It is almost criminal how underrated Pat Fitzgerald is.
Northwestern historically is one of the worst college football programs in the nation: A 43.6 percent all-time winning percentage, a 34-game losing streak from 1979 to 1982 and zero bowl appearances from 1949 to 1996. They were the laughing stock of the Big Ten Conference.
Yet a true legacy began in the mid-90’s for the Wildcats: back-to-back Big Ten titles in 1995 and 1996 and an appearance in the 1996 Rose Bowl, both of which were led by two-time Bronko Nagurski and Chuck Bednarik Award-winning linebacker Pat Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald led the defense to become one of the strongest in the nation.
But he did not quit bleeding purple then.
Fitzgerald came back to Northwestern as a linebacker coach in 2001, under the leadership of Randy Walker. Under the leadership of Walker, the Wildcats appeared in three bowl games and a 2000 Big Ten Championship under his tenure, reaching similar heights for the Wildcats as Pat Fitzgerald’s tenure. But tragedy struck the program immediately on June 30, 2006 when Randy Walker passed away of a sudden heart attack. Eight days later, with the Northwestern community still in shock, Fitzgerald was hired as head football coach.
After a combined 10-14 record for the 2006 and 2007 seasons, Fitzgerald has lead Northwestern to three straight bowl appearances, and unprecedented consistent success. In 2008, Fitzgerald led the Wildcats to a nine-win season, a 5-3 Big Ten record and an Alamo Bowl appearance. 2009 presented similar successes with another 5-3 Big Ten record and an Outback Bowl appearance. Gone are the days of winless seasons at Northwestern. Gone are the days of Northwestern being the laughing stock of the Big Ten (and hello Minnesota).
While Fitzgerald's records may not seem overly impressive, you have to keep this in mind: Pat Fitzgerald coaches at Northwestern, one of the hardest jobs in college football. What sets Fitzgerald apart is the fact that in a time of NCAA troubles and controversies, he has won games the right way. Northwestern has remained one of the programs that have avoided major NCAA violations in its entire history; a number I can count with just one hand.
Additionally, Fitzgerald has demanded the best from his players in the classroom just as much as on the gridiron. In his last three seasons, the Wildcats have posted a combined team grade point average above a 3.0. Additionally, in the 2010 season Northwestern carried a perfect Academic Progress Rate and had the highest graduation rate in FBS college football. The fact that a true Northwestern man through and through has accomplished this feat makes it even more impressive.
I do not understand why Fitzgerald does not receive more credit. He has turned around a historically atrocious program to become a consistent winner in one of the best conferences in the nation. Fitzgerald has made leaps and bounds in recruiting during his tenure, and I honestly believe Northwestern can become a consistent top 25 power under Fitzgerald even with the challenges of recruiting at such an academically selective university like Northwestern. With Fitzgerald’s contract keeping him at Northwestern through 2020, and the passion that he has, his past accomplishments are only just the beginning in Evanston.