EVANSTON, Ill. — Until Monday afternoon, Pat Fitzgerald had been the face of Northwestern football.
He was the program’s most decorated player in the modern era, a key figure in the 1995 Rose Bowl renaissance that changed the trajectory of a bottom-dwelling program, a College Football Hall of Famer and the school’s winningest coach (110 victories) — responsible for two Big Ten West Division titles and five of the program’s six bowl wins. Fitzgerald had spurned overtures from other college programs and NFL teams to remain at Northwestern, announcing after the team’s 2018 Holiday Bowl win that he would be a “Wildcat for life.”
On Monday, university president Michael Schill fired Fitzgerald in the wake of an investigation into hazing allegations.
The dismissal of Northwestern’s most recognizable football alum rocked the program and the university, and it left many questions unaddressed. Schill has only communicated through letters to the campus community, and athletic director Derrick Gragg had been traveling overseas until Tuesday.
“You change the trajectory of this place for 30 years,” a Northwestern source told ESPN on Tuesday. “I don’t see how we get out of this any time 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 program.
How did we get here?
On Nov. 30, a Northwestern football player emailed Kristina 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 vile hazing situation” within the program. The player, who has since left the school, outlined the practice of “running,” where a group of older players restrain a younger player — often a freshman who had made an on-field mistake — and engage in sexualized behavior.
Northwestern responded by launching an investigation and hiring attorney Maggie Hickey and the ArentFox Schiff firm to oversee the process. The investigation, which ESPN first reported in January, interviewed former and current players, coaches and staff. On Friday, Northwestern announced the investigation had found evidence largely supporting the whistleblower’s claims, but they didn’t find evidence that Fitzgerald or other coaches knew about the hazing activities. However, investigators concluded coaches “had opportunities … to discover and report the hazing conduct.” The school only released an executive summary of the findings, 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 monitor who wouldn’t report to Fitzgerald or the staff.
The story shifted Saturday when the whistleblower detailed his hazing allegations to The Daily Northwestern, the student newspaper. Other former players corroborated all or part of the whistleblower’s claims. Current players released a statement, signed by the team, strongly supporting Fitzgerald. The current players said the allegations were “exaggerated and twisted” and that Fitzgerald “was not involved in any of the alleged incidents in any way, shape or form.”
But late Saturday night, Schill released a letter stating that he needed to reconsider Fitzgerald’s penalty. Schill wrote that he had initially focused “too much on what the report concluded [Fitzgerald] didn’t know and not enough on what he should have known.”
After nearly two days of silence from Northwestern and additional media reports, Schill called Fitzgerald on Monday and fired him. Fitzgerald held a brief staff meeting and later addressed players in an emotional team meeting on campus. Several players expressed their outrage that neither Schill nor Gragg were present for the meeting.
Schill announced the firing in another letter, writing that upon reflection, Northwestern’s football culture had been “broken” in some ways, and that Fitzgerald “is ultimately responsible for the culture of his team.”
In a statement Monday night, Fitzgerald wrote he and the school had mutually agreed on his initial suspension, and he was surprised when Schill “unilaterally revoked our agreement without any prior notification and subsequently terminated my employment.”
His 17-year tenure as Northwestern’s coach was over.
What’s next for Pat Fitzgerald?
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Fitzgerald could pursue legal action against Northwestern. In his statement Monday night, Fitzgerald announced he had retained high-powered attorney Dan Webb, the former U.S. attorney for the northern district of Illinois, to “take the necessary steps to protect my rights in accordance with the law.” Northwestern in January 2021 announced Fitzgerald had signed a new 10-year contract with the school, and the coach is still owed more than $40 million, according to sources.
Fitzgerald, 48, will remain connected to Northwestern football through his son Jack, a freshman tight end for the team. He ultimately could seek other coaching opportunities, though he and his wife are both from the Chicago area, and they have two younger sons also still in school.
While other successful Northwestern coaches have 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 the plans for an $800 million rebuild of Ryan Field. Some sources around the program questioned whether the stadium project would proceed without Fitzgerald at the helm.
“I don’t think the stadium’s going to get built,” a former Northwestern staff member told ESPN.
What’s next for the Northwestern players?
Northwestern held a morning workout for players Tuesday, though the shock of the previous few days had not worn off, according to sources. The team is set to begin preseason training in August, but who shows up and who leads the workouts remains unknown.
Defensive coordinator David Braun, hired in January, is managing the program and could soon be named interim coach. Braun, one of four new assistants for the 2023 season, had no previous affiliation with Northwestern and was not around for the alleged hazing.
Many players, some of whom voiced their support for Fitzgerald, came away from Monday’s meeting upset and hurt, especially by the absences of campus leaders. Gragg briefly joined the meeting via Zoom but, according to sources, shut off his camera after an opening statement and did not take questions from players. He returned to campus Tuesday. Schill did not attend Monday’s meeting. Braun and offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian addressed the group, according to sources.
“I was watching other people’s faces as Gragg was speaking, a dozen or so, and I saw a lot of angry looks and the shaking of heads as he spoke,” a player told ESPN. “I was also one of those people. I’ve spoken to many other players. Every single one is angry at Schill and Gragg in their decision and the fact that neither showed up in person and Schill didn’t even make the Zoom; it goes to show how cowardly they are.”
NCAA rules allow Northwestern players to enter the transfer portal for 30 days after a head-coaching change. Northwestern has yet to have any players officially enter the portal, though sources in and around the program tell ESPN that some are considering the option.
What is the long-term coaching 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. Gragg, hired as AD in 2021, would seemingly lead the search for Fitzgerald’s successor.
The interest level and view of the Northwestern job varies. Northwestern went 1-11 in 2022, its worst season since 1989, and is just 4-20 since finishing No. 10 nationally in 2020. The program has struggled in the transfer portal/NIL era, in part because its admissions policies on who can transfer in, and the fallout from Fitzgerald’s dismissal and the hazing scandal will be significant. There also could be administrative unrest, as both Gragg and Schill are receiving criticism on campus and elsewhere.
But Northwestern also is a Big Ten member, providing financial resources that few programs can match. The school has dramatically improved its facilities, and the overdue Ryan Field rebuild would be the cherry on top.
Northwestern might be hesitant to pursue candidates with direct connections, especially those who worked for or played under Fitzgerald. But New York Giants offensive coordinator Mike Kafka, a rising star in the NFL ranks and a former Northwestern quarterback under Fitzgerald, could be an intriguing option. Alabama offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, who started his coaching career at Northwestern in 2015 and interviewed for the Wildcats’ OC job, is a Chicago-area native who soon will have opportunities to lead a program. Former Wisconsin defensive coordinator and interim coach Jim Leonhard is another option.
The school also could look toward an established head coach such as Wake Forest’s Dave Clawson or Duke’s Mike Elko, who won ACC Coach of the Year honors during his debut season in 2022. Perhaps Gragg would gauge interest from former college coaches at academically oriented schools, such as David Shaw (Stanford) or Derek Mason (Vanderbilt).
How did the administration handle this?
The general consensus: very poorly.
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 the release of a limited summary did not sit well with the whistleblower.
“This is being covered up,” he told ESPN. “It was released on a Friday on the busiest vacation [week] of the year. They didn’t release the results of the investigation because they’re a private institution. And they gave a two-week suspension in a summer recruiting dead period. Somehow they thought that this information would not come to light at some point in time?”
Schill’s change in position came after significant media and public backlash Saturday. He met on Sunday with Northwestern trustees, whom sources said varied in their opinions on whether to retain Fitzgerald.
Even when Schill finally spoke out, it came in the form of a letter. Neither Schill nor Gragg has addressed reporters in any forum.
“There’s no communication, no plan,” a source said. “The players are sitting there, like, what’s going on? The coaches are sitting there, what’s going on?”
Gragg, who had been in a Zoom meeting with players, finally met with the full staff on Tuesday after returning from vacation. Gragg informed the assistant coaches, support staff and strength staff they would be retained.
Gragg’s status going forward will be notable, as criticism from alumni and others is mounting against him. Northwestern’s baseball program is also facing a scandal, involving alleged bullying and abusive behavior by a coach whom Gragg hired.
Both Northwestern administrators have some damage control to do in and around a clearly damaged football program.