Northwestern locks in Pat Fitzgerald with new contract that runs through 2030

Mr. Wildcat, the winningest coach in school history, is sticking around where he belongs.

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Pat Fitzgerald and team with the Citrus Bowl trophy on New Year’s Day.

Pat Fitzgerald and team with the Citrus Bowl trophy on New Year’s Day.

Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

Pat Fitzgerald isn’t going anywhere.

Not to the Bears, a rumor that pinballed around for a while late in both teams’ seasons. Not to the NFL or a college football superpower.

Mr. Wildcat is sticking around where he belongs. Northwestern signed Fitzgerald, 46, to a new deal that runs through the 2030 season, the school announced Wednesday.

“From the moment I stepped on campus as an undergraduate, I have believed this is the finest university in the country, with the potential to offer an unmatched student-athlete experience,” Fitzgerald said in a statement.

Maybe that’s right on the money. Maybe it isn’t. Either way, to know Fitzgerald is to know how deeply he believes those words.

Fitzgerald the football player wasn’t really going anywhere coming out of Sandburg in 1993, at least not as most big schools saw it. That is, if they saw the linebacker at all. Northwestern — with its non-existent winning tradition back then — was his only major offer, and that’s stretching “major” almost beyond recognition.

You know how it went from there. All-American seasons in the middle of Gary Barnett’s defense. A Rose Bowl. The giant shoulder pads and neck roll of No. 51. The seeds of Fitzgerald’s growth into the most important figure in Northwestern’s football history.

Fitzgerald has won more games — 106 — than any other football coach Northwestern has had. Fifteen seasons in, he’s the seventh-longest-tenured head coach in the FBS ranks, trailing only Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz, TCU’s Gary Patterson, Utah’s Kyle Whittingham, Ohio’s Frank Solich, Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy and Middle Tennessee State’s Rick Stockstill. Average age of the six who were hired before Fitzgerald: 63.

If Fitzgerald lasts the duration of this contract, he’ll have 25 seasons under his belt at Northwestern. That’s the same number of years Tom Osborne and Paul “Bear” Bryant coached at Nebraska and Alabama, respectively.

And if Fitzgerald is still wearing a whistle in Evanston when he’s 63? By then, he’d be at 32 seasons. That’s more than Frank Beamer’s 28 at Virginia Tech. It’s dang close to Bobby Bowden’s 34 at Florida State. OK, so it’s still a long stretch from Joe Paterno’s 46 at Penn State.

This is the direction Fitzgerald is headed in. Some coaches are overtaken by wanderlust from time to time. Some are wired to need new challenges. Others find trouble or burn bridges. Fitzgerald is a different breed, and a rare one. He is Northwestern. He is the color purple. He is “Go ’Cats!” in all its cornball glory.

So now what? Fitzgerald will try to build on a universally respected record that includes Big Ten West titles in two of the last three seasons.

And his outgoing boss, Jim Phillips, gets to take one more bow. Not that he’s the type to do that.

“We have one of the best coaches in college football and, more importantly, a leader uncommonly suited to this university,” Phillips said in a statement. “Over the course of his tenure, Coach Fitzgerald has built a culture of unwavering belief in excellence both on and off the field and led our Wildcats to unprecedented, sustained success.”

One of the best athletic directors of his time, Phillips will leave for the ACC next month to become its new commissioner. Who could question him for making a move up the food chain like that? Maybe his football coach, come to think of it.

No, not really.

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