You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

100 facts about Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald as he closes in on victory No. 100

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 10/28/2020 Teddy Greenstein, Chicago Tribune
a group of football players on a field: Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald during the first half against Notre Dame on Nov. 3, 2018, at Ryan Field in Evanston. © Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald during the first half against Notre Dame on Nov. 3, 2018, at Ryan Field in Evanston.

You might know Pat Fitzgerald missed the 1996 Rose Bowl with a broken left leg, once got valuable career advice from Mike Ditka and ends interviews with “Hashtag Go Cats!”

But he has a lot more under the hood, including a self-effacing personality. For example, last season Fitzgerald said about closing in on 100 victories at Northwestern: “Should have done it a long time ago. I screwed up a lot of games.”

Pat Fitzgerald wearing a suit and tie: Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald watches warmups at Lucas Oil Stadium before the start of the Big Ten championship game against Ohio State in Indianapolis on Saturday, Nov. 28, 2018. © Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald watches warmups at Lucas Oil Stadium before the start of the Big Ten championship game against Ohio State in Indianapolis on Saturday, Nov. 28, 2018.

Fitzgerald is 99-79 entering the Wildcats’ season opener Saturday night against Maryland.

With the help of family members, friends and coaching colleagues, we constructed a list of 100 “Fitz facts” that will let help you slay opponents on trivia night in Evanston.

Pat Fitzgerald et al. posing for the camera: Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, center, walks on the field with his players at Lucas Oil Stadium before the start of the Big Ten championship game against Ohio State in Indianapolis on Saturday, Nov. 28, 2018. © Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, center, walks on the field with his players at Lucas Oil Stadium before the start of the Big Ten championship game against Ohio State in Indianapolis on Saturday, Nov. 28, 2018.

Here goes:

1. He drove a teal green Camaro at Carl Sandburg High School in Orland Park.

2. Gary Barnett came in late and talked him out of committing to Georgia Tech.

3. Fitzgerald became the College Football Hall of Fame’s youngest inductee at 33.

4. Illinois did not offer him a scholarship.

5. Fitzgerald and his South Side Irish parents visited Notre Dame on a recruiting trip. Quarterbacks coach Tom Clements greeted him warmly, but Fitzgerald sensed the school wasn’t all that interested — “you get a vibe” — and with several events remaining, he told his parents: “Let’s go home.”

a group of baseball players playing a football game: Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald huddles with players during warmups at Lucas Oil Stadium before the start of the Big Ten championship game against Ohio State in Indianapolis on Saturday, Nov. 28, 2018. © Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald huddles with players during warmups at Lucas Oil Stadium before the start of the Big Ten championship game against Ohio State in Indianapolis on Saturday, Nov. 28, 2018.

6. Northwestern beat Notre Dame to open the 1995 season, after which Fitzgerald won the Nagurski and Bednarik awards as the best defensive player in college football.

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald signals during the first half of the Big Ten championship game against Ohio State at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on Saturday, Nov. 28, 2018. © Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald signals during the first half of the Big Ten championship game against Ohio State at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on Saturday, Nov. 28, 2018.

7. He throws (and fist-pumps) lefty and has done the first-pitch honors at Wrigley Field at least 10 times.

8. He loves a good key lime pie.

a group of people wearing costumes: Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald during the first half against Notre Dame on Nov. 3, 2018, at Ryan Field in Evanston. © Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald during the first half against Notre Dame on Nov. 3, 2018, at Ryan Field in Evanston.

9. His first full-time coaching job came at the University of Idaho.

10. After Fitzgerald was named Big Ten Coach of the Year in 2018, the NFL’s Green Bay Packers pursued him.

11. CBS Sports NFL writer Jason La Canfora wrote Fitzgerald would be “perfect” for the job. Packers President Mark Murphy once elevated him to head coach at Northwestern in 2006. MyBookie.ag listed Fitzgerald and Josh McDaniels as co-favorites for the job at 6-1.

12. Fitzgerald brought up the prospect at a family dinner. He asked his three sons what they thought. The reply: No, we’re Bears fans. “OK,” Fitzgerald responded, “I guess the discussion is over.”

13. The Sweet Sioux Tomahawk from 1949-59, the trophy Illinois and Northwestern played for annually, is on display inside a coffee table in Fitzgerald’s office. It was believed to be lost until 2015, when Northwestern facilities officials found it in the basement of a fraternity that would be demolished to construct a dorm. The schools now play for the Land of Lincoln trophy (aka The Hat).

14. His first bowl game victory came against Mississippi State in the 2013 Gator. The Wildcats won 34-20 but at one point, Fitzgerald threw down his headset, breaking it.

