Commentary: Fitz in DC
by Jonathan Hodges

On Saturday May 12th, Coach Pat Fitzgerald made a trip to Washington, DC to spend some time with the area's alumni in what turned out to be a fantastic event at the top of the Hay Adams hotel overlooking the White House and the rest of the nation's capital. While it was important event for drumming up support (financial and otherwise) for the University, the Alumni Association and the NU Club of DC, it was also a great opportunity to get some insight on Coach Fitz in a more personal setting than a typical press conference or interview. A significant caveat, though, is that this commentary will not dive into any details or specifics, as the audience was specifically asked not to reveal any of that in return for candid responses from Fitz. This commentary will respect that, but hopefully it will shed some light on the Northwestern football program and Fitz's leadership that sometime may be hard to glean from the regular press.

First off, kudos to the NAA, Athletic Department, and NU Club of DC for putting together the visit and holding it in one of the best venues one can manage. The host committee met with Fitz in a more intimate setting before he spoke in front of the larger crowd, and there were great packages up for bidding in a silent auction to benefit the NU Club of DC's intern scholarship. It was also great to speak at length with Sr. Assoc. AD Shon Morris, who, like Fitz, represents Northwestern and the Athletic Department very well.

On first glance, Fitz is an excellent representative of Northwestern University and the football program, and it is clear that he provides solid leadership to said program and also does a nice job of selling NU football to recruits and potential fans. He is really a no-nonsense guy and speaks his mind while also taking into account constraints and sensitivities of others in order to craft a decisive and positive message. This represents a significant shift from his early days as head coach when it was clear that he had a tough time communicating with the media and other outsiders as his message came across as essentially a continuous flow of meaningless "coachspeak" that frustrated many fans and observers. That's been left far behind in favor of a more polished and now more direct style that always leans toward the positive and makes it clear that he bleeds purple.

Speaking of his commitment to Northwestern, there is no question that he is dedicated to the university and its ideals, and that is without even mentioning his deal that extends to 2020. He speaks of his own recruitment, his time as a student-athlete at NU, the time he spent as an assistant coach under Randy Walker, and his current position as head coach. During that long span of time associated with Northwestern (now 20 years, minus a few seasons early in his coaching career) he has seen the university grow and prosper both as a whole and within the athletic department and can uniquely translate that to recruits, players, and the larger community. And during his prepared words and responses to questions, he is undoubtedly focused on improving the program and doing his best to following through with NU's ideals.

The second major point of emphasis is the fact that Northwestern truly believes in the "student-athlete" moniker, and that's backed up by the excellent academic results under Fitz: an all-time high team GPA (I believe he mentioned 3.14 while also mentioning how a good portion of the team is over 3.0, including some 4.0's, which I think he would be okay with sharing), multiple players named to academic All-America teams, and the fact that every player that has exhausted their eligibility at NU has graduated. He makes it explicitly clear that academic excellence is the priority at Northwestern, he certainly means what he says, and he can back it up with results. Add to that the fact that NU also runs a unique mentoring program where current players are matched up with graduated players and an internship program in the Chicago area, and overall the academic side is very strong.

But, that also puts some significant constraints on the type of recruit that NU seeks and can then offer, which Fitz will readily admit but will not use as an excuse. This is a hot button issue within the online community, but is one to which Fitz and the administration (echoed by university President Morty Schapiro when he also visited DC in April) is absolutely committed: that they will not cut corners on academics for the sake of athletics success. For those not familiar with the admission process for prospective athletes, the application is sent to the admissions office for a decision prior to an official visit taking place or an offer being made, and there is no "under the table" contact between athletics and admissions personnel. And while the admissions office takes many factors into consideration, including athletics participation, Northwestern does not make exceptions to its standards when it comes to athletes. One of the main reasons that Fitz is such a great leader of the program is that he understands this as he has lived it from almost every angle (as a recruit, a student, a player who didn't make it in the pro ranks, as an assistant coach and recruiter, and now as the head coach and ultimate decision-maker for football).

