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Fitzgerald on Northwestern: ‘Our brand is as strong as I’ve ever seen’

Coach Pat Fitzgerald was out beating the bushes Wednesday, recruiting with fire in his eyes for his Northwestern program.

When the 42-year-old talks about what’s cooking with the Wildcats — winners of seven consecutive games and 26 since the start of the 2015 season, the most in any three-year stretch at the school in more than a century — he might as well be an All-American middle linebacker again.

What kid isn’t going to be impressed by Fitzgerald’s in-your-grill intensity?

‘‘Our brand is as strong as I have ever seen,’’ he said, sounding like a man prepared to leap through the phone and make me believe it if I had any doubts. ‘‘In Chicagoland, we’re dominating. And as I get around the country, it’s unbelievable.

Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald has led his teams to 26 victories since the start of the 2015 season, tying a century-old school record for any three-year period. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

‘‘You look at where we’re at right now — 26 wins since 2015? And 18-8 the last three years in the Big Ten? Man, that’s pretty good.’’

If there’s one thing Fitzgerald is up for doing these days, it’s tooting his program’s horn. Only the tooting is more like shouting and the horn is more like a megaphone. And that’s cool; it really is. The Orland Park native has earned the right, and he’s quite good at it.

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After NU’s blowout victory Saturday at Illinois, Fitzgerald used his words powerfully to put the woebegone Illini in their place and admonish those who had doubted the Wildcats after a slow start.

‘‘There were a lot of people taking shots at them,’’ he said of his players. ‘‘There were a lot of people taking shots at our program, taking shots at the coaching staff. I thought they answered that by shutting off the noise and doing the only thing you can in those circumstances: go to work. The Chicago work ethic. Roll your sleeves up and go to work. That’s what they did, and that’s why we’re Chicago’s Big Ten team.’’

This week, Fitzgerald is bummed not to be taking his team to the Big Ten title game in Indianapolis. The goal is still there — somewhere between a sore thumb and an albatross — at the top his to-do list. Maybe 2018 will be the year?

Meanwhile, the 9-3 Wildcats are ready to throw their focus into preparation for a bowl game, and Fitzgerald wants to see a long line of bowl representatives — from the Citrus, the Holiday, the TaxSlayer, the Music City — fighting for a piece of NU.

‘‘I think this is a pretty attractive team,’’ he said. ‘‘I hope we get to field a lot of calls. I’ll be disappointed if we don’t.’’

Stuck in his craw is the fact that Michigan State — also 9-3, with a head-to-head loss to the Wildcats — is ranked ahead of NU in the playoff, media and coaches polls. Fitzgerald doesn’t want to harp on that directly, but he’ll be rightfully ticked off if the Spartans land a better bowl assignment.

Where are the Wildcats hoping to go? The Citrus Bowl, a New Year’s Day game in Orlando in which they’d face a Southeastern Conference opponent, probably tops the wish list based on maximum exposure. The Holiday Bowl, on Dec. 28 in San Diego against a Pac-12 foe, also would be most welcome.

‘‘Our last bowl in California was the Rose Bowl,’’ Fitzgerald noted.

That was the capper of NU’s magical 1995 season, when Fitzgerald emerged as the best linebacker in the country. Alas, he missed the Rose Bowl with a broken leg.

More than two decades later, Fitzgerald has yet to take the Wildcats to such heights in his 12 seasons leading the program. But he’s getting closer. It’s inarguable that NU football is in a more solid position now than it was even then.

‘‘We’re fired up,’’ he said. ‘‘This is a great time to be a Wildcat.’’

Follow me on Twitter @SLGreenberg.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com