Former La Salle High teammates Butler and Fitzgerald together again, on O'Brien's Penn State staff

Posted: October 16, 2012

STATE COLLEGE - La Salle High grads John Butler and Craig Fitzgerald are in a good place.

The best friends, who graduated from La Salle in 1991 and were in each other's wedding, have coached at all sorts of places since their days playing together, but now they find themselves at Penn State in a program wading through uncharted waters after the Jerry Sandusky scandal and resulting NCAA sanctions.

Butler and Fitzgerald came to coach in Bill O'Brien's program from South Carolina, an SEC powerhouse that is currently ranked ninth in the nation.

But as Butler, the secondary/special-teams coach, and Fitzgerald, the strength and conditioning director, told each other after a thrilling win against Northwestern on Oct. 6, they have "no regrets."

La Salle days

Joe Colistra coached Butler and Fitzgerald at La Salle, and told insightful stories about each.

The words Colistra used to describe Butler were "ornery" and "tough as nails."

During a preseason seven-on-seven scrimmage against Central Bucks West, when he was entering his senior season, Butler landed on his shoulder after making a play and was in serious pain.

"He wouldn't say a word, he wouldn't back up, he wouldn't come out," Colistra said. "Finally, I had to call his father over and say, 'Look, you better look at him. Something's wrong. I got a feeling he broke his collarbone.' "

The response?

"He and his father both looked at me like I was the enemy to even suggest that the kid might have hurt himself and maybe he oughta come out," Colistra said. "They agreed they'd look at it after the game was over, and it turned out he did have a broken collarbone."

As for Fitzgerald, Colistra said that when he was a sophomore at La Salle, the coach "literally could not get him out of the weight room."

Fitzgerald would be there before school, at 6 a.m., and at 3 p.m. after the final bell.

When notified that Fitzgerald was failing Spanish, Colistra approached him and said he couldn't allow him in the weight room until his grades improved.

"Well, he didn't miss a homework for the rest of the offseason, so he could get into the weight room," Colistra remembered. "Now I'm not gonna tell you he got an 'A' in Spanish, but he wasn't failing it anymore, and more importantly he was doing his homework. It was a means to an end, so he could get into the weight room. I made him show it to me, because I wouldn't take his word for it, and he did it. He did it."

Colistra says the toughness the two have in common is why they are such good friends, along with another La Salle graduate, Keith Conlin. A co-host of the "Goon Show" radio program at Penn State, Conlin was an All-Big Ten tackle and started for the unbeaten 1994 Nittany Lions.

Now the three are reunited, in a sense, and Fitzgerald said he and Butler see Conlin all the time. Fitzgerald said others on his La Salle team, which won the Catholic League in 1989, went on to play at such schools as Virginia and Boston College, but Butler was the best all-around athlete - the three-sport athlete played basketball at Catholic University.

Colistra, head coach at La Salle for 21 years before stepping down in 2005, is still an economics and history teacher there and remains in touch with Butler and Fitzgerald.

"I'm extremely impressed [with them]. I can't say I'm surprised, though," Colistra said. "They are both quality guys and they're the kind of guys who I'd like to say I would trust my son with as a leader and as someone who has values way beyond football to impart to young men."

Coming to Penn State

While Butler went to Catholic University, Fitzgerald played football at Maryland. After manning various positions at multiple colleges, their paths came together again at Harvard, where Butler was the linebackers coach and special-teams coordinator, and Fitzgerald joined him as the strength and conditioning coach.

Butler moved on to Minnesota, where he worked alongside Penn State's current defensive coordinator, Ted Roof. Eventually, Butler and Fitzgerald teamed up again, at South Carolina.

And now they are at Penn State, in the most turbulent time in school history.

O'Brien and company have coached Penn State to a 4-2 record, 2-0 in the Big Ten, impressive considering the fallout from the Sandusky scandal. The sanctions levied by the NCAA included a 4-year postseason ban and a reduction of scholarships that preceded the transfers of nine players from the program.

Butler's secondary was thin before safety Tim Buckley transferred to North Carolina State. He has only six defensive backs on scholarship.

And yet, the secondary is is contributing to the 15th-best defense in the nation in points allowed per game (16).

Butler and Fitzgerald said they never wavered about their decision to come to Penn State. This despite the fact that most of the new Nittany Lions staff came from good places - for instance, O'Brien from the AFC champion New England Patriots, Butler and Fitzgerald from a national powerhouse at South Carolina.

When the sanctions came down, Fitzgerald said there was barely even a discussion among the coaches about their dedication to the program.

"It's like, 'OK, let's go,' " said Fitzgerald, who has utilized a new weight room to his advantage, with many players lauding his strength program.

Hit the ground running

O'Brien smiled right away when asked about Butler and Fitzgerald.

"Oh, they're bosom buddies,'' he said. "These are two Philly guys; I'm a Boston guy, so they're always ganging up on me," O'Brien said. "Their wives and their kids are friends and family, and they've known each other for their whole lives, just about, so there's a great friendship there, and it's fun and interesting to see."

And listen. While Philly-area natives Butler and Fitzgerald lobby for the sounds of Will Smith and Boyz II Men, O'Brien pushes the Dropkick Murphys, a band formed in Massachusetts, when music blares from six sideline speakers during stretching exercises.

Lighter moments aside, the Butler-Fitzgerald friendship helps the team in concrete ways.

"Obviously, with the history that I have with Craig, he's able to reinforce the stuff we're talking about without any hesitation and we reinforce what he's doing down in the weight room, so obviously there's just a natural chemistry there that has been built up through 25 years of knowing a guy," Butler said.

Because of the varied connections on the Penn State staff before it became a unit - for instance, O'Brien coached with Fitzgerald at Maryland and with running backs coach Charles London at Duke - Fitzgerald said he felt as if he knew several of the coaches before they even came to Penn State.

"You could hit the ground running," Fitzgerald said. "And the players kind of were like, jeez. It wasn't like, 'What's this guy all about?' "

It also made it easier on the coaches.

"[Fitzgerald] and I have been a team for a long time,'' Butler said. "Regardless of whether or not it was Harvard or South Carolina, we're now here. It's an easy transition when you're working with guys you know about."

Fitzgerald said there are no "independent contractors" on the staff, meaning everyone is most concerned about the good of the program.

And after starting 0-2, it seems the staff and its team are finding a groove, having won four straight games and even receiving a vote in the Associated Press poll.

Fitzgerald referenced one of the quotes he has posted on the wall of the weight room to compare the players who transferred from the Penn State program to those who stayed.

"Loyalty is action," Fitzgerald said. "That's it, loyalty is action . . . you don't tell people how loyal you are."

With loyalty in mind, Butler and Fitzgerald are sticking around and raising their families in the State College area.

Actually, maybe there is just one regret.

"The only regret is we live that far from Philly, so if things work out, our kids will go to State College High instead of La Salle High," Fitzgerald said with a laugh.


Contact Tim Gilbert at gilbert@phillynews.com.

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