Fitzgerald's Hall pass takes him full circle

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The last time Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald set foot in South Bend, Ind., he took the first step toward a Hall of Fame playing career.

On that day -- Sept. 2, 1995 -- Fitzgerald and his unheralded Northwestern teammates pulled off an improbable upset of then-No. 9 Notre Dame. They went on to win the Big Ten championship and reach the Rose Bowl, completing one of the most unlikely and incredible stories in recent college football history.

Fitzgerald won the first of two National Defensive Player of the Year awards in 1995.

The day before the Notre Dame game, Northwestern players and coaches toured the College Football Hall of Fame before their walk-through at Notre Dame Stadium.

Fitzgerald is back at the Hall this weekend, this time for a more notable purpose. He'll be enshrined as a member of the 2009 Hall of Fame class.

"I thought about it [Wednesday] night," Fitzgerald said Thursday as he drove to South Bend. "We had just gotten back from Florida for vacation, and I was unpacking and repacking to go. I thought to myself, 'The last time I was in South Bend, we won 17-15.' I haven't been back since."

The Notre Dame game served as a catalyst for Northwestern, giving players the "concrete evidence, internally, that we could be a winner," Fitzgerald said. Northwestern got a reality check two weeks later, falling to Miami (Ohio), but won its final nine regular-season games before losing to USC in the Rose Bowl.

Fitzgerald had no idea during his last trip to the Hall what was in store for himself and the team. He was simply happy to be starting at middle linebacker after winning the job in spring practice.

"There's no way that I would have predicted this would have happened," he said. "What's fun about life is anything can happen, and I'm just honored to represent the program."

The enshrinement festival Friday and Saturday marks the final event for Hall of Fame inductees, who attended an awards dinner in New York in December and were recognized before the Fiesta Bowl in January in Glendale, Ariz. The process has allowed Fitzgerald to reconnect with his teammates from the 1995 squad, who are scattered throughout the country.

"The thing you miss the most is the camaraderie and the locker-room time of being with your buddies," Fitzgerald said. "Not that we haven't stayed close, but there's been so many conversations that have come up, it's just been a ton of fun."

Several of Fitzgerald's family members will make the short drive to South Bend this weekend, and 51 Northwestern fans were selected to travel to the festivities. Fitzgerald isn't sure if his former head coach, Gary Barnett, or his former defensive coordinator, Ron Vanderlinden, would be in attendance, though he wouldn't be surprised if they were.

"I think it's going to hit me again when I see the Hall," he said. "Part of our experience [in 1995] was going to the Hall of Fame the day before the game. Little did I think that it would lead to this."