Pat Fitzgerald was the defensive captain of the 1995 Northwestern team that ended decades of frustration and went to the Rose Bowl. He won national defensive player of the year honors twice and was a first-team All-American, but few might remember that he did not play for the Wildcats in their Rose Bowl loss to Southern California on New Year's Day 1996.
|In case anyone needs a reminder, Pat Fitzgerald has already left his mark on the program. (AP)|
Fitzgerald has always been about preparing his team to play better football. That held as a star player and as Randy Walker's assistant. Fitzgerald was never interested in individual honors or awards. It was always about wins and the losses.
That's what impressed Walker when he hired Fitzgerald in 2001, and that attitude never wavered in the five years the two worked together. Walker loved Fitzgerald's intensity, preparation and maturity. He knew he could speak to Fitzgerald frankly and that he would never take it the wrong way.
Walker pictured a day when he would be succeeded by Fitzgerald, and he told his assistant that last spring when Northwestern gave him a long-term extension. "In 2012, buddy, I'm going to turn it over to you," Walker said.
Men make plans and God laughs.
Walker did not come close to making it to 2012. He died from an apparent heart attack June 29, and after a week of shock and grieving, Northwestern athletic director Mark Murphy named Fitzgerald, 31, the head coach.
There is no interim tag. The job belongs to Fitzgerald even though he is five years younger than the next-youngest head coach in Division I, Wisconsin's Bret Bielema, and he has the full support of the athletic department and university.
"Randy started to talk about the end of his coaching career," Murphy said at Fitzgerald's hiring press conference. "He and I spent a lot of time talking about the coaching staff. He had tremendous respect for Pat and said, 'There is no question in my mind he will be a great head coach one day, and I want to see him succeed me.'"
Murphy and Northwestern president Henry Bienen thought about naming an interim coach and conducting a national search for a successor, but that idea was ruled out. Having the title of interim coach would hurt the Wildcats in recruiting, and a national search would simply take too long.
"It wouldn't have been practical at this point," Murphy said. "And it clearly would have created turmoil and uncertainty among the coaches and the players."
Leading a big-time program at such a young age might seem like a major task, but Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski was just 34 when he was handed the keys to that program. Fitzgerald, like the now legendary Coach K, has the characteristics needed to become a head coach.
Northwestern assistant Jerry Brown, 55, was thought by many close to the program to be the logical choice to succeed Walker. Despite being passed over for a man 24 years younger, Brown has no problems with the decision.
"Personally, I probably know Pat better than anybody here because I've known him longer," Brown said. "I think Pat is a great choice. Would I hire somebody like Pat to be my head coach? I'd do it in a heartbeat. Regardless of (Fitzgerald's) age, I give Mark a lot of credit to be able to identify qualities that I think Pat has."
Fitzgerald was clearly shaken by Walker's death, but he is also energized now that he is the head of the program.
"We have done so much," Fitzgerald said. "This is a winning team, and we are only going to work hard to continue what Coach (Walker) has already done. Three consecutive seasons with six wins says something. Teams know that when they come here they are in for a battle.
"I've always dreamed of this day. I'm excited to lead our players and staff. As a former football player and graduate, I have an incredible passion for Northwestern and its football program."
That passion is Fitzgerald's most obvious attribute. He promises that his fervor for the game and his players will translate onto the field during the fall. But it cuts both ways. The Wildcats are sure to be carrying a heavy heart throughout the season as memories of Walker come flooding back. One week up, the next week down.
Emotion can only take a team so far, and Fitzgerald will learn that quickly. Execution, game-planning and teaching the finer points of the game to his team will determine just how far it can go this year and in the future.
Fitzgerald has experience in those areas, having served as a graduate assistant at Maryland and Colorado before becoming a full-fledged assistant at Idaho in 2000. That job preceded his return to Northwestern. Walker hired him as a defensive backs coach, moved him to the linebacker spot and also made him the recruiting coordinator.
In less than a month the Wildcats will gather at their traditional summer home in Kenosha, Wis., to prepare for the 2006 season. Fitzgerald might have a hard time believing that he is charged with preparing the team. But that is his responsibility -- even if his players are just a few years younger than him.
Despite that youth, there is no way his players believe that they are going to be able to get by with anything less than their best effort. Fitzgerald coaches with the same intensity he played with, and he watches over his players like a mother hawk.
"He's intense," said linebacker Nick Roach, the team's second-leading tackler with 77 stops in 2005. "I remember when he met my family and my dad said, 'Are you ready for this guy?' But that passion is his greatest asset."