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The Northwestern football team fired Coach Fitzgerald. What then?

The Northwestern football team fired Coach Fitzgerald.  What then?

Adam RittenbergSenior writer for ESPNJuly 11, 2023 at 04:55 p.m. ET9 minutes to read

What’s next for Northwestern after firing Pat Fitzgerald?

Adam Rittenberg joins SportsCenter to discuss what Northwestern’s plan could be to replace Pat Fitzgerald as the program’s head football coach.

Evanston, Illinois — Until Monday afternoon, Pat Fitzgerald was the face Northwest Football.

He was the program’s most decorated player in the modern era, was a key figure in the 1995 Rose Bowl renaissance that changed the course of the basement program, a College Football Hall of Famer and the school’s winningest coach (110 wins) – responsible for two Big Ten West Division titles and five of the six dishes on the programme. Fitzgerald rejected overtures from other college programs and NFL teams to stay at Northwestern, and announced after the team’s 2018 holiday win that he would be a “Wildcat for life.”

On Monday, university president Michael Schell fired Fitzgerald following an investigation into allegations of hazing.

The famous Northwestern football club’s dismissal rocked the program and the university, leaving many questions unaddressed. Schell only reached out through letters to the campus community, and athletic director Derek Garage was traveling abroad as of Tuesday.

“You’ve been changing the course of this place for 30 years,” a Northwestern source told ESPN on Tuesday. “I don’t see how we get out of this anytime soon. It’s catastrophic.”

Here’s a look at a tumultuous weekend in Evanston, how it ended for Fitzgerald and what’s next for the programme.


How did we get here?

On November 30, a Northwestern soccer player sent an email to Christina Minor, the school’s senior associate athletic director for compliance, with the subject line: “NORTHWESTERN FOOTBALL HAZING.” In the email obtained by ESPN, the player reported an “extremely disturbing and frightening situation” within the program. The player, who has since left school, identified the practice of “running”, in which a group of older players rein in a younger player—often a rookie who fouled on the field—and engage in sexual behavior.

Northwestern responded by launching an investigation and hiring attorney Maggie Hickey and the firm ArentFox Schiff to oversee the process. The investigation, first reported by ESPN in January, interviewed former and current players, coaches, and employees. Northwestern announced Friday that the investigation found evidence that largely supported the whistleblower’s claims, but that they found no evidence that Fitzgerald or the other coaches knew about the hazing activities. However, the investigators concluded that coaches “have opportunities … to detect and report hazing behavior.” The school only released an executive summary of the results, which included few details and no names other than Fitzgerald’s. The coach received a two-week unpaid suspension as part of several actions from the school, which included a football locker room observer who would not report to Fitzgerald or the staff.

The story turned Saturday when the whistleblower detailed his disturbing allegations to the Daily Northwestern student newspaper. Other former players have corroborated all or part of the whistleblower’s claims. The current players released a statement signed by the team strongly supporting Fitzgerald. The current players said the allegations were “exaggerated and misleading” and that Fitzgerald “was not involved in any of the alleged incidents in any way, shape or form”.

Late Saturday night, however, Schell released a message saying he needed to reconsider Fitzgerald’s penalty. Schell writes that he initially focused too much on the report’s findings [Fitzgerald] He did not know, nor was it enough, what he should have known.

After nearly two days of silence from Northwestern and additional media reports, Schell called Fitzgerald on Monday and fired him. Fitzgerald held a brief staff meeting and later spoke with the players at an emotional team meeting on campus. Many players expressed their anger that Shell and Garage did not show up for the meeting.

Schell announced the firing in another letter, writing that on reflection, Northwestern’s football culture had been “broken” in some ways, and that Fitzgerald was “ultimately responsible for his team’s culture.”

In a statement Monday night, Fitzgerald wrote that he and the school had mutually agreed to his initial suspension, and was surprised when Schell “unilaterally canceled our agreement without any prior notice, thereby terminating my employment.”

His 17-year tenure as coach of Northwestern is over.


What’s next for Pat Fitzgerald?

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Fitzgerald can file a lawsuit against Northwestern. In his statement Monday night, Fitzgerald announced that he had appointed high-ranking attorney Dan Webb, former US Attorney for the District of Northern Illinois, to “take the necessary steps to protect my rights in accordance with the law.” Northwestern V.N It was announced in January 2021 that Fitzgerald signed a new 10-year contract with the school, and the coach still owes more than $40 million, according to sources.

Fitzgerald, 48, will remain connected to Northwestern football through his son, Jack, who is a freshman on the team. Eventually he could look for other coaching opportunities, though he and his wife are both from the Chicago area, and have two younger sons who are still in school.

While other successful Northwestern coaches left for other jobs—Ara Parseghian to Notre Dame, Gary Barnett to Colorado—Fitzgerald saw Northwestern as a destination. He was heavily involved in fundraising and planned an $800 million rebuild at Ryan Field. Some sources around the program questioned whether the stadium project would have continued without Fitzgerald at the helm.

“I don’t think the stadium will ever be built,” a former Northwestern employee told ESPN.


What’s next for Northwestern players?

Northwestern held a morning workout for its players on Tuesday, though the trauma of the past few days hasn’t faded, according to sources. The team is set to begin pre-season training in August, but who attends and who leads training remains unknown.

Defensive coordinator David Brown, hired in January, runs the program and may soon be named interim head coach. Brown, one of four new assistants for the 2023 season, had no prior affiliation with Northwestern and was not present due to alleged hazing.

Many of the players, some of whom have expressed support for Fitzgerald, walked away from Monday’s meet upset and hurt, especially by the absence of campus leaders. Gragg briefly joined the meeting via Zoom, but according to sources, he turned off his camera after an opening statement and didn’t take any questions from the players. Back on campus Tuesday. Scheele did not attend Monday’s meeting. According to sources, Brown and offensive coordinator Mike Pajakian addressed the group.

“I was watching other people’s faces while Garage was talking, a dozen or so, and I saw a lot of angry looks and heads bobbing as he spoke,” one player told ESPN. “I was also one of those people. I’ve talked to many of the other players. Everyone is angry at Shel and Garage at their decision and the fact that neither of them showed up in person and Shel didn’t even zoom in; it shows how cowardly they are.”

NCAA rules allow Northwestern players to be in the transfer gate for 30 days after a major training change. Northwestern has yet to have any players officially enter the gate, though sources in and around the program tell ESPN that some are considering that option.


What is the long-term training situation at Northwestern?

Northwestern has not announced a leadership plan, but, barring a surprise, the team will be led by an interim coach for the 2023 season. Garage, who is hired in 2021, will apparently lead the search for Fitzgerald’s successor.

The level of interest and vision of the Northwest job varies. Northwestern went 1-11 in 2022, its worst season since 1989, and it’s only 4-20 since finishing 10th nationally in 2020. The program has struggled with the transfer gate/NIL era, in part because of NIL policies He made his own arguments about who could move, and the fallout from Fitzgerald’s sacking and the hazing scandal would be significant. There could also be administrative turmoil, as both Gragg and Schill receive criticism on campus and elsewhere.

But Northwestern is also a member of the Big Ten, providing financial resources that few programs can match. The school has greatly improved its facilities, and the late Ryan Field rebuild will be the cherry on top.

Northwestern may be reluctant to pursue candidates with direct connections, especially those who worked or played under Fitzgerald. But New York Giants offensive coordinator Mike Kafka, a rising star in the NFL and former quarterback at Northwestern under Fitzgerald, could be an interesting option. Alabama offensive coordinator Tommy Reese, who began his coaching career at Northwestern in 2015 and interviewed with the Wildcats in the OC, is a native of the Chicago area who will soon have opportunities to lead the program. Former Wisconsin defensive coordinator and interim coach Jim Leonard is another option.

The school can also look to a head coach like Dave Clawson of Wake Forest or Mike Elko of Duke, who won the ACC Coach of the Year award during his debut season in 2022. Perhaps Garage is gauging the interest of former college coaches at academically-oriented schools, Like David Shaw (Stanford) or Derek Mason (Vanderbilt).


How did management deal with this?

General consensus: very bad.

The university, Fitzgerald and the whistleblower were satisfied with the way the investigation was conducted, according to statements and conversations with ESPN. But Friday’s conclusion and issuance of a limited summary did not satisfy the whistleblower.

“This is being covered up,” he told ESPN. It was released on Friday on the busiest holiday [week] of the year. They did not announce the results of the investigation because they are a private institution. They suspended work for two weeks during the summer when the recruitment process stopped. Somehow they thought that this information wouldn’t appear sometime? “

Schell’s change of heart followed a backlash from the media and the public on Saturday. On Sunday, he met with the Northwestern trustees, who sources said differed in their views on keeping Fitzgerald.

Even when Shiel finally spoke, it came in the form of a letter. Neither Schell nor Garage addressed reporters in any forum.

“There is no contact, no plan,” said a source. “The players are sitting there, what’s going on? The coaches are sitting there, what’s going on?”

Gragg, who was on a Zoom meeting with the players, finally met his entire crew on Tuesday after returning from vacation. Garage has informed the assistant coaches, support staff, and strength personnel that they will be retained.

Gragg’s status will be notable, as criticism from alumni and others mounts against him. Northwestern baseball program She also faces a scandalinvolving alleged bullying and abusive behavior by a coach hired by Grag.

Both Northwestern principals have some damage control to do in and around their football program, which is clearly damaged.

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