Pat Fitzgerald has heard doubters his entire life.
It started when his favored school, Notre Dame, passed him by as a high school senior. He was the diminutive linebacker who could not make it at a major conference. An afterthought in the recruiting scene.
At Northwestern, Fitzgerald had the last laugh. Northwestern won the Big Ten and defeated Notre Dame in 1995 with Fitzgerald leading the way. Fitzgerald has always been silencing his doubters from his playing days to the time he became a coach.
In the decade Fitzgerald has helmed Northwestern, he has faced his share of criticism.
At first, he received something of a pass. He was overwhelmed by the moment in some ways. The sudden passing of Randy Walker thrust Fitzgerald into the lead chair likely before he or Northwestern was ready to give him that opportunity.
As he settled down he fell into something of the trap all college coaches do. He was a victim of his own success in many ways, but he had the security not to push himself to do more. Only a disaster, it would seem would put Fitzgerald’s job in danger.
And the rest of the country still has low expectations for the Wildcats anyway. Any success he has in Evanston will be seen as a triumph.
Of course, that is not the case after 10 years. Not after seven bowl games since Fitzgerald took over in 2006. The Wildcats are at a point where they believe they should make a bowl game every year. Six wins is a minimum. That is a huge step for Northwestern.
But the Wildcats expect more. Internally the expectation has always been to win a Big Ten title. Fitzgerald has not had many teams that could legitimately believe this dream.
Maybe the 2008 team with C.J. Bacher, Tyrell Sutton and Corey Wootton were close. Maybe the 2013 team with Kain Colter, Venric Mark and Trevor Siemian were close — that team failed to make a bowl game thanks to a combination of injury and the most rotten luck. Maybe the 2015 team that surprisingly got to 10 wins was there.
Northwestern will always need the right combination of veteran leaders and luck to break through and become serious Big Ten contenders. But there is more belief than ever they can do this because of Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald has evolved from a feel-good coach to a strong football coach, imprinting an identity and creating a culture with his football program. Coming out of the controversy over Northwestern football players trying to unionize, Fitzgerald has reestablished Northwestern as a consistent force in the Big Ten.
With the Wildcats returning their quarterback, running back and key members of their defense with a power vacuum at the top of the Big Ten West, there is beginning to be a sense the Wildcats could be a darkhorse team to win the division. This has as much to do with the talent — perhaps his best recruiting class is coming of age — as it does with the faith in Fitzgerald to deliver.
And largely there is every reason to believe he can deliver.
Certainly, there was a time when Fitzgerald’s coaching chops were doubted. He has stuck with the same coordinators for eight going on nine seasons now. And they have faced their criticism — offensive coordinator Mick McCall especially.
That has been a symbol of Fitzgerald’s likely biggest weakness. He is sometimes slow to make adjustments, willing to stick with his original gameplan too long. He can be conservative at times too. His defenses in his early years tended to play a soft zone, focusing more on sure tackling than trying to create plays.
For sure, he now has a team and a program that fits his eye better.
In his early years, Fitzgerald lamented not having a “bell cow” running back. He has one in Justin Jackson. His teams are disciplined defensively with players who make tackles and keep plays in front of them. The team needs a few playmakers to get into the backfield, but the Wildcats make opponents work for every yard.
And as Fitzgerald has increased the talent and put his stamp even further on the program, that style has found consistency and success. More and more, the Wildcats are finding success because of Fitzgerald’s decisions and approach.
Coaching decisions, once seen as a liability as he learned how to handle the lead chair, have become much more sure and confident. Fitzgerald is even willing to take a risk here and there.
What is most important is that he has a supreme command of his team now. Fitzgerald seems to understand better than the armchair quarterbacks when to let his players go and take the lead and when to hold them back.
Clayton Thorson’s development is a perfect example of this.
His freshman year, Thorson clearly had some restrictions on him. And even with the Wildcats winning 10 games, Fitzgerald and McCall kept things simple. They gave Thorson every opportunity to succeed. Here playing the game management game was the right call.
As the year went on last year, Northwestern slowly gave Thorson more and more responsibility. And he delivered every time.
It has left Northwestern believing Thorson is ready to take a major step forward this year. And that could be the difference in Northwestern’s season.
Fitzgerald is not one to rest on his laurels. He has the job security of a 10-year contract extension and the promise of the new Ryan Fieldhouse oncoming on the shores of Lake Michigan. But Fitzgerald knows the team’s goals still elude him and his program.
Doing things his way, he still has yet to win a Big Ten title — or even a division title. Bowl berths and bowl victories are expected. He has helped Northwestern reach that critical level.
And everyone is beginning to trust Fitzgerald and his program will continue to forge forward. All this ahead of a promising 2017 season.