Already the second-longest tenured Big Ten head coach at the age of 39, Pat Fitzgerald's eight seasons at the helm of Northwestern have been spent building upon the tradition he helped establish as a Hall-of-Fame linebacker for the Wildcats in the mid-1990's. Characterized by his motivational skills, enthusiasm and passion for all things Northwestern, Fitzgerald has shaped Chicago's Big Ten Team into one that consistently achieves excellence in all three phases of the student-athlete experience: academics, athletics and community outreach.
Taking over as head coach in 2006 after the sudden passing of his friend and mentor, Randy Walker, Fitzgerald provided leadership and stability in a trying time and has continued Walker's legacy of producing winning football teams while preparing young men for long-term success in life.
Pat Fitzgerald hands off the 2013 Gator Bowl championship trophy to members of NU's all-time winningest senior class.
From 2008-12, Fitzgerald guided the Wildcats to five consecutive bowl berths, most recently in the 2012 campaign when NU capped a tremendous 10-win season with a landmark victory over Mississippi State in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl. The 2012 'Cats, who played in a New Year's Day bowl game for the third time in five years, earned a No. 17 year-end ranking in the USA Today/Coaches Poll, the best positioning for any Big Ten team.
Consequently, four consecutive senior classes to graduate from the Northwestern football program during that timeframe set or tied the school record for most career wins by a five-year senior class, with the 2012 group going out as the winningest NU senior class in history with 40 victories to its credit. Likewise, Fitzgerald's Gator Bowl victory on Jan. 1, 2013, marked the 50th of his career, officially making him the winningest head coach in Northwestern Football history.
Away from the gridiron, Fitzgerald's players have achieved at the highest levels in the classroom, last fall placing a record 36 players on the Academic All-Big Ten team en route to posting a remarkable 3.05 team GPA for the 2013-14 academic year. In 2012, Northwestern collected top national honors in the AFCA Academic Achievement Award for the seventh time since 1998. Additionally, Fitzgerald's program ranked first among all FBS programs in the recently released multi-year Academic Progress Rating (APR), posting a score of 995 out of a possible 1,000 in the measure of player retention and eligibility.
NU also goes to great lengths to make a difference in the community. Fitzgerald, his family and his players partake in countless charitable events, impacting the NU and Evanston communities through their participation in Northwestern Dance Marathon, Special Olympics, Misericordia, the NU chapter of Uplifting Athletes, weekly school and children's hospital visits, and dozens of other organizations. Additionally, a Wildcat also has been selected to the prestigious Allstate AFCA Good Works Team® in seven of the last year years (only 11 players from FBS football claim the honor each season), most recently place-kicker Jeff Budzien in 2013.
As a player in 1995, Fitzgerald was the leader of a suffocating Wildcats defensive unit that led the nation in scoring defense and anchored NU's storybook run to the Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl. He capped the year by winning both the Nagurski and Bednarik Awards as the nation's top defensive player and also was the Big Ten, Chevrolet and Sports IllustratedDefensive Player of the Year. Fitzgerald accomplished all of this despite suffering a broken leg in the penultimate regular-season game.
Fitzgerald recovered from that injury and in 1996 he again led the Wildcats to a share of the Big Ten title. He repeated as recipient of the Nagurski and Bednarik Awards, becoming the first two-time winner of both honors and laying the groundwork for his selection in 2008 to the College Football Hall of Fame. A two-time first-team All-American, Fitzgerald started 23 career games and totaled 299 tackles, including 20 for loss. He also forced five fumbles and intercepted three passes.
Prior to his return to Northwestern, Fitzgerald was a defensive graduate assistant at Maryland (1998) and Colorado (1999) before taking his first full-time position at Idaho in 2000.
In 2001, esteemed NU head coach Randy Walker brought Fitzgerald back to Evanston, hiring him to coach the defensive secondary and eventually tabbing him the 'Cats' recruiting coordinator. Named one of college football's top recruiters by SI.com in 2005, Fitzgerald mentored two-time All-Big Ten linebacker and former St. Louis Ram Tim McGarigle, the all-time leading tackler in NCAA history.
Fitzgerald remained an assistant coach before being named Northwestern's 29th head coach on July 7, 2006 under the most difficult of circumstances, succeeding Walker after his sudden passing on June 29, 2006. Fitzgerald remained the youngest head football coach among Football Bowl Subdivision schools until Lane Kiffin was hired by Tennessee on Dec. 1, 2008.
In May of 2011, NU Director of Athletics Jim Phillips announced that Fitzgerald and the school agreed to a new 10-year deal that will keep him on the Northwestern sidelines through 2020. The 10-year deal is unprecedented in Northwestern Athletics history.
"I'm humbled and appreciative of the commitment shown by Northwestern" said Fitzgerald. "With this support from our administration, our coaches and players expect to compete for championships."
Fitzgerald is an annual guest with some of Chicago's professional sports teams, including the Blackhawks, White Sox and Cubs.
