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Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern Wildcats a perfect combo

Northwestern's football team plays their spring scrimmage Ryan Field EvanstSaturday April 16 2011. Head coach PFitzgerald stands front his team

Northwestern's football team plays their spring scrimmage at Ryan Field in Evanston, Saturday, April 16, 2011. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald stands in front of his team during the playing of the National Anthem. Photo by J.Geil.

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Updated: June 11, 2011 12:34AM

Back in November, I got a call from a reporter in Altoona, Pa. I was in State College, Pa., for the Northwestern-Penn State football game, and the reporter wanted me to go on his radio show to talk about Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald.

When I did, it felt like an ambush.

Apparently, all anyone and everyone in Penn State land was talking about was how Fitzgerald was going to take over for legendary Nittany Lions coach Joe Paterno, who was wrapping up his 44th year and going for win No. 400 against the Wildcats. I hadn’t heard the rumors, but the reporter kept insisting that if all these fans and writers in Pennsylvania were talking about it, the rumors had to be true.

He likes it here — period

And in January when Michigan finally got rid of Rich Rodriguez, Fitzgerald’s name came up again. Later it came out that Michigan was so serious about Fitzgerald, Wolverines officials came to town to persuade Fitzgerald to leave Evanston for Ann Arbor. NU athletic director Jim Phillips was so worried he might lose Fitz, he pulled Fitzgerald off a recruiting trip to come home for reassurance that the 36-year-old coach wasn’t going anywhere.

With today’s news that Fitzgerald over the weekend signed a contract extension in excess of seven years, according to information that sources exclusively told the Sun-Times, those stories should stop.

Fitzgerald has made it no secret that he wants to stay at NU. His family and wife Stacy’s family still are in the Orland Park area. The couple have three young sons who are frequent visitors to NU practices and games, both home and away.

And why would Fitzgerald want to leave now? The former two-time All-America linebacker and two-time Bednarik and Nagurski award winner went back to his alma mater as an assistant in 2001 before being named head coach in 2006 after Randy Walker died suddenly. He is back to being a Big Man on Campus and draws applause and handshakes wherever he goes, whether it’s at a basketball game or an Evanston restaurant. He ends every conversation and news conference with an enthusiastic “Go Cats!” and does seem genuinely happy to be here and nowhere else.

He isn’t under any pressure to do better than the coaches before him, since he is quite content to make his own mark and create new traditions at Ryan Field. Fitzgerald runs one of the cleanest programs in the Big Ten — maybe even the nation — and reporters spend more time at practice than chasing down the latest police report, which is the way it should be.

Optimism for 2011 season

When NU embarked on an ambitious marketing campaign last August, it was a no-brainer to have Fitzgerald’s photo on ads hyping the Wildcats. He has become the face of the university — whether he likes it or not — and when you think of Northwestern, you immediately think of Fitz.

Despite a disappointing end to last season that saw the Wildcats lose starting quarterback Dan Persa to a freakish torn Achilles tendon in November and then drop their last three games by a combined score of 163-88, there is plenty of hope for 2011. Persa is way ahead of schedule in his recovery and is convinced he will play against Boston College when the Wildcats open the season there on Sept. 3. There even is talk (though premature) that Persa is a Heisman Trophy candidate.

With their leader back in Persa and their coach signed at least through 2018, the Wildcats should have renewed vigor to erase any lingering bad memories from last fall.

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