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Fitzgerald works at Northwestern, despite what you hear

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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A few years ago Beano Cook and even the Chicago Sun-Times mentioned Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald as a possibility as the next coach at Notre Dame. A few months ago, Michigan reportedly was interested in him. An Altoona (Pa.) Mirror columnist, quoting "a source he ran into at the airport," reported in November that Fitzgerald is a goner to Penn State if and when Joe Paterno ever retires.

Before we go any further, maybe it would just be quicker to list the schools where Fitzgerald isn't projected to be the next coach.

Last week, Northwestern announced Fitzgerald had received a 10-year extension to remain at his alma mater through 2020. But that did little to squelch the speculation. There are probably more people that believe the Earth is flat than believe the 36-year old Fitzgerald will celebrate his 40th birthday in Evanston, Ill.

Fitzgerald definitely hears all the noise. He just chooses to tune it out.

"The grass isn't always greener somewhere else," Fitzgerald said. "I'm from a very fortunate background. I'll forever be indebted to Northwestern. I'm very humbled and honored.

"I don’t think there is any place better for me."

Under Pat Fitzgerald, the Wildcats are enjoying one of their better runs in more than 70 years. (Getty Images)  
Under Pat Fitzgerald, the Wildcats are enjoying one of their better runs in more than 70 years. (Getty Images)  
Under Fitzgerald, the Wildcats are enjoying one of their better runs in more than 70 years. Northwestern has been to three consecutive bowls for the first time and has strung together four non-losing seasons for the first time since 1935-38.

"I think we're on the rise," Fitzgerald said.

And this fall the Wildcats could keep climbing higher.

Northwestern returns nine starters on offense and seven on defense. The offense could be scary good with quarterback Dan Persa back after last year's record season was cut short by a ruptured Achilles tendon.

Persa, who led the nation with a 73.5 passing percentage, is joined by running back Mike Trumpy, receivers Jeremy Ebert and Demetrius Fields and slot back Drake Dunsmore. Up front, four linemen, with a combined 105 starts, return.

"Like we learned a year ago, we have to stay healthy at some key positions," Fitzgerald said.

So in the meantime, Fitzgerald keeps fighting the fight -- and the misperceptions he encounters on the recruiting trail.

"Rival coaches [tell our recruits] you'll never win there," Fitzgerald said. "Guess what? They were wrong. How do you do it? How you do it is you recruit the right young man. You do it the right way every day."

Fitzgerald scoffs at the idea that universities with higher academic standards can't consistently win or that teams can't be successful unless they play in monster 100,000-seat home stadiums.

Fitzgerald said he wants young men willing to "compete in the highest level of the Big Ten" in all aspects, including academics and athletics.

"But," Fitzgerald admits, "we're not the best fit for everyone."

He is, however, the best fit for Northwestern.

"It is paramount for Northwestern football to have great leadership," athletic director Jim Phillips said. "There is no better individual to lead Chicago's Big Ten Team than Pat. He is a tremendous teacher and truly values developing young men athletically, academically and socially. Our football program is having unprecedented success -- on the football field, in the classroom and in the community -- and that is due to Pat's outstanding leadership."

Fitzgerald would rather deflect the credit to others. "This has a lot less to do with me," he said, "and more to do with the players."

Fitzgerald was a player once: a damn good one. He was a two-time All-American linebacker in the mid-1990s leading Northwestern to consecutive Big Ten titles and an appearance in the 1996 Rose Bowl. He's already a member of the College Football Hall of Fame.

He's used his experience as a player to do things, well, a little different than other coaches.

Fitzgerald encourages his assistants to bring their kids to practice. He teaches the incoming freshmen the fight song -- Go! U Northwestern.

"I'm told I have no problem making fun of myself," he said. "I can't sing, but I know the words."

Also, every once in a while, Fitzgerald takes a unique approach to defusing tempers at practice. Players who get into a fight with a teammate during practice often find themselves walking around the practice field with their combatant, holding hands.

"I remember when I was a player if there was a fisticuff, the last thing you want to do is hang out with that guy," Fitzgerald said.

Northwestern senior linebacker Bryce McNaul said Fitzgerald brings the same type of attitude as a coach as he did as a player. Every single day.

"He was around for the renaissance of Northwestern football," McNaul said. "He definitely spurred it and he's doing it again now as a coach.

"He's had a lot of success here in the past few years and I'm sure he's hungrier for more. I'm sure he would have told you the same thing as a player. I think that attitude has transcended the football program with him being here. We're glad to have him."

But for how long? Just don't listen to others, because as far as Fitzgerald is concerned there's no better place.

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