EVANSTON, Ill. — The temptation today might be to feel sorry for Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald after the Wildcats suffered another gut-punch loss to a ranked opponent, 40-30 to No. 4 Ohio State.
It's not that Fitzgerald couldn't use a kind word. The pain and strain of losing a potential program-defining game was carved into his face afterward.
Yet the former Northwestern academic and athletic All-American, with the polish of a statesman and gusto of a salesman, rapidly spun the disappointment into hope.
“We have a football team on the rise,” Fitzgerald said. “This is just a momentary lapse. I think the country really got a chance to see what we are all about.”
Don't feel sorry for Fitzgerald because he doesn't feel sorry for himself, or at least he hides it really well until he gets home. There's no time to moan and groan when you're living your dream.
Fitzgerald coaches 40 miles from the south Chicago suburb of Orland Park, where he grew up.
His wife, his school president and his athletic director love him, only slightly more than drooling administrators at other major football schools about to search for a new head coach.
Fitzgerald, 38, is in the third year of a contract that runs through 2020, a deal worked out at high speed after Michigan sniffed around following the firing of Rich Rodriguez. With incentives, Fitzgerald makes close to $2.3 million annually.
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Northwestern also is constructing a $220 million athletics-recreation palace on Lake Michigan that the football team gets heavy use of. In lobbying for it, Fitzgerald repeatedly labeled the facility “a game-changer.”
Five straight bowl appearances, including a victory last season — the school's first in the postseason since 1948 — have alumni giddy. Remember, this is a school that from 1976 to 1981 went 3-62-1.
Add in that Northwestern leads FBS schools nationally in the NCAA's academic progress rate, and Fitzgerald arguably has the tidiest coach-administration-faculty-alumni relationship in the country.
It all sounds rock solid, but the only constant in the coaching business is change.
That's why during “ESPN College GameDay” on campus Saturday morning, you saw purple-clad fans holding signs such as: “Keep Your Mitz Off Our Fitz,” with slash marks over USC and Texas logos.
USC already fired coach Lane Kiffin, and many expect Texas to do the same to Mack Brown, which would open a second blueblood college football job.
Could Fitzgerald's head be turned? Sure, but I don't see it happening anytime soon.
He seems on a mission to prove that smart kids “aren't all slow or soft.” That smart kids can win conference championships like he did in 1995 and 1996 as a Northwestern linebacker. And that smart kids can win major bowl games, too.
Fitzgerald also has three sons under the age of 10. He appears in no hurry to uproot.
The only criticism I've ever heard of Fitzgerald is being too loyal to some assistants and for in-game decisions and adjustments. Some of that strategic chatter cropped up Saturday night.
When the Ohio State defense started loading up against the run early in the second half, Fitzgerald substituted pass-oriented quarterback Trevor Siemian for run-based Kain Colter.
Overall, Siemian completed 13 of 18 passes for 245 yards, including a 12-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter that put Northwestern up 30-27.
But he also threw an interception on the possession before, which led to an OSU touchdown. And he took four sacks in the second half, including two drive-killers deep in Buckeye territory.
Colter, 12 of 12 passing, re-emerged at quarterback with 5:22 left, moving Northwestern into scoring position before a bobbled snap ended the threat. The heavier use of Siemian at quarterback over Colter was a criticism leveled following last year's 29-28 loss to Nebraska.
Those are minor details, though, in the major production that Fitzgerald is directing. With something climactic seemingly so close for Northwestern football, it's hard to see him exiting the stage.