Throughout the ‘Cats football practice, head coach Pat Fitzgerald plays the sounds of Northwestern’s next opponent’s fans through the stadium speakers. In the week before an upcoming matchup with the Purdue Boilermakers, the sound of the Purdue fans’ “Boiler Up” chant added to the melody of pads clashing and coaches’ shouts.
As Fitzgerald lines the Wildcats up for some final running and pushups before practice ends, he instructs his sound crew to change tracks. Breaking through the cheers of the Purdue fans is the Isley Brothers song “Shout.” Even though it is part of Purdue’s football tradition to play the song at the end of the third quarter, Fitzgerald turns the song into a brief dance, throwing his hands in the air with each call in the song to “shout,” as do his players.
In Fitzgerald’s fourth season as the head coach at Northwestern, the Wildcats are accustomed to the many sides of Pat Fitzgerald – the coach, the dancer and the family man.
Randy Bates, the linebackers’ coach at Northwestern, recalled a time when Northwestern intercepted a pass, “and [Fitzgerald] chased the guys down and jumped on top of them, and was as excited as the rest of the players.”
If Fitzgerald seems different than other coaches, it is because of his birth date. Fitzgerald, 34, is the second youngest head coach in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Fitzgerald says he thinks his youth allows him to better connect with his players, many of whom are just 12 years younger than him.
“I know what they’re doing and going through from walking in their shoes not too long ago,” says Fitzgerald. “I think I can respect what’s on their plate. I can respect the things that they’re going through.”
Senior safety Brendan Smith agreed with Fitzgerald’s assessment and pointed out that Fitzgerald even has a profile on Facebook.
Just over a decade ago, Fitzgerald was a linebacker for the ‘Cats and he led the team to consecutive Big Ten conference titles in 1995 and 1996. In both seasons, he won the Bednarik and Nagurski awards, the latter given annually to the top college football defensive player in the nation. In December 2008, Fitzgerald was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
“Who wouldn’t want to play for a coach that was that successful on the field?” Smith says.
For Fitzgerald, the challenges of being a head coach of a college football team are augmented by his duties as a husband to his wife, Stacy, and a father to their three sons – Jack, four; Ryan, three; and Brendan, eight months.
As for the Fitzgerald family life, he says his wife Stacy “runs the show.” Pat Fitzgerald says his wife is “a really strong, independent woman – my boys are very fortunate to have her as a mother.”
Fitzgerald says his days usually begin with “getting up twice a night with either my wife waking up to go take care of Brendan, or Ryan coming in to come cuddle with his dad.”
On a typical day, Fitzgerald wakes up at five, and gets to campus to run a morning practice. After practice, Fitzgerald leads team meetings, before watching videos of Northwestern and the Wildcats’ upcoming opponents. Fitzgerald then prepares for the next day’s practice and makes recruiting calls.
Fitzgerald came into his head coaching job during a traumatic time for Northwestern football. An assistant coach since 2001, Fitzgerald was suddenly thrust into the head coaching job in July 2006 when coach Randy Walker died of a heart attack.
“I took it as a personal challenge to try to lift up the Walker family the right way and to help our players through this difficult tragedy,” Fitzgerald says.
“It was tough, for the team, for coach [Fitzgerald]. Coach Fitz was very close with Coach Walk. Honestly, it took some time,” says Smith, who was a sophomore when Fitzgerald became the head coach. “The first year, he pretty much stuck to what Coach Walk would have done…As years progressed, he’s become his own coach.”
During Fitzgerald’s first three complete seasons as Northwestern’s head coach, the Wildcats’ record has improved each season from 4-8 in 2006 to 6-6 in 2007 to 9-4 in 2008.
Smith attributed that improvement to Fitzgerald changing the mindset of the team, saying that guys are expecting to win. Bates added that Fitzgerald has done a great job recruiting, which translates into better talent on the field.
After the Wildcats’ nine-win season in 2008, Fitzgerald was named the Big Ten Coach of the Year by the Touchdown Club of Columbus, an award he says means “that your coaches and your players are doing everything, and you’re just not screwing them up.”
Though Fitzgerald’s awards might prompt speculation that he may leave Northwestern for a larger football school or the National Football League, Fitzgerald says he plans to stay at his alma mater and signed a seven-year contract with Northwestern in June 2009.
“I have my dream job,” says Fitzgerald. “I could see myself being here until they take away my keys.”