Northwestern is about to play in the Big Ten championship football game for the first time, and 13th-year coach Pat Fitzgerald has made no apologies about the route the Wildcats took.
They went 1-3 to start the season, went 0-3 against nonconference opponents (Akron, Duke and Notre Dame), and even when they put their ship on a steadier course didn’t smear anyone along the way to the West Division title. They face East Division winner Ohio State on Saturday in Indianapolis.
Smear — Fitzgerald laughed at that word. What the Wildcats did was find ways to win, scoring as many as 34 points just twice this season, and one of those was in a mistake-filled loss to Akron.
“I’ve been here a long time, brother. I don’t know how many smears we’ve had,” said Fitzgerald, who was named conference coach of the year on Tuesday. “We’re a white-collar school with a blue-collar mentality as a football team. That’s who we’re always going to be as long as I’m the head ball coach here.”
There were times before he arrived as a hard-nosed linebacker in the mid-1990s when smearing was what Northwestern often endured as one of the doormats of the league. It was a private school with lofty entrance requirements for players but lackluster facilities once they arrived.
Yet under the guidance of coach Gary Barnett and the leadership of the All-America Fitzgerald, they won back-to-back Big Ten titles — in 1995 and a share with OSU in ’96, well before there was a championship game.
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Randy Walker had the Wildcats on a stout course, too, before he died from a heart attack in the summer of 2006. Fitzgerald, 31 at the time and an assistant coach, was thrust into the head coaching seat and has never looked back nor looked seriously at offers from other schools.
His course — with a coaching staff whose core has been together for a decade — has been about the blue-collar approach, and this season Northwestern ascended for the first time to the league’s title game.
“There’s no real secrets to us,” Fitzgerald said. “We just try to play fundamentally sound, we try to play great team football, and you know, there’s a brotherhood here that these guys lay it on the line for each other.”
The brotherhood was tested with the 1-3 start. There was a team meeting at that crossroads, then renewed spirit, senior right guard Tommy Doles said.
“Us being at this point is a testament to the character of this group, just the way we faced adversity and stuck together,” Doles said. “We made the decision we’re going to come in and work each and every day to get one day better. And when you put all that together you’ve got something special.”
That spirit doesn’t trickle down from the top, it cascades, quarterback Clayton Thorson indicated as he spoke of the impact of Fitzgerald, still a boyish presence at age 43.
“He’s a really energetic coach, and I think that feeds over to us,” Thorson said. “As you see, our team plays with a lot of energy, our sideline has a lot of energy. … He stresses we’ve got to play hard for each other, and I think that really carries over.
“And just the fact that he played here and he knows what it’s like to be here (in contention for a title), that helps us as well and to buy into what he’s saying.”
The pivotal moment for the Wildcats was a 99-yard drive to a tying touchdown with 12 seconds left against then-winless Nebraska on Oct. 13, the victory coming on a field goal in overtime. A division-clinching, 14-10 win at Iowa three weeks ago epitomizes the 2018 Wildcats. On the road and 10-point underdogs, they kept plugging until they punched through.
“I really don’t think it was anything magical,” Fitzgerald said. “The kids just rolled their sleeves up and went to work. We talk a lot around here about an improvement mentality. You’ve got to try to improve every single rep every single day, no matter what it is you’re doing in football, academically and in life. This group took on that attitude … and I think that has been the key.”