CHICAGO -- Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald believes there is "no more unified program in the country" than his Wildcats after the maturity his team showed handling the attention that came their way because of the push to unionize.
Fitzgerald, kicking Day 1 of Big Ten media days off Monday by speaking before every other conference coach, boasted about his team's cumulative grade point average, which he said was above a 3.0 despite offseason "distractions" that included former quarterback Kain Colter's effort to form the first union for college athletes.
"We've been through more since probably January than most, and it's been nothing but a positive and nothing more than unifying in our locker room and throughout our entire football program," Fitzgerald said. "So I think we're a leg up from that standpoint. And as I look at where we go in the future, hopefully that will just be something that we can draw upon."
The results of Northwestern players' April votes on whether to unionize remains unknown, as the National Labor Relations Board impounded the ballots. An NLRB regional director had ruled one month earlier that full scholarship Northwestern players could bargain with the university as employees.
Fitzgerald spoke highly of his players' education at Northwestern and their offseason activities, which included jobs and internships at a number of high-profile companies.
"We're committed to developing our young men not only on the field but also off the field," Fitzgerald said. "And to see that we had 46 young men have some sort of internship or summer job between the winter and the spring, and then the summer, with just a few companies like Goldman Sachs and Kraft Foods and Mercedes-Benz and Medtronic -- I can keep going on and on -- to name a few, to see how we're developing our guys off the field. Really proud of our staff and the job they've done."
The ninth-year Wildcats coach said his team did not do a good job of responding to adversity last season, when Northwestern went 5-7 after a promising 4-0 start. And he is not surprised to hear teams like Wisconsin, Nebraska and Iowa mentioned instead of Northwestern as potential contenders to win the Big Ten's new West division.
"It's nothing new to us not to be picked to be a part of the preseason hype," Fitzgerald said. "We're not a preseason hype-type place, I guess. So hopefully play more consistent than we did a year ago, but it should be challenging and daunting, especially for our fans. I think it's going to be an outstanding side of the conference."