Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald and athletic director Jim Phillips have tentatively agreed on a contract extension that will keep the 36-year-old Fitzgerald with the Wildcats into his 40s and possibly beyond.
"I don't want to get into specifics, but it's eight or more years," Phillips confirmed on Friday. "It's as important of an assignment as I have as director of athletics at Northwestern. Football is the engine that drives us. It drives us emotionally and drives us financially. I have to make sure the state of the football program is as healthy as can be.
Fitzgerald and Phillips have already agreed to the details of the contract extension, and now their lawyers are completing it. Phillips expected the contract to be finalized in four to six weeks. Phillips wouldn't go into details whether the new contract would replace the seven-year deal Fitzgerald signed in 2009 or add on to it.
Fitzgerald and Phillips began contract discussions briefly during the season and continued them following the TicketCity Bowl on Jan. 1. The talks picked up steam recently after Michigan showed interested in Fitzgerald as a possible replacement for recently fired Rich Rodriguez.
"I think I know Pat relative to college football, and the thoughts others have about him across the country," Phillips said. "I can't speak to Michigan's interest or level of interest. That's not for me to comment on or state anything about. All I try to do, and I've tried to do, is make sure Pat feels supported, and we continue to invest in Pat and his program and do the things we can to elevate football at Northwestern.
"I've said this before, I've very sensitive to Pat ever feeling that anyone at Northwestern is taking his love and his passion for the university for granted. When I talked to him at the end of the season, the first question I asked him was, 'Do you want to be here?' He said, 'This is the only place for me.'"
Fitzgerald has never expressed an interest to coach anywhere else. He's been said to bleed purple, having been a former player, assistant coach and now head coach at Northwestern.
Fitzgerald was named Northwestern's head coach in 2006 after the death of Randy Walker. In Fitzgerald's five seasons as head coach, the Wildcats have gone 34-29 overall, 18-22 in the Big Ten, and they just completed their third consecutive winning season. The team played in a school-record third consecutive bowl game in 2011.
"I just think we're at unprecedented heights with three consecutive bowl games and with our recruiting base," Phillips said. "The level of talent has continued to rise. But I'd also tell you, as equally as important, there's nothing more that gives us more pride than when at the coach's convention this week we accepted an award for being the football program with the highest graduation rate.
"When you look at what Pat has built on the football field and where we're at academically, when you look at graduation rates, when you look at social behavior of the student-athletes and the service work, I don't ever think the program has been at a healthier place or more stable place. We don't think it's a watermark. We all think the best is yet to come."
Phillips said an official announcement would come at a later date.