Avoiding the hat dance

When I called Pat Fitzgerald the grinch of signing day, he politely demurred. And then he got rolling.

"I don't think I'm the grinch," he said the day after mocking the whole signing day hullabaloo in media reports. "I just think we should cut to the chase about what yesterday was really about.

"It's about young men solidifying their future," he said during a phone conversation from Columbus, Ohio, where he and his staff were speaking at a coaches convention. "We're overhyping the wrong things. ... We're glorifying the committing and recommitting and the hat dances. What are we doing?"

A Northwestern man through and through, Fitzgerald can afford to sound the conscience of football, which for many coaches can be a dangerous position considering the sausage-making details of recruiting. He's a successful head coach of a program whose administrators and boosters are generally thrilled with eight wins and over the moon about a New Year's Day bowl game. (Though they would eventually like to win one.)

"We are unique," he said of the school that recruited him and gave him a chance to be a head coach at age 31.

At Florida and Ohio State and the University of Southern California, where they compete, fetishize and agonize over the will of talented teenagers, signing day is a little more stressful. They need positive buzz now for the Class of 2011 and 2012 and on and on and on.

Not to be trite, but at Northwestern, the only grades they care about are GPAs.

"How can a guy who got 35 scholarship offers be a three-star player," Fitzgerald said about one of his recruits. "It's a joke to me."

Pat Fitzgerald isn't always a quote machine like his predecessor, the late, great Randy Walker, but he is probably the most earnest man I've ever talked to, a purple-and-white preacher of everything that could be good about college football. And when he gets going about the silly season of recruiting, he's perfectly endearing.

The 35-year-old Fitzgerald has said he won't coach as long as Joe Paterno, who became Penn State's coach in 1966. A few years ago, he said, "Hopefully I'm doing a good job with my retirement planning where I'm on a golf course somewhere. I don't know how [Paterno] does it."

But he's trying to emulate the old-school coaches who built a program that was meant to embody more than wins and losses. I never thought Fitzgerald would be too interested in the Notre Dame job when it was rumored. He isn't trying to chase adulation. (Fear not -- he's still getting paid handsomely. He just closed on a $2.3 million house.)

"It's important for us to keep the culture of the program," he said. "We want to prepare our guys for life."

The Wildcats inked 17 players Tuesday, a small, nationally diverse class with some promising players, including the lone Chicago-area player, Loyola Academy defensive end Chance Carter. ESPN.com's analysts gave the Wildcats a middle-of-the-pack C grade and a No. 8 ranking in the Big Ten, while Rivals ranked the 2010 class ninth in the conference and sixth in terms of "average" stars, a 2.94 grade, which is a tick lower than the team GPA.

"What we're rated starwise, the whole hat dance, it's a joke," Fitzgerald said. "We're turning recruiting into a tabloid affair. It's sad."

Of course, this is nothing new and it's not as black-and-white as he can make it sound. For some fans, it's fun to track the big-name recruits. For others, it's an obsessive, message board pursuit. Coaches need to recruit to keep their jobs. Guys like Ed Orgeron make their livelihood on it.

Even Fitzgerald gets into the pomp of it all. Before he took over for Walker, Northwestern held its signing day announcement in its smallish interview auditorium, adjacent to the weight room. Now it's at the ESPN Zone in downtown Chicago.

"It's a lot of fun," Fitzgerald said. "We show a video to our fans and our donors and alumni. It's a great time, a celebration and a culmination of our recruiting."

I got to thinking about the last signing day event I went to, way back in 2006. It was at Northwestern, in that interview room. It was Walker's last one. He passed away that June. There might have been a video; in fact, I'm pretty sure there was one, but it wasn't exactly captivating footage. All I really remember is some alumni cheering when Walker announced the recruitment of a new kicker, because the outgoing one, Joel Howells, had a nightmare game in the team's
50-38 Sun Bowl loss to UCLA.

Walker stared at the crowd, many of whom give a lot of money to the program, and politely stuck up for his player. Later, talking to reporters, he chided those boosters again, said they couldn't handle the pressure of a "$2 nassau," let alone a kick in front of 50,000 fans.

Fitzgerald, then a star recruiter and an assistant coach, remembered that moment, too, and he said it was indicative of the family environment that Northwestern engenders.

"We have a love affair with our players," he said of the athletic department. "These are the best and brightest college football has to offer. They have a 2.98 GPA and 54 of them had above a 3.0. We won eight games with a chance to win nine in a New Year's bowl. Are you kidding me? These guys are so special."

There weren't many, or perhaps any, surprises Tuesday and not just because the Wildcats don't land the bold-faced recruits who do the "hat dance" that Fitzgerald mocks so much. The coaches had wrapped up most of the class early on and had to spend the last few months checking up on the teenagers. Because Northwestern has stringent academic requirements, the school has a smaller pond to fish in, and shrinks it even further by looking for "Northwestern guys."

"We believe in a set of values," Fitzgerald said. "After we evaluate their transcripts to see if they fit academically, we make sure they fit the values and cultures of our program."

I asked Fitzgerald what he learned from Walker in that regard.

"I think, No. 1, to be honest," he said. "Coach was always accurate about telling kids what they needed to hear, not what they wanted to hear. The kids we had on campus, the kids we evaluated, we aren't going to just tell them what they want to hear to get them here. The recruiting gurus have left the class of 2010 now, and the warm fuzzies have gone away. Now, everyone is back to being a zero-star college player."

Fitzgerald reminds me of a salesman who hates the culture of sales. He's a philosophical guy behind the wraparound shades and canned clich├ęs. He's also a natural at recruiting, which bodes well for a program searching for that elusive bowl win. He's young, energetic and could probably make a fortune one day as a motivational speaker. He could be the Midwestern version of Orgeron, the raging Cajun who recently returned to USC with Lane Kiffin, the anti-Fitzgerald himself. Orgeron, the subject of a fascinating book by ESPN's Bruce Feldman, made news recently for calling Tennessee recruits and reportedly telling them not to enroll early in Knoxville, so they could jump ship to USC. (Don't get Fitzgerald started on early enrollees.)

Needless to say, Fitzgerald and the USC gang won't be crossing paths too often out on the recruiting trail. And if they did, a player wouldn't have trouble discerning the difference between the coaches.

"Lots of kids think that because they're five-star recruits and they'll go to School X and then the NFL," he said. "As a two-time All-American, I would tell them that college will humble you and that you're in for a rude awakening. You're starting over, so take a piece of the humble pie, tape your ankles and put on your eye black and get ready to go to work."

As we talked, I thought to myself: Who wouldn't want to play for this guy?