Column: Fitzgerald situation a tough one to figure out

Published 11:01 am Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Let me first start by saying that hazing or any other type of bullying has no place in our world.

That said, I am having difficulties wrapping my head around what happened at Northwestern University and its former football coach Pat Fitzgerald.

I have had a chance to interact with Fitzgerald on several occasions at Big Ten Media Days over the past few years. He seemed like a coach that cared about his players and his university. After all, he was a standout football player for the Wildcats long before he became its head coach.

From the players I heard talk about him, Fitzgerald was well-liked and respected by everyone, both the ones involved with the football program and those around the Northwestern campus.

When the news broke last Friday that he was suspended following a six-month investigation dealing with hazing, I was shocked, to say the least.

Little did I know then that things would spiral out of control quickly, and Fitzgerald would be fired.

People quickly started picking sides, which I guess is human nature, but it seems like it is becoming a “he said, he said” situation. This will no doubt tear the tight-knit Northwestern community apart. This is going to turn ugly, I can assure you, because this is such a sensitive subject, especially at a Big Ten school where the wounds from the Joe Paterno scandal at Penn State are still close to the surface.

I have misjudged a few people’s character over the years, both in the sports arena and in general, but I am still shaking my head and wondering how I and others could be potentially so wrong about Fitzgerald. It just does not make much sense.

Now, let us get one thing straight, whether or not he had knowledge of what was going on within his football team, the buck stops with the head coach. He is ultimately the one who is in charge of the Wildcat program, and he should be punished for what has allegedly happened.

What I cannot figure out, is that after investigating those allegations for six months, the president of Northwestern decided that a two-week suspension was the correct course of action. What changed in those few hours that turned a suspension into a termination? Were there more facts he was unaware of at the time? Did he decide that the public outcry was growing, and because of that, he fired his popular head coach?

Fitzgerald said he was unaware of the hazing after the announcement of his suspension. He seemed to be accepting responsibility for issues within his program and was willing to accept the penalty.

However, since his firing, Fitzgerald has taken a much stronger stance and not only is sticking to his guns when it comes to having no knowledge of the situation, but is now looking at potential legal action due to his firing.

Whether the allegations are true or not, Northwestern faces a couple of problems moving forward. One is that the president, apparently without impute from anyone else, revoked the agreement the university and Fitzgerald had reached without notifying him. I am no lawyer, but I can see where that can be a legal issue for the school.

Secondly, if lawyers become involved and more people are forced to choose a side, the damage done to this small, tight-knit university to leave it scared for decades.

I am under no illusions that Northwestern must keep Fitzgerald to be successful on the football field. After all, he is just 110-101 since he took over the program in 2006. There are people who are not his biggest fans, as the Wildcats were 1-11 last year and 3-9 the previous season.

Most of those people are not aware that Fitzgerald saved football at Northwestern. He was hired in 2001 as a defensive secondary coach, but in July of 2006, Fitzgerald was promoted to head coach following the death of another popular Wildcat coach, Randy Walker. In his third season, the Wildcats went 9-4. Northwestern had three 10-win seasons under his tenure and had winning seasons in nine of his 17 years.

With the 2023 college football season rapidly approaching, Northwestern must figure out how to separate itself from this issue and focus on football. Finding a new head coach is priority No. 1, although if Fitzgerald takes the school to court, that could be a problem.

The Wildcat program is one that should draw a lot of interest in the coaching world. Northwestern is competitive in one of the top conferences in the country and has some of the top facilities in all of college football.

I feel bad for the players who are currently in the program because they will have to deal with the onslaught of media coverage that will surround the Wildcats until this has run its course. They are the ones that have been hurt to begin with. They are the ones that will continue to suffer as this drags out.

As far as Fitzgerald goes, I am once again wondering if any of us really know anyone. I am shocked by the developments at Northwestern, but I can also honestly say I am not surprised. Wonder what that says about me?


Scott Novak is sports editor for Leader Publications. He can be reached at