Northwestern's Fitzgerald could be a good fit at Penn State

Pat Fitzgerald has been a winner as both a player and a coach at Northwestern.
Pat Fitzgerald has been a winner as both a player and a coach at Northwestern. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Posted: November 16, 2011

TALK ABOUT lousy timing.

In response to rumors that former Florida coach Urban Meyer, now a college football analyst for ESPN, was the most likely candidate to succeed longtime Penn State coach Joe Paterno following the 2011 season, Mark Brennan, editor of Fight on State magazine, wrote this in the December issue, which arrived in subscribers' mailboxes just as the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal was breaking:

"Meyer, who stepped away from coaching last January because of the stress involved, would be foolish not to listen to the Nittany Lions. Among major-college football powers, is any head coach under less stress than the guy at Penn State?"

Meyer, who was to have been the color analyst for Saturday's telecast of the Penn State-Nebraska game in State College, was not in the broadcast booth for a very good reason: His father died.

Meyer reportedly talked last week with Arizona about its opening, but decided not to pursue it. Meanwhile, the Ohio native also is on the wish list at Ohio State. At Penn State, he or someone else will succeed not Paterno, but interim coach Tom Bradley, who was elevated to the top spot late Wednesday night after his boss of 33 years was fired. Bradley coached the Nits in the 17-14 loss to the Cornhuskers, and he will be in charge for the last two regular-season contests, at Ohio State and Wisconsin, as well as for an expected bowl game. But there is virtually no chance Bradley will be brought back in 2012, in any capacity. He is too linked to the now-tainted JoePa, and it is safe to assume anyone brought in from the outside will want to work with his own people.

But what if Meyer decides Happy Valley isn't for him? There's a good chance he might have come to that conclusion anyway, even if Sandusky had never been charged with molesting children or if Paterno, who turns 85 on Dec. 21, was retiring simply because he was old and tired.

If we know anything of college sports, it is that it always is better not to be the man who succeeds The Man; it is better to be the man who succeeds the man who succeeds The Man. Just ask Ray Perkins, who had to step into the giant footsteps left by his predecessor at Alabama, Paul "Bear" Bryant, or Gene Bartow, who took over the UCLA basketball dynasty after the legendary John Wooden retired.

The names of former NFL coaches Jon Gruden, Bill Cowher and Tony Dungy also have been floated for the Penn State gig, and the Washington Post reported that a member of Penn State's Board of Trustees contacted Virginia coach Mike London to ascertain whether he might be interested.

But if not one of the aforementioned, who? One man who fits all the criteria of what Penn State would want is Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald is young; he turns 37 on Dec. 2. He's loyal to his alma mater, which he led to unprecedented heights as a player in the mid-1990s and to more than a little success since he replaced Randy Walker, who died, in July 2006. It is not difficult to imagine him bringing that same sort of dedication to Penn State.

"It's hard to believe any former Northwestern athlete bleeds more purple than coach Fitz," said Mike Kafka, a former Wildcats quarterback and now a second-year backup to Eagles starting QB Michael Vick. "His enthusiasm and his passion . . . is unmatched."

So superb a linebacker was Fitzgerald - who was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2009 and twice won the Bronko Nagurski and Chuck Bednarik Awards - that he helped the Big Ten Conference's longtime whipping boys to a 19-5 overall record, and 15-1 in league play, in 1995 and '96.

Pretty amazing when you consider that Northwestern, the only private school in the Big Ten, went 3-62-1 from 1976 through 1981, setting records for futility in the process. When the "Mildcats," as they were derisively known, lost at home, 61-0, to Michigan State in 1981 for their 29th consecutive defeat, surpassing a negative mark previously shared with Kansas State and Virginia (the skid would reach 34), students stormed the field and chanted, "We're the worst!"

As Northwestern's coach, Fitzgerald is 38-34 overall and 20-25 in the Big Ten. His current squad is 5-5 and on a three-game winning streak, including a 28-25 upset at Nebraska on Nov. 5. The Wildcats will be bowl-eligible with one more victory, and they'll probably get it this weekend when they host 2-8 Minnesota.

At Northwestern, as much as he might love the place, Fitzgerald must know there's only so much he can do. The school has the highest admission standards in the Big Ten, limiting the pool of players he can recruit. Ryan Field has a seating capacity of 49,256, which is less than half of what Beaver Stadium (106,572) holds, and even at that, it is seldom sold out. The Evanston, Ill., campus is part of Chicago's urban sprawl, which means Fitzgerald's team is always fighting for attention with the Bears, Bulls, Cubs, White Sox and Blackhawks, in addition to Notre Dame and Illinois, schools which the Chicago media cover as if they were in-town.

At Penn State, Fitzgerald would have much-improved facilities and a program with a significantly higher national profile and far greater tradition of success.

Oh, and one more thing about Fitzgerald that should be of interest to Penn State trustees, or whoever makes the call on hiring a new coach: The Illinois Legislature in January 2009 invited Fitzgerald to serve on the Illinois Reform Commission aimed at rooting out political corruption.

Isn't a proven winner with no embarrassing baggage just what's needed at Penn State now?

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