Gallagher was instinctively running past or through would-be blockers and taking on Ohio State’s All-Big Ten honoree J.K. Dobbins in open space.
And when the jumbotron reminded us that Coach Fitzgerald had been named the Hayes-Schembechler Coach of the year, the purple faithful erupted in applause.
Northwestern University had built a football team.
Purists will note that the build began in 1876, when the ‘Cats played their first game against the University of Chicago football club. But the build for this team, the one who has been in the nation’s top 25 for most of the season, began with Fitz.
And Fitz began at Sandburg high school, in the south suburbs of Chicago. He credits his time as an Eagle with shaping him. His passion and work ethic were clear from the start. One of his high school coaches, Larry Lokanc, recalls a story from Pat’s junior year: “One thing he needed was to get in the weight room. He had the upper-body strength, but his lower-body strength was a little below average. His junior year, there was a group of about four kids that used to come in at 6 in the morning and all they did was squats. That brought the kids closer and helped bond the team. More kids started coming because Pat had that kind of effect on people.”
He soon brought that lead-by-example style to Northwestern. He was the first one in to practice and the last to leave. His dedication rippled through the locker room and teammates couldn’t help but follow. Pat’s efforts made him a two-time All-American, two-time Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, and two-time winner of both the Nagurski and Bednarick Awards for the top defensive player in the nation. He led the Wildcats to a 10-1 season in 1995, and to the Rose Bowl in 1996. “Northwestern football hadn’t seen that sort of success…well… ever,” said former teammate and fellow linebacker Hugh Williams.
Pat Fitzgerald’s impact was contagious. It still is.
Before Fitz’s return to Evanston as Head Coach, the Northwestern football program had been to six bowl games in 123 seasons. In the Fitz-era, they have been to nine bowl games in thirteen seasons.
And as the new caliber of Northwestern recruit (bigger, faster, stronger and more highly rated than ever before) listened to Coach Fitzgerald’s post-practice speech, they heard about what was truly important to him. Service. Community. Each other. He mentioned how special being part of a team was, and how excited he was to go back and support the Catholic Charities of Chicago this winter. It was essential to the Wildcat Way.
Those Wildcats have picked up 8 wins this year to go with their Big Ten West title, and will be hunting for their 9th in the Holiday Bowl – their ninth bowl appearance in the last ten seasons.
Utah is tough. Their Coach, Kyle Whittingham, is 11-1 in bowl games. He knows how to win.
Coach can be – and should be – both tough and kind. After all, toughness will get you through tough times, but kindness will help you create the great ones.
Coach Fitzgerald will be the first to tell you that people matter most, that winning isn’t everything. But the amazing thing about putting people first, prioritizing relationships, and sticking to a team-first process is that the outcome, the winning, happens anyway.
Time to Finish Strong. Go ‘Cats.