Why Pat Fitzgerald will never leave Northwestern for another school

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I am tired.

One of the favorite pastimes of reporters and fans is speculating every fall when Northwestern has success that their young head coach Pat Fitzgerald will one day leave Northwestern for a bigger program. First it was Notre Dame until everyone realized that Fitz hates Notre Dame. Then it was Michigan until we learned that Fitz actually rejected Michigan’s attempt to interview him. Thankfully, Iowa was never mentioned by anyone.

Now, it’s Texas and USC. In a seemingly perfectly timed column (Texas and USC both suffered embarrassing losses last Saturday), Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune argues that these two programs are the most likely destinations for Fitz to head to if Texas blows him away with a big salary offer or if he decides to head west to hang with his buddy Pat Haden at USC.

I have been very snarky about this on Twitter all day, which earned me a couple of pointed direct messages and an unfollow from Greenstein.

Okay, fine. Maybe I deserved that. I don’t report on Northwestern anymore and my current job is a credit repair salesman. There is no reason for Greenstein to follow me anymore.

But I did report on Northwestern. For five years, I covered Pat Fitzgerald and the Wildcats for WNUR Sports (radio) and NNN Sports (TV) when I was a student at NU. I went to every practice that was open to the media and every Monday press conference. For five years, I watched Fitzgerald and the Wildcats grow and set the groundwork for what we see now. I even reported for the Pat Fitzgerald Show during its first season. Fitz and I didn’t see eye-to-eye a lot, but we had a productive working relationship.

I often feel a special connection to that time because my freshman year was 2006, the same year Fitz became NU’s head coach. People know that I am a HUGE Northwestern fan and can be quite emotional about the ‘Cats, which is correct. But when I was a student reporter I took pride in separating my fandom from my reporting. Now, I no longer report so I am free to be an irrational, crazy fan, which is really fun.

But let’s put the reporting hat back on for a second.

Fitzgerald is a fascinating person. College football is filled with a lot of people who talk the talk about academics and loyalty, but don’t walk the walk. I am not here to make moral judgments. I am rather dispassionate about the “right way to win” or whatever you want to call it. College sports is a circus. But as an observer, I can tell you that Pat Fitzgerald practices what he preaches, to a sometimes extreme level. 

Greenstein has a theory that Texas and USC are the most likely destinations for Fitz to head to and his primary source is “an associate of Fitzgerald’s” who agrees with him on those two points. But Texas and USC are REALLY random choices and it’s quite a coincidence that the associate agreed on those exact destinations. My theory (I am allowed to have theories too) is that Teddy asked the associate “would Texas and USC make sense as a destination for Fitzgerald?” and the associate said “yes.” Because, of course, on the surface, those programs are amazing. However I suspect if Teddy had asked about Alabama and Stanford he would have gotten the exact same answer. I respect Teddy and his reporting but this is a rather strange article.

The argument for Texas centers around recruiting and money. There is no doubt that Texas is probably the best school in the country to recruit from and they have tons of money (Longhorn Network). That’s not really an argument for Pat Fitzgerald to coach at Texas. That’s an argument for ANY coach to coach at Texas. Sure, NU recruits in Texas a lot, but what major program doesn’t? They could throw cash at any coach in America and I wouldn’t blame that coach for taking the offer.

Except Pat Fitzgerald would not take that offer.

That sounds insane. What coach would turn down a potential salary of more than six million dollars and the chance to get most of your recruits from the most talent rich state in the nation? 

I’ll tell you who. Fitzgerald is, as his father is quoted as saying in the Greenstein article, definitely his own man. In fact, he’s one of the most unique people I have ever met. 

He once refused to speak to a student reporter because the reporter was wearing a Syracuse hat (Syracuse was not on the schedule that year). He once did a mic check on the Pat Fitzgerald Show by listing off all the schools he hated (Notre Dame, Stanford, etc). He even mixed in a seemingly random high school. I asked him why he hated that school and he said “we could never beat them when I played in high school.” Do you guys really think he would coach at USC, the school that beat NU in the 1996 Rose Bowl?! Not a chance.

Fitzgerald holds grudges like no one else in America (a fact that I find endlessly amusing and fun by the way, nothing beats a good grudge). He probably still doesn’t like me because a freshman running back said on camera that Fitz hated Iowa (he broke his leg against them in 1995, among, many, many other very justifiable reasons) and I immediately posted it to the NNN website. That’s okay Fitz, I like you. Can we be Facebook friends again? 

