Northwestern hires Fitzgerald as football coach

Updated: July 7, 2006, 4:56 PM ET
Associated Press

EVANSTON, Ill. - Pat Fitzgerald was in the middle of a stunning transformation at Northwestern during the mid-1990s. An All-American linebacker, he helped a longtime losing program win two Big Ten titles and earn trips to the Rose and Citrus bowls.

Now he's in charge, introduced as Northwestern's coach Friday little more than a week after Randy Walker died from an apparent heart attack. At 31, Fitzgerald becomes the youngest coach in Division I-A.

"The most bittersweet feeling I've ever had in my life," Fitzgerald said of being offered the job and a long-term contract Thursday night by athletic director Mark Murphy. "It's a dream of mine to be a head football coach here, but not under these circumstances."

Fitzgerald, an assistant in various roles under Walker since 2001, eulogized Walker during a memorial service Thursday. As the linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator, he and Walker developed a close bond.

When Walker signed a contract extension through 2011 in April, he told Fitzgerald the job would go to him in 2012. Walker promised Fitzgerald he would come back in retirement with a ponytail and start yelling at him like he always did.

"This wasn't in the plan," Fitzgerald said during a news conference Friday. "But I have a call to duty and the coaching staff has a call to duty and the players have a call to duty to continue the legacy that Randy built. And that is consistent success. My goal will be to take the next step and have consistent championships."

Fitzgerald starred at linebacker for the 1995 Northwestern team that won the Big Ten and went to the Rose Bowl, a game the Wildcats lost to Southern California with Fitzgerald sidelined by a broken leg. He recovered to play the next season, when the Wildcats shared the league championship and made it to the Citrus Bowl, losing to Tennessee. Fitzgerald earned numerous awards as the nation's top defensive player in both seasons.

Murphy said he decided against naming an interim coach for the sake of stability in recruiting and among the staff. He called Fitzgerald a person of overwhelming quality and dismissed his age as "just a number."

"Randy gave him different responsibilities and you could see the growth there. He's bright, and I have no question he is up to the task," Murphy said. "I wish he was older - fate intervened - but he's ready."

Fitzgerald has less than a month to prepare for training camp, which opens Aug. 3.

"Our wounds are deep and our morale is fractured," he said. "There are a lot of heavy hearts, but coach would want us to move on."

Fitzgerald started 23 games in his career and had 299 tackles, including 20 for loss. He also forced five fumbles and intercepted three passes. He signed a free-agent contract with the Dallas Cowboys but took a one-year hiatus from football after playing in three preseason games.

In 2001, after serving as an assistant at Idaho, Fitzgerald was hired by Walker to coach the Wildcats' defensive secondary. In 2002 he moved to linebackers coach and then in 2004 added the recruiting coordinator to his title.

Youthful and energetic, Fitzgerald is not that far removed from his players.

"He only played here 10 years ago, so he knows what it's like," senior linebacker Nick Roach said.

"He's definitely ready for it. He has a great passion for the game and Northwestern," senior safety Bryan Heinz said.

Northwestern went 7-5 last season, including a Sun Bowl loss to UCLA.

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press

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