October 10, 2008

Fitzgerald has Northwestern playing big

EVANSTON, Ill. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald is loving this. Pads are popping and bodies are flopping.

"That's the way to do it," Fitzgerald shouts, showing his old linebacker instincts with a ready-to-pounce gait.

You know he wants some of this.

"Wrap him up and drive your body through his!" he shouts.

Splat. One Wildcat dumps another onto a big blue mat. Players hoot and holler, waiting their turn to be next in this down-and-dirty tackling drill near the end of practice.

"OK, roll off, let's go," Fitzgerald screams. "Next! Come on, guys, this is fun!"

It's a crisp, cool, almost cold day. It isn't close to noon, but the Wildcats are just about done banging heads on this Tuesday morning. Northwestern starts practice at 7:50 a.m.; the early sessions help the Wildcats avoid class conflicts. And it's all about football accommodating academics not the other way around on this leafy campus tucked along the banks of Lake Michigan a few miles north of Chicago.

Here, the nerds are the BMOCs. But a memo to Poindexter: Skip that Saturday visit to the library and attend the Wildcats game against Michigan State. This is a big one.

Northwestern (5-0), ranked 22nd in the coaches' poll, is off to its best start since 1962. Maybe even the casual Chicagoland fan will get on board now that the Cubs and Fitzgerald's beloved White Sox are out of the playoffs.

"This will be fun," says Northwestern senior wide receiver Eric Peterman, one of the Wildcats' top gridiron geeks. Peterman is an industrial engineering major who is off to a systems management class, then to a course in field projects research methods after practice. And he is fresh off a summer internship with Aon, with a lucrative job offer likely waiting.

But right here, right now, it's all about Northwestern football.

"It's fun to play in a big game. But we know other things are more important," Peterman says. "Coach Fitzgerald tells kids when he's recruiting them that they are making a four-year decision that will impact the next 40 years of their life.

"Still, we love our football."



Northwestern has won three Big Ten championships since Fitzgerald first arrived on campus in 1993, winning or sharing the crown in 1995, '96 and 2000 which is more titles than Penn State, Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan State. In fact, the only schools who have won more are Michigan and Ohio State.

The Wildcats have their sights set on adding to their trophy case. If they beat Michigan State on Saturday at home, Northwestern has a good chance to push its record to 9-0. The next three games: at home against Purdue and at Indiana and Minnesota. The final three games are against Ohio State, Michigan and Illinois.

How does this Northwestern team compare to Gary Barnett's back-to-back Big Ten championship squads in 1995 and '96?

"I think we were better in the secondary than this team," Barnett says. "But Pat's team is better along the defensive line and at linebacker. I also think we were better on special teams.

"The offenses are different. Back in the mid-1990s, the Big Ten was still a running conference. We were like that, a physical offense that liked to pound you. Now, almost everyone is throwing the ball around in spread schemes."


Credit Fitzgerald everybody calls him "Fitz" around the football offices for Northwestern's rise. Practice is over, but his day is just starting. Following a jog and a shower, Fitzgerald sits at his desk. It looks as if he has jumped out of the pages of a J. Crew catalog. He's nattily attired in slacks and a button-down shirt. It's impossible not to notice how young he looks. He can't be 33. Twenty-five? Yes. Thirty-three? No way. Joe Paterno has socks older than Fitzgerald.

He just shrugs when reminded of his age and limited experience. He's used to being doubted. When "Fitz" arrived on campus in 1993 from a south Chicago suburb, he was thought to be too slow, too small and too much of a long shot to be great. But he went on to lead the Wildcats to consecutive Big Ten championships in 1995 and '96, including a trip to the Rose Bowl after the 1995 season. He also won the Bednarik Award given to the nation's top defensive player each of those seasons.

Now, he is staring down big things as a whiz-kid coach. It's not his fault he arrived at his place of destiny too early following the sudden death of Northwestern coach Randy Walker in the summer of 2006. Scrambling for a coach, Northwestern turned to its hero, the living, breathing and walking embodiment of Purple Pride.

"It was chaotic," says Fitzgerald, who was a 31-year-old linebacker coach on the Northwestern staff when he became the youngest major-college coach in America. "I tried to do too much by myself. I had to learn to trust other people and not do everything myself. That's the No. 1 thing I have learned since taking over."

Gary Barnett is there to help. He's the guy who waited and waited and waited for Fitzgerald to give up his dream of getting a Notre Dame offer and commit to the Wildcats. He's the guy who authored Northwestern's feel-good rise in the 1990s before leaving for Colorado. He's now the guy who talks and texts with Fitzgerald every week.

