Sunday, November 18, 2012

Pat Fitzgerald: Doing it Right

Well if yesterday was any indication, the rest of the college football season should be mighty interesting. At the beginning of the year, if you had told me Notre Dame would be one game away from a national championship, my response would have been something like, "in what sport?" All Irish fans will be sending Christmas cards to Kevin Harper, the poor kicker from Pittsburgh who allowed Touchdown Jesus a do-over at raising Lazarus from the dead. That seems to be where the Irish find themselves: risen from the dead. I'm not sure why it's a surprise to anyone. Brian Kelly, who along with Manti Te'o and Everett Golson form the three parts of the Notre Dame trinity, has won everywhere he's ever coached. And I mean everywhere. For those of us who live in the great state of Meee-chigan, Kelly's story is no shocker. He took Grand Valley to the promised land, fired up every Chip to ever say those three proud words, and made Cincinnati a football school for a short three years. That may be his greatest accomplishment yet. Cincinnati, a football school; that's like saying Notre Dame is a basketball school (which it pretty much was before Kelly got there--the Notre Dame Fighting Harangodys). Kelly coaches with a quiet tenacity, yet can erupt at any moment, sort of like his star linebacker, which makes sense considering Kelly played linebacker in college. And while Kelly may have his Irish one game away from allowing ESPN to do the unthinkable and put Lou Holtz back on television, I find myself rooting much harder for a different linebacker turned head coach: Pat Fitzgerald.

Now before I go into the depths of my man crush on the only dude who pulls off purple when he gets out of bed, it should be noted that no one has ever accused me of being a big time Michigan State football fan. I dislike the institution on the basis that they did not allow me to attend school there. I guess I shouldn't be that upset. Hindsight is of course 20/20, but going to Kalamazoo College remains the second greatest decision of my life, right behind asking Pete Rose if I could bet horses with him in Las Vegas (he said yes). Okay maybe college was better, but I'll bet good money you can't say you've ever gambled with Pete Rose. In any event, I will probably hold my grudge against the green and white for just a bit longer than Dion Sims can hold on to the football. Too soon? Well, hail, I'm sorry Sparty.

Surprising as it is, I would have been just fine with a Michigan State victory yesterday. I know too many great kids who play for that team to be happy when they lose (unless of course it is to the Maize and Blue). But as Michigan dismissed Iowa like their little brother (like that one? I thought so), I switched to the Michigan State game for what I assumed would be a Spartan victory, ensuring Sparty's bowl eligibility and leaving Northwestern fans heartbroken after another close conference loss. And there was Pat Fitzgerald, running up and down the sidelines like a mad man. He was screaming at the refs arguing for his player who CLEARLY committed pass interference. Hell, he was even running on the field to jump-bump (fictional word for two people running and leaping before gingerly touching side tips) his players. The athlete inside of me was jumping for joy: a coach who goes out and fights for his players, whether they are right or wrong. I looked at my mom and I said, "I would love to play for him," and I meant it. There's no greater feeling than seeing your coach out there fighting with you. It makes the game that much more intense.

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Last week part of me even felt bad for Fitzgerald as his Wildcats tried to run the clock out against Michigan, before Devin Gardner channeled his inner Doug Flutie and broke Wildcat nation's collective heart. Then late in the game, as Northwestern got the ball deep in their own territory up three points, it occurred to me that deja vu was going to occur for Pat's 'Cats. Sparty was going to do the same thing Big Blue did. As if I needed any more reason to like Fitzgerald, he gave it to me; he started throwing the ball. What's the quote? Doing the same thing over again and expecting different results is insanity, or something like that. Most every coach in America would have run the ball, forced Michigan State to take their time outs and left it up to his defense. And there was Pat Fitzgerald, up three points with under three to go, throwing the ball on first and second down. Fitzgerald did not let the Michigan loss beat him twice. He challenged the norm and his challenge worked. Northwestern eventually did punt the ball. Michigan State got it back and didn't score. The same thing may have happened if Fitzgerald would have run the clock out; we'll never know. But we do know that what Fitzgerald tried worked, and for that even Rod Allen is giving him the, "I see ya, Pat."

What Fitzgerald did is what I like to call playing to win as opposed to playing not to lose. He tried to go out and score again, which would have all but ended the game. He didn't sit on his lead and play right into Michigan State's hands. He dictated the game, like a good coach does. The other side of that argument is that Fitzgerald practiced bad clock management and got lucky. What if an interception was thrown? As I told my nameless best friend yesterday when he posed the same question, "what if" is pretty neat...and pretty irrelevant. Fitzgerald learned from his results the previous week. He sent a message loud and clear to his players that he is going to give them every opportunity to win the game, and not give the opponent a chance to tie it. For that, he should be applauded.

In an industry where coaches are in the media for all the wrong reasons, Fitzgerald seems to always be in the media for the right reasons. A week ago, Bobby Petrino's name surfaced around the Kentucky job opening. Petrino was of course fired by Arkansas at the beginning of the year for having an affair with a nice young lady (who he also provided with a job) and then lying about it. I guess it isn't that big of a surprise. After all, a certain President drove that same road. Oh, I'm sorry, nevermind...apparently that President did not have sexual relations with that woman. All Monica Lewinsky jokes aside, in an industry that too often shows men with questionable character in the limelight, Fitzgerald's character shines. Do all coaches have questionable character? Absolutely not. The one in East Lansing does not. The one in Ann Arbor does not. And the one in Evanston does not, either.

Northwestern will probably never win a national championship under Pat Fitzgerald. It may not be fair for me to say that, but that's what I believe. Unfortunately for Pat, the Wildcats probably won't be landing the type of talent that Alabama and Notre Dame get each and every year. That said, Fitzgerald is every bit the coach that both Brian Kelly and Nick Saban are, the coach that both Brady Hoke and Mark D'Antonio are. He sets a great example for his student-athletes and for all those young coaches in the industry to follow. He's loyal and passionate. It is nearly impossible not to root for him. Somewhere, Ron Burgundy is saying, "You stay classy, Pat Fitzgerald."


  1. Great Read... And I'd give Charlie Hustle 8-to-5 that says your only research for this piece was how to spell 'Lewinsky'...

    Seriously impressive though, keep it up

  2. After laughing out loud, I feel comfortable telling you that I actually did look up how to spell Lewinsky

  3. This is really good bro, I agree with you on every single point too. Have been saying Fitzgerald was a great coach for some time now, basically since they played Auburn in that Outback Bowl or whatever it was 4 or 5 years ago New Year's Day. Great coach at a great school. Couldn't have said it any better. Really enjoyed reading it too! Keep it up bro