"But the key for us" -- and here was the key part of his answer -- "is just to not forget that we have good players on this team, that we have good coaches and that we just need to play to our potential...
Late Tuesday morning, following the 'Cats first practice for their Saturday game at Iowa, this was the comment we repeated for Pat Fitzgerald, and then we asked him the motivation behind that approach and what he hoped to accomplish by it. That, as you will see, clearly touched something inside him, and precipitated a lengthy give-and-take that provided a glimpse of him and his job and his approach to that job. "Number one, they are (good players)," he began. "So. When you're in the middle of a storm and you're not finding a way to win, you've got to be able to showcase and highlight the areas where we're playing very well, which there are a number of. But if they fall into the trap of listening to you and so-called fans (who say) the sky is falling, and they listen to the wrong voices, then they can fall into a trap of negativity.
"That's an easy trap to fall into because you start feeling sorry for yourself. Quite frankly, I can't stand that world, so I don't like living in that world, so we wanted to remind them that they're great players individually, but we've got to be great players as a team. We're going to give them a plan to get them there, but when you're in the arena, you've got to go out there and make something happen. So just continuing to reiterate and highlight the things we value."
Had he seen something that prompted him to take this approach or was it a preemptive strike to make sure they didn't fall into that trap of negativity?
"We've lost three games, so it's natural, you know what I'm saying? It's a natural reaction when things aren't going perfect to say everything's broken. Everything's not broken. But you've just got to keep grinding, keep working on the things you can improve on. When we've got to make tweaks, we've got to make tweaks, when we've got to make personnel adjustments, we've got to make personnel adjustments, we've got to make better personnel adjustments as coaches, and the guys gotta make plays. So it's a collective force. We believe in them. But it doesn't matter that we believe in them. It matters what they believe."
When he talks to them about the press, about the fans, does he tell them to listen, to not listen, what?
"I talk to them all the time, I talk to them about controlling the voice in their head. Whoever that voice in their head they're listening to is going to determine their attitude. When we're winning, it's the same way. When you win three straight, everybody tells you how good you are and how great you are and you can fall into the trap of complacency. You flip it over to the other side, you're not playing well, you're not winning, you can fall into that trap of negativity. So it's at both ends, to be quite honest with you. It's your job as a coach to help them understand the situation that they're in and help them understand how to deal with it. Fill their head and talk to that voice in their head and give them what they need to hear. Now, again, it's a choice, it's a choice. It's a critical choice. You've got to choose your attitude."
How much does it fall on the team's seniors to keep that attitude positive?
"I think it falls on everybody individually first. I mean, the first sign of a leader is a guy who can lead himself. If you can't lead yourself, you can't lead anybody else. So. It's so easy to fall into the traps of over-positive love and getting patronized and the same way with negativity when things aren't going well. You just stay the course. That's the key thing. You keep trying to change things, we've got a great example.
"Look at Tiger Woods. Change, change, change, change, change, and he hasn't found his game again. I think if you stay the course, you keep grinding, working your butt off to get better, make the tweaks you've got to make, sometimes those are tough decisions. I love each and every one of our guys, but it's a production business, man. You've got to produce and if you don't produce, I'm sorry. That's reality. We've got to do a better job as coaches coaching them up. It's a two-way street. But at the end of the day, you've got to produce in the arena. I've been in the arena, I've been in a lot of games in the Big Ten arena and you've got to make plays, man. When your opportunity, your number gets called, you've got to make plays."
When he reflected on the three-game losing streak that closed out last season, he said his team lost its stinger, lost its attitude in that stretch. Has he seen that happen in this losing streak?
"No, not really. I think we've played really physical. I don't think it's a physical problem at all. At the end of last year, that attitude issue was physically. We weren't attacking the line of scrimmage on defense, up front. I don't think we've lost the line of scrimmage. We've won up front on both sides. That's not the issue. The issue is giving up the explosion plays over our head that, every ounce of morale that you have and positive (feelings), it sucks it right out of you. I think the turnovers we had on Saturday when we're moving the ball, when we're not being stopped and we turn the ball over, we don't convert on a fourth down play, we don't convert on a third down play, we're killing ourselves. We're killing ourselves. You just can't do that. So we've got to give our guys a better plan, we've got to coach them better, and they've got to execute, man. They've got to go out and make plays."
Can he tell when media voices, fans' voices get into the heads of his players?
"No. It's got nothing to do with that right now. It's more of a bigger picture. Right now, because we're in the middle of it and also because we have so many young players playing, it's my job to educate them. When I first got here as a player (and the program was down), it was pretty easy to understand what the issues were as far as that went. I think I was over-educated on that process by my coaches. So that's my job. My job is to help them understand that, even though we're in a little bit of a storm right now, you can't let that storm dictate the voices in your head.
"That's both sides of the spectrum, the two extremes. We've got a couple teams in this conference that are undefeated, their coaches are fighting the other spectrum. Guys getting complacent, guys thinking they're too good. It's part of the ebb and flow of a season. It's part of the ebb and flow of the evolution of a team. That's why I get paid. That's what I get paid to do, to educate them. So it's not a slight at you guys. You guys are doing your job. It's not a slight at our fans. They should expect us to win. I don't have a problem with any of that. I like it, actually. I like it a lot. But my job is to educate them, 'Listen, here's what you need to do to be a winner.'"
When he says he likes it, does he mean he likes that fans expect the team to win?
"Hell, yeah, man. Yeah. If you don't, go root for somebody else, man. We're not going to be perfect. If they want us to be perfect, man, I hate to break their hearts. But we expect to win every damn game. We expect to control the game and win the game and when we don't, nobody's more disappointed and nobody's more upset than I am. But I'm not going to let that make me put my head down.
"You guys know me better than that. We're going to fight our butts off. We're going to fight our way and scratch and claw and find a way to win and if guys don't follow that lead, then they're going to have to get out of the way 'cause that's where we're going."