"They knew they wanted Pat to be the head coach there one day. It happened sooner than they thought, and they have to live through his mistakes, but he's learning and doing fine," Barnett says. "He's very competent, very confident. It's always going to be a tough job there, and he knows that."

Fitzgerald says Barnett is "like a 13th coach on our staff. We talk about everything, football life. Mostly life."

Fitzgerald leans forward in his chair and glances down at a picture of his two sons: 4-year-old Jack and 2-year-old Ryan. A third child is due around National Signing Day.

"We'll find out on game day what we're having," he says. "You know, 'Congratulations, you are the parents of a baby !' "

He straightens up, clears his throat and begins talking fast on the phone, doing his part to spread the "Purple Gospel" during the weekly Big Ten media teleconference.

"You just have to be consistent in your message, vision and approach," Fitzgerald says. "It doesn't change week to week. I think back to the beginning of the season and we weren't ranked, so the significance of that on our team is very minimal. We're focused on what's important.

"If we pay no attention to things that have no relevance on the game, regardless of whether it's this week or any week, we'll be in the right position mentally to go out and execute our responsibilities. Guys have done a good job buying into it one practice and one play at a time."


This was a crossroads season of sorts for Fitzgerald. He debuted with a 4-8 record in 2006, then followed that up with a 6-6 mark in 2007. This season, for the first time, the bulk of the roster is players Fitzgerald has recruited. Now, the Wildcats have broken out and are searching for their first postseason berth since a 2005 trip to the Sun Bowl in Walker's seventh season.

"I think of Randy every day," Fitzgerald says. "You always could count on him acting a certain way on Tuesdays, on Wednesdays. His teams were always well-conditioned."


Northwestern isn't the only small, private school that has exchanged its pocket protector for a neck roll. Duke and Vanderbilt also are enjoying breakout seasons.

Duke (3-2) is in its first season under David Cutcliffe, and he has them on track for their first bowl appearance since 1994, when Fred Goldsmith led the Blue Devils to a Hall of Fame Bowl berth against Wisconsin.

Vanderbilt's bowl drought stretches to a 1982 Hall of Fame Bowl appearance against Air Force, when George McIntyre was coach. But the Commodores (5-0) are thinking big because of their best start since 1943, which includes victories over South Carolina, Ole Miss and Auburn.

Wake Forest (4-1) is in the midst of its most successful run in school history, having won 20 games in the past two seasons and claiming the ACC championship in 2006. Wake has a shot at another league title this season.

Stanford (3-3) has a key game Saturday against Arizona. A win and the Cardinal can start believing a bowl bid is a distinct possibility in their second season under Jim Harbaugh.


Fitzgerald has continued to re-tool the staff he inherited. In the offseason, he fired defensive coordinator Greg Colby and saw offensive coordinator Garrick McGee leave to become quarterback coach at Arkansas, primarily for family reasons. It was critical that Fitzgerald make good hires, and he appears to have done so.

Fitzgerald knew his spread offense needed a no-huddle/go-go component with the new 40-second play-clock rule. That's why he selected Bowling Green offensive coordinator Mick McCall, whose attack has three modes: normal, fastball and super fastball.

"We still are adjusting," says Fitzgerald, who at times has played three freshmen on the line. "It's an ever-evolving process. We aren't where we want to be, but are getting closer."

The Wildcats' offense ranks ninth in the Big Ten (363 ypg). The rushing game has foundered the most, averaging 149.4 yards per game, which is eighth in the Big Ten. But the defense has picked up the slack. Credit new coordinator Mike Hankwitz, who was let go at Wisconsin after last season.

"We like to take chances," says Hankwitz, who began his coaching career (1970) before Fitzgerald was born (1974). "The zone blitz has been good to us. We run it about 20, 25 percent of the time during games."

Passive is out. Aggressive is in. The result: Northwestern leads the Big Ten in sacks (3.4 per game) and tackles for loss (8.2 per game) for a defense that ranks fifth in the league (319.8 ypg). The Wildcats also have excelled against the run, ranking fifth in the Big Ten and 34th nationally (111.6 ypg). It all starts with one of the school's strongest lines in years, paced by tackle John Gill and end Corey Wootton.

"It's all about two things around here attitude and investment," Fitzgerald says. "Those guys show it. I am brutally honest with all of our guys. I tell them what they need to hear, not what they want to hear."

Fitzgerald looks at his watch. He has a meeting. He has to go. There's work to do. The Michigan State game is barreling down on him. And he can't wait.

"This is fun, isn't it?" he says.

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