He is also big on character; he spent a good amount of time speaking of mothers and family in general (being the day before Mother's Day) including plenty about his own family. He emphasized off-the-field behavior, not only avoiding negative behavior (he pointed out the lack of such events at NU especially as of late), but also contributing in the community, which the football team and the athletic teams as a whole regularly do at NU. He clearly believes in these activities and it's not just for show.

Fitz definitely emphasizes the aforementioned areas that really make NU special, but he also wants to win while doing so. As he has said elsewhere, nobody is more disappointed when NU loses than Fitz himself, and he made it clear that he is leading the team to win, not just to field a team. He did mention (on his own and in response to questions) that NU has not won a bowl game in his tenure and that the win total has decreased by one in each of the last four seasons, and that both he and the team are not satisfied and have goals on the board that have not yet been crossed off. He believes in his players and wants them to prepare to win games, win the Big Ten championship, and win a bowl game.

He also had some messages for fans and observers. First was to continue pounding the attendance drum to try and build the season ticket base even for people who do not live nearby; NU offers the ability to donate home tickets to local organizations (including nearby Great Lakes Naval Base, who NU continues to build a relationship with after starting to field a pre-season practice there the past couple of seasons) for those fans and alumni who cannot attend every game. It's clear that he's trying to do his part to build the number of Northwestern fans by staying positive and visiting not just parts of the Chicago area but also places all around the country to continue some very recent progress on the attendance front.

The second point was pointed at "bloggers" to try and keep discussion on the positive side but also to stay away from bringing up the past (read: pre-1995 era). He rightly brings up the fact that current recruits were not even alive prior to that magical season, and what they know is a competitive Northwestern football program that has been to nine bowl games in their lifetime. It's also clear that he does not appreciate pessimism and negative rumors coming from NU's own fans online as that material clearly does circulate and affect the perception of the program. This is somewhat different but along the same vein as his public calling out of the recruiting websites in some press conferences (where he has correctly pointed out that he was a "zero" star recruit and how the 1995 & 96 Big Ten championship teams were rated at the bottom of the conference when they came in as recruits).

This as well as some other comments reflect on the fact that both he and the Northwestern football program continue to grow, and there is certainly room to do so. Yes, Fitz has come a long way since being thrown into the fire back in 2006, and there are a slew of positives to bring up, but there are still goals left on the board. Still relatively close to his playing days, Fitz seems to emphasize the physical aspects of the game, sometimes that does miss some of the more holistic aspects of the game (see my call for hiring a sports psychologist after this past season). And even if all of the pessimism and negativity were somehow rooted out of Northwestern fans online (an impossibility, particularly for a stereotypically cerebral fan base) it's not like negative comments and rumors will not come out of competing schools.

Even so, Fitz continues to focus on what makes Northwestern a special school and a special program (academics, character, recent on-field success, the Big Ten) and is as good of a spokesperson and leader for the program as one could ask. And he will certainly continue to evolve, just as he has through his first six seasons at the helm, as he strives to replicate the level of success he found when he was on the field for the 'Cats.

Finally, with all of the negative stories almost constantly swirling around college football (off-field issues, poor academics, realignment, money problems), it is great to see both Fitz and Northwestern succeed on the field while striving for even more. Any time that one thinks about everything that is wrong with college football these days, one should take a minute and think about today's Northwestern program, what it stands for, what it has achieved, and what else it is trying to do. It truly shows that college athletics is about more than just winning while not giving up on being competitive and successful on the field. And this really does reflect what the university as a whole is all about.

Go 'Cats!!!

PS: it was great to meet a few readers in person at the event, I'm glad that I can provide something to the Northwestern community while also hopefully staying positive and/or providing constructive criticism in order to be fair but supportive of NU.

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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jhodges is the primary content provider of HailToPurple.com.  His commentary and game analyses appear regularly during the season and occasionally in the offseason.