An Interview With:NORTHWESTERN COACH PAT FITZGERALD
THE MODERATOR: We're joined by Coach Pat Fitzgerald.Coach, an opening statement and we'll take questions.
COACH FITZGERALD: Thanks, Doug, appreciate it. Obviously we've digressed this year. We miss Julie already. Good morning, everyone. It's great to be with you. Obviously we'd like to thank everyone for your support for Big Ten football and Northwestern as a football program. It's football season and here we go again. I'd be remiss without starting my remarks on behalf of the Northwestern football family of expressing our thoughts and prayers and condolences to Adam Rittenberg and his family in this difficult, challenging time. Adam, we're thinking about you and your family and hope to be there with you. I'd like to welcome our two new coaches in Darrell Hazell of Purdue and Gary Andersen of Wisconsin. Looking forward to competing against their teams. I've gotten to know the gentlemen since I was in recruiting season, and now throughout our meetings throughout the spring and summer and would like to welcome them on behalf of our coaches. And obviously it's a great time of the year.
I don't know if you guys or anyone is charting how many times a coach up here says "excited," but I think across the country every coach is really in anticipation for two weeks from now when we get together with our teams and really start to work hard on progressing and building off of what we accomplished in the spring and then obviously what our young men have been able to do throughout the summer. Exciting time in our program's history to be off the heels of our longest bowl streak in modern time, of one bowl successful season, and to have the number of young men we have coming back in 13 from a starting standpoint gives us great confidence we'll hopefully be able to take the next step. We've got 12 terrific seniors embarking on their last season, three of which are with us here today and throughout the media days in Kain Colter, our great quarterback; Venric Mark, our tailback; and Tyler Scott, our defensive end. We have a difficult schedule to go on the road to open against a difficult Cal team, and Coach Dykes did a great job at Louisiana Tech and come back to Syracuse is going to be a challenge. As we rewind, very proud of the success we've had, five straight bowl seasons. But as I said as I put the Gator Bowl trophy up above my head, we're just getting started at Northwestern. We have a lot of work. Talk is talk, and now it's about time for action, and looking forward to getting back with our guys here in a few weeks. So with that, questions?
Q. Not the most serious one here, but how is your hip? I know you had some surgery. How is it going? And pretty sure it won't affect your coaching this year?
COACH FITZGERALD: Thanks for asking about my health. I was cleared about two weeks ago. I'll be full go for camp. Questionable as an athlete, but ready to go.
Q. You talked about the difficult schedule. You guys start with three opponents all breaking in new head coaches. How does that kind of adjust how you guys prepare for them in the summer?
COACH FITZGERALD: Our schedule, there's no question we're not afraid to play anyone. We went into the season last year playing three BCS teams in the nonconference and had great success. Originally on the schedule we had three BCS teams this year, and obviously that changed and now we're playing two BCS teams to begin. Anytime there's coaching changes, it's a challenge on our staff. And that's probably what I'm most proud of. As you look back over the last couple of years, our staff has done a terrific job, especially in our nonconference games preparing in a little bit of an abstract way. We had to go look at different teams when coaches have been at different institutions, maybe even looking at NFL tape if that's where the coordinator came from. And our staff has done a terrific job. I think our blueprint for that success speaks for itself with having success in the opener. It's going to be a great challenge, especially going out and playing at Cal and kicking off 7:30 local, which will be 9:30 on our bodies. We'll adjust our practice plan accordingly that week. We've already kind of looked at the roadmap and you hear me say a lot the blueprint of what we're going to do, and there will be definite tweaks and adjustments to our preparation. At the end of the day, it's how we prepare and what we do to determine if we're prepared for that game.
Q. I know there's some issues with the health of the offensive linemen group this spring. How are they coming along and is everybody getting healthy up front?
COACH FITZGERALD: The entire offensive line is healthy coming out of spring and going into Camp Kenosha. It will be great competition in that room. We believe that group is as talented as we've had. A year ago we brought back three starters. We had two new faces to break in. To see the way that Jack Konopka played a year ago, first time ever playing offensive
line in his entire football career. We look forward to moving him over potentially to the left tackle position and solidifying that spot left by Patrick Ward, who was an Academic All-American. And Brandon Vitabile is arguably one of the most talented centers not only in this conference, but also in the country. So great confidence in those two guys. And going to be terrific competition at the right tackle, right guard and left guard position, but we feel like there's great talent there, and looking forward to watching it unfold.
Q. One of the topics that I think a lot of coaches will be asked about this year is about disciplining players, having guys who stay straight and narrow. What are the things you do in your program to try to make sure that happens?
COACH FITZGERALD: I think discipline begins in recruiting. The identification of a student-athlete that fits your program. In Evanston, it starts with that character evaluation. And we've got a set of questions that are married with the values of our program. And you hear in our team room a lot, when I'm addressing you there it's to my left and your right, and it's a roadmap for our assistant coaches as they go out to evaluate prospective student-athletes. If you look at our history in recruiting, we're typically a day late, a week late, a month late in potentially offering a young person, and I know sometimes it frustrates our fans, but we're going to make sure when we offer a young man, that's someone we truly want to become a part of our football family. And that character evaluation takes a little bit longer. And we're going to try to use every means necessary, the coach, the AD, the principal, the guidance counselor, whatever champion in that young person's life that we can find and discover that's going to answer the tough questions to give us the right answers to make sure that young person's the right fit.
