Football practice can be like a military boot camp. Both are organized around repetition, order, and routine. So it didn’t go unnoticed, one day this April, when a member of the Northwestern University coaching staff pushed play on an iPod connected to a small but powerful speaker. Instantly, the typical morning practice morphed into a scene straight out of a Nike commercial. Players bobbed and swayed to classic rock and hip-hop. “Are you alive?” yelled the head coach, Pat Fitzgerald, shortly before teammates bashed into each other during full-contact drills. During a gladiator-like competition called “board drill,” players stood in lines and danced while team members grappled, one-on-one.
Northwestern University Football All-time Record:
“Success is all about energy and effort and choosing to have the right attitude,” Fitzgerald explained several days later. The coach was sitting in his tidy Evanston office, dressed in dark pants, loafers, and a button-down shirt. A giant flat-screen TV displayed an aerial photo of the school’s football stadium, Ryan Field. “The music is a part of that. It gets us going.”
The Pat Fitzgerald era at Northwestern has officially begun. For years, the school has had a curious, and some might say embarrassing, relationship with big-time college sports. But coming off a strong season, the football team, and its 34-year-old coach especially, have generated some buzz before their first game September 5th. “I think Northwestern could be heading into their glory days,” says Tom Lemming, a Barrington-based college football analyst, scout, and guru. “Fitzgerald is young enough, energetic enough, and smart enough. He could be their coach for life—like Joe Paterno at Penn State—and you’re going to have the best years in the history of the school.”
That is, if Fitzgerald sticks around. College football is rife with stories about coaches who have a few winning seasons and then bolt when another university makes a better offer. Heading into this season, Fitzgerald had signed a contract extension that could keep him in Evanston through 2015. Does it represent the beginning? Or the beginning of the end? “This is the place where I want to be,” Fitzgerald insists. But the Wildcats’ hard-luck history is hard to deny.
With all due respect to Northwestern’s successful, lower-profile sports like tennis and women’s lacrosse (five straight national titles), the school has a well-deserved reputation as a perennial underdog. Academics tower over athletics, and there’s a strong preference to keep it that way. “As a kid, I remember sitting in the stands at football games and Northwestern would be losing,” says Jim Phillips, the school’s athletic director. “And the fans would be yelling, ‘That’s all right, that’s OK—you’re gonna work for us someday.’”
Granted, the football team has had some competitive flashes. Last year, the football and the basketball team both qualified for postseason play in the same school year—the first time that’s happened. But is that a sign of the school’s improvement? Or a reminder of its futility? “The goal, now, is to have consistently successful teams and hopefully not that kind of yo-yo effect where you’re up and down every other year,” says Phillips. “My hope is that football can be the engine that brings everybody else along.”
The ultimate goal, of course, is to burnish the Northwestern brand. In the early 1990s, Phillips’s predecessors began efforts to upgrade the school’s athletic facilities and hire program-changing coaches such as Gary Barnett. Barnett did wonders for Northwestern athletics when he took the football team, led by Fitzgerald, to the 1996 Rose Bowl and two Big Ten titles. “Athletics is the front porch to the university,” Phillips says. “I’m not sure there’s a more visible aspect of a school. And football, being the biggest revenue generator with the biggest stadium, is the largest part of that.” Barnett eventually left Northwestern for the University of Colorado, and his departure delayed the school’s plans. But, in time, Fitzgerald could have an even greater impact.
For starters, there’s Fitzgerald’s pedigree: leader of that Rose Bowl team, two-time college defensive player of the year, member of the College Football Hall of Fame, and hometown boy—born and raised in Orland Park. “Who wouldn’t want to play for a coach who did all that?” says Chris Jeske, a linebacker from Yorkville. Second, there is Fitzgerald’s player/coach personality. (Fitzgerald took over the program in 2006 after his mentor, Randy Walker, died of a heart attack. Fitzgerald became the youngest coach in major college football.) On the field, Fitzgerald sprints through practices, chest-bumps players, and barrels into drills as if he were about to make a tackle. Off the field, he is like a cross between a motivational speaker and a politician. A sample: “Every day isn’t going to be great,” Fitzgerald says. “Every day isn’t going to be sunny and 75 degrees. But, the way I see it, every day, it needs to be sunny and 75 degrees.”
That said, certain aspects of the old Northwestern are sure to remain. The school’s high admissions standards will continue to prevent it from recruiting and admitting some athletes. Northwestern also lacks what some athletes crave: the football-is-God mentality found at larger schools with a winning tradition. “Pat’s job is more than just coaching football and recruiting,” explains Barnett, Fitzgerald’s former coach. “If you want to compete at the highest level, you have to pump enthusiasm and interest into a campus, where, at a place like Ohio State or Michigan, you don’t have to.”
Money could become an issue, too. This year’s football team is coming off a 9-4 season in which Fitzgerald received several coaching honors. (The team nearly beat the University of Missouri in the Alamo Bowl.) Northwestern responded by rewarding Fitzgerald with a long-term contract, the terms of which they won’t discuss. But loyalty is rare in college football, and Northwestern is not known as a school that offers deals that scare other suitors away. It is a small, private school with a smaller athletic budget than, say, Notre Dame. Never mind Northwestern’s interest in being competitive; how serious can an academic institution afford to be? If the future under Fitzgerald is as sunny as advertised, it’s a question that won’t go away.
Photograph: Ryan Robinson