Packers' search for their next head coach should start with Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald is a young, forward-thinking leader who'd be a perfect fit in Green Bay
I readily admit that I do not know how the Green Bay Packers are going to handle their head coaching search. I'm not sure of how short their short list is, and how outside the box they will be willing to go.
But I do know the past is often prologue to the future, and there is certainly an established paradigm that this storied franchise has followed in their coaching searches – as infrequently as they are conducted. This is not a franchise that has gone crazy to woo established NFL head coaches, or chase around men with multiple Super Bowl rings. They have generally hired bright young coaches – generally with an offensive bent – who have a track record of success on that side of the ball, and bled them in to the Packers' culture. Only twice since Vince Lombardi came to Green Bay has the franchise hired a coach with previous NFL head coaching experience: former Packers Hall of Fame lineman Forrest Gregg (1984-87), who went 25-37-1, and Ray Rhodes (1999), who lasted just one season.
And, I absolutely know what I would do in this instance, if I was de-facto owner Mark Murphy, in the aftermath of firing Mike McCarthy on Sunday after 13 largely-successful years as Green Bay's head coach. I would arrange a meeting with Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald as soon as possible – at a time when the Packers have already made it clear the upcoming games don't really matter and their sole focus is on securing the future coach of the franchise – and beg, plead, cajole and coddle to get a half day of his time.
I would fly down to Chicago on a private plane and I would meet him on the Northwestern campus and whisk him up to Wisconsin to try to woo the coach. I would have a video reel of Aaron Rodgers' greatest throws and career accomplishments ready to go as soon as we got back on the plane, and I would arrange for as many of the Packers' esteemed Hall of Famers as possible to be waiting in the field house for us when we got back to Green Bay.
I would go all out to make this candidate, who just turned 44 this week, feel as wanted and appreciated and needed as possible, because, to me, this is the absolute perfect fit to try to take this team back to the promised land. As best I can see it, especially in this year where there are so few "sure thing" head coaching candidates in the NFL, and with upwards of a third of the teams in the NFL perhaps seeking a new leader, Fitzgerald would be the perfect boss for this club, at this very time.
He has enjoyed unparalleled success at Northwestern, an Ivy League school masquerading in the Big Ten that has no business coming close to competing with Ohio State and Michigan and Michigan State and Iowa and Wisconsin on the gridiron. This is a team that should never get a whiff of the Big Ten championship game, much less actually appear in it. And now, after pushing the Buckeyes before eventually falling last weekend in the title tilt, Murphy should be preparing to make the best pitch possible to this particular head coach.
Listen to Jason La Canfora and Will Brinson discuss the Packers' coach search and more on the Pick Six Podcast.
Sure, I know the word on the street. Fitzgerald will never leave his alma mater. He is a Wildcat til he dies. He lives and breathes the program. He is a total family man, who loves being in his native Illinois, who will never leave the Chicago area. And, of course, I have heard, repeatedly, that the only job he would ever consider in the NFL is the Bears job, at the appropriate time. Whenever that might be.
But I also know that the history in Green Bay is even more robust than at Halas Hall (stream Falcons-Packers and all of Sunday's games on fuboTV, try it for free, and stream the CBS games on CBS All Access). I know how close Green Bay is to Chicago. I know how the small-time, collegiate feel to the Packers football experience would be quite similar to what he currently experiences on Saturdays, and what he has known for much of his playing and coaching career. I know that Rodgers is never going to be in his mid-30s again, and that is a once-in-a-lifetime job right-bleeping-now, in real time, with that quarterback.
I know that coaches, always, love to be wined and dined and told how uniquely qualified they are for this job or that job. I know he is an absolute culture fit and the kind of guy who could be in Green Bay for 20 years if everything goes well. I know that this is a job that has opened up four times since 1992 – and, shockingly, for just the 11th time since Lombardi arrived in 1959 – and is always as coveted as any in the league when it does.
I know that for at least five years I have heard time and again from scouts and evaluators who made their college rounds through Evanston, and were blown away by Fitzgerald and were convinced his real and direct style of being a CEO would play even better in the pros than it does in college. I know that he was a bad-ass linebacker as a player who is in the college Hall of Fame, and who shockingly led the school to a Rose Bowl and a 10-1 season as a player. I know he is a coaching savant who was an assistant at Maryland within two years of his college playing career ending.
I know that he is, somehow, 95-70 at Northwestern, and that he has turned the failing and dormant program into a .500 team by his third year there and went 9-3 in year four. I know that these are the records of the five coaches who preceded Fitzgerald at Northwestern (dating back to 1978):
I know that from 1978-2005 Northwestern won 96 games, and I know that, if they beat Utah in San Diego at the end of this month, they will have equaled that total in just 13 seasons under Fitzgerald. Trust me, in a year very short on hot candidates and can't-miss guys in the coaching world, he is as close to one as possible to just that from the college sphere.
"Total stud," as one long-time NFL scout put it. "I would hire him in a minute. But he's never leaving Northwestern."
"Everything about him would play in the NFL," said another NFL decision maker. "But I don't think that's what he wants. He's not going anywhere"
"He would be at the top of my list," said one NFL personnel man with a team considering a coaching change. "But I don't think we'd have much of a chance to get him. It's a lot like David Shaw at Stanford. Are they ever going to really leave?"
Maybe so. Maybe not. I recall hearing a lot of the same things about Jim Harbaugh before he eventually left Stanford for the 49ers.
Either way, Murphy needs to hear it directly from the horse's mouth, ASAP. He needs to make a concerted push in this downtime before the Wildcats play in the Holiday Bowl on New Year's Eve, and make the best use of this potentially fertile period in December. He needs to do more than research candidates and gather information; he needs to be proactive right now to start feeling out the very best and brightest. And Fitzgerald has to be near the top of his list, and, until January at the earliest, he can't talk to the likes of John Harbaugh or Josh McDaniels and Ron Rivera or whomever you believe the best candidates currently in the NFL are.
So make the quick trip to Chicago and hear the "No" with your own ears.
If nothing else, be proactive and forthright and at the head of the line if, in four or five years from now, this next Packers coach doesn't work out. Lay some groundwork now. Start making the case for why it doesn't have to be Bears-or-bust as far as Fitzgerald's NFL future goes. Matt Nagy ain't going anywhere for a while, anyway – although look out if he loses Vic Fangio as his defensive coordinator to another NFL head coaching job – and Mitchell Trubisky ain't ever gonna be Aaron Rodgers. Fitzgerald is the kind of young, aggressive, forward-thinking leader that should be a perfect fit with the youth movement already taking place in the Green Bay front office.
Go ahead and start your search in Evanston, and do whatever it takes to get an audience with Fitzgerald. It certainly can't hurt. And it just might be a career-defining, and legacy-cementing turn for Murphy.
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