The program has steadily gained momentum in the six years since Fitzgerald took over as head coach, starting with a challenging 4-8 campaign in 2006, when just weeks before the season began, Walker's death rocked the NU football program. In 2007, the Wildcats achieved bowl-eligibility with a 6-6 mark but did not play in a postseason game due to a lack of bowl slots for Big Ten teams. The 2007 Wildcats boasted a prolific offense that has become synonymous with NU teams of late, leading the Big Ten in regular-season total offense.
In 2008, a dramatically improved defense and strong special teams play led the 'Cats to a nine-win season and a berth in the Valero Alamo Bowl against Missouri, their first postseason appearance since taking on UCLA in the 2005 Sun Bowl. Northwestern touted the nation's fifth-most improved scoring defense and the Wildcats set a single-season school mark for rushing defense (126.4 ypg), breaking the mark that Fitzgerald and his teammates established in 1995. NU's 5-0 season start in 2008 was its best since the 1962 campaign, when the Wildcats were 6-0 and ranked No. 1 in the nation. For his efforts, Fitzgerald was named the 2008 Big Ten Coach of the Year by the Touchdown Club of Columbus, a semifinalist for the George Munger Coach of the Year Award and a finalist for the Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year Award.
The Fitzgerald Family: Pat, Stacy and (from left to right) Brendan, Jack and Ryan
In 2009, the Wildcats returned to a New Year's Day Bowl game, their first since Fitzgerald was a student-athlete playing Tennessee in the 1997 Citrus Bowl. Fitzgerald's 2009 club was, perhaps, one of the most resilient teams in recent memory, overcoming a number of injuries (especially on defense) and some difficult defeats, only to finish with a "November to remember." The Wildcats opened the month by knocking off unbeaten Iowa, which at the time was ranked No. 4 in the BCS. NU then went to Illinois and defeated its instate rival before returning home to edge No. 16 (BCS) Wisconsin in the regular-season finale.
The strong finish made the Wildcats a "wanted" bowl team and they landed a berth in the Outback Bowl on Jan. 1. In that game, Northwestern played with the "heart of a Wildcat," overcoming a number of double-digit deficits only to fall 38-35 in overtime to Auburn. That game was widely recognized as the best bowl game of 2009-10, and one of the all-time most exciting postseason games.
In 2010, Northwestern raced to another 5-0 start before beating nationally ranked Iowa on Nov. 13 to move to 7-3 and climb back into the top-25. A season-ending injury to first-team All-Big Ten quarterback Dan Persa, however, slowed the 'Cats' ascent in the national rankings and NU closed the season with a 7-6 mark. Still, NU's third straight winning season under Fitzgerald was capped with yet another New Year's Day bowl berth, a bid to the inaugural TicketCity Bowl at the famed Cotton Bowl in Dallas.
Another strong finish to the schedule (four wins in their final five games) rendered the 2011 Wildcats bowl-eligible for a fifth straight year. The stretch was highlighted by a 28-25 upset of No. 9 Nebraska in Lincoln, which helped position NU for an eventual berth in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas at Reliant Stadium, home of the NFL's Houston Texans.
A graduate of Orland Park's (Ill.) Carl Sandburg High School and a 2003 inductee to the Northwestern Athletics Hall of Fame, Fitzgerald resides in Northfield with his wife, Stacy, and three sons, Jack, born in November 2004, Ryan, born in September 2006, and Brendan, born in February 2009.
Fitzgerald Head Coaching Record Year-by-Year
Valero Alamo Bowl
Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas
TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl Champions
Fitzgerald's Coaching Experience
Defensive Graduate Assistant
Defensive Graduate Assistant
What They're Saying About Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald
Gary Barnett, former Northwestern head coach (1992-98) Gary Barnett was Northwestern's head coach when Pat Fitzgerald was named Defensive Player of the Year twice and hired him as a defensive graduate assistant at Colorado in 1999. "Pat personifies Northwestern football. The honors he received as a player, the way he handled himself as a student-athlete and the name he has made for himself in the college football world, makes it a real natural fit for Northwestern. Pat loves Northwestern; he will be a guy that the Northwestern community can count on to represent them for years and years."
Joe Girardi, New York Yankees Manager "When I watch him coach, it would be someone who I'd want my son (Dante) to play for because he has a ton of passion, he has a ton of energy, he's a huge encourager and education comes first."
Mike Kafka, former Wildcat quarterback (2006-09) and current Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback "It's hard to believe that any former Northwestern athlete bleeds more purple than Coach Fitz. His enthusiasm and passion for his alma mater is unmatched. There's no question that he is going to be the face of Northwestern Football, and perhaps Northwestern Athletics, for years to come."
Frank Lenti, Mt. Carmel High School, head coach "What Pat accomplished on the field as a player transitioned into becoming a great coach and he did all that at Northwestern. He has talked-the-talk and walked-the-walk at NU and I look forward to what he will accomplish in Evanston."