Pat Fitzgerald has NU in position as PJ Fleck, Jim Harbaugh entertain
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Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald doesn’t want to hear about his team’s strong finish last season, in which it won six times and suffered two competitive losses to top-10 teams in its last nine games.
The focus is on avoiding another slow start, such as the one that saw the Wildcats lose three of their first four games last fall and have to scramble to get to 7-6.
‘‘We were really inconsistent in the first month,’’ Fitzgerald said Tuesday at Big Ten media days. ‘‘I take that responsibility on my shoulders. We were banged up at the end of camp, and I took my foot off the pedal to get us to the season. I’m not gonna let what happened last year happen again.’’
NU will need to be ready this season. It starts Big Ten play against Wisconsin and Penn State, which look like its toughest opponents.
On the other hand, with nine starters back on offense — including quarterback Clayton Thorson and running back Justin Jackson — and eight on defense, the Wildcats might have a shot at their first appearance in the Big Ten championship game.
That’s the last remaining step for Fitzgerald. Still only 42, an age when many head coaches are just starting out, Fitzgerald is in his 12th season. That ranks second in the Big Ten to Kirk Ferentz, who has been at Iowa for 19 years and is the longest-tenured coach in the country.
With a career record of 77-62, Fitzgerald — who received a 10-year contract extension through 2026 in the offseason — is NU’s winningest coach by 28 victories. He’s well on his way to doubling up second-place Lynn Waldorf (49-45-7) long before he is finished.
That said, Fitzgerald is the exception rather than the rule in the lucrative but perilous world of college football coaching. Nine of the Big Ten’s 14 coaches have been in their jobs for three years or less.
Paul Chryst (Wisconsin), Jim Harbaugh (Michigan) and Mike Riley (Nebraska) are going into their third years. The second-year group features Lovie Smith (Illinois), D.J. Durkin (Maryland) and Chris Ash (Rutgers).
While two members of the rookie group — Jeff Brohm (Purdue) and Tom Allen (Indiana) — will have to create their own excitement, P.J. Fleck arrives at Minnesota amid an almost Harbaugh-like frenzy.
‘‘Is everyone done typing?’’ Fitzgerald joked when he followed Fleck to the podium. ‘‘I just want to make sure you’re all caught up.’’
Just 36, Fleck came to the Golden Gophers’ job from Western Michigan, where he attracted as much attention with his ‘‘Row the Boat’’ slogan as he did for winning football games.
On Tuesday, Fleck talked about the trademark rights to ‘‘Row the Boat’’ (‘‘I don’t make any money’’) and the upcoming ESPN reality show ‘‘Being P.J. Fleck’’ (‘‘That’s not a title I would necessarily pick’’).
All in all, though, it’s pretty good stuff for the charismatic Fleck, a native of west suburban Sugar Grove, who has rowed his way from Northern Illinois receiver to a splashy coaching career.
Still, Fleck has a ways to go before he tops Harbaugh as a media star. Harbaugh shared some singular insights from Michigan’s spring-practice trip to Rome.
‘‘The Colosseum [was] around for 600 years’’ as an active stadium, he noted. ‘‘Around here, 30 or 40 years and they tear it down. Amazing, really.’’
In the fast-paced world of college football, though, Michigan — which returns only one defensive starter — is sharing the spotlight with Penn State and Ohio State this preseason. Are the Wolverines under the radar?
‘‘I don’t know that we are,’’ Harbaugh said. ‘‘I don’t know that it matters; it’s irrelevant. We’re just going to work on Monday with the ability to be good, to be tough to beat.’’
In that regard, Big Ten football coaches are alike. Regardless of their styles, from Fitzgerald and Ferentz to Harbaugh and Fleck, winning games determines where they stand.
Follow me on Twitter @HerbGould and at TMGcollegesports.com.