The seventh-year head coach is a Chicago native, and he was a standout linebacker for the Wildcats in the 1990s, leading them to the 1995 Rose Bowl. He returned to Northwestern as an assistant coach in 2001 and took over the program in 2006 when head coach Randy Walker died unexpectedly.
Fitzgerald married his high school sweetheart, Stacy – both graduated from Carl Sandburg High School in the Chicago suburb of Orland Park. At Northwestern home games, 75 to 100 family and friends of Fitzgerald are in attendance, including his father, Pat Sr., who’s in charge of the coaches’ wireless headsets on the sidelines.
“You don’t get to have that in this profession; it’s very rare that you do,” Fitzgerald said. “When you do, it’s special. We’re thankful for that, but my job is to win games and graduate players, graduate 100 percent of them.
“Now I’ve got to keep winning games, keep my job.”
Fitzgerald has done just fine winning games, with a record of 49-39. His team is making its fifth consecutive bowl appearance on Tuesday, against Mississippi State (8-4) in the Gator Bowl.
If the No. 21-ranked Wildcats (9-3) win, Fitzgerald would stand alone as the winningest coach in program history. It would also snap the school’s nine-game bowl losing streak, the nation’s longest.
“You look at the games that we’ve played in and you've got to feel great about the way we competed,” he said of the bowl games. “You feel like garbage, though. We haven’t finished the job.”
Beating an SEC team in a bowl game would help Northwestern gain a little more respect on a national level. It doesn’t have the strongest football tradition, and being a school with high academic standards located in a city that’s saturated with professional sports teams, getting noticed is a constant battle for Northwestern.
Fueled by Fitzgerald’s success, the school has been taking big steps towards becoming more relevant within the Big Ten and on a national level, too. A couple of years ago, Northwestern locked up Fitzgerald through 2020, and the school recently committed to building a $220 million facility that’s intended to benefit all students, but especially the football team.
“That kind of support is unparalleled and unmatched in our program’s history,” Fitzgerald said. “All those things are really exciting for us.”
Mike Polisky, Northwestern’s deputy athletics director for external affairs, told ChicagoBusiness.com in November, “We’re not satisfied with backhanded compliments about our successes.”
Other schools interested
The 38-year-old Fitzgerald has been pursued by other schools, most notably Michigan two years ago. But with the financial investment Northwestern is making in both him and the program at large, Fitzgerald doesn’t appear to be going anywhere soon.
Right now, he’s determined to take his alma mater to new places. The current trajectory is promising.
“Northwestern has definitely progressed since I’ve been here – each and every year,” said fifth-year senior linebacker David Nwabuisi. “We’re getting more and more talented and more and more athletic. We’re not dropping our standards at all when it comes to grades.
“It speaks volumes for our coaching staff recruiting the right guys and the guys that we bring in not just trying to be great at football but trying to be great at academics as well.”