INDIANAPOLIS — Pat Fitzgerald sat at the Big Ten championship game dais with a Northwestern helmet next to an Ohio State one.
Before the Northwestern coach was a Wildcats player in the 1990s, the notion that his school and the Buckeyes would meet for a conference championship, as they will on Saturday night, would have seemed preposterous. The Buckeyes were then what they are now — a perennial power. Northwestern was, well, a football punchline.
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On Friday, Fitzgerald recalled being at Northwestern’s basketball arena as a recruit when Gary Barnett promised the crowd that he would “take the Purple to Pasadena” for the Rose Bowl.
“He had 7,000 people laugh at him,” Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald wasn’t among them.
“I was like, ‘All right, sign me up for some of this stuff,’ ” he said. “I like this guy.”
With Fitzgerald leading the way as a linebacker, Barnett fulfilled that promise. Fitzgerald became Northwestern’s coach after Randy Walker died from a heart attack in 2006. Though this is Northwestern’s first trip to the Big Ten championship game, the Wildcats’ days as a doormat are long gone.
But Fitzgerald makes no pretense of acting as if Northwestern, a private school with an enrollment of about 8,000, is on par with Ohio State as a football program.
“As I look at where we’re at right now, we’re nowhere close to Ohio State,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re never going to be close to Ohio State. We’re very different — the size of our school, the location.
“We just want to be the best us. We know who we are. We want to be the best Northwestern that we can be. If we do that consistently, we’ll consistently be in this game.”
Northwestern (8-4) rebounded from a 1-3 start to clinch the Big Ten West three weeks ago. The Wildcats aren’t flashy, but they compensate with the grit needed to win close games. Northwestern hasn’t won or lost a game this year by more than 14 points, which is the point spread for Saturday’s game.
Although Fitzgerald, who turns 44 on Sunday, is considered a likely Northwestern lifer, his counterpart, Urban Meyer, had his future come under speculation again Friday. Footballscoop.com, citing anonymous sources, claimed that Meyer expects to step down after the 2019 season and that offensive coordinator Ryan Day would succeed him.
During his news conference, Meyer said he had “no comment on that” report. Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith texted The Dispatch that “Urban and I have not discussed that. Urban is our football coach!!!”
Smith texted “Nope” when asked if there was anything new regarding Day’s status.
Another source close to Meyer said that the coach had not made any decision about his future and that any discussion about his retirement was premature.
Meyer was clearly focused only on the Big Ten championship game. If No. 5 Oklahoma beats Texas in Saturday’s Big 12 championship game at noon, the No. 6 Buckeyes (11-1) would need to have a dominating performance Saturday night to have any hope of swaying the College Football Playoff selection committee of their worthiness for a spot.
Asked if he was uncomfortable with the speculation that mere victory wouldn’t be enough, Meyer said that wasn’t an issue with his team.
“I only deal with it when you ask me, so it’s not uncomfortable,” he said. “I can understand it, appreciate it. There is zero conversation in there (the Ohio State locker room) about it.”