The reason why he holds these grudges is I think very calculated and smart. He treats this job at Northwestern as NU vs. the rest of the FBS (and whatever FCS schools are on the schedule, sorry, Maine). If you’re not with the NU Football Family, you are against it.

When you’re the underdog, that’s the only way to go about it. Bill Simmons always talks about the “nobody believes in us theory!” of sports. This is a theory Fitz lives by. His quest to get Northwestern respect will not cease, not even when Northwestern wins the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1949. He’s not some mercenary head coach like Nick Saban (who is great at what he does, but not loyal, which is fine). Fitzgerald’s blood might literally be purple. He always talks about being a zero star recruit. His whole LIFE has been as someone who is motivated by disrespect.

That makes Northwestern the perfect fit for him and vice versa. Because Northwestern NEVER gets any respect. Heck, they were in the top 25 this week but were not featured on SportsCenter despite dominating another BCS team in Syracuse. No highlights were shown that night. None. During College Football Final, they showed maybe two highlights and both analysts literally said nothing (Lou Holtz apparently also holds grudges, sorry ’bout it). Any time they do get coverage, it’s some stupid “Revenge of the Nerds” article we see trotted out every year as often as the job rumors. 

Fitz is fiercely loyal to his players and expects the same in return. As people who follow the program know, he will never drop a scholarship offer because of injury, he will drop a scholarship offer if you have verbally committed to NU and visit another school. 

Northwestern is Pat Fitzgerald. Pat Fitzgerald is Northwestern. He was born and raised in Chicagoland. He has raised his family here. Back in high school, yeah, he wanted to go to Notre Dame, but they didn’t show him enough respect, so he chose Northwestern and has never looked back. 

There is one scenario where Pat Fitzgerald could leave. That’s if NU hires a new president and athletic director who decide that athletics are a waste of time. That’s not happening. Morty and Jim Phillips are also going to be here for awhile. Their replacements won’t be dumb enough to alienate thousands of NU alumni by ignoring athletics. Cash is king afterall, as Greenstein points out in his article. The 1970’s and ’80s are over.

Pat Fitzgerald was here as a player when the miracle 1995 turnaround happened. He took over the program under tragic circumstances after Randy Walker died. Fitz was here for the beginning of a new era in NU football, he’s going to be there to see it to its logical conclusion: a national title. (For people who think this is ridiculous, Fitz will gladly remind you that the 1995 team was ranked #3 in the nation). He’s not Gary Barnett, who for all the good he did, was always looking for greener pastures. He is Pat Fitzgerald, the most unique, determined, loyal person I have ever met. Fitzgerald is a true believer in the Wildcat Way.

And he’ll be a Wildcat for life. So please, everyone, let’s not bring this up ever again. I am so, very, very, tired.

Good night and Go ‘Cats.

 

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A win for every generation of Northwestern football fans

Basking in the victory. (I'm on the right.)

Basking in the victory. (I’m on the right.)

I wandered around Jacksonville’s EverBank Field after Northwestern’s spectacular 34-20 victory over the Mississippi State Bulldogs on New Year’s Day 2013.

I was waiting to meet my student media friends who were inside getting postgame quotes but I was also thinking about what this Gator Bowl win means to Northwestern fans.

It’s easy to say: “Northwestern earned their first bowl victory since 1949!” That’s great. It’s very good that the media won’t talk about that year anymore. It’s also pretty cool that NU won their first bowl game in 64 years on the same date they won their previous one.

But that sentence doesn’t even begin to capture the feelings of fans that have lived and died with every play of every game for the decades of frustration that have occurred since the 1949 Rose Bowl win.

A middle aged man sat in front of me at the game. He was freaking out about the play clock, the play calling, everything. I’m passionate but I don’t go crazy over really small plays in a 60-minute game.

At first I thought he was being irrational. But he wasn’t. Unprompted he turned around to me in the third quarter and said “I’ve been following this shit since 1970. I can’t take any more of this.”

I’ve been following this team for seven years. He’s been following this team for 43 years.

43 years. 0 bowl wins. Until now.

43 years. It started out well. The first two seasons (1970 and 1971) were winning campaigns!

Then they didn’t have another one until the miracle 1995 Rose Bowl year.

43 years. He witnessed the longest losing streak in D1 football history. He witnessed Northwestern winning a total of three games from 1976-1981. He witnessed some of the most inept football at the major college level one can imagine.

