Q&A WITH NORTHWESTERN COACH PAT FITZGERALD
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald
DAN GUTTENPLAN NORTHWESTERN
PAT FITZGERALD took over as head coach at Northwestern in 2006 at the age of 31 after the death of his successor, Randy Walker. The former star linebacker led the Wildcats to a 10-3 record in 2015 – good for No. 22 in the nation.
THERE SEEMS TO BE A LOT OF SUDDEN COACHING CHANGES AT THE HIGH SCHOOL LEVEL. WHAT IS THE BEST WAY FOR A NEW COACH TO IMPLEMENT HIS PHILOSOPHY?
One thing I say – as a head coach, you have to be who you are. That’s why you were hired. That’s why they put you in that leadership role. You have to believe in a value system you want to run. Your job is to instruct the staff of your vision. Surround yourself with people who have a shared vision.
YOU ARE KNOWN FOR STRESSING THE IMPORTANCE OF ACADEMICS TO YOUR PLAYERS. HOW CAN A HIGH SCHOOL COACH MAKE HIS PLAYERS’ PERFORMANCE IN THE CLASSROOM A PRIORITY?
If I was a high school coach, before I even took the job, I’d visit with the principal, the athletic director and head of guidance. I’d start a tutorial system that would be inundated in the football program. The program needs to have tutoring for those in need. We’ll need extra resources to fund that type of support system and an accountability structure from the assistant coaches. Everybody from the top down needs to be on the same page. We are going to develop our players academically because an education lasts a lifetime.
HOW DO YOU BALANCE IMPLEMENTING YOUR SCHEME VS. CATERING TO YOUR PLAYERS’ STRENGTHS?
The mindset around here – and something I believe works – is it goes players, formations, plays. That’s the order of importance. What can a player do best? Put them in formations and route concepts within the scheme to maximize their best performance. Rather than asking a kid to change for your scheme, you can create schematics based on what your players do well. If you don’t have a big offensive line, it’s hard to run power. If your quarterback can’t throw, it’s difficult to run a vertical passing game. The best coaches I’ve been around can adapt to a guy’s strengths. Sometimes a belief in doing things the same way every year and running the same system can limit the players. It has to start with the players. Look at what you have,a nd then decide your base foundation — spread, Wing-T, 4-3, 3-4, 3-3-5 and so on.
ON A PLAYER’S TRANSITION TO HIGH SCHOOL:
“I think that summer between eighth grade and the start of freshman year is absolutely critical in terms of establishing habits. The philosophy has to be strict through freshman year. Once they show their grades can be the best they can possibly be, they can graduate out of that structure.”
ON OFFSEASON CONDITIONING:
“I think it’s really important for every high school coach to have someone on his staff or in the athletic department that is an expert in that area. If he doesn’t, either the head coach of an assistant needs to learn how to properly teach and implement a holistic program.”
ON SOCIAL MEDIA:
“You have to explain to young people that anything you put out there is a reflection of who you are. Build a bridge of trust, and kids will make great choices. I think it’s a mistake to tell them they can’t do it. They will be rebellious, that’s what kids do. Teach them how to brand themselves. College coaches are looking at it.”