15. Sports business reporter and memorabilia collector Darren Rovell owns the busted headset.

16. After victories, Fitzgerald hugs his father, Pat Sr., and says: “Love you, Pops.”

17. Pat Sr. is a retired operations manager for the southern district of Illinois for AT&T. He learned wireless telecommunications so he could volunteer on game days, working on the sideline to ensure smooth communications among Wildcats coaches.

18. Fitzgerald once joked that his dad was on a “week-to-week” contract. Note: Senior is taking this season off because of COVID-19 concerns.

19. Wife Stacy is the quintessential youth football mom, having operated the game clock and constructed the tent for weigh-ins. Pat calls her a “rock star.”

20. Stacy grew up six blocks from Pat. She learned football by quizzing him as he prepped for games at Sandburg.

21. Stacy is 24 days older than Pat, so she was able to drive first. On her 16th birthday, she picked up him for a group date to Dairy Queen.

22. Their first official date was to a Blackhawks game at Chicago Stadium. After she complained she didn’t understand icing, a fan asked Pat: “Can you shut her up?”

23. After a fight broke out on the ice and Stacy cheered, the fan told Pat: “You can keep her.”

24. As a kid, Fitzgerald was obsessed with Superman.

25. At age 3, he leaped headfirst off a slide and fractured his skull. One doctor recommended drilling bowling-ball holes in his skull to relieve pressure. The Fitzgeralds resisted.

26. He had to wear a hockey helmet for about two years.

27. Older sister Jacki convinced their mother, Florence, to let him play contact sports. He needed to burn off energy.

28. Fitzgerald’s football idols growing up: Walter Payton, Mike Singletary and Dick Butkus.

29. His peewee football number: 72, in honor of Carlton Fisk.

30. At Sandburg he wore No. 81 for Tim Brown.

31. At Northwestern, he chose No. 51 over 56: “I thought my game was more like Butkus’ than LT’s (Lawrence Taylor).”

32. In 2013, Yahoo Sports listed Fitzgerald No. 5 among “greatest college players with quietest NFL careers.” The two-time first-team All-American linebacker never played a down in the NFL, cut during training camp by the Cowboys.

33. Florence threw a party when Fitzgerald returned from Dallas. She was never keen on his playing such a rough sport. “I wasn’t invited,” Fitzgerald said of the affair.

34. Fitzgerald worked out for Ditka, then the coach of the New Orleans Saints. Ditka put his arm around Fitzgerald and said: “It might be time for you to put that Northwestern degree to use.”

35. Fitzgerald, with a 4.8 40 time, didn’t fight him. “I couldn’t outrun an alligator,” he joked.

36. Before arriving at Idaho, Fitzgerald worked as a graduate assistant at Colorado under Gary Barnett. The year: 1999.

37. One Buffaloes defensive back was Ryan Chiaverini, co-host of “Windy City Live.”

38. Chiaverini said he and his teammates at first did not realize they were being coached by the two-time national defensive player of the year. Fitzgerald had shed his playing weight and wasn’t mentoring linebackers. “He was just ‘Coach Fitz,’ ” Chiaverini said.

39. Chiaverini: “He was beloved, a 50-year-old man trapped in the body of a twentysomething. He already had the coach speak down.”

40. Before entering coaching, Fitzgerald sold advertising for One-on-One Sports radio. Selling air did not exactly scratch his itch.

41. When former Northwestern defensive coordinator Ron Vanderlinden became head coach at Maryland, he offered Fitzgerald a graduate assistant job.

42. Pat asked Stacy for her opinion. She said: “Do what will make you happy. I don’t want you to have a midlife crisis.”

43. While at Maryland, he answered a newspaper ad for a fraternity “house dad.” The job paid $550 a month and included free housing.

44. He will turn 46 on Dec. 2. He is a Sagittarius, described as “optimistic, restless, progressive and adventurous.”

45. He wakes up at 5 a.m., takes a quick shower and listens to music on his way to the office. His tastes range from Old Dominion to Bob Marley to Kane Brown to Darius Rucker.

46. He takes his coffee black.

47. Last concert he attended: Luke Bryan at Wrigley Field.

48. Best concert he attended: Bon Jovi at Soldier Field.

49. He has 86 Metallica songs on his workout mix. Among his favorites: “Wherever I May Roam.”

50. In college he drove a Buick Regal dubbed “The Regal Beagle,” a reference to the bar from the sitcom “Three’s Company.”

51. Fitzgerald often references TV shows and movies during news conferences. Borrowing from “Top Gun,” he calls players on the verge of entering the lineup “flight-deck” guys.