I'm respectful of the other programs in the country. Everyone's unique and different in how they go about that. But it's a very serious discussion we have. We're very proud of the job our young men do obviously in our community, giving back and being a part of our community in a very positive way on the Northwestern campus and the greater Evanston and Chicago community and being a role model for student-athletes across the country. But it goes back to the identification in recruiting.
Q. How different is it now teaching your guys to deal with expectations and not just happy to be in the dance?
COACH FITZGERALD: We're not satisfied with just going to Bowl games anymore. That's not acceptable. That's the expectation. And to be a consistent winner, to be a consistent postseason team and playing in Bowl games is the expectation. Now obviously we raised the bar a year ago from winning a game and getting that monkey off our back, but at the end of the day the expectation is to win championships. And when you walk into our team room on the right side, it would be your left, we'd say to win the Legends Division and win the Big Ten. We want to put that trophy in our case just like the other 11 institutions and head coaches are going to visit after me. So it's not unique to us. It's not any different than anyone else in our league, but we've never shied away from stating that as our goal. Now, maybe just a few more people are listening saying, well, maybe they might be able to externally. But I think, as everyone does in the country, our focus is inward. How we prepare, the way we go about our business, the process we go
about developing our young men and developing our team, those expectations far outweigh any external expectations that we're going to see. So I'm happy to see that everyone's taking notice that we're doing okay, that we're progressing, that we're building in my opinion a program that our fans, our alumni, our students and everyone that's associated with Northwestern
football can be proud of. But we're far from where we're going to be. And to me that's the driving force in our program, is to take the necessary steps to be competitive for a championship. And hopefully we'll do that as we move forward in training camp.
Q. They're making an emphasis on the targeting rule this year with the ejections being led. As a former All-Conference defender, how difficult is it going to be for these guys to be able to change the culture of the hits? And your thoughts on how you're going to be able to coach these guys up and what do you expect to see moving forward?
COACH FITZGERALD: We're looking forward to working with Bill Carollo (Big Ten Coordinator of Football Officials) and the Big Ten officials as they come through our training camps, especially at Northwestern, to look at the teach tape that I know Bill will have for us as far as educating what hits from a year ago or maybe the previous few seasons it would be labeled targeting from a standpoint of what would be an ejectable offense as we move forward. I like the fact that that's a play that's coming into our game to make sure we have the number one most important thing handled, and that's the health, safety, well-being of the student-athletes as they play the game of football. It's well documented I'm a rather large hockey fan, and to see the way the rules have changed in the game of hockey to where it's more of an athletic game and guys aren't getting pressed up and boarded -- it's the same for football. If you're defenseless, you should be protected. But there will be some hits that I'm looking forward to learning from and seeing exactly how that's going to be officiated. But there's no question the health, safety, well-being of the student-athletes is the number one priority.
Q. I guess just kind of talk about how the game has evolved in the past few years as far as players' safety. And do you think there's enough being done to protect the athletes?
COACH FITZGERALD: I definitely believe that the coaches, the administrators, the conference commissioners, the NCAA, and obviously our student-athletes and our medical teams, there's great dialogue about how can we continue to improve our game from a health and safety standpoint. And I think everyone that's a shareholder in that experience, it's critically important that we have great dialogue, we have great discussions, and we come up with positive solutions to keep our young men safe. And that's not only on game day. It's 365 days a year. If it's nutrition, sleep, the way that we practice, the way that we play, those are all positives. Back -- I kind of feel like that one commercial, back in my day, we wore neck rolls and the game was played from the breadth of this table. And there were certain days of the week that I couldn't practice because of the physical pounding you went through on game day, on Saturday. But the way you had to practice to prepare. So I think we're trending in a very positive direction. Are we at the destination? I'm not sure we ever will be. I think that will be an ongoing progression of making the kids and the game safer and safer. And I think we're in a positive place. But as I said, I think we're going to continue to move forward to get to a great place for our student-athletes.
Q. You obviously have several games before you start Big Ten play, but with where your program is right now for a primetime game for homecoming like you have coming up against Ohio State, that type of game, what do you hope and expect your stadium will be like from an atmosphere standpoint and what a game like that is like for your program at this point?
COACH FITZGERALD: The pageantry of Big Ten football is special. We're a nationally-based conference. Obviously the breadth of our conference is special and you take it down to individual games and just the opportunity
to compete and play Big Ten football is amazing. Obviously on paper as you sit here the end of July and you look at the conference slate, you get excited to play each and every one of your games, especially the ones that are primetime atmosphere. But, frankly, I haven't put a lot of thought into it. My focus has been, number one, to make sure our guys are healthy and doing the right things academically here in summer school, and then our focus will shift once we get into camp about how our freshmen integrate and how we'll put those pieces of the puzzle together to get prepared for the opener against Cal. But as you look forward, obviously you get excited for Big Ten play. I think the last time we played each other at night was a pretty unique environment at our place. Obviously we were successful, so that's a fond memory in my mind. The first thing that jumps back to me is Coach
Walker, and that experience was really special to be in the locker room with him, a native Ohioan, things of that nature. But our focus right now is on ourselves and getting prepared for the opener. And I think as we get closer to that game, it will get more exciting. But obviously the undefeated team from last year, very special to have them come and be our Big Ten opener. That's going to be a great challenge.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you.