COLUMBUS Pat Fitzgerald got the best job in his universe, under the worst possible circumstances.
The former two-time All-American linebacker for Northwestern was chosen to lead the Wildcats a little more than two years ago, just eight days after the sudden death of then head coach Randy Walker.
Fitzgerald was a ferocious tackler who was the soul of Northwestern s defense in the 1995 season, the year the Wildcats won a Big Ten championship and led the nation in scoring defense. He won both the Nagurski and Bednarik Awards and was the Big Ten s defensive player of the year despite suffering a broken leg in the second to last game of the season.
He swept those three prestigious honors again in 1996 when the Wildcats shared the Big Ten title with Ohio State, and Fitzgerald added the linebacker of the year award from the Touchdown Club of Columbus, where they know a little bit about great linebackers. After a short stint playing pro ball and work on several college staffs, Fitzgerald spent five years as an assistant at Northwestern and then took over as the program was in shock following the death of Walker.
While this has been my goal from the moment I began coaching, it was also bittersweet, Fitzgerald said at the time, summing up the stark contrasts of emotions he felt. Fitzgerald was just 31 then, and he remains the youngest head coach in Division I-A.
Since assuming command, Fitzgerald has transferred his fierce competitive fire and tenacity to his team. The Wildcats went 4-8 in his first season and then improved to 6-6 last year. Fitzgerald has the Wildcats turning heads at 7-2 this season as they prepare to host Ohio State tomorrow in Evanston.
I think Pat has great energy, Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said about his counterpart. Obviously, he has a deep commitment for Northwestern because that is purple running through his veins.
Tressel said he has watched the Wildcats evolve into Fitzgerald s team, both with the type of players he has brought to Northwestern and the style of play he demands.
I think what he s done a nice job of is making sure that the players and coaches have grown together, and they ve really worked hard to feature the things that their guys do best, Tressel said.
They re extremely well-schooled, so that means that the players are on board with what the coaches are teaching them. You can see the excellent progress they ve made, despite the fact that they had to start in a very unusual way.
Fitzgerald will bring his best team to date to face the Buckeyes. And he made no effort to hide the fact that Ohio State has had a hand in adding some pain to Northwestern s growth during his brief tenure. The Buckeyes pounded the Wildcats 54-10 in 2006 and then upped the ante with a 58-7 win over Northwestern last year.
When you go out and get your tail whipped outside of the woodshed, there s not a whole lot of positives to draw from, Fitzgerald said about his most-recent experiences against the Buckeyes. We have not played very well in the two opportunities against Ohio State that we ve had since I ve been head coach.
Frankly, I don t know any better term to say but embarrassing.
Tressel said he does not expect a similar result this time around, since he sees a much-improved Northwestern team on this season s game films.
It s fun to watch the evolution they ve had, Tressel said.
The other thing that I take note of is I think their evolution within ball games is excellent. If you look at all their first halves and then look at all their second halves, you can see that they truly understand what the opponent is trying to do, and then in the second half they play even better than they did at the first. Offensively, defensively, and in special teams they do things that put pressure on you, and that s what you have to do.