Fitzgerald era opens with emotional first win

OXFORD, Ohio -- They sang the Northwestern fight song when it was over -- the widow of the former coach in the stands with the fans and the baby-faced new coach on the field with his players, both pumping their fists.

Then Pat Fitzgerald invited Tammy Walker into the postgame locker room and presented her the game ball. Life after Randy Walker wouldn't -- couldn't -- begin properly without this gift. Since the coach of the Wildcats' sudden death June 29, this was a moment that needed to happen.

"After an extremely emotional month and a half, words cannot describe how proud I am of our football family," Fitzgerald said. "… We used that emotion to properly bind our family together.

"That may be the most rewarding thing that's happened."

In the small visitor's locker room at Miami University's Yager Stadium, the Wildcats crossed a threshold of sorts. They did right by Randy Walker -- didn't do it with much brilliance, scraping past the RedHawks 21-3, but they did it. Now they can rinse some of the pent-up emotion from their psyches, after this most emotional of openers, and look at the rest of the season with some clarity.

"I'm so excited that the focus now shifts to (the players)," Fitzgerald said.

This had to happen first, before there could be a shift. Losing in what became the Randy Walker Legacy Game was not a palatable option for the Wildcats. Nobody meant to apply that pressure to the boys in purple and white, but it was there.

They'd endured the hardship of the summer. They'd dedicated the season to their late coach. They'd become the center of the nation's attention on this opening night of the 2006 season.

Now, in a game against Walker's alma mater and previous coaching stop, they needed to prevail.

"It's a family victory. It's not about me. It's about the winning spirit of Randy Walker and his family. "
-- Pat Fitzgerald on Northwestern's win

With a jump start from their special teams, an inspired effort from a previously porous defense and just enough plays from a fitful offense, Northwestern accomplished the mission. Fitzgerald said Walker would be displeased with this performance, but not really. Walker would have gladly taken it, given the emotional tinderbox this game had become.

They honored Walker with a plaque and a long pregame ceremony in Miami's Cradle of Coaches Plaza. Most Northwestern fans wore white T-shirts that simply said, "WALK." Many Northwestern players and staff wore gray shirts that said "Walk With Us" on the front and "Family" on the back. The players also had patches on their jerseys and stickers on their helmets honoring Walker.

Amid all the symbology, Fitzgerald had to administer his first football game as a head coach.

Asked what the postgame locker room felt like, the youngest head man in major college football hesitated a moment, then said, "It was kind of like when you commit to a school. The weight of the world is off your shoulders."

Fitzgerald had to feel like Atlas on this night. At age 31, and having never been even a coordinator before, he was diving into the deep end without benefit of swim lessons. He had to prove he could at least do a passable dog paddle, in front of the wife and parents of his old boss and a television audience.

He got off to a wobbly start. Northwestern was flagged for illegal procedure on the first play from scrimmage, and nine plays later the coach made a dubious decision on the first fourth-down call of his career.

Facing a fourth-and-three at the Miami 25, Fitzgerald enthusiastically told his team to go for it. That probably satisfied the fans who always want the head coach to go for it, but it didn't work out too well. Quarterback Mike Kafka was sacked, and the Wildcats didn't come close to scoring territory again in the first half.

That first-half shutout wasn't a complete shock, given the fact that Kafka was playing in his first college game, offensive coordinator Garrick McGee was calling plays for the first time and Fitzgerald was the new buck-stopper. Still, the slow start had to make that weight feel a little heavier.

"There were some times on the sideline when we said, 'He's looking down at us, get that look off your face. It's time to respond,'" Fitzgerald said, referring to one of Walker's favorite "Walkisms": Respond.

Northwestern responded in the second half. Senior Erryn Cobb broke the stagnation by blocking a punt and returning it eight yards for a touchdown. That cushion seemed to loosen up the offense, which drove 69 and 80 yards for the Wildcats' other two scores. A defense that hadn't held an opponent to three points or less since 1997 finished the job.

Fitzgerald proved to be much more animated during the game than immediately afterward. He accepted a few brief handshakes and did a postgame television interview as the Northwestern fans chanted "Fitz! Fitz! Fitz!"

Then he told his boss, athletic director Mark Murphy, "Thanks for the opportunity," and joined his team in singing the fight song.

"I just have pride," the Chicago native and former NU All-American said. "I'm a Northwestern Wildcat."

That's just one of the reasons Fitz fits. There will be growing pains aplenty, but he appears to have the charisma of a natural leader and the vision of how to run a program.

And this seems like the place he was meant to be -- tragically ahead of schedule.

"It's a family victory," Fitzgerald said. "It's not about me. It's about the winning spirit of Randy Walker and his family."

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.