Wednesday, April 25, 2007

One-on-one with Pat Fitzgerald

For The Daily's cover story on Pat Fitzgerald, Wildcats Watch caught up with Northwestern's second-year head coach and asked him some questions about life, coaching and Coach Walker. Here are some highlights from the interview:

On going through his first spring as head coach:
"It’s amazing when I think back to last year, and the first team meeting and the first practice and the first practice in Kenosha -- (it was) just a whirlwind of emotions. And to be able now to focus in an offseason to prepare the team to plan, with our staff and our leadership council, exactly the direction we’re going to go with our football team, I’m going to go out and act upon it."

On the night of Randy Walker's death:
"I couldn’t believe it. Couldn’t believe it. Pretty emotional night ... I don’t even know how to put that into words, those feelings.

"Coach was always a great prankster, and always had – we called them diversions. It almost seemed like it was a diversion. Especially that night, that coach was playing a prank on us, you know, kind of testing us."

On learning of NU's intentions:
"(On Wednesday before Walker's services), Mark (Murphy) came in and visited our staff and said they were going to stay within our football program. And that wasn’t important now, but they wanted to keep the continuity of our staff, the momentum we had going, and hire a head coach from within our football family that they’re going to make some decisions and visit with us, and that’ll be some point after we had the services for coach.

"So I think everybody in the room felt confident that we were going to have a job. So that was a good feeling, and that things weren’t going to change."

On the day of Walker's services/being named head coach:
"I think it was Thursday night, Mark came over to the house, and said, you know, that president Bienen and Mark would like to offer me the opportunity to be the head coach here. And that Friday I was named, and it was just kind of a rollercoaster. Thursday was an extremely emotional day. I had the opportunity to eulogize coach from the perspective of our staff. It was a tremendous honor, and Tammy (Walker, Randy's wife) asked me and it was just – it was the first time I’d ever done that in my life.

"I don’t know if I’ve prayed as much as I prayed that night before (the services). I’m not a really outward guy in my faith. I don’t think that that’s my calling. And I’m a big believer in to each their own, (but) that was a pretty long night.

"(The service) was just a great celebration of coach’s life. It really was emotional, and (to) go home, it was just surreal. I don’t know, it just kind of didn’t really hit me until maybe that afternoon when I had a chance to meet with the staff."

On helping the team cope with the loss:
"Football didn’t really seem that important. It was more about building relationships with people, touching our program and really getting a lot of copmmunication going with our players, making sure they were – and our staff, and everybody here that supports our program – making sure they were doing OK with losing coach and helping Tammy and Jamie (Randy's son) and Abby (Randy's daughter) through it. So it was a long stretch, a long stretch. Tough."

On whether he is comfortable in his role:
"Yeah, I mean, I’m doing what I love to do. I’ve always dreamt of being a coach, since I can remember thinking about getting a real job back in high school. And now, to have this opportunity, to be here at my alma mater, I don’t know if it gets any better."

On how settled he is as head coach, and on the program itself:
"Just from an organizational standpoint, from a management standpoint, I felt very comfortable taking over the position, but now to go through it for a year ... I’m still analyzing the entire program, if that makes sense.

"You asked me about my stamp, I think what you see from me is a guy that’s really organized. I think our staff does a great job, I think everybody around our football program is extremely organized and understands exactly what I want to do and how we want to do it, and that our kids buy into it. They want to win, they’re hungry to win, they’re hungry to be successful and I think there’s not a team and a staff that’s tighter than us. I’d like to meet them if they are."

On developing a 'family' atmosphere:
"We talk about family around here a lot, and that’s just something I believe a football team needs to have. You’re not going to be everybody’s best friend. That’s not what I’m looking for. But I’m looking for you to be a teammate. To be a teammate, I think you jneed to be a great family member, which means if we’re teammates together, you need a hug, you’re going through a tough time, I’m there for you. I’ve got your back. But when I need to kick you in the pants, I’m going to kick you in the pants as hard as I possibly can. That’s being a teammate, and that’s being a part of a family. That’s being responsible for your actions, being someone that you can trust and that’s loyal, that’s dedicated and can sacrifice to be a part of that family and put that family above you as the individual. And I think that’s how you win.

"That doesn’t mean they all need to be going out and watching movies together and hanging out, but it still, when they’re here, they’re part of a family."

"That’s one thing that I think recruits see. That’s not just lip-service, that’s program wide, and I think that helps them in the transition, that helps them through the growing process, and we believe we’re here to develop these young men and prepare them for life after football."

On his personal relationship with players:
"I think I’m brutally honest with them. I think I shoot them straight. I think I hold them accountable for what they do, and I think I present them with a plan to help them develop on an everyday basis."

On whether his age plays a role in relating to players:
"Yeah, I’m (young). I mean, I played Sega. I can’t say that I’m part of the PlayStation or Xbox generation, but I understand some of the things they’re going through, and I really understand some of the things they’re going through here at Northwestern."

On how he spends his 'down time':
"It’s a lifestyle. And there’s down time. When we have our vacations, we have our vacations. I probably won’t take my computer with me, but I have my phone, contacting recruits a lot. There’s a lot of downtime there that you can contact recruits – sitting in the airport, driving in cars, calling high school coaches. I spend a lot of time. There’s not down time.

"It’s more of a lifestyle than a profession. I mean, there’s just certain things you do. At five o’clock, the job doesn’t end. I don’t go home and leave my job in the office and I come back and I analyze my widgets the next day. It’s a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week job."

On his favorite quote, from Tiger Woods:
The quote: "I hate sitting still. I hate being stale. I've always got to be moving. I've always got to be challenged."

"When I read that, I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s the way I look at it.’ I’m stealing it, but I like it. I don’t like sitting still. I don’t vacation very well. … I’m still text messaging recruits and talking to our coaches and our kids, and it’s just kind of the nature of the beast with this profession."

On his 'free time':
"I guess the best way to describe it is, I don’t have my time ... My time is my family time. When I’m with my wife and my family and my two boys (Jack and Ryan) and our immediate family, that’s my time. I really enjoy that time. I live for it."

On his work ethic:
"I’m not going to ever let anybody outwork me. I’m never going to be able to look at our coaching staff and say, ‘This coach outworked me and that’s why I lost that recruit for you,’ and look at our players and say, ‘We lost to University X because their head coach and their staff outworked our staff.’ I’m never gonna look at Mark Murphy and President Bienen and say, ‘We didn’t get that money raised because I didn’t go out there and help the athletic department,’ and I’m not going to look at our student body and say: ‘You know what? Your college experience (wasn’t) as exciting as mine, just because I wouldn’t come out and see you and make people passionate about Northwestern football, Northwestern athletics.’"

On whether he's noticed his own progress as coach:
"I think I’ve been so caught up in it, I haven’t really had time to think about it. Not that I really want to think about it. I just want to stay the course."

On last season's 4-8 record:
"Last year there are some obvious reasons why we lost, and it starts with me. I take full responsibility for that."

On pressure to succeed this season:
"I don’t worry about outside expectations or outside pressures, because they won’t even come close to the expectations and the pressure that I put upon (us) and upon our team. So I’m not really worried about that."

On whether this fall is critical:
"I think every fall’s critical. In the development of a football program, I think you have to lay a foundation. And if that foundation’s laid with success, then everything kind of falls in place ... you fill the stands up with fans, your players are playing at a successful level, they’re winning offseason awards, they’re getting individual accolades, the football program is looked at in a high regard, so then that helps recruiting and you get better players, you become a better coach, your success then continues to mount, and it’s just a really positive snowball, so to speak."

On wanting to coach at NU:
"It was always a dream and a goal of mine to be a coach here at Northwestern, and the opportunity I was given to earn a Northwestern education, be a part of the student culture here, and obviously be a student athlete here ... I wouldn’t trade that for all the money in the world. And I feel like I’m giving back, just the smallest amount, by having the opportunity to coach here and giving young men the opportunity to come here to be a student athlete."

On his future at NU:
"I expect to be here for a long time. I expect to see my boys play for me, and maybe at that point, maybe it’ll be time for me to move on. But I expect to be here for a long time, and I expect for us to win a lot of championships and be very successful, and continue to do it with the excellence in education that we’ve had."

On his vision of NU:
"I’m looking for this program to be the model of college programs throughout the country – win championships and to do with the highest order of excellence in academics and the highest order of excellence in character. And if you get the right people here, they’re going to be extremely successful academically, and it’s obvious we have the right people here in our program with the success we’re having academically.

"That’s my vision – is not to sacrifice anything that we believe in, and to win at the highest level. I believe that we’re on the cusp of doing that on a consistent basis, and we’ve just got to continue to bring the right players here and continue to tweak our plan as we move forward."

... and with that Wildcats Watch is taking a break. Keep an eye on The Daily for any further NU football updates. Thanks for reading!

--Patrick Dorsey

More Rees trouble

This was supposed to be just a series of exerpts from Wildcats Watch's recent interview with coach Pat Fitzgerald, and we'll get to that. But first, a more pressing issue: Senior center Trevor Rees has been suspended again.

Just a year after he returned to Northwestern from an academic-related suspension (which eventually landed him at Houston Baptist University), Rees was suspended indefinitely Tuesday, according to a release from the athletic department. Though NU declined to explain, the Pioneer Press is reporting that Rees was charged with three traffic violations, including driving under the influence, stemming from an incident early Sunday morning.

It's anyone's guess how serious this is. If the reports are true, Rees faces charges similar to those faced by offensive coordinator Garrick McGee earlier this offseason. McGee came out of it with a reckless driving conviction, and was back on the sidelines for all of spring practice.

So will Rees be able to return in time for summer camp in Kenosha, Wis.? Given NU's history of second (and third) chances, it wouldn't be a surprise. But if he doesn't, where does that leave the Wildcats and their already thin and inexperienced offensive line?

Heading into spring, it appeared the offensive line had four solid starters (Rees included) and one spot -- right tackle -- up for grabs. Sophomore Kurt Mattes appeared to fill that spot. But now, with Rees possibly gone, there's another spot that could be open.

The logical choice is senior Adam Crum, who played pretty well at guard last season after spending his first two years at center. Crum is projected to start at left guard, meaning someone green -- from the group of sophomores Desmond Taylor, Ramon Diaz, junior Alex Rucks, and redshirt freshmen Mike Boyle and Keegan Grant -- would have to fill in after Crum's shift.

The guess here: Taylor, who started one game last year at left tackle in place of an injured Dylan Thiry (and had to deal with Purdue's Anthony Spencer, a possible first-round pick this Saturday). He's built like a guard (6 foot 3, 285 pounds) and has the experience -- at least more than the other options. But again, that's just a guess. A lot can happen between now and Sept. 1, including a Rees return.

The point is, the offensive line already was NU's weakest unit. If this Rees suspension lasts, that cripples it even more. And because a solid offensive line is the key to an efficient offense, the otherwise formidable Cats might have trouble scoring points and staying on the field in 2007.

--Patrick Dorsey

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Spring game, Fitzgerald and more

Due to travel and moving, Wildcats Watch has been out of commission for about a week, and also was unable to attend the Spring Game. However, The Daily's Chris Gentilviso offered his recap for Monday's paper here:

Also, on Friday The Daily's Spring Guide came out, and it included the cover story on Pat Fitzgerald, who now is settling into his job after a year of turmoil.

Coming soon: Exerpts from Wildcats Watch's one-on-one interview with Fitzgerald, a lot of which did not make it to The Daily's print edition.

--Patrick Dorsey