52. He’s also partial to “Tommy Boy” — “That’s gonna leave a mark” — and “Sandlot” — “You’re killin’ me, Smalls.”

53. He once joked about his academic performance at Northwestern: “I was a spoon in a drawer full of knives.”

54. In 2019, Northwestern became the first Power Five team to post a perfect graduation success rate score. Last fall 57 of Fitzgerald’s players made the Big Ten’s All-Academic team, tops in the conference.

55. His grandmother once hid his boots to prevent him from playing in the snow. So he went out in slippers.

56. He taught his nieces and nephews to eat whipped cream right out of the spray can.

57. Although he loves dogs, he has no pets. Growing up, he said, “I think we had a goldfish.”

58. In grammar school, his favorite things to read were Sports Illustrated and Dr. Seuss.

59. Fitzgerald also has a younger sister named Tricia.

60. Days before Northwestern took on mighty Ohio State in the 2018 Big Ten championship game, Fitzgerald said: “My mom and dad think we can get it done. My sisters probably don’t.”

61. His sisters later texted him: Yes, we do.

62. His first college scholarship offer came from Eastern Illinois.

63. He has had his front teeth knocked out twice. During a family barbecue, he treated a plastic tricycle as if it were a scooter and “ate concrete.”

64. Decades later he was working with return man/running back/cornerback Jeravin Matthews. Standing a few feet from a Jugs machine, he formed a triangle with his hands. The ball shot through and hit him in the face.

65. And that’s why Fitzgerald’s front four teeth are implants.

66. Fitzgerald was in the stands at Welsh-Ryan Arena on a recruiting visit when Barnett pledged to “take the purple to Pasadena” at halftime of a basketball game. As he recalled it: “He had 7,000 people laugh at him, but I didn’t. I was like: All right, sign me up.”

67. He is the winningest coach in Northwestern history — by a lot. Lynn “Pappy” Waldorf won 49 games, Walker 37, Ara Parseghian 36, Barnett 35.

68. Fitzgerald’s first victory as Northwestern coach was both storybook and sad. The 21-3 victory came at Miami-Ohio on Aug. 31, 2006. Miami is where Randy Walker coached before taking over at Northwestern and becoming Fitzgerald’s mentor.

69. Two months before the 2006 season opener, Walker died suddenly of an apparent heart attack at 52. Fitzgerald was thrust into the top role despite not having been a coordinator. At 31, he was the youngest Division I coach by five years.

70. Fitzgerald said at the time about the challenge of coaching grieving players: “As a competitor, you have a facade as a tough guy. A player is never going to openly admit a weakness. As a communicator, you really need to pay attention to that. They’re going to wave a flag; you just have to make sure your eyes and ears are open … When they need a hug, you need to open up your arms. And when they need a kick, you need to kick them in the britches. At the end of the day, they still want you to be their coach. And you still need to be demanding.”

71. Fitzgerald made sure Walker’s practice plan would endure. A grease board from the 2001 season with Walker’s writing has never been erased. The board resides in a staff meeting room at the Walter Athletics Center.

72. Fitzgerald said the first season was chaotic. “I was just trying to get through lunch,” he said. “I told the university: You won’t have to fire me. I’ll step away. The program means that much to me that I don’t ever want to become the reason why we’re not having success.”

73. He said of his first contract: “It was like a three-year deal even though it was announced as a five-year deal. It’s like starting a restaurant — you get 36 months.”

74. Michigan pursued Fitzgerald in 2011 before hiring Brady Hoke. Athletic director Dave Brandon offered $3 million a year, which would have almost tripled Fitzgerald’s salary.

75. Fitzgerald met face-to-face with Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips, President Morton Schapiro and donor/trustee Pat Ryan. He pitched a lakefront facility that would “integrate” the football team with the student body and create a first-rate on-campus training facility rather than the mediocre one a mile away. Ryan later called it a “visionary request.”

76. The $270 million Ryan Fieldhouse/Walter Athletics Center opened in 2018. Former Tribune sportswriter Skip Myslenski dubbed it the “Fitz Carlton.” Yahoo Sports’ Pete Thamel called it “the nicest athletic facility in college football.”

77. After Northwestern rallied from 20-3 down to beat Utah 31-20 in the 2019 Holiday Bowl, Fitzgerald announced that Northwestern will be “home forever.” So much for leverage.

78. Best anyone can tell, Fitzgerald has been purposely deceitful with the media only once. He said he “fully expected” Dan Persa to start the 2011 opener at Boston College. Persa didn’t dress while recovering from a torn Achilles tendon.

79. Kain Colter led Northwestern to a 24-17 victory, after which Fitzgerald said: “There’s no grand-master scheme.”

80. Fitzgerald hates talking about injuries. And the identity of his starting quarterback. Before the 2018 opener at Purdue, he said the secret would be safe until 8:06 p.m. ET, shortly after kickoff. At 8:12, Clayton Thorson trotted out in a knee brace.

81. After the 2013 season, Colter called the NCAA a “dictatorship” and attempted to unionize the football team. Fitzgerald was supportive … to an extent. During a National Labor Relations Board hearing, Colter, who was 3-for-3 in making the All-Big Ten Academic team, alleged: “We’re basically not allowed to schedule things that conflict with football practice.”

82. In testimony, Fitzgerald acknowledged having called college football “a full-time job” for players but said they are permitted to leave practice early to attend class.

83. In spring 2011, Fitzgerald became one of the first college coaches to move practice to the morning — 7 a.m., typically — to alleviate class conflicts. Many of his players had afternoon labs, and his graduate students had evening class.

84. Fitzgerald rarely has to discipline players. An exception: All-America return specialist/back Venric Mark, who was suspended and then removed from the team in 2014 after violating team rules. Fitzgerald, though, allowed him to return as a recruiting assistant in 2016. Mark now works in that role for the University of Texas in his home state. “Life is about how you respond,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m proud of him.”

85. Fitzgerald loves saying “stats are for losers” but was an early adopter of the analytics now widely accepted in college and the pros. Northwestern went for it on fourth down 32 times in 2016. The next season it was 39 — tied for the high among FBS teams.

86. He once had a severe reaction after eating shrimp on a flight.

87. Family members say he “has never had a good tan in his life.”

88. Fitzgerald started 23 career games and totaled 299 tackles, 20 for loss. He forced five fumbles and intercepted three passes. The 1995 Wildcats led the nation in scoring defense.

89. He diagnosed his season-ending injury in 1995.

90. After an Iowa player cut-blocked Fitzgerald, a trainer marched onto the field and said: “You’ll be OK.” “No,” Fitzgerald replied, “I broke my (expletive) leg.” He shattered his ankle too.

91. He appeared in uniform, on crutches, on Bob Hope’s All-American TV special in 1995 and said: “Merry Christmas, Bob.”

92. Jay Leno invited the team to “The Tonight Show” during their Rose Bowl trip. During a skit, teammates pretended to carry Fitzgerald across the parting of the red sea. Alumnus Charlton Heston, who played Moses in “The Ten Commandments,” chipped in.

93. Fitzgerald loves the TV show “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” and enjoys eating at local spots on the road. One example: Melt, in Cleveland. Said Adam Cushing, now the coach at Eastern Illinois: “He ate an enormous sandwich followed by a huge dinner at a recruit’s home.”

94. He once ignored Luke Donald, the Northwestern alumnus and former world No. 1 golfer from England. “He once came to my house and me, not knowing American football, I questioned why the kicking teams aren’t better,” Donald said. “In rugby we kick from the side and make it like 95% of the time. I said: ‘Maybe you need to hire a kicking coach?’ He blew me off.” Fitzgerald recalled his response as: “OK, thanks.”

95. During a midweek news conference in 2013, Fitzgerald answered the phone of a reporter who had left his cell on the podium as a recording device. The coach said: “Hey, Graham, we’re in a press conference, buddy. You’re going to have to call him back. OK, go Cats. Bye-bye.”

96. He was less jovial last season after being asked about the offensive game plan. “Well we just take 90 hours and play Wii in golf all week,” he said. “I understand there are 40,000 experts on Twitter that can call plays for me. My email address is ‘hashtag I don’t care,’ so shoot that out. Anybody that is negative, I respect it and I don’t care.”

97. He created nap time for his players, a 9:30 a.m. snooze so they would be fresh for their 2:30 p.m. game against Nebraska in 2012. “Unbelievable,” he said. “This is what I get paid to do. Seriously. Create nap time. It’s pathetic.” The underdog Wildcats played well after their cat nap but lost 29-28.

98. He created date night for his assistant coaches, compelling them to spend time with their wives or family members on Thursdays. Fitzgerald all but kicks his assistants out of the office to ensure they’re not working.

99. Chiaverini’s career took him to Chicago in 2006, Fitzgerald’s first year as Northwestern’s coach. “I’m going to hit you up,” Chiaverini told him after the two hugged. “You know, Chev,” Fitzgerald replied, “I can’t be playing favorites.”

100. Chiaverini said Fitzgerald mentioned having him over for dinner. Fourteen years later … “I’m still waiting for my invitation,” Chiaverini joked.

———

©2020 the Chicago Tribune

Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

AdChoices
AdChoices

More from Chicago Tribune

Chicago Tribune
Chicago Tribune
image beaconimage beaconimage beacon