The Fitzgerald Effect

In 2009, Northwestern University battled Auburn in the Outback Bowl. They lost 35-38 in overtime. It was Pat Fitzgerald’s second Bowl Game as NU’s head coach, and his second consecutive overtime loss (they played Missouri in the Alamo Bowl the year prior, and lost an 23-30 in OT).

In today’s Citrus Bowl, Northwestern University dominated the traditional SEC power by a score of 35-19. It wasn’t even that close. Early in the first quarter, ESPN play-by-play announcer Dave Flemming noted that “Northwestern seems more focused, more dialed-in than Auburn.”

Moments after that comment, Sr. Tight End John Raine caught a pass from Peyton Ramsey to put the Wildcats ahead by two scores.

Color announcer Rod Gilmore then noted how clear it is that “motivation overrides speed or power – right now, Northwestern has been doing things that traditionally faster teams can’t do.”

In typical fashion, Pat Fitzgerald has his team ready to play.

Motivation overrides speed or power.

Two years ago at this time, I attended a practice at the newly constructed Ryan Fieldhouse. It was clear that something special was happening on the waterfront of Lake Michigan.

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 were set to play (and ultimately beat) the PAC-12’s Utah Utes in a meaningful Holiday Bowl matchup.

Then he mentioned an upcoming event, one that he considered “the 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 their consecutive Bowl Game wins over Pitt (ACC) and Kentucky (SEC). He didn’t have much more to say about Utes. And 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.

Northwestern University has build a top-tier 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, who has been a staple 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 ten bowl games in fourteen seasons.

There in the Ryan Fieldhouse, 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. How service was essential to the Wildcat Way.

Those Wildcats have picked up two Big Ten West titles in three years, each time losing in the Big 10 to a top-4 Ohio State team.

The Wildcats didn’t accomplish this degree of success just by donating their time at local charities. They work. They have an explicit goal to outwork all other Big 10 teams each offseason. Their football coaches, they strength coaches, and their players are decidedly tough.

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.

That balance is embodied by the head coach. He just won his 5th bowl game. His second over an opponent from the vaunted SEC.

Coach Fitzgerald will be the first to tell you that people matter most and 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.

There might not be a better example of that in college football than the Fitzgerald-led Northwestern Wildcats.

Time to Finish Strong. Go ‘Cats.