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Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald knows his role like he knows himself

PFitzgerald six-year head-coaching veteran age 38 gives instructions his players during practice Thursday Jacksonville Fla.  |  Bob Self~AP

Pat Fitzgerald, a six-year head-coaching veteran at age 38, gives instructions to his players during practice Thursday in Jacksonville, Fla. | Bob Self~AP

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vs. Mississippi St.

The facts: 11 a.m. Tuesday in Jacksonville, Fla., ESPN2.

Updated: January 31, 2013 6:43AM

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Stacy Fitzgerald is trying to describe how her husband endured his first season as Northwestern’s head football coach, when he was unexpectedly promoted after the sudden death of mentor Randy Walker.

‘‘He didn’t sleep a lot,’’ she remembers while watching NU prepare for its Gator Bowl appearance against Mississippi State. ‘‘Even when he went to sleep, he wasn’t asleep. I was also seven months pregnant. I had a 1-year-old and was pregnant. I couldn’t tell you much about what he went through day-to-day. I was just trying to survive myself.’’

Pat Fitzgerald appeared to be in over his signature crew cut for much of that season. That’s no knock, either. How could he not be? He was 31, the youngest head coach in the nation by five years. He had only a month to prepare to lead a grief-stricken program through a tragedy, not to mention a Big Ten season.

Asked what advice he would give himself now, he didn’t hesitate.

‘‘No. 1, get some sleep,’’ Fitzgerald said. ‘‘You’re going to try to do too much and you’re going to get diminishing returns. You’ve been put into that role for a reason, and you have to trust yourself, but more importantly, you have to trust those around you and really lean upon their expertise and let them do their jobs. I didn’t do a very good job of that for a couple years.’’

To say he has grown into his job is an understatement. Although his appearance never changes, someone who saw him in 2006 and again this season would do a double take. He now appears as confident on the sideline as he did on the field as a two-time National Defensive Player of the Year.

It’s as obvious as the hip-hop tunes blaring loudly enough to knock the Spanish moss from the live oak trees at Jacksonville University during Wildcats practices — songs Fitzgerald admits he couldn’t name for a million dollars.

Players swinging their hips to music between plays while preparing for one of the biggest bowl games in school history is just one example of how far the man, and his program, have come.

‘‘He’s so driven by players’ input,’’ said Adam Cushing, a nine-year NU coaching veteran. ‘‘I’m not saying he does what players tell him to do, but he wants to hear from them. We have a leadership council, so he gets to develop leaders the way we want, and also they get a voice. We do all the little things they want. If it doesn’t matter to the overall success of the program, make it be the best experience it can possibly be.

‘‘We tell them all the time, it’s your program. We’re going to coach a million football teams. It’s the players’ program.’’

Instead of his way or the highway, it’s, ‘‘How can we do this better? Anybody?’’ The approach has helped the program better reflect his personality while creating an all-for-one chemistry that might be most responsible for the Wildcats having a chance to win 10 games for the first time since 1995.

‘‘It’s so, so much different,’’ receiver Demetrius Fields said. ‘‘I don’t know exactly how to quantify it. It should be easy. Overall, there’s been a growing amount of communication between players and Coach Fitz. Coach Fitz has been very accommodating.’’

Fitzgerald was so robotic with the media in ’06, it was as if he were trying to play the role of a coach. Now he’s himself, and he sleeps better at night as a result.

‘‘You just have to be who you are,’’ he said. ‘‘The players want to follow your lead, not someone else’s lead. I had the same struggle everybody else has when they take over the role. It’s not about being perfect. That’s not going to happen. When you’re in the storm, if you know who you are, and you stick to your personality, things will work themselves out.’’

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