Bowl losses are frustrating. The Alamo Bowl was awful. The Outback Bowl was spectacularly awful. The Ticket City Bowl and the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas were both miserable.

But not even having a prayer of a bowl is much worse. It’s a feeling of hopelessness I can’t even imagine. I’m too young. This guy has been following Northwestern for 18 more years than I’ve been alive. It takes a hell of a fan to stick with that many years of futility.

Hell, I’ve lost almost all patience with the Mariners and it’s only been a decade of misery. This guy had gone through so much more.

For non-sports fans, imagine your greatest passion. Perhaps it’s reading. What if you read nothing but lousy books for 43 years? No matter what book you picked up, every time it ended up ranging from lousy to terrible. Even worse, the books were thoroughly depressing every time. And of course for other fans, it wasn’t 43. It might have been 50. It might have even been 64.

Would you keep reading? Or would you find another hobby?

Well fans who have stuck with the story of the Northwestern Wildcats were rewarded Tuesday.

Wikipedia pages rarely produce emotions unless they’ve been tampered with by someone. But the bottom of this chart is one of the most satisfying things I’ve seen in a long time.  Maybe it’s the bold font of the word “won” after all those years of blank spaces and losses.

Pat Fitzgerald was crying tears of joy after the game. His postgame speech to Wildcat nation was inspiring.

“We talk to our guys all the time: ‘act like you’ve been there before,’” Fitzgerald said. “Well, we’ve never been here before! But as David Nwabuisi just said, ‘we’re here now and we’re here to stay!’”

He went on to thank all the fans for their support through the years.

The man in front of me was in tears too. He was also speechless. The man who’d been yelling the whole game was at a loss for words. As the old cliché goes, there weren’t too many dry eyes in the place.

People laugh at bowl games a lot. They say the games are meaningless exhibitions. I guess that depends on your definition of meaningless.

For long-time Northwestern fans, this win means everything. I know how much it means to me and I’m only 25.

There’s more to accomplish of course. Fitz isn’t satisfied. Neither are Northwestern fans.

This story is just beginning.

The purpose of coaching

We get hung up on the scoreboard too much. When I say that, I am not being some old school, idealistic person who preaches “it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.” I would rephrase it and say “if you do things the right away, the wins will start coming.” I want the teams who I root for to win with all my heart. And I realize that sports at the Division One and especially the professional level are big business. For instance, Kyle Brotzman’s missed field goal against Nevada cost Boise State three million dollars.

But the role of the head coach goes way beyond wins and losses.

That brings us to Bill Carmody.

Carmody is the head coach of the Northwestern University men’s basketball program. He’s the second-longest tenured men’s hoops coach in the Big Ten. Let’s get this out of the way: his record is not very good. He’s never led Northwestern to the NCAA Tournament (nor has anyone else). On the surface, it would appear he’s more than worn out his welcome. If you were judging him purely on wins and losses, he should have been fired a long time ago. Popular NU blog Lake the Posts wrote today that after the the Wildcats’ embarrassing loss to Penn State that Carmody’s time is up. He writes off the administration’s patience with Carmody as a product of former NU president and “Princeton buddy” Henry Bienen’s loyalty.

This, of course, is absurd, and is a misunderstanding of why Carmody has been around for so long and why he’ll continue to be Northwestern’s coach whether fans are happy or not.

Most fans pay lip service to what’s really important about coaching, but at the end of the day they come back to the won-loss record, and that’s a mistake.

No matter the sport, the most important thing about coaching is your players buying in to what you’re preaching. Everything else follows from that very simple point. At the professional level, it’s mostly managing egos with some instruction. At the college level, it’s mostly teaching the players how to play the game. Although there are certainly egos to manage in college as well. But no matter what you’re doing, it’s all about the players wanting to play and liking to play for you.

I’ve seen from first hand experience why this matters. As a freshman and sophomore at Northwestern University, I traveled frequently with the women’s basketball team. To say the atmosphere on the team bus and at the team meals was toxic would be an understatement. One time we were in the elevator and the coach shouted “hold the door”, and got on. After she got off the elevator, one of the players said “we should have closed it on her.”

Naturally, the team’s record was terrible and the coach finally left after my sophomore year. NU brought in Joe McKeown and the players liked him instantly. He connected with them and the turnaround has been remarkable, both off and on the court. Traveling with the team my last two years was fun because a great weight had been lifted off the program.

The reason why the players liking the coach and buying in to what he or she is preaching is so important is that athletics is all about building. You cannot build a sustainable program if you continue to just cycle through coaches or have a coach no one likes hang around. You can definitely win in the short-term with a coach the players don’t seem to listen to if you have the talent, but eventually that program will collapse.

Northwestern players like and respect Bill Carmody. This has been clear to me on the trips I’ve taken with the team. The atmosphere is always loose and the players feel at ease. He is an interesting man because he’s very intellectual. His disarming honesty is refreshing. You won’t hear him making grand statements. He avoids hyperbole. He’s not “RAH RAH” like other Big Ten coaches (Tom Crean comes to mind), but he gets his points across quite effectively. He came from Princeton and runs a unique offense that will occasionally look very ugly because it relies so much on the three-point shot. For instance, the Penn State game was terrible because quite simply nothing would fall. Carmody’s motto of “make shots” is brilliant in its simplicity. But he can’t control if every player on the team happens to have an off night.

Another measure of a good coach is whether or not his peers respect him. Talking to other Big Ten coaches, they don’t just give platitudes like “he’s a good coach, his teams are tough”, they go above and beyond the usual statements and they rave about Carmody’s ability. Tom Izzo once told me that he thinks Bill Carmody is one of the top coaches in the entire nation.

Izzo would know a thing or two about good coaching. NU has not seen the results yet on the court for a variety of reasons. Reason number one in my opinion is that you cannot recruit with the big boys when your facilities are so rotten. NU’s practice gym is quite frankly an embarrassment. Even when they try to change something for the better, they screw up. Welsh Ryan Arena added a bunch of banners in the rafters to make it look more impressive. Only problem: they screwed up the men’s basketball banner. They only credited the ‘Cats with four NIT appearances when in reality they’ve made five. I’m not going to give a history lesson, but NU’s hoops history has zero tradition. Actually, worse than that, they have negative tradition. There is almost nothing to be proud of and no real draw for recruits. People always say “if Stanford and Duke can do it why can’t NU?” Well, we can, but we’re going to have to be very patient.

That being said, the administration is making admirable efforts to turn NU sports into something to be reckoned with. In my opinion, during his time at NU Carmody has helped the cause by doing more with less. There’s a web site called “Fire Bill Carmody.” Their tagline is “because 8th place is not good enough.” Well, no, it’s not. But a lot of NU fans see the climb as almost impossible if Carmody remains on board. They forget that all it takes to make the NCAA Tournament any given year is 5th or 6th place…assuming your non-conference record is good. In recent years, NU’s overall record has been close to NCAA worthy, yet people write it off as due to easy non-conference schedules. NU tried to schedule Duke, but Duke backed out of a home and home arrangement. They did play eventual national runner-ups Butler last year. The thing is…no one wants to come to Welsh Ryan Arena because they know how dangerous the ‘Cats are at home. NU is close…and the reason they are so close is Carmody. It’s not a coincidence that the program has made the NIT the past two years after hitting rock bottom my sophomore season. We’ve seen a new dedication from the administration that has supported Carmody and given him more to worth with. It’s not enough yet, but it’s getting there.

In college, academics are considered quaint, a relic of the past. Not at Northwestern. Bill Carmody has guided NU to a PERFECT APR over the past four years. In my opinion, one very important measure of a college coach is how he encourages his athletes to also succeed in the classroom. There are only two rounds in the NBA draft. Life continues after college and Bill Carmody has prepared every student-athlete who has come through this men’s basketball program for great success in life. I would take a Bill Carmody over a John Calipari every…single…time.

When a coach is universally respected by his players and fellow coaches, he’s a good coach no matter the record by his name.

When a coach is dedicated to the development of his players both on and off the court or playing field, he’s a good coach no matter the record by his name.

When a coach does more with less resources, he is a good coach no matter the record by his name.

Bill Carmody is a very good coach. The wins will start increasing, the losses will start decreasing, and people will find it silly one day looking back that they ever wanted him fired. The reasons behind NU’s lack of success over the years goes beyond simply who the head coach has been. Throwing Carmody under the bus is ignoring how good a coach he is and how much more support he’s starting to get.

So the next time you’re thinking about calling for the coach of your favorite team to get the ax, do some thinking, look beyond the obvious. Sports is more than the final score sometimes. If you do things the right way, eventually those scores will turn in your favor. It’s taking Bill Carmody and Northwestern longer than many fans would like, but you get the sense they’re just a few points here and there from reaching the promised land.