May 10, 2011

Pat Fitzgerald Signs Lengthy Contract Extension, Effectively Dashing Any Hopes of Joining PSU Staff

2010 Penn State vs Northwestern-30
Next at Penn State,
or Northwestern's long term plan?
Yesterday, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that Pat Fitzgerald, head coach of the Northwestern football team, was set to sign a brand new extension "in excess of seven years." Today, more details are emerging, but it appears that Northwestern is doing all they can to keep their man locked up for as long as they can. And for good reason - there is no shortage of teams out there that would love to have the 36-year old coach running their staff, one central PA school in particular.

At the outset, let me be the first to admit to being squarely on Team Fitzgerald for the future of Penn State coaching. Four months ago, I wrote an article for SBN Pittsburgh outlining the potential successors for Joe Paterno. Some will say that this issue is a "dead issue" (possibly a poor choice of words given the age of Paterno), but I think it's imperative that fans, administration, and other coaches keep an eye to the future. Paterno can't coach forever, and when his contract expires after this season, the odds are that he'll hang up his laces; then again, we've heard that story before, so who really knows what Joe will do? Regardless, it would be silly to think that the university, the athletic department, or even fans aren't thinking about the post-Joe era, even while the current-Joe era is still ongoing.

With that in mind, the news out of Chicago is somewhat finalizing, for the immediate future at least. The new Fitzgerald contract is rumored to be an eight year extension, a mere two years after Fitzgerald signed a seven year extension in 2009. Northwestern clearly doesn't want Fitzgerald going anywhere.

Fitzgerald has now been at Northwestern for five years, amassing a record of 34-29, and going 0-3 in bowl games over that span. That might not seem like a highly sought after coach's record, but the numbers only tell one side of the story. Fitzgerald is a young, energetic coach, a former All-American at Northwestern as a linebacker, and definitely a man on the rise. We'll have more on the topic (and data) later, but Fitzgerald routinely coaches his teams to higher-than-expected win totals, based on recruiting data. In the most recent four year stretch (2007-2011), Fitzgerald's recruiting classes have averaged 10th in the conference based on rankings, but his wins total is sixth.

While the Chicago Sun-Times might think these stories will stop now that Fitzgerald has signed a length extension, the news might have the reverse effect. College football fans, Penn State specifically, will now be wondering what it will take to get Fitzgerald out of Evanston and over to State College. However, as Paul Myerberg of Pre-Snap Read points out, the parallels to Joe Paterno might be Penn State's downfall.

Penn State can offer prestige, a boost in salary and the chance to be a perennial national title contender. Don’t discount that, ties to the alma mater or no. But it’s not home for Fitzgerald; Evanston is home. He could go elsewhere, but will his heart be in it quite like it is with his Wildcats? Would it be the same?

The parallels with Paterno are very real, but they ignore one obvious correlation. Like Paterno at Penn State, Fitzgerald has the chance to put his stamp on the program – a chance to become Northwestern’s Paterno, to maintain the comparison. He’s not turning down that opportunity, which trumps any offer a power program could put on the table, whether money, the chance for titles, what have you.
He might want to Paternoize the Northwestern program, but I'm not sure the resources exist for him in Evanston. Penn State's football program turns a $50MM profit while the athletic department as a whole earns just over $43MM yearly. After taking into account coaching salaries, recruiting, etc., the AD sees roughly $26MM per year. Northwestern is a private university, so their data are not publicly available, but I'd be willing to bet they don't see numbers like that, let alone the attendance and fan base numbers. But I guess that is Myerberg's point - Fitzgerald might want to turn Northwestern into the power that Paterno turned Penn State into.

Then again, when Paterno finally steps down and Tim Curley and Graham Spanier come knocking on Fitzgerald's door, it might be too much for the young coach to turn down. Even with what is surely a high buyout clause, the chance to follow a legend might be too hard to pass up. The best part is that Fitzgerald fills the mold that many Penn State fans are looking for - the "Penn State Man" mold (despite the fact that he's not a Penn State alum). Hey, it doesn't cost anything to talk.

UPDATE: Moments after this story was published, the official release came out - Pat Fitzgerald is signed with Northwestern through 2020.

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