Meet Northwestern's top Cat

Football coach Pat Fitzgerald has Chicago thinking 'hip and cool'

September 26, 2012|By Tracy Swartz, @tracyswartz | RedEye

Move over, Bears. There's an undefeated football team in the Chicago area that's beating expectations—and it doesn't play at Soldier Field.

The Northwestern Wildcats are 4-0 heading into this week's game in Evanston against Indiana in the opening weekend of Big Ten play.

The Wildcats aren't just seeing success on the field, either. Since branding itself as "Chicago's Big Ten Team" two years ago with billboards around town, Northwestern has seen its season-ticket base for football jump 80 percent, senior associate athletic director Mike Polisky said. Nearly all of those new ticket holders are from the Chicago area, he said.

Polisky said some of these Northwestern newbies are not alums, but rather Chicagoans who already have a team they root for but enjoy attending college football games locally. He credited coach Pat Fitzgerald with stirring local enthusiasm.

"I would give the lion's share of the credit to what the football team has done on the field," Polisky said. "We have a long way to go still."

Fitzgerald, an Orland Park native and a celebrated linebacker for Northwestern in the mid-1990s, has been coach of the Wildcats since 2006. He is one of the youngest coaches in the Football Bowl Division.

During his tenure, the Wildcats have gone 44-36 and have appeared in (and lost) four consecutive bowl games, including the 2010 Outback Bowl against Auburn.

Northwestern unsuccessfully tried to break its bowl streak last year before the Meineke Car Care Bowl by carrying around a stuffed animal monkey, symbolizing the bowl losses on the team's back. The Wildcats lost that game to Texas A&M, however, and now the monkey sits on a table in Fitzgerald's office.

Monkey business aside, Fitzgerald, 37, fielded questions about Northwestern's future, the Midwestern football scene and Chicago's role in the Wildcats' success.

How do you think this season is going so far?

Well, I think we’re a team that’s improving. You know, we’re obviously pleased that we’re undefeated. We’re far from being the finished product on the field so kind of more of a work-in-progress right now. We’re playing a lot of young players and with that—it doesn’t really matter if you’re young or experienced, the growth of a team happens week to week. I think the guys really embrace that and they’re working hard at it so I think we have an exciting start to the season.

You've got a tough stretch coming up. (Northwestern next month faces Nebraska and Iowa back-to-back, then Michigan and Michigan State in back-to-back road games.) How do you look at that stretch?

It's that way every year. It's kind of the other way around. We focus on ourselves. We look inward instead of outward and worry about what we control. And the big thing that we can control is the way we approach every day with our attitude and the way that we invest to get prepared. It's kind of been the hallmark of our success over the years. We've prepared, we've improved each week and typically playing our best football kind of when we hit this next stretch.

Do you think you can be a powerhouse like Ohio State or Michigan?

Obviously, they've got a couple hundred more wins over us. I want us to be the best we can be. I think it's a waste of your time to worry about comparing yourself to others in football and in life. We just need to aspire to be the best we can be and then the championships will take care of themselves.

Do you feel Northwestern is Chicago's Big Ten team?

I've definitely seen a change. The motto is one thing. … Our season tickets are up exponentially, our attendance numbers are up. The buzz around town has been just electrifying. I think we're still just in the foundation stage. We're not the finished product. We're still building that brand.

How would you rank the local talent pool in Chicago?

It’s outstanding. We’re always going to start and end our recruiting here in Chicago. … All nine of our assistant coaches have an area here in Chicagoland.

How would you rate the Midwestern football scene vs. the Southern football scene?

It's an easy comparison on wins and losses. I think that aspect is very cyclical. There's been generations of time when the Midwest has been dominant and now as of lately, the [Southeastern Conference] has had a great run in national championships. You gotta tip your hat and respect that. … But I look more at the big picture. I think college football is as strong as it's ever been.

How would you describe your fans?

I think No. 1 I would say "supportive." Our fans are incredibly loyal. They've been through a lot. Especially our longtime fans. … We fast-forward to today. … If you're under 40 years old, you only know Northwestern as a winner. I think we're kind of young and hip and cool.

What are some positives to being a young guy in this job?

From the standpoint of my age, I think I can relate to the guys. I was in school here when email came out, so I'm not that old. There's a lot that's changing and evolving but I think I've been a part of every step of that here on campus.

Do you think this is your last job?

I don't see myself being a [former Florida State coach Bobby] Bowden or a [deceased Penn State coach Joe] Paterno that's in their late 60s, 70s coaching. I think this is a young man's game, especially the way that I enjoy coaching. I like being active on the field. I like being involved and engaged. I don't see myself stepping away from that, and I think the minute that I do, I'm not doing my players the service that they need.

tswartz@tribune.com

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