On the sideline, he high-fives his players and body-bumps his players and reflects a roiling torrent of emotions. That is why we found the following exchange revelatory. It belies that public image and gives a glimpse at the inner-workings of Pat Fitzgerald, who was asked this about his team's Saturday meeting with Illinois at Ryan Field. Since it is Senior Day, since the opponent is their in-state rival, since the game itself has bowl implications, must he do something to make sure his players are not too amped up? "Nah, because I think when the ball goes in the air all that stuff doesn't matter. All that false bravado, that's all it is," he began in response.
"The guys have been pretty even-keeled now. We've played a lot of big games here this year, and some we've played really well in. They've all been big games. We're the only school that played three BCS nonconference opponents. Those are big games. Two of those teams are bowl eligible. So we've been in a lot of games and this team's grown up and matured. I see a kind of calmness to them that I like. It's a little bit beyond their years. I think it's because of the seniors. They've done a nice job."
Is that business-like approach something he wants?
Is that why his 'Cats haven't had any flat games this year?
"Yeah, I hope so. I hope that's the hallmark of a well-coached team. When I say that, a team that listens to what we're trying to get them to do. They take it to heart. We've been here I think long enough for our kids to know exactly what we want, exactly how we want it done. Now they're owning it. [Tomorrow] is their last opportunity here at our place, their last opportunity to play Big Ten football, so it's a big game for that group. All those other things you talked about, as I said, when you have a business-like approach, will just naturally ratchet it up a little bit. If we were a rollercoaster emotionally, I'd be concerned. Do I trust them? No-o-o-o"--and here he laughed--"but I like where we're at right now. I like where we're at."
WHERE IT'S AT: Two-dozen seniors will be honored before Saturday's game and here is the perspective of one of them. "It's going to be exciting. We have a lot going on this season," says running back Tyris Jones. "This could get us to nine wins. Last time to ever play at Ryan Field, so that's definitely going to carry a lot of emotions. Playing Illinois, we want that hat (the Land of Lincoln Trophy) back. So there's going to be a lot of things running through my mind. The last time my parents are going to get to see me play. They're probably not going to go to the bowl game. So we'll be really excited, really emotional, ready to go out and do the best that we can."
But Fitz just talked about this team's even-keeled nature and business-like approach.
"Coach (Mick) McCall (the offensive coordinator) will always say, 'Offense has controlled chaos,'" says Jones. "So I'm going to be emotional, I'm going to have this excitement. But at the same time, you have to focus once the whistle blows. So I'll get my parents to walk me out there, we'll get excited before the game. But once the whistle blows, it's about executing and doing our job. What Coach Fitz is trying to say is if you get too emotional, you step out of yourself and make bad plays. But when you stay in the moment, stay focused, recognize what we're here to do, we're going to go out there and execute and play well."
QUICKLY NOTED: Asked the inevitable question, Fitzgerald affirmed that Kain Colter will start at quarterback for the 'Cats on Saturday. Then he added, "Both those guys (he and Trevor Siemian) will play. They're both going to play, and they both practiced more this week than they did a week ago."
* Since the subject has been consistency, it is interesting to note these numbers. In their 11 games, the 'Cats have lost only seven fumbles, thrown only three interceptions and given up only 15 sacks for 91 yards in losses. In the same number of games, in contrast, Illinois has lost 15 fumbles, thrown 11 interceptions and given up 37 sacks for 246 yards in losses.
"I think, No. 1, the quarterbacks understand what we're doing," Fitzgerald said in explanation of his team's success. "They have great rapport with Mick. When a call comes in, they know what he's thinking and why we're doing it based on what we're seeing, based on game plan and film study. They play the concept, they go work the concept, they get off of it if it's not there. We're not trying to make too much. Sometimes guys at that position try to do too much. That's when you get in trouble. They've just taken what the defense has given them. They've been patient, and we're going to have to do it again on Saturday.
* Tyris Jones had a singular take when asked about his team's offensive consistency. "When you can move forward, I think it makes you feel better. You're more confident when you're always moving forward," he said. "Whether it's two yards in some of our more difficult game, or 10 yards, 12 yards per play. If you're constantly moving forward, that's the way you want to be in life. Just moving forward. When you start having sacks, start having negative plays, people start putting their heads down, people are now worried about making an extraordinary play. But if we're moving forward and we're in second-and-eight or third-and-manageable, people are a little more level headed and know we can go out there and get it."
* The Illini are 2-9 overall, 0-7 in the Big Ten and surrendering an average of 30.5 ppg. But when discussing their defense, Fitzgerald singles out linemen Michael Buchanan and Akeeem Spence and says both are "going to play in the NFL." ... The Illini quarterback is once again Nathan Scheelhaase, who has completed 140 of his 232 attempts for 1,270 yards, but has thrown for just four touchdowns to go along with a half-dozen interceptions ... Here is Fitzgerald's overall take on the Illini: "I've been really impressed, especially watching the last couple of games, the way that Illinois has played. They've been very physical and had every opportunity to win the Minnesota game and the same thing last week against Purdue. Just ended up a couple plays short. They're playing to find a way to get things turned around, and with that you're playing a wounded team that's very hungry for a win. It's going to be a great challenge for us."
AND FINALLY: Fitzgerald, who is one win away from tying Lynn Waldorf as the winningest 'Cat football coach in history: "I didn't even know that. It would be neat to get a win this week for our seniors. They've had a wonderful career, a great run over the last four or five years, these 24 guys. That's my sole focus right now. The focus at this time of the year is always on that group, and having the entire team play